Andrus Kivirähk is a most remarkably prolific, innovative and powerful figure on the Estonian literary scene of today, probably the most beloved and talented Estonian writer nowadays. He is a virtuoso who can easily shift from one style to another, producing short stories, newspaper columns, pamphlets and dramatic texts, writing for children and for TV, varying black humour with even unexpected tender sensitivity, making one smile through one’s tears.

Born in 1970, Kivirähk has studied journalism at the University of Tartu, and now works in the daily paper Eesti Päevaleht, writing weekly columns.

It is hard to say what is more popular – his drama texts, novels, short forms or the works written for children – which they love. By adults he could be most appreciated for his novels - for Rehepapp, ehk November (The Old Barny, or November, 2000), and Mees, kes teadis ussisõnu (The Man Who Spoke Snakish, 2007), literary fantasies based on folklore, the last of them an allegory about a vanishing world. The Old Barny borrows enormously from the old oral tradition, using legends concerning werewolves, treasure-collecting beings called kratt, spirits of the forefathers and wild ghosts of the forest, the Plague coming to the village in a guise of a young girl, etc. The Old Barny is a trickster-like hero embodying wisdom, magical powers and cunning; in the novel he represents the practical mind, sometimes apparently cynical and rude, but offering necessary points of reference to get by in different worlds. The ‘man who speaks Snakish’ and is befriended with snakes is called Leemet and belongs to a tribe of forest people in medieval Christian Europe. He is born and grows up in a period of changes, and is the last one to retain the life-style and to keep the secret of the mythical giant Frog of the North, who earlier has defended the land, but now has fallen into eternal sleep. Creating painful and tragic, and yet humorous stories, Kivirähk has a continuing interest in history as a fiction, as a myth underlying and constructing popular consciousness. He has little interest in historical facts, but has a knack for penetrating the most hidden layers of a local mentality. And he is a surpassing story-teller while delving into daily politics. Kivirähk´s first novel Ivan Orava mälestused (The Memoirs of Ivan Orav, 1995 and 2003) was an extensive parody of the rewriting of history after the disappearance of the Soviet occupation. Ivan Orav is a miraculous being who claims to have survived all the heroic epochs, crucial periods and turning points. Not a single cliché or popular stereotype remains untouched; the narrator’s voice is constantly oscillating between ingenuity and imbecility.

But Kivirähk´s texts for theatre are as important as the novels, and here his second novel Liblikas (Butterfly, 1999), tracing back the history of Estonian theatre, could be named as an interlude or transition – a delicate and beautiful one – to these. This time the voice is a “ghostly voice”, belonging to a dead actor who writes his memoirs in the grave; however, the book has no sinister aspect, centring on the biography of his wife Erika Tetzky and retelling countless jokes about the actors. He has since written several plays for and about the theatre, always welcomed by an enthusiastic audience.

Kivirähk´s children literature is a phenomenon itself; it appeals to both the targeted audience and the grown-ups, which is a token of success, and several of them about the character Lotte, a lively puppy and her family and friends living in Gadgetville, have been made into animated cartoons. 

Kivirähk’s short stories fall under the classical category of humeur noire. In this genre he has few equals in Estonian literature. One of the best collections is Pagari piparkook (Baker’s Gingerbread, 1999), including masterpieces like The Poor Man, Jacob the Artist and The Case of the Burning Eyes – the latter a detective story leading to the discovery that the murder was committed by the reader himself or herself. The apogee of the genre seems to be the dark comedy Romeo ja Julia (Romeo and Juliet, 2003), an excellent mixture of a pastoral idyll and regional realism, ending with a terrifying parody of the mystical union of the alchemists (to put it briefly, two lovers will be cooked and served as a jelly, wherein their flesh and limbs have become inseparable).

Text by Hasso Krull


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