Bernard Kangro

There was a writer without whom the Estonian intellectual space in post-war exile would not have been the same. Bernard Kangro was one of those who formed the quintessence of exile literature. In his homeland his name was during the Soviet occupation almost totally a forcibly forgotten one - one of the writers who were not published. Kangro was born in 1910 in a farmhouse in South Estonia. The warmth and firmness he had inherited from his peasant ancestors is oddly perceptible in his poetry as well as in his later prose: it is something like very ancient magic. His mother tongue was the South-Estonian Võru dialect and it could be perceived under his texts as his way of sensing the whole world.

Kangro grew up in a family interested in literature and had their support to go to the University of Tartu, where he started writing poetry. He belonged to the famous literary group Arbujad (Soothsayers), whose aesthetic sensitivity changed Estonian literature. As one of the most prolific, original and best of the great Estonian poets, he has been characterised by unreality, floating between the visible and surmised as a better and keener seer than others, and as a natural surrealist. His vivid imagination seemed to arise from the collective unconscious of his nation: the world of old beliefs is revived, nature becomes animated. In his collections Vanad majad (Old Houses, 1937) and Reheahi (Barn Kiln, 1939) he is psychically sensitive, intimate and spontaneous.

Having received his M. A. degree with a monumental work, The History of the Estonian Sonnet (1938), Kangro was very familiar with the theory of this poetic form, but when writing sonnets himself (about 100 of them) he was one of the most interesting experimenters. He began writing his Ph.D. thesis about the history of the Estonian novel and would have been the first Ph.D. on Estonian literature, winning a scholarship to the Sorbonne. But it was already the eve of World War II. The complicated years of 1940–1944 and two occupations made the choice hard for him: he and his wife left their homeland in September 1944 for Finland, and later, as that country extradited refugees to the USSR, for Sweden.

Kangro had roots in his home soil, and as he turned to prose, his first novel was titled Igatsetud maa (The Longed-for Land, 1949). Working as a publisher (of Eesti Kirjanike Kooperatiiv – the Estonian Writers´ Co-operative) and editor of the cultural journal Tulimuld, he never stopped writing, using the interesting modernist novel technique. With a novel called Jäälätted (Springs of Ice, 1958) he turned back to his beloved town of Tartu. The subsequent Tartu cycle consists altogether of six novels, forming two trilogies, and with them he managed to create a hymn to a lost city. It was not only a nostalgic way of looking back to the golden days of youth in the University of Tartu, or a farewell to the past. The author seemed to believe entirely, and probably with reason, that post-war Tartu was something completely different, and with the bomb attacks and fires devastating the little town in the war, more than the material world was lost: together with it went a whole way of life and thinking, a whole mental lifestyle. So he mapped the disappeared place in his novels, with its student inhabitants, wrote down the lost world, as one of his poems is as well titled À la recherche du temps perdu. He did it in a rather unusual way, being the first magic realist in Estonian literature, defining his way of writing so himself. In his Tartu novels the border between the real and unreal is vague. The characters` fates are not the same in different novels, reality is mixed up with the unreal and the future that might have been; the logic of time is challenged. The author does not consider the borders of time or space, so the heroes of the books travel from wartime Berlin to post-war Paris and, perished or not, appear in Tartu many years after the end of the war. One of the characters who, like a key figure, ties the whole cycle together is Mephistopheles-like Justus Pernambuk. Time is flowing, the Emajõgi River crossing Tartu (Mother River in Estonian) could metaphorically be the Styx.

In his later novels Kangro turned often to the question of collaborationists and traitors. In Joonatan, kadunud veli (Lost Brother Joonatan, 1971) and its sequels, the protagonist, a refugee, has a chance to visit his homeland for one day. Through political grotesque and a partly unreal world the insight into the influences, lies and violence of the occupation and the alien power on a little nation are depicted.

Kangro´s last novels, Kuus päeva (Six Days, 1980), and Seitsmes päev (Seventh Day, 1984), followed the life of a bishop of Lund in Sweden in the 12th century in a form of a chronicle.

He was a man of grand plans and many of his ideas stayed in manuscripts or came out quite differently. He was still interested in literary theory and Üks sündmusteta suvi (An Uneventful Summer, 1998) is actually his diary of how one of his novels, Emajõgi, came about. His correspondence with the famous Estonian novel writer Karl Ristikivi has also been published about writing a novel, under the title Kirjad romaanist (Letters About the Novel, 1985).

Kangro did not want to come back and see the changed homeland, when it was possible at last. He was like Odysseus, but unlike him he did not return. He died in Lund in 1994. The Võru County government in Estonia gives the annual Bernard Kangro Award for authors who are either from Võrumaa, connected with it or whose work depict this warmhearted part of Estonia.

Text by Elle-Mari Talivee


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