Rehepapp ehk november

November (Novels, Estonian)
Published by Varrak, 2000, pp. 200

Andrus Kivirähk has very often used elements of folklore and mythology in his work, deforming them into the absurd and grotesque. The plot of The Old Barny or November originates in national mythology, which Kivirähk treats rather playfully and freely, combining different elements without any restrictions.

The novel is set in some non-specified time during Estonia’s period of serfdom, when Estonian peasants were totally subjected to foreign landowners. The novel begins with a scene in which a farm hand comes from the manor in a dazed state and his master laments that his only helper has been killed in the manor. After such an opening the Estonian reader expects that the farm hand has been beaten in the manor and that the book will tell a story of class conflict in former times. But Kivirähk has always been known as a humorist, and again he does not fail his readers. It turns out that the farm hand had broken into the manor, and had eaten a large amount of soap – an unknown new “food” of the gentry – which, of course, did not agree with his stomach. Kivirähk turns the situation, familiar from the works of the Estonian Realist classics, inside out. His landowners are simpletons and inept; greedy and often cruel Estonian farmers use them unmercifully. The spiritual leader of the village community is the old barny, brighter and smarter than all the others and is finally able to beat even the devil himself. The book features a number of archetypal characters: a cruel and greedy pair of old farm masters, a macho-like young master, an old soldier, unhappy lovers, etc. Kivirähk has made them all very comical, exaggerating the traditional characteristics of the types, or depicting some characters in a radically unconventional way. Such a character is, for example, a manor overseer, who traditionally is greedy and cruel; in this book he is, on the contrary, a sensitive and tender platonic lover. Only the old barny himself, who is a witty character in folk-tales, plays the same role in the novel, being its ideological centre and the leader of the other characters.

In the novel the treasure bearer – kratt - rebukes the old barny because all people are thieves who steal from the landowners, from each other and even from hell, but do not honour contracts. The wise old barny tells the kratt that the people have nothing to pay with, except for things they have stolen. He says that their lives are also stolen and that they have to keep on stealing to stay alive; he cannot say what would become of them if they tried to pay honestly for everything. The old barny’s belief embodies a popular wisdom, which could also be called a survival strategy. Kivirähk’s message is not limited to Estonians alone, though the guise of his texts might suggest this. The reader gets a hilarious and enjoyable text and will learn a great deal about occupied Estonia!


Text by Rutt Hinrikus

First appeared in

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