Anton Hansen-Tammsaare is the grand old man of Estonian literature, and without doubt Estonia’s most famous writer. He was able to enshrine something deeply humane, binding the nation together with its land, writing the ambivalent myth of the nation to be re-read, interpreted and staged over and over. He described his heroes with their inner inconsistency, believing in everlasting rebirth, full of the strength of a real Creator. His language is very original; it has been compared to the Old Testament. His lines of reasoning are full of paradoxes and his heroes are out of the common people, living in the same time in their own era, closely connected with the history of Estonia, and in the eternity. So they find their way to the hearts of readers of every decade and century.
Tammsaare´s complicated life is as interesting as his broad artistic creation. Born as the fourth of ten children in 1878 in a farmhouse called Põhja-Tammsaare (Northern Tammsaare, now a museum) in hilly, boggy and woody Middle Estonia, Anton Hansen chose the name of his father´s farm to be his pseudonym. Hesitating between the choice of becoming a violin player or a writer, he was because of his health inclined to the latter, but music continued to accompany his creation in a peculiar, irrational way. Between realism and modernism, Tammsaare veered to impressionism.
Tammsaare studied law at the University of Tartu, earning a living as a journalist and theatre critic, and had to break off his studies because of severe tuberculosis and left for the Caucasus, where he managed to overcome the illness. Back in Estonia, living and writing in his brother´s farmhouse in Koitjärve – a place that after World War II disappeared from the maps for fifty years as a military base of the Soviet army, – he fell ill with a serious stomach illness and was taken to Tartu as an almost hopeless case. But he survived, although his health was fragile till the end of his life, and getting married in 1919, became a professional writer.
He wrote novels, short stories, plays, biblical-philosophical miniatures, children’s stories and fairy tales influenced by Oscar Wilde and Eino Leino, socially critical essays, political satire and even a detective story. He translated Oscar Wilde, Selma Lagerlöf, Joseph Conrad, H.G. Wells, G.B. Shaw. John Galsworthy, Knut Hamsun, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and many others into Estonian.
The first and best-known of his plays is Juudit (Judith, 1921), marking the beginning of the heyday of Tammsaare´s creative period, based on the Old Testament, and binding tragically together love and death, desire and cruelty, destiny and greed for power. Tammsaare was a great psychologist, who wrote about the key questions of life. His roman-fleuve, Tõde ja õigus (Truth and Justice, 1926–1933) is a treatise of the meaning of a human life, the possibility of the existence of truth and justice. It is already part of world literature, being translated into many languages, the most recent of them being a translation into French, Vérité et justice by Gaïa. He first used a motto from Baudelaire to introduce his first printing of Truth and Justice, probably in spirit deeply influenced by Dostoyevsky. The first part of the pentalogy is the story of the struggle with nature, the Man and the Creation, a farmer named Andres cultivating his land of stones and bog, competing with his buffoon neighbour Pearu.
In the second part Indrek, a sensitive and soulful child with a subtle and poetic imagination from the first part of the pentalogy, is now a schoolboy sent to the university town of Tartu. Years in a school of a colourful Babel of languages from Polish to Baltic German, with students and their teachers, psychologically very interesting characters, make Indrek doubt his belief in God and struggle to find the meaning of life, losing his belief in God, but not in miracles.
The third part, dealing with the struggle with society, brings the reader into the middle of the Red year of 1905, the rebellious events of the anti-Russian revolution in Tallinn, the hope and short-lived freedom drowned in blood. They mirror through the eyes of Indrek the author´s interest in democratic revolution, opposed to violence-based socialist theories and mass manipulation.
The fourth part of pentalogy is struggle of Indrek with himself in an unhappy middle-class marriage. And the fifth part arrives at resignation crowned with new life and love, belief and a new beginning.
Tammsaare´s structurally very complicated and poetic, Biblically symbolic Kõrboja peremees (The Master of Kõrboja, 1922) is the strangest and one of the most intense and tragic love novels in literature: so thoroughly soaked through with this feeling, yet nobody ever mentions this word throughout the book. The poor farmer´s son feels himself unworthy to marry his great love, as he has been hurt in an accident, and because of it commits suicide. His beloved Anna brings home his son and her mother, like a little redeemer of their fate.
Love between a Baltic-German girl and an Estonian student is the main topic in his modernist psychological novel Ma armastasin sakslast (I Loved a German, 1935) and here sacrificing love brings death.
One year before his death (he died in March 1940) Tammsaare finished one of his most fascinating novels, deeply delving into the beauty and pain of life. In spite of the deepening pessimism of the author, Põrgupõhja uus vanapagan (The Misadventures of the New Satan, 1939) has aroused much interest in Estonia and, through translations, also in the world. The book is a satirical allegory of God sending the Satan to Earth to seek for salvation and blessedness, but it turns out to be impossible. Satan, trying to live honestly in a farmhouse in the woods, is deceived by his human neighbour by all means, at every step; his happy days drown in misery and attempts to gain justice bring only more tragedy with them. The book starts and ends with a dialogue with St. Peter, the keeper of the keys of Heaven.

Text by Elle-Mari Talivee


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