Mati Unt, a writer, theatre director and essayist, belonged to the Golden Sixties of Estonian culture. He was the most delicate of Estonian prose authors, and his passion was the theatre, staging on the stage and in life. He possessed a very special theatrical language: as a producer he created a unique, sovereign world.
Mati Unt was born on the 1st of January, 1944, in Linnamäe, Vooremaa, a hilly region north of Tartu.
Unt made his debut in an unusual way, in 1963, after having graduated from secondary school in Tartu with a story in his school´s almanac, titled Hüvasti, kollane kass (Farewell, Yellow Cat), making him instantly well-known: he determined his first work as a novel naïve and 1992 answered it with a revised version, Tere, kollane kass! (Hello, Yellow Cat!).
Unt studied literature and journalism at the University of Tartu, and like his literary generation, turned to modernist ideals, later – influentially – to postmodernism. He was a programmatic urbanist, although coming from a country village, the place often perceivable in his works. The style, new to Estonian prose, always caused lively criticism. From the very first of his works, hints to the absurd, self-irony, the grotesque, parody, and Kafka as an intellectual model, are prevalent, along with existentialist questions. The protagonists of his short stories and novels often face a border situation, and crossing the borders is not only a play, although playing was a word characteristic to Unt even before he turned to the theatre. A very independent thinker, he bore something essential for the Estonians’ mental space.
His works are always dynamically connected with time and space, the environment of the story, and it often seems as if the narrative is not the most important thing here. The impressions are more to be noticed, the state of mind and constant uncertainty are the key concepts. His textual world has been compared to a collage of world literature and with his own brilliant fascicle of correlations, or with a room covered with mirrors looking into each other, or has even been called “socio-psychography”.
Unt was also from the beginning filmic and visual (as well as deeply interested in photography), and some of his novels have later been filmed, such as a love-triangle novella called Tühirand (An Empty Beach, 1974) in 2005. Emptiness in the soul and existential wavering somehow culminate in Unt´s novel Sügisball (Autumn Ball, 1979), which made him internationally famous. The novel was also filmed in 2007. In the novel of scenes from city life a new residential area of a modern dormitory town, part of Tallinn, is described through six independent worlds of different dwellers, who occasionally meet tragically and comically in their loneliness and Angst. The novel is very tense, fragmentary and like an illusion, yet frightening in its reality, against the frame of modern masculine panel city architecture. Unt´s novel Öös on asju (Things in the Night, 1990) deals with the loss of electricity supply in the prefabricated town already familiar from the Autumn Ball in the middle of a very cold winter, with even a cannibal lurking around in the buildings –no one knows anyone.
Mati Unt became involved with the theatre quite occasionally, but then almost entirely – first writing for the stage, then also staging in several theatres. In 1981 Unt became a theatre director in Tallinn. While writing for the theatre himself, he directed more than ninety plays in the theatres and introduced new ideas to the Estonian theatre.
The passion for theatre was also the base for his last, masterful and vivid novel, Brecht ilmub öösel (Brecht at Night, 1997), mixing fact and fiction and playing with the fact of the famous German playwright Bertolt Brecht visiting the Finnish-Estonian writer Hella Wuolijoki in 1940 in Finland. The translation of this book by Eric Dickens was in 2010 chosen among the best translated twenty-five books in the USA by Three Percent, the international literature division at the University of Rochester in New York.
Besides theatre and fiction, Unt was a mythologist. In the nineteen-eighties every week in the cultural weekly his column ‘Mythologies of Everyday Life’ appeared, elegantly dissecting myths from film, literature and history, deconstructing and reconstructing them again, as could have been his attitude to staging. In his novel Doonori meelespea (Diary of a Blood Donor, 1990) is a recreation of the Dracula story with the first Estonian poetess Lydia Koidula having become a restless vampire.
Not easy to read, Unt himself has become mythical. Right from his first novel, cats were important creatures throughout his works, a cat woman and a were-cat among others.
Mati Unt died in 2005 in Tallinn.

Text by Elle-Mari Talivee


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