Some things cannot be helped

by Rein Raud

One of my unwritten novels speaks about a young man, a sort of a self-educated seeker of truth, who had gathered himself a considerable following in Tallinn, 1970s, and then one day takes off to Siberia. There, he soon finds himself living in the household of a man nicknamed Yanyg-nyavram (which means “the great child” in the Mansi language, a far relative of Estonian) and becomes his disciple of sorts. After returning home, however, he is almost immediately killed in a traffic accident, when the driver of a tram is stung by a wasp in her face and runs him over. The story was intended to be written, on the one hand, in a mock academic style, as a researcher’s effort to reconstruct what he had been trying to teach, from the notes and diaries of his friends and admirers, and on the other, as an emulation of Zen Buddhist lore with its anecdotes of teachers uttering cryptic statements on the nature of reality and other teachers commenting on them later.

The crucial message that the man in my unwritten book had tried to get across to anyone who was interested, had apparently been this: for ages, humanity has been concerned with turning literature into life. From social utopias to romantic love stories, literature has always depicted the ideal upon which societies and individuals have patterned their own being. And they have always failed. It is therefore time to reverse the effort — to turn life into literature. This, of course, did not mean producing literature out of life, creating stories of what has been. The idea was to live so that every single experienced moment would already be literature already when it happened.

At the time when I was thinking about this book, I only had an intuitive idea what this meant. I understand it much more clearly now. The roots of the problem were in our relationship with our surrounding reality itself. I am writing “our”, because I believe it was a common problem for many, even though perhaps not everyone was as conscious of it as were those who tried to capture their world in words. It was simply not possible to write adequately about the reality where we were living. Reasons for that were manifold. For example, there was censorship. I remember that once, in a book by my mother, during an episode that took place in a cafe, she mentioned that two Russian girls were sitting at the neighbouring table. An innocent enough occurrence, and quite true to life. But no: the editor told her to take them out, because otherwise this spot might have been interpreted as a protest against the Soviet government’s policy to settle Russians into Estonia in order to undermine the cultural identity of Estonian society. Well, even mentioning a salami sandwhich could have been problematic, as salami was hard to come by because of the constant shortage of meat products. So certain slices of our life were cut out of it, at least as far as literary representation was concerned, and there were blank spots around us constantly. Not only because of censorship, by the way. People in books seldom spoke as real people did, for example, they almost never swore. It seems that back then people actually swore less than they do now, but swear they did nonetheless — though not on paper. Editors and censors might have had their problem with indecencies, too, but somehow this part of language was also not considered “literary” enough by the authors themselves. If people in your book were crudely swearing — as their real-life equivalents, in some situations, most certainly did — then you were not doing right by them. For particularly repulsive types, some artificial swearwords had been invented, so that this aspect of linguistic reality, even if included, would still stay out of direct contact with life itself. And the reason why the extremely voluminous “Brave Soldier Švejk” was so very popular with (mainly teenage) male readers was obviously not its humanist and anti-military ethos, but that Jaroslav Hašek as a classic of the friendly socialist Czech nation enjoyed the almost exclusive privilege to use words such as “shit” more liberally, even though some of his phrases, too, were left in place in their original form as “untranslatable wordplay”.

But, difficult though all of this was, the real problem lay elsewhere. It was impossible to capture the core sentiment of our life in realistic description. There were, sure enough, writers who were producing rather successful narratives for popular consumption entitled “The Private Life of Comrade Director” or some such, but most authors with serious ambitions never descended so low. Words such as “regional committee” [of the communist party] or their newspeakish abbreviatures, common enough in everyday use, were quite as “out” on the pages of a text with literary aspirations as were swearwords or political undesirables. You just didn’t allow into literature all this stuff that should not have been there in reality either.

Some writers, such as Jaan Kross, exiled themselves into remote history, where they could speak about the immediate present through similes — thus “The Madman of the Czar”, even though it tells the story of a historical person, is actually about the conflict of a free mind with the political system. Some others, such as Mati Unt, created imaginary realities that, even if they purported to be realistic, described the problems of a world that we would prefer to have instead of those we actually had. Thus “The Autumn Ball” now reads as a realistic description of a world that makes sense — because in our present world, it does. Yet other writers, such as my parents Eno Raud and Aino Pervik, opted for children’s literature, where fantastic imaginary realities could serve for the discussion of serious and real problems without clashing with a world they did not even claim to depict. Thus the “Three Jolly Fellows” could speak about ecological problems and “Arabella, Pirate’s Daughter” about the irreconcilability of love and evil.

In short, life and literature had been separated. While life was not such as it was supposed to be, literature was guarded, by ingenious devices, from the intrusion of that not-supposed-to-be stuff, because otherwise it would have lost its ability to remind people of the unnaturality of the situation. However, all of this did not go away, when freedom was restored. Yes, we felt now that we were living a life that was ours, but for quite some time we remained incapable (well, I did, anyway) of representing it on its own terms. Of course, there were no more political rocks to be steered clear of and swearwords gradually made their appearance, but the first books of literary quality to actually address the realities of the new era, with ruthless businesspeople, cynical PR professionals and criminal gangs started to appear only toward the end of the 1990s, or about ten years later than the world they depicted. Literature was slow on the uptake, so to say. Even though quite a lot of what had been only known from books and films was now actually happening, our own literature still continued to look down on it as not quite worthy of its effort. After all, it had accustomed itself to the role of the moral beacon and upholder of memory about how things should be. Bombs exploding in the street and murders by hitmen from Russia were definitely not its thing.

