Albert Kivikas (1898-1978) had three quite distinct roles in Estonian literary history. He is one of the major authors in Estonian literature to have experimented with futurism, with pieces meant to irritate the petit bourgeois. The collection Lendavad sead (Flying Pigs, 1919), printed on the labels of beer bottles, became quite legendary. The Education Minister called all Estonian writers flying pigs, causing a scandal, which naturally delighted the futurists themselves. It must be said, however, that the literature of the time was much more influenced by expressionism, especially in poetry. Kivikas’ collection of short stories about war, Verimust (Blood Black, 1920) is certainly one of the most stylish examples of Estonian expressionism.

Then, with the birth of an independent republic, came neo-realism. Kivikas, a sensitive perceiver of the changes in the social and aesthetic realm, became an eager supporter of and campaigner for this. This is his second outstanding role in Estonian literature. He abandoned his bohemian convictions and devoted himself to the Republic and realism. Kivikas began sharply criticising the neo-romantic manner of writing which prevailed in Estonian literature in the first decades of the century (for example in his novel Vekslivõltsija, The Forger of a Bill of Exchange, 1931). This was not merely a dispute over aesthetics, but a question of an important national ideology and way of life. One aim of the neo-realists (later known as the “close-to-life” movement) was to return literature that relied on foreign and symbolist topics to its own country and people. In his manifesto, “Down with Lyrical Chocolate!” (1920), Kivikas worded it very poetically: “There is a Hamlet in every contemporary potbellied businessman, speculator, pastor, coachman, layabout, the bourgeois and proletarian. He sits in all of us, in every passer-by.” This was a highly provocative and bold idea in the relatively young literature of a very young country, making the case that Estonians and Estonia could well be the playground for Shakespearean dramas and tragedies.

The Republic of Estonia was naturally nothing like the ancient Kingdom of Denmark, but rather a country of peasants, a province where the German landowners had reigned for hundreds of years. The new state expropriated the manorial lands, which were then divided between the peasants. Thousands of new farms sprang up all over the country. At the same time, Estonian dramas and tragedies were born, described in Albert Kivikas’s “trilogy of smallholders”, novels about rural life, Jüripäev (St. George’s Day, 1921), Jaanipäev (St. John’s Day, 1924), and Mihklipäev (St. Michael’s Day, 1924). Their historical value is indisputable.

Kivikas was closely connected with Estonia’s independence, having fought in the War of Independence (1918-1920) as a schoolboy. Schoolboys going to the war to defend their country is a highly significant legend, a myth and tradition (to use all the essential words), which have the same significance in Estonian identity and history as the Danes with their oldest monarchy in Europe. Estonian history provides no lasting tradition of sovereignty to construct an identity. However, we have our mysterious schoolboys (angels?) who supposedly bravely faced the satanic force and managed to crush it.

Describing this myth in his novel, and thus preserving it for future generations, is Albert Kivikas’ third role in Estonian literature, and without a doubt his most lasting. His novel Nimed marmortahvlil (Names on a Marble Slab, 1936), tracing the exploits (which in reality only lasted for a few months) of the brave young soldiers, became instantly popular. The mythical aura surrounding the book was further augmented by the period of Soviet annexation, when the book was strictly prohibited. It is no wonder that the feature film based on it in 2002, made in the newly free Estonia, broke all box office records.
Kivikas’ novel is by no means a simple patriotic work of fiction. Names on a Marble Slab is a novel of war, but it is also a reflection on a better world order and on a better future for Estonia. The main character, Enn Ahas, is a doubter, a kind of Hamlet in the uniform of an Estonian soldier, who hesitates between the two great ideologies of the time – socialism and nationalism. Bravely facing the enemy, he would like to know what kind of Estonia he is fighting for. Life, however, is full of contradictions and different attitudes, so that Ahas’s contemplations and doubts continue in the second, third and even fourth novels in the series (1948–1954). The later parts were published in Sweden, where Kivikas escaped the Stalinist terror. The War of Independence is over, but the self-realisation of Enn Ahas, as an individual and a social being in the Estonian Republic of the nineteen-twenties, continues. The descriptions are almost like documentaries, with the novels full of valuable autobiographical recollections and chronicles of cultural history.

First published in ELM

Text by Toomas Haug


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