Surrealism from Estonia and Romania

Kristiina Ehin: Walker on Water, trans. Ilmar Lehtpere, Unnamed Press, 2014.

There is not much literature from Estonia available in translation, unfortunately, so when the London Reads the World Book Club was looking for an Estonian book for May, we only managed to find two, of which one was out of print. However, I think we chose well, since Kristiina Ehin is contemporary and comes highly recommended by Estonian readers. She is a poet, translator, singer and songwriter, and this preference for the brief form shows clearly in this collection of very short stories – linked flash fiction – or novella-in-flash, I suppose you could call it. She also has an interest (and M.A.) in folklore, and this too is obvious in her work. Well-worn tropes are inverted; the plain storytelling style becomes playful or deadpan; an intimate chat between friends around a campfire veers off into the fantastical and impossible.

The title story ‘Walker on Water’ is a typical example of this. It starts off fairly innocuously with the narrator stating that she had to see off the female competition to win over the man who became her husband. ‘There’s nothing more exciting than desiring a man who doesn’t even notice you.’

However, once this prize morsel has been won, you need to be able to keep him and the narrator describes how she starts to indulge in her favourite pastime, walking on water, which she compares to marriage itself: ‘It’s a game with little danger when everything is just starting out and the little waves lick your shoreline with pleasure.’ But is it enough to keep afloat on the water when your intelligent and educated husband literally opens the hatch at the back of his head when he comes back from work and takes his brains out?

There were so many instances of droll humour or satirical asides, which remind me of Finnish authors I have read previously. In Ehin’s case, these revolve around the often absurd lengths to which people will go in their relationships with the other sex: the woman whose husbands were all called Jaan and all have their arms bitten off, the narrator who hires a Love Organizer to keep her love from freezing at the edges but ends up having to do everything herself, a Surrealist’s Daughter who turns into a dragon and ultimately has two pairs of three-headed twins… On and on it goes, from one absurd story to the next, from one metaphor taken to extremes to another hyperbole, usually with a feminist twist that brought a wry smile to my face.

I wasn’t quite sure that I understood all of the metaphors or cultural references, but I did enjoy the retelling of Snow White from the point of view of the apple painted by a Princely Paintbrush, or the collection of the (possibly?) souls of former husbands portrayed as dried apricots, or the Sheherezade style of storytelling, blending myths and family tales, in ‘Lena of the Drifting Isle’.

Urmuz: Pagini Bizare (Bizarre Pages), MondoRo Press, 2013.

Urmuz is the pen name of one of the most unusual yet influential writers Romania has ever had. Born Ionescu Demetrescu-Buzău in 1883 in Curtea de Arges, he spent most of his schoolyears in Bucharest, studied law and became a county court judge and, after the war (in which he fought largely in Moldova), he became a registrar at the High Court in Bucharest. He started writing his proto-Dadaist pre-surrealist stories around 1913, but didn’t publish anything until1922. Hypersensitive to most things, leading the life of a recluse, he ended his life with a gunshot and was found behind the famous buffet (now restaurant) on Kiseleff Boulevard on the 23rd of November 1923.

Vintage postcard of the buffet.

His contemporaries were shocked by his apparently motiveless death, and the poet Tudor Arghezi (the first to recognise his talent and offer to publish him) always reproached himself afterwards for not being closer to him and preventing this tragedy. Yet, despite his brief literary career and the meagre output (he left behind at most fifty pages of writing), he had a huge influence on the Romanian literature that followed. While some compare him to the tragic absurdity of Kafka, others emphasise his comic tour de force a la Lewis Carroll or his links to folklore, but to me he is far more clearly linked to Tristan Tzara and the Dadaists, and produced a whole vein of direct descendants in Romanian literature like Eugen Ionescu, Leonid Dimov, Mircea Cartarescu.

In the preface, one of the leading literary critics of Romanian literature, Nicolae Manolescu, says: ‘Can you imagine the reaction of readers in 1922 – used to epic novels like Ion – when they were confronted with the opening lines of the mini-novel The Funnel and Stamate?’ Indeed, a startling contrast to everything else that was being written at the time.

A well-ventilated apartment, made up of three main rooms, not forgetting a terrace with a glass partition and a doorbell.

A table with no legs in the middle of the room, based on intense calculations and probability, upon which there is a vase containing the eternal essence of the ‘thing in itself’, a clove of garlic, a figurine of a (Transylvanian) priest holding a grammar book and 20 pennies change… The rest is unimportant.

However, you should be aware that this room, forever darkened, has no doors or windows and only communicates with the outside world via a tube, through which you occasionally see smoke or, at night, the seven hemispheres of Ptolemy, or, during the day, two humans descending from the apes alongside a finite row of dried okra, reflecting the endless and useless Auto-Cosmos…

The Dadaists were also playing around with language and concepts at that time, but they had the additional benefit of combining their poetry with decoupage and other artistic methods, making their poems very visual (you can see an example by Tristan Tzara here). Urmuz has to bring all of the playfulness and experimentation, the sense of joy and freedom, but also the futility, into his prose using nothing but words.

There is, however, one poem by Urmuz that schoolchildren have always loved – a mock-fable nonsense rhyme, which reminds me of Edward Lear or Dr Seuss, and is delicious to roll about on the tongue, although hell to translate.

If I have whetted your appetite for this highly unusual writer, you can find an online translation of two of his stories here, while Dalkey Archive is bringing out his collected prose in 2024. Once again, Alistair Ian Blyth has got there before me with the translation! 😦 However, I think I might go ahead and translate one of his pieces anyway (maybe The Fuchsiad), just for fun and practice and the sheer love of it.

7 thoughts on “Surrealism from Estonia and Romania”

    1. Admittedly, not my favourite translation, which is why I was going to translate my own… But at least a starting point, gives you a bit of a flavour!

  1. Very unusual and in that sense, intriguing, Marina Sofia. I’m especially happy to see an example of something from Estonia – there is so little that’s translated into a language I speak! This is one reason I so support publishers who are willing to invest in translation. You never know what gems you may find…

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