It seems to me it took close to 20 years for literature to catch up on life. During this time, it may have lost some of its prospective readers, who had found life to be more interesting, surprising, challenging and inspiring — more surreal, fantastic and full of space for imagination — than literature, at least the literature written by other people experiencing the same things as their immediate present. These were the 20 years formative also of myself as a writer. Some of the books I like best among my work are indeed placed at a distance from the immediate realities, looking at them, as it were, through a glass, darkly.

For example, this is what goes on in “The Brother”, a poetic western about a stranger arriving in a small town held tightly in the fist by a few corrupt men of power, the Banker, the Lawyer and the Notary, who have cheated an innocent heiress out of her home and money. And even though the stranger does nothing to disturb them, their good fortune somehow starts to decline — his very presence in the society, the possibility of him as an idea seems to be enough to set things right. But perhaps more important than the story itself is its language. The Banker, for example, is “a strong man, who had already begun to take note of his health, and had achieved enough in his life to answer yes/ no questions with one word”, and when the Brother learns that a beautiful girl whom he had mistaken for one of the idle rich is actually a music teacher, she asks him: “Am I now different in your mind? When you know that the option to let time pass senselessly does not soil me?” These, as you can easily see, are not the words of real people made of flesh and blood, but precisely that made them, for me, much more adequate depictions of what was really going on than literary copies of persons you could see moving around in real life. Therefore, even though its apparent lack of immediate references, I think it is a very Estonian story, but not on the face of it, because it could happen anywhere, and I have only one instance in it where a mobile phone rings, reminding us of the time.

But, as said, life finally caught up. For me personally, the gap closed somewhere in 2011. Courtesy of the Väino Tanner Foundation, I spent the month of November of that year in Mazzano, a small town in Italy, in a writers’ residence, or actually a nice flat of which I was the only inhabitant. My initial idea had been to use this time to write up a story that had been haunting me for two years, after I had seen it in a dream — a story of two people falling in love without knowing that both of them are actually links in the same spy network of passing on sensitive information. I even jotted down the draft of a first chapter, but it was no good. The lense of literature was so strongly between me and what I was trying to write about that I could not see as clearly as I wanted. But then, another story took over. This was something I had also been thinking about for some time, a story of a sick father trying to understand her daughter, who had died a few years before in a collective sectarian suicide. This story was not altogether improbable in the new reality, as so many previously unimaginable things now are, and something I would know more about, having been teaching at various universities for about twenty years and constantly in contact with younger people inspired by all kinds of ideals. As the time for the other story had clearly not yet arrived, I decided to try my hand on this one, and in a month I had written up the first draft of “The Reconstruction”, my longest novel to date. It contains the story of both the father, who was a bit older than myself (and quite different as a human being) and the daughter, who had been slightly older than my children (again, resembling neither) — in other words, the stories of the world that was and the world that is now. It was also the first piece of fiction where I could place every single event on an exact spot on a timeline. I even checked the weather forecast for some days, when some important events took place, for example, the concert of Rammstein in Tallinn, so that if anyone who had attended were to read my book, they would not have it clash with their own memory of the event. Shared reality had found its way back onto my pages in a relatively undistorted form.

I also knew now what to do about this other story. It had grown, as stories often do, and when I finally wrote it down it was with a mix of my own memories about the end of the 1980s. The book, called “The Death of the Perfect Sentence”, is important to me in many senses. Most significantly, it was a possibility for me to go through (and thereby, to get “out of my system”, as they say) that period of enormous change, the hopes and fears and illusions that guided us from one world to another. I am still not sure it is at all possible to do a proper job at this any longer, because the words mean different things now than they did then. This must be a problem for anyone trying to mediate as authentically as possible their experiences from times past or spaces far away, and the easiest way to success they can take is to rely on the universally human. For me, the task was quite the contrary: to capture the opposite, the particularly human, the now vanished way of being alive in a timespace that was once also my own.

There are quite a few tragedies in the book. Some of these are caused by betrayal, some by the inability to commit it. The loves it writes do not acknowledge any borders, as loves often don’t, and therefore have no future. But what mattered most to me here was the “banality of evil” of the system itself. To put it simply: what would have become of the people, who chose to serve the repressive system in some not-so-innocent capacity, if the Soviet occupation had never taken place? Would they have been ordinary citizens, respectable pillars of a different kind of community? Were they turned by the system into its minions? So that they were also victims of a kind? Or did they have it in them from the beginning? Or did they just think they were doing their job? I cannot say with any certaintly that the different motivations I have ascribed to KGB officers, informers, underground activists or just people caught in the whirlwinds of history were in fact the same terms in which such people thought of themselves at the time. No one can: the memories of everyone concerned, constructed in our present, have inevitably been shaped by what we now know would happen.

When I had finished the first draft of the novel, I was not able to get out of it for quite some time. Under the pretext of rewriting some passages I kept returning to it, but in truth I knew better: a certain part of my world had now acquired an independent existence as a text and it was not so easy to let it go. Of course, this always happens when you finish a book, but I have never felt it so strongly. I still do. I am not sure how the book will be met — it does have its clashes with the official narrative of how independent Estonia came into being, in addition to obviously presenting just a particular point of view, and quite possibly missing something essential seen from some other one.

In other words, a distance will inevitably remain between life and literature. Well, some things evidently cannot be helped.

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