#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.

Rumour Has It… Milkman by Anna Burns

You’ll all have heard about Milkman, the somewhat surprise Booker Prize winner in 2018, and how this changed the life of author Anna Burns, who had been struggling to make ends meet (despite having won other prizes previously). You may also have heard the whole brouhaha about whether it is a difficult read or not, with the New York Times describing it as a ‘willfully demanding and opaque stream-of-consciousness novel’, while the British Times said it was ‘challenging and experimental’ as if hurling accusations at it.

But you know what? I didn’t find it difficult at all. It’s not only a fascinating portrayal of a certain time and place (Belfast in the 1970s, let’s not pretend we don’t know), but it builds upon oral tradition. When you read it, you often feel like you’re listening to the old men, the aunties, the grannies talking – which fits perfectly with the ‘persistent rumours and gossip’ theme of the book, but also links to the timeless classical world, the chorus of Ancient Greek tragedies.

Yet, in spite of the often tragic consequences of rumours, the inability to defend yourself, the deafness to reason, the dangerous silences and ommissions that were such a defining part of the history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, there is much that is recognisable, mundane and downright funny in this book too.

One of the things that seems to bug readers and reviewers is that none of the characters have proper names. Instead, they are known by their role in their family or community, by their relationship to others. The milkman who keeps pursuing our narrator (simply known as Middle Sister) is not a milkman but a paramilitary, so there is another character in the story who is known as ‘the real milkman’. There are ‘wee sisters’, first and third brothers and sisters (and second ones which must not be mentioned), maybe-boyfriends, longest friends and so on. It sounds messy, but you’ll soon get your head around it. Besides, it’s a great way of describing a society where everyone is almost afraid of giving their real names, for fear of being instantly labelled and typecast in an inescapably divided and claustrophobic society. A timely reminder as the Irish Border is being debated in the whole sorry Brexit tale.

Belfast street in 1972, from histclo.com

As regards this psycho-political atmosphere, with its rules of allegiance, of tribal identification, of what was allowed and not allowed, matters didn’t stop at ‘their names’ and ‘our names’, at ‘us’ and ‘them, at’our community’ and ‘their community, at ‘over the road’, ‘over the water’ and ‘over the border’. Other issues had similar directives attaching as well. There were neutral television programmes… then there were programmes that could be watched without treason by one side whilst hated and detested ‘across the road’ on the other side… The right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal. There were ‘our shops’ and ‘their shops’. Placenames. What school you went to… And of course there were bus stops. There was the fact that you created a political statement everywhere you went, and with everything you did, even if you didn’t want to.

Middle Sister is 18, bookish, reading and very much trying to stay out of trouble and remain neutral (which, as we’ve seen is impossible in her world). She buries herself in 19th century literature, which she reads while walking (I suppose this is the equivalent of wearing earphones nowadays), and is therefore considered somewhat strange and ‘beyond the pale’ in her community. She has a semi-detached relationship with her maybe-boyfriend, is not terribly close to her mother or older siblings, although she does her fair share of looking after her precocious wee sisters. When she gets accosted by the milkman, a rather notorious and dangerous figure in their neighbourhood, she does her best to shake him off, but the rumour mill goes into overdrive, and everyone, including her own mother, believes she is involved with him, that she is one of those paramilitary groupies. She gives up trying to convince the people around her that this isn’t true, but she doesn’t realise that by refusing to play the game she is making herself stand out even more. She gains a reputation for being eccentric, different, and therefore ‘dangerous’ because undefinable. Although she wouldn’t describe herself as a ‘shiny person’ (someone full of optimism and idealism), her effect on the community is very much that of a shiny person, which she astutely observes elsewhere.

These people could not be open to any bright shining button of a person stepping into their environment and shining upon them just like that… The very physical environment then, in collusion with, or as a result of, the human darkness discharging within it, didn’t itself encourage light. Instead the place was sunk in one long, melancholic story to the extent that the truly shining person coming into this darknes ran the risk of not outliving it, of having their own shininess subsumed into it and, in some cases, it might even reach the point of that individual having to lose his or her physical life… This was why you didn’t get many shining people in environments overwhelmingly consisting of fear and sorrow.

In this community of limited choices, women and especially young girls like our narrator are particularly hard done by. Their mothers fret that they should get married as soon as possible; they are not allowed to aspire to any career or to escape anywhere outside their community – or risk being forever ostracised; they pour out children one after the other; they watch their lovers, husbands and sons get tugged this way and that, expecting them to get arrested or blown up at any point. Above all, they are not listened to, not taken seriously, disbelieved, as we can see in the case of Middle Sister. And yet… when the women of the community band together, they can be remarkably powerful and change the course of things. See what happens when they decide they’ve had enough of imposed curfews and snap:

… these women would break the curfew by taking off their aprons, putting on their coats, shawls, scarves and with the bush telegraph already up and running, they’d go out their doors in their hundreds and deliberately, and permitless, and after eighteen hundred hours or just sixteen hundred hours, encumber the pavements, the streets, every patch of disallowed curfew territory, amply spreading themselves all around. Not just themselves either. With them would be their children, their screaming babies, their housepets of assorted dogs, rabbits, hamsters and turtles. Also, they’d be wheeling their prams and carrying their pennants, their banners, their placards and shouting, ‘CURFEW’S OVER!’

It’s only right to acknowledge here that the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement might not have happened without the contribution of Catholic and Protestant women’s groups led by Monica McWilliams and May Blood, who joined forces to establish the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, and who thought much more than the political parties about the long-term agenda of social cohesion, integration and education.

Author photo by Eleni Stefanou.

The interior monologue is not that difficult to follow and the voice is instantly captivating. The reason why some may struggle with the book is that we don’t often get to hear such voices in English literature. It is chatty, very different to the more tight-lipped, repressed English style, and it is occasionally repetitive, much like listening to a garrulous old person reminiscing about their youth. It is perhaps more similar to the Mediterranean style of circling around a subject, full of divagations and distractions. It brings Javier Marias and Elena Ferrante to mind, so I can’t help thinking it might have been more easily accepted as a prize-winner if it had been a work in translation. (More about this in another post: why so many translated novels seem to be heavily experimental, therefore catering to a rather niche audience.)

I found this powerful, and, like all of my most memorable books, an irresistible blend of tragedy and farce, the universal and the particular. If Lisa McInerney captures the world of young people in present-day Cork with humour, sarcastic bite and poignancy, then Anna Burns does the same for young people in Northern Ireland in the 1970/80s. But her themes speak to any divided society, deeply distrustful of each other.

The so-called ‘peace walls’ separating neighbours. From Northern Ireland Foundation.