Ilmar Taska turns his talents to writing fiction

by Hille Karm

In 2011, Ilmar Taska surprised the Estonian literary world with his book Parem kui elu (Better than Life). Just three years later, he won the short story prize (Looming no. 10, 2013 – Estonia’s oldest literary journal) for his novella Pobeda. His short story collection Skönare än livet was a critical success in Sweden in 2014 and was chosen by the Malmö City Library as one of the five best books of the autumn season. In 2015 he has been honoured once again, this time for his short story Apartment to let, which was selected as one of the best European short stories, to be published in Best European Fiction 2016. In the midst of these achievements, other creative muses, such as film, art, theatre and television, have bowed down before Taska’s talents, which have reached far beyond Estonia’s shores to Los Angeles, Stockholm, London, Moscow and elsewhere.

Having all these achievements in his curriculum vitae, it is thus even more interesting that he would turn his talents to writing fiction, a genre with which he seems completely comfortable. Ilmar Taska is a unique member of our literary landscape, an Estonian writer who can truly be considered international in terms of the scope of his work, since the breadth of his talent, both experientially and geographically, reaches beyond the boundaries of conventional writing.

 Ilmar Taska is from a family of diplomats and artists who were deported to Russia during Stalin’s repressive purges.  He received his master's degree from the Moscow Film Institute (VGIK) and furthered his studies in Stockholm, as well as at Daniel Mann’s Directing Master Class in Los Angeles.  Among a variety of artistic venues, Taska has worked at Tallinnfilm, Swedish television, and several film companies and theatres.  He has been a segment producer at an OSCAR show and co-written/produced a film for 20th Century Fox.  In 1993 he established his own television company, which was the first privately held national network in Estonia.

 Taska has worked in the hottest venues of the world of film and television, and has been privileged to breathe the same air as some of the greats in the world of film and theatre.  Similarly, Ilmar Taska’s heroes wander from one continent to another, crossing borders or travelling via the principles of magical reality through dream worlds from one dimension to another.  They may come from a small town in Estonia or from Moscow, Budapest or Los Angeles. Since Taska himself has worked extensively with visual media, it is understandable that his prose is rich with the visual descriptions, necessary details and references he uses to create the atmosphere his stories embody.  He has learned to use terse phraseology when writing for the screen and when developing scripts, something that he has had to do in Estonia, America, South America and elsewhere.  Taska’s storytelling is always gripping and his heroes colourful.  The story lines never falter or digress and the protagonists are clearly defined.

 Ilmar Taska’s heroes are individuals who, while they may find themselves in crisis situations, are part of normal societal realms.  They appear to be strong-willed and staunch, but underneath their activities and life struggles lurks a well of tragedy. It is there that it is possible to find absurdity hidden under a veil of sad humour. This is because contemporary society’s models and ideals, whether in Hollywood, Moscow or Tallinn, don’t seem to support lasting happiness, but only an ethereal glimpse of unreachable promises.

 Through his heroes, Taska seems to ruminate on the theme of man vs. society: “One for all or all for one!”  Who is going to get in whose way?  His stories tend to be terse and yet fresh, and his sentence structure rhythmic and flowing. Minimalism is a virtue of Taska’s short stories, where the tension of a situation isn’t overwhelmed by a torrent of words; instead, decisive moments are marked clearly and accurately.  Sometimes, the reader is placed just a step or two ahead of the hero so as to join with him, unaware of the story’s details or the twists and turns of the narrative.


Short novel

The hero of the autobiographical short novel Better than Life is a curious “fish out of water”, who nevertheless learns to swim in Hollywood. This is a story of an East-European young man’s pilgrimage and achievements in the film industry. Life behind the scenes or in the studio backyard is not always glamorous, although the game seems to be worth it every time, because artificial life is being produced here. Is it better than real life? Just as a scriptwriter and a producer must keep several projects going at the same time, the private life of the protagonist is full of back-up versions. He tries to manage his three parallel romantic relationships, along with everything in the constantly changing landscape of the film industry, threatened by striking guilds, economic crises and the absence of a template for success. The author reflects on the model of happiness. Dreams, too, constitute an impelling force, and fantasy enriches any form of life. If yearning implies knowledge and experience, dreams can be quite abstract. The author describes the fans who sit on camp stools  waiting for their idols to arrive, but the idols are also tormented by existential competition, by an endless struggle for their own place in the sun. Although cinema offers a wonderful chance to take a brief holiday from mundane life, the chimneys of the illusion factory occasionally belch out black smoke. The novel contains both humour and self-irony.

