The Death of the Perfect Sentence: ELM

Novels

Täiusliku lause surm

Death of the Perfect Sentence (Novels, Estonian)
Published by Mustvalge Kirjastus, 2015, pp. 176

Rein Raud (b 1961) is one of Estonia’s most influential and esteemed intellectuals, whose opinion pieces generally have strong social resonance. Although Raud’s public activities – including serving as the rector of Tallinn University from 2006–2011 – sometimes tend to overshadow his literary contribution, he is clearly regarded as one of the country’s most appreciated and highly awarded prosaists. Two of his novels – Hector ja Bernard (Hector and Bernard, 2004) and Rekonstruktsioon (The Reconstruction, 2012) – have received the Cultural Endowment of Estonia’s Award for Prose.

Raud’s newest short novel, The Death of the Perfect Sentence, is an example of his continued superb writing. In it, Raud addresses a subject that has seldom been dealt with in recent Estonian literature: the final moments of the Soviet occupation. Yet Raud, a professor and expert on East Asia, wouldn’t be Raud if the book didn’t bring in other elements. The Death of the Perfect Sentence can be seen as a spy novel mixed with memories, in which young resistance fighters endeavour to out-smart the KGB. Yet, it is also a story about bungled opportunities, the destruction of love, and the death of trust. The latter is perhaps the work’s central message, and the discussion of a trust deficit also seems to refer to the present: modern-day Estonia and Western society as a whole are struggling with the same problem. The reasons for this are certainly different than they were under communist totalitarianism but, as Raud points out, these are only surface differences: people today are also alone, cut off from others, and can only be guided by their best judgements, which may benefit them, but which may also lead them into paranoia. In Estonia’s case, though, the baggage of history is always there: it may not be entirely visible any more, but that just makes shedding it more difficult.

The Death of the Perfect Sentence is definitely stylish. Raud’s stylistic mastery has been highlighted before, but he re-confirms in his newest work the fact that he is unsurpassed in the short-novel genre. Raud appears before the reader as an inventive author, whose outwardly simple and concise style is always brimming with various stances and critiques: sometimes observing his characters and developments from a distance, and other times seeing things through their eyes.

One interesting trick that Raud employs is the insertion of remarks and digressions between the lines of the main text, presented in isolated boxes. Occasionally, he uses these to comment on the text (for instance, one box answers a question he was asked by a friend who read the draft manuscript: “On what occasions were ties worn in Soviet society, and on what occasions weren’t they?”), while other times he tells stories that are loosely tied to the general topic but do not fit into the central narrative. This gives the novel a unique rhythm and makes the story (which generally is grim: think KGB, arrests, painful memories and forced choices between conformism and imprisonment) not only thrilling, but also witty and an enjoyable reading experience, which in addition to its detailed recollections leads thoughts back to the present. Although the story contains imaginative details, it is, in terms of atmosphere and description, about everyday life, a realistic glance into Estonia’s past that offers an explanation for why Estonians are exactly who we are today.

By Peeter Helme

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