A bold new Estonian literature

The sensual intertextual novel Kuum (Hot, 1990) by literary critic Jaan Undusk (1958), Mati Unt’s and Viivi Luik’s novels, and Hasso Krull’s intertextual poetry prepared the ground for a bold new Estonian literature for a freshly independent country. The overall picture at the turn of the centuries shows various plateaux, the collapse of hierarchies and the emergence of sub-literatures, aimed at satisfying the needs of different sub-cultures. This has been evident both at the level of texts aimed at different types of readership (e.g. science fiction, romantic novels) and at the level of groups and movements whose members themselves created texts (e.g., from the 1980s onwards, punk poetry, the Ethnofuturists inspired by Finno-Ugric and Setu cultural heritage, southern-dialect regional literature, the deliberately crude utterances of the Tartu NAK (Young Authors’ League), the Erakkond (Brotherhood of Hermits) poets with its more cultivated manner of expression, TNT, Õigem Valem, and so forth.). The borders of such groups are more clearer to make out in poetry as such.

Prose, on the other hand, is somewhat more populated by individual authors: the openly autobiographical and confessionally naturalistic: Peeter Sauter (born 1962); the tender and brutal Mart Kivastik (born 1963); Ervin Õunapuu (born 1956), playing with topics such as death and religion; Kaur Kender who presents himself as a contemporary thinking writer, and Aarne Ruben who attracted attention with his surrealistic historical novel Volta annab kaeblikku vilet (The Volta Works Whistles Mournfully, 2001). The most remarkable prose writer of recent years is certainly Andrus Kivirähk (born 1970). His humorous pastiches, and especially his novel Rehepapp (Old Barny, 2000) have enjoyed huge popularity with readers from all walks of life and age groups. Against the background of late 19th century Estonian village environment and atmosphere, the novel ridicules the common notions of Estonian national characteristics and peculiarities.

The focus of literature nevertheless falls on well-known authors, among whom Jaan Kross has demonstrated constantancy of topic and an excellence of form, and Jaan Kaplinski who has moved on to intellectual prose; Postmodernism is represented by a handful of works by Mati Unt who divides his energies between literature and the theatre. Emil Tode’s Piiririik (Border State) claimed its place beside the internationally recognised and translated works by Kross and Kaplinski. This novel raised the topic of "Euro-literature" where one of the central issues is the wanderings of Estonians abroad, their search for an identity and communication difficulties, now that the borders have opened up. The latter subject matter is analysed in a comical way in the cryptic works of Jüri Ehlvest (born 1967). In her novel Ära (Away, 1999), looking back at the period of political stagnation, Maimu Berg (born 1945) tackles the urge to get away from the Soviet society at all costs, sacrificing one’s personal happiness and love along the way. The most outstanding and well appreciated playwright is Madis Kõiv (born 1929), both with his philosophical plays (about Kant, Spinoza, Beethoven, and other ‘greats') which are inspired by German culture, and with his other plays with a wider appeal.

The authors are on the lookout for new ways of expression and the means to sell their work and attract public attention along the way, as befits a proper media society. Advertising and literature have become quite closely connected activities, and the writers who perceive the significance of establishing an image, often adopt a rôle as their own salesmen. Paul-Eerik Rummo’s words, also used in the Estonian cult film The Last Relic (1969), ring true today more than ever before, “In the end, it’s nothing but selling oneself, we’re all brothers and sisters in the market.”

Literature has nevertheless not ceased to offer a great deal of pleasure. How else can one regard the emergence of the myth of a genius that goes with Sven Kivisildnik (born 1964), ‘the darling of thousands’ as he himself claims, who published a 640-page brick-sized tome called Nagu härjale punane kärbseseen (Like a Red Amanita to a Bull, 1996). The bulky book of texts abounds in witty ingenious play with language and sports a dire warning on its cover - “Learn everything by heart! You will soon be shot because of this book!” Or how else can we think of Contra (born 1974), constituting an entire institution - creator of texts, performer, publisher and pedlar? He mixes pub songs with pop and folk, singing them deliberately out of tune, functioning as an efficient unit of poetry offering commentary on topical events of the day. And what else than a joy of showing-off makes Karl-Martin Sinijärv (born 1971) a skilled wordsmith, use old beer bottle labels in the design of his poetry collection! A group of younger poets, Sinijärv included, published ‘an anthology’ that consists of an entirely usable pack of cards, featuring their pictures and texts alongside the customary suits.

Estonian literature thus lives on - searching, experimenting and striving for eternity, feeling an undisguised joy in its own existence and in the beauty of its mother tongue.

Read also: overviews and translations in Estonian Literary Magazine

Details about this article