Literature and congealed time

Under conditions of intense social pressure in the 1970s, literature acquired a peculiar status as the bearer of liberal thinking and constituted the conscience of the people. Via subtexts and allegories, the mind found ingenious ways of slipping through the net of censorship. Low prices made books available to practically everybody, thus literature was in an excellent position to shape people’s attitudes, and to maintain the national memory and a faith in the survival of everything Estonian. Despite huge print-runs, quite a few of the most popular books were bought up avidly and thus vanished from the shops almost immediately. Still during Soviet times, the rôle of writers in society reached its culmination in 1980 with the letter signed by 40 intellectuals who turned to the authorities and the press, expressing their deep concern about the survival of an Estonian-language culture.

The overall cultural and political malaise, which began in the late 1960s, was maybe best reflected in Rummo’s minimalist collection Saatja aadress ja teised luuletused 1968-1972 (Sender's Address and Other Poems). Its publication was initially banned, and the collection did not appear in its entirety until as recently as 1989. The more rigorous censorship inevitably narrowed down the limits of what was considered to be ‘official literature’; but by way of compensation for this state pressure, alternative literature thrived, mostly in manuscript form. The most significant authors in this field were the dissident poet Johnny B. Isotamm (born 1939) who used coarse and quite definitely unpoetic language, and also prose writer Toomas Vint (born 1944). Undoubtedly the most remarkable poet of the 1960s and 1970s was Juhan Viiding (pseudonym Jüri Üdi, 1948-1995) whose first collection, Närvitrükk (Nerve Print) appeared in 1971. His grotesque poetry, filled with meaningful pauses, was both theatrical and charged with a personal tension, and displayed consistent opposition to social oppression. The popular and singable nature of Hando Runnel’s patriotic poems secured their huge circulation, despite all attempts to ban them. The publication of his collection Punaste õhtute purpur (The Purple of the Red Evenings, 1982) was permitted, but the publication of any reviews of the book in the press remained forbidden.

The language of poetry, abounding in subtexts, became more everyday and approached that of prose. This tendency is also characteristic of the concrete and ironic poems of Ilona Laaman (born 1934) whose first collection appeared in Swedish exile in 1970. Of the post-1960s generation, Ene Mihkelson’s (born 1944) poetry resembles fragmented prose, and is an attempt at interpreting the paradoxes of Estonian history, of memory and of identity. It reached its culmination in the 1980s. During that period, she additionally published novels analysing the effects of the past and social processes on an individual. New authors who emerged in the early 1980s include Doris Kareva (born 1958) and Mari Vallisoo (born 1950); the first with her intimate and allusive lyrics, the second with her ballad-like poetry that played with rôle changes.

Partly due to social oppression, but perhaps also influenced by international developments, Estonian literature paid increasing attention to more distant historical topics - Karl Ristikivi’s series of novels tackling European history began appearing in 1961 in Sweden. At the same time Arvo Mägi (born 1913) produced several novels set against the background of historical events, the most significant of which was Karvikute kroonika (Chronicle of the Karviks, 1970-1973) depicting the development of Estonians over seven centuries. Jaan Kross began to fill the gaps in Estonian history with turning the life of Balthasar Russow into literature in his novel Kolme katku vahel (Between Three Plagues, 1970-1980). Moving closer to the present day, he published Keisri hull (The Czar’s Madman, 1978) based on the story of Timotheus E. von Bock. After presenting a whole gallery of less well-known persons connected with Estonia, he broached topics in the 1990s that relied on his own experience. Lennart Meri (1929), having started with travelogues, wrote two essayistic novels, Hõbevalge (Silver-White, 1976) and Hõbevalgem (More Silver-White, 1984) offering bold hypotheses and thus greatly invigorating our understanding of the ancient times. Historical prose was also cultivated by Mats Traat (Tants aurukatla ümber, Dance Around the Steam Boiler, 1971; Puud olid, puud olid hellad vennad, Trees Were, Trees Were Tender Brothers, 1979), Arvo Valton (Teekond lõpmatuse teise otsa, Journey to the Other End of Infinity, 1987), Bernard Kangro (Kuus päeva, Six days, 1980) and many others.

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