Taska is not alienated from his heroes or their environment. He keeps swimming in the surrounding shoals, ready to take the bait or surface just for fun. It is a fascinating clash between different worlds and cultures in the illusionary entertainment industry.

The film critic Tiina Lokk wrote in a daily paper: “....The surprise of the year is definitely Ilmar Taska’s book Better than Life ... Taska is such an enjoyably supple and stylish writer! He is a wonderful short story writer. His honesty towards himself is amazing. Not everyone could so dispassionately and bluntly describe the pain and effort necessary to make it in the huge world of film, especially when you come from nowhere and are a nobody.”


Short stories

 Ilmar Taska’s collection of short stories, published in 2014 in Sweden, contains stories previously published in the literary journal Looming and in the collection Better Than Life. Quite a few of these stories were written on long flights from one continent to another. The book poses a question in its title: what raises the energy of our mundane life, makes it better and more enjoyable? Or does life take its own course and reality occur when we are still making plans?

Ilmar Taska’s stories are not long, but their impact is lasting. He is truly excellent with words. The stories contain strange twists, unexpected punch-lines and underlying sadness, which indicate the author’s sympathy or sensitivity. The protagonist is observed in precise short sentences. The stories have nothing excessive in them. Taska has remarked that each word and sentence must have a place, a role and a meaning. If the story as a whole loses nothing by discarding a sentence, the sentence must go.

 In Tidningen Kulturen, the Swedish critic Professor Ivo Holmqvist wrote in his review: “...Taska undertakes a lot in a wide range... This pretty book is welcome literary news. The content varies from playful surrealism to serious realism. The last story about a small boy who says too much and is guilty of his father’s disappearance, reflects the activities of informants and deportations in the Soviet-occupied Estonia.”

Pobeda (A Car Called Victory) is set in Estonia, but could easily have been set in any other East-European country or even during McCarthy-era America. Not much has been written about how the state security systems used children. Taska’s laconically told story is tense and moving.

The award-winning work has precise descriptions of the boy, with brief glimpses into his inner world. His thoughts and feelings are conveyed almost in a cool tone, although they evoke deep emotions. We recognise a child’s curiosity and an adult’s shrewd manipulations. Here, however, the game is more brutal than in the everyday child-parent educational, deceiving or manipulating games. This makes the situation inhuman. The counterpoint between the grey smoky home and the leather seats and sparkling chrome of the brand new car is shown with utmost precision. At the wheel of the car called Victory, the uncle tells the boy with seeming compassion: “Keep your eyes on the road!” to spare the child any trauma, although it only postpones the trauma. The security man thus does not get his hands dirty or witness the tragedy. He has skilfully avoided the accusation of deceiving the child. He can just whistle the Disney tune “Whistle while you work...”, which ironically probably found its way to the country of workers and peasants through the trophy films acquired after invading Berlin.

 Social-political irony is evident in the story Lawrence of Arabia, where a homeless war veteran tries to maintain a positive attitude. Having lost everything, he nevertheless refuses to admit defeat. His glass is always half full, not half empty, and the Hollywood sign is still significant to him. As the angel of death, Taska sends him the enemy army in Hollywood film costumes. “Am I on the right side, amongst my own?” asks the homeless Lawrence of his Arabian angel of death. However, in his situation the opposing sides have lost their semantic meaning, and warfare has become pointless.

In the story Stop the Music, Taska gives a considerably more emotional depiction of a person’s inner life. The person in question is the young Tchaikovsky, whose inner life unfolds quickly and emotionally. The precision of sentences and descriptions is much in evidence here as well. The words are chosen to push the right buttons and are aimed at evoking emotions in readers. The writer’s delicate finger touches the most sensitive nerves.

