The most famous, significant, and most translated Estonian writer today, Jaan Kaplinski, started his literary life as a poet in what are termed the Golden Sixties of Estonian literature. Kaplinski's poetry was written by a European humanist who had grown very aware of Eastern cultures. He wrote as well prose, essays, plays, and translated from several languages, cultivating an intellectual style. 

Born in 1941 in Tartu, as a son of a Polish lecturer and a French-language philologist, he participated in various types of culture as a boy and in his youth, starting with linguistics. He went on to take an interest in the philosophy, anthropology, ecology and botany of traditional cultures, plus their religious beliefs. Kaplinski worked as a researcher in linguistics, an editor, sociologist, and ecologist in Tallinn Botanic Garden; also at the University of Tartu teaching young translators. In 1992–1995 he was a member of the Parliament. Kaplinski lectured and gave talks in Vancouver and Calgary, Ljubljana and Trieste, Taipei and Stockholm, Bologna and Cologne, London and Edinburgh. He was Writer-in-Residence at the University of Aberystwyth in Wales. His wife Tiia Toomet is a writer.

As a poetic rebel, Kaplinski said himself that his poetry is part of an expression of a love for the world, a long poetic list of people and things he appreciates. This declaration certainly also has its therapeutic function, aimed at nature and individuals, culture and society at one and the same time, seeing nature as one whole and trying to return to the pristine purity of paradise. Long interested in Celtic mythology and languages, American Indians, and classical Chinese philosophy and poetry, one important matter is the allusion in his poetry to Buddhism. Kaplinski, who was otherwise critical of religion as a whole, remained involved with the religions of the East, introducing the oriental way into Estonian poetry.

Although he became the central and most productive Modernist in Estonian poetry, Kaplinski avoided routine and tried to connect to the basic flow of poetry by constant change. He wrote songlike poetry with rhythm and rhyme, poems that are sparsely worded and also towers of syllables, plus prophetic long poems. He poeticized the simple things in everyday life by writing poetry in colloquial language, devoid of metaphorical reference, and has compared that with a shaman journey. He wrote poetry directly in the English and Finnish languages, also in the southern regional brand of the Estonian language: Võro kiil.

Kaplinski wrote poetry and essays in parallel. As a late prose debut, at the end of the nineteen-eighties he published a prose poem entitled Läbi metsa (Through the Woods) and an autobiographical collection of prose Kust tuli öö (Where the Night Came From). His works from the late nineties are all more philosophical excursions in prose where Kaplinski discusses those woes most pressing mankind by way of parable and allegory.

His pieces of science fiction, Silm (An Eye, 1999) and Hektor (2000) won the Estonian Cultural Endowment Award. The first part of Hektor is the diary of an intelligent mutant dog, the second the confessions of his creator, a geneticist. As always with an artificial being, Hektor suffers from loneliness and broods on the imperfect nature of human society. He sees the warped nature of civilization as reflected in mankind who has challenged nature in its own pride. An Eye tells of a paranoid theologian’s imaginary tale and scenes of challenge by magical gods.

Kaplinski's prose works are written in a neutral, almost characterless style, reminiscent of Ancient Chinese parables or philosophical dialogues. In order to achieve this distance from the reader, the author often used diaries, confessions, appendices, and notebooks as the form into which he cast his thoughts