#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 ahdn’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, eatenand 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 Sweidsh relatives if you didn’t trsut 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.

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Reviving the #EU27Project

114 days or 17 weeks until the 29th of March, which is my self-imposed deadline for the #EU27Project. Yes, by then I want to have read at least one book from each of the EU member countries with the exception of the one flouncing off. I started this project quite a while ago, even before Britain triggered Article 50 in 2017. And, just like Britain, I was not quite prepared and spent a lot of time faffing about and procrastinating. Or doing the same thing over and over, like reading books from France and Germany.

So let’s do some arithmetic, shall we? I still have 15 countries to go through, for which I’ve read absolutely nothing. In the case of some countries (Cyprus and Luxembourg), I am struggling to find anything in translation. And I am likely to want to ‘redo’ some of the countries, for which I didn’t find quite the most satisfactory books (Romania, Greece or Italy, for example). That means at least one book a week from this category. Eminently doable, until you factor in all the review copies and other things that crop up. However, this will be my top priority over the next few months – my way of saying goodbye (sniff!) to the rest of Europe.

Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

Here are some books that I have already sourced and will be ready to start shortly:

Bulgaria: Georgi Tenev – Party Headquarters (transl. Angela Rodel)

Hungary: Miklos Banffy – well, I need to finish that trilogy, don’t I? (Especially in the centenary year of the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire)

Slovenia: Goran Vojnovic – Yugoslavia, My Fatherland, transl. Noah Charney – struggled to find something from this country, but this seems to fit the bill: the author, like the protagonist is Serbian/Slovenian and  this novel about discovering your father is a war criminal will fit in nicely with my Croatian read.

Croatia: Ivana Bodrozic – The Hotel Tito, transl. Ellen Elias-Bursac – another author and protagonist who experienced the war as a child, considered one of the finest works of fiction about the Yugoslav war.

Estonia: Rein Raud – The Death of the Perfect Sentence, transl. Matthew Hyde, described as a spy and love story set in the dying days of the Soviet Empire

Latvia: Inga Abele – High Tide, transl. Kaija Straumanis – experimental and anti-chronological story of a woman’s life

Lithuania: Ruta Sepetys: Between Shades of Gray – this is not a book in translation, as Ruta grew up in Michigan as the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, but the book is very much based on her family’s tory at a crucial and tragic time in Lithuanian history

Slovakia: Jana Benova – Seeing People Off, transl. Janet Livingstone – winner of the European Union Prize for Literature

But then I met Julia Sherwood at the Asymptote Book Club meeting, and she has translated Pavel Vilikovsky’s Fleeting Snow from the Slovakian, so I had to get that one as well. So two for Slovakia.

Malta: Very difficult to find anything, so I’ll have to rely on Tangerine Sky, an anthology of poems from Malta, edited by Terence Portelli.

Belgium: Patrick Delperdange: Si tous les dieux nous abandonnent  – bought a few years back at Quais du Polar in Lyon, highly recommended by French readers

Denmark: Peter Høeg: The Elephant Keepers’ Children, transl. Martin Aitken – one of the most experimental and strange modern writers – I can see some resemblances to Heather O’Neill, whom I also really like, but they are not everyone’s cup of tea – this one I found at the local library, so yay, finally saving some money! But it is quite a chunkster, so… it might be impractical.

Greece: Ersi Sotiropoulos: What’s Left of the Night, transl. Karen Emmerich – because Cavafy is one of my favourite poets

So, have you read any of the above? Or can you recommend something else that won’t break the bank? (I’m going to try not to buy any more books in 2019, which may be an obstacle to reading my way through the remaining countries, as libraries do not stock them readily).

Cycle route 6 in Franche-Comte, with my beloved Montbeliard cows sipping Doubs water.

Final point: I do not intend to stop reading books in translation from all of these countries after the UK leaves the EU, by any means. In fact, I’m thinking of doing the EUVelo 6 cycle route from Nantes on the Atlantic to the Danube Delta across all of Europe and reading my way through each of the countries en route (10 of them). Maybe when the boys leave home, if my joints will still allow me to…