Both Nocturnal Music and The Singapore Fish are about the difference between sounds and languages, the alienation of communication, sounds that cannot be heard, i.e. low-frequency sounds, music that kills or low-frequency sounds used by fish. Both stories focus on sounds that are not understood or are unheard by the human ear. Ilmar Taska also seems to have a good grasp of the finer points of the achievements of today’s technical world. A Car Called Victory and Nocturnal Music show victims of the miracles of technology. Obsession with new technology can be destructive.

In an earlier short story, The Boy, Taska plays with urbanistic alienation and existential sense and senselessness. Here, the “parents” of the dog-actor have found love and the family has found sublimation in their mortally ill dog. In the novella Three Bears, an opera prima donna has been caught in the cogwheels of a socialist society, where all human emotions and aspirations depend on ideological directives. Once again, Taska has keenly observed his characters as if through a hidden camera, occasionally penetrating into the deepest depths of their subconscious.

Ilmar Taska’s short story  A Night Witch from Crimea (2014) creates an evocative picture of the inhumanity of war. Seventeen-year-old girls have been sent into battle for Stalin: they have to throw bombs from slow training planes that are not equipped with parachutes.

Krister Enander writes in Helsingbor Dagbladet: “Ilmar Taska does not provide answers. His aim is to describe. He produces sharp outlines of questions and leaves the reader a chance to make up his own mind. This is refined simplicity; the writer convincingly and clearly demonstrates that a direct narrative and description are often the most effective way to give life and authenticity to characters.”

Taska’s story An Apartment to Let, included in Best European Fiction, is about loneliness in huge Moscow, where Lidia offers a flat that she never intends to rent out. The only purpose of her offer is to communicate with others and briefly escape her solitude. This is a fascinating character who, despite all of her difficulties and hardships, has not lost her sense of humour and human emotions. Her misfortune is that nobody appreciates how wonderful a cup of cocoa tastes in her cosy flat.


 Ilmar Taska’s heroes have created their own personal illusion factory, just like the blind Ray Charles, who can only see in a drug-induced haze or the DJ in Nocturnal Music who tests the limits of sounds inaudible to the human ear.

Many of his novellas would make excellent film scripts. In his film and TV work, Taska has obviously been involved with scripts. In his younger years he was a member of the Tallinnfilm editorial staff, where he edited some well-known Estonian films. The script for Hotel of the Perished Alpinist was commissioned from prominent Russian sci-fi writers, the Strugatski brothers. Contacts with the work of famous writers certainly influenced Taska, and this impact should not be underestimated. Studio Tallinnfilm also commissioned a script from Andrei Tarkovski and thus Taska had an opportunity to establish personal contacts with this great Russian as well. As a result, years later Taska directed a performance at the Russian Drama Theatre about the shooting of Tarkovski’s last film in Sweden. The award-winning production is based on an Erland Josephson radio play, and the play is still performed for packed houses.

Ilmar Taska’s contacts with the great figures in world cinema continued abroad, and encounters with such people inspired many short stories in the collection Better than Life.

Later, in Hollywood, Ilmar Taska developed film projects at Fries Entertainment and wrote the screenplay for the film Back in the USSR. This is a story of the experiences of a young American in the underbelly of perestroika-era Moscow. One of the leading roles was played by Roman Polanski.

In Estonia, he co-wrote and produced the film Set Point. In 2010 Taska produced the Italian-Spanish film Thy Kingdom Come/ Wings of Fear. The film critic James Ulmer wrote “The movie's artistic themes and painterly look seem to come naturally to Taska, who has directed a documentary of the life of the German painter Paul Wunderlich and whose own grandfather was a well-known Estonian artist.”

Visual details and descriptions also seem crucial in Taska’s prose. His film scripts and his fiction have similarities in shaping the structure in character development. However, despite his strong film background, Ilmar Taska has never in his short stories succumbed to worn-out stereotypes.

Ilmar Taska has certainly been successful in his television and film work, but his literary output has attracted just as much attention. Full stops, indentations and emotional disruptions in his stories are like turns and pauses, which form a music of restrained, tense words.

In the words of an Estonian culture critic: the reader should be grateful.

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