#EU27Project: Estonia’s Rein Raud

Rein Raud: The Death of the Perfect Sentence, transl. Matthew Hyde

With such an attractive author name and an intriguing title, I just couldn’t resist getting this book for my #EU27Project. Admittedly, there aren’t many Estonian books in translation to choose from. Given the age of the author (born in 1961), I suspect quite a bit of the ‘before and after’ narrative of Estonia’s recent history are things he has personally experienced.

The story follows a group of young dissidents during the dying days of the Soviet rule over Estonia. Through rapid shifts of viewpoints, we get to know each of them and their reasons for getting involved in clandestine activity and trying to smuggle secret Soviet files out of the country. There is idealistic, artistic Raim with his pragmatic parents who value comfort over nationalist ideals; Ervin, who has been offered a lighter sentence in exchange for denouncing his friends; immaculately turned out Karl, who is older than the others; Indrek, who is rebelling both against his family and the social order; and the youngest of them all, Anton, whose mother is Russian and whose father is a notoriously tough investigator and interrogator known only by his surname, Särg (which means ‘roach’ in Estonian, as in the fish rather than a cockroach). We follow their actions, their fears, their friendships and love stories, and their disappointments.

The author is also a cultural philosopher, literary theorist and translator from Japanese.

That is not the only plot line, however. We get to hear about the rather romantic love story between an Estonian girl and a Russian man, as full of misunderstandings as Romeo and Juliet, although slightly less tragic. We get to to know Anton’s father far better as he interrogates various members of the group, little knowing that his own son is part of it. And, interspersed through all these third person narratives, we have the first person account (I assume this could be the author himself, although it is never quite explicit), with wry asides and anecdotes that are tangential to the main story, remembering what life was like in Estonia and trying to understand the motivation behind all of the actions of both dissidents and collaborators.

Perhaps they were proud of their own professionalism and thought that even if the system which they were helping to keep afloat was not ideal, it was at least preferable to the chaos which would inevitably ensue if it were not for them? Or maybe it was all a kind of rought sport for them, a chess game against invisible opponents, with human fates at stake instead of chess pieces. Or were they really of the view that the rulers of this world were incorrigible brutes and pigs, much the same wherever you went, and that it was a mistake to believe that some leaders could be better than others… Or maybe they didn’t give it much throught so long as they could keep their cosy jobs and put bread on the table. I don’t know.

The issue of guilt, both individual and collective, has been insufficiently addressed in the former Soviet Republics (and in much of Eastern Europe). Perhaps that was necessary to move these societies forward, to focus on reconciliation and progress rather than punishment. However, this does mean that many things have been swept under the carpet, and you bump into people in surprising places, like the KGB operative who after independence ends up working as a doorman at one of the embassies in Tallinn.

In some ways, this description of a divided society (the ‘normal people’ and the ‘informers’ reminded me of Anna Burns’ Northern Ireland). And of course, it reminded me of my childhood, when my parents warned me to be very careful whom I talked to about the things we discussed at home.

There was however another important currency in circulation – trust. Some may use simpler terms such as acquaintances, contacts, but nothing would have counted without trust. Because in the end it was impossible to trust anyone if you hadn’t gone to school together, shared the same sauna, gone scrumping with them, studied together, worked in the same office, done military service together, stolen something, eaten and drunk with them, slept with them… You didn’t use a dentist whom you didn’t trust, you didn’t ask someone to pass a letter to your Swedish relatives if you didn’t trust them. If you could help it you had nothing to do with people you did not trust – they might every well be working for the other side.

Trust was the only valid currency.

It was just so exhausting.

Gratuitous image of Tallinn, because it is so pretty. From Lonely Planet.

Above all, this book is an examination of how individuals get caught up in major historical changes, some of them for misguided reasons, some of them expecting quite different outcomes, and many of them not even aware what they are letting themselves in for. Has independence lived up to its promise? Was the new Estonia worth all the sacrifices, the older and more cynical author appears to ask. And the answer is:

Only a fool would throw away a beautiful apple from his own garden just because it has a few maggot holes in it. Only a fool prefers things which are shiny and never rot. After all, it’s always the tastiest of apples that the maggots go for. And you can bet your life on it, the maggots’ll know these things.

You can read a review of this book and other books by Rein Raud on Melissa Beck’s blog. She was the one who drew my attention to this book, and even has an interview with the author. From his Wikipedia entry, I also discovered that he was President of the European Association of Japanese Studies from 2011 to 2014, so unfortunately well after my time in that organisation.

10 thoughts on “#EU27Project: Estonia’s Rein Raud”

  1. That’s a very thought provoking final quote. Always up for a gratuitous picture of Tallin. We ate in House of Writers Pegasus when we were there, once a meeting place for dissidents. Maybe Raud knew it in its original guise.

  2. This sounds like a very thoughtful book, Marina Sofia – the kind that raises more questions than it gives answers, if I can put it that way. And I always appreciate a book that takes major events down to the human level. I think that just makes it easier for us to follow along and get caught up in the events, too.

  3. This book goes straight onto my TBR wishlist. It’s interesting how much the Soviet/communist experience still nourishes contemporary literature in this region (though it is also the kind of subject foreign publishers will be attracted to), and at what point/how far the question of individual responsibility gets addressed.
    BTW I see you are reading a book by H. Papadat-Bengescu. I’m hoping to get my copy of the same book in French translation at some point soon and to read it as soon as it gets in my hands. Would you like to coordinate our reviews?

    1. You are right: it’s a bonus and a curse in East European literature or films (for example, the Romanian new wave cinema, which is almost without exception terribly depressing). I started the Papadat-Bengescu book (it’s a reread, but I have only a hazy recollection of the first read from my childhood) but I’ve been neglecting it. It’s sort of the second novel in a series featuring the Halipa family, so there are elements which refer to the previous book, but it can be read as a standalone. If I read it together with someone I might actually get to read it more systematically – when would you like to start?

      1. I hadn’t realised it’s a second volume. It’s the only one translated into French in any case. I’ve ordered the book but the mail to Hungary is so unreliable I don’t know when I’ll get it, though hopefully it will be in the next few days and I’ll start reading it straight away. I’ll let you know when I receive it and we can take it from there. I’ll be glad if we can do it jointly and it will certainly be nice to benefit from your native insights!

  4. I bought his novel The Brother, also on Melissa’s recommendation, and loved it. I actually have a copy of this waiting to be read.
    Another Estonian writer worth exploring is Jaan Kroos – the final part of his Between Three Plagues trilogy will be published in English later this year.

  5. It’s interesting to read this post. Few book reviewers (in general) write about books set in Eastern Europe. I just read “The Exiled,” by Kati Hiekkapelto, set in Serbia among the Hungarian community. Good book: sympathetic to the Roma and to refugees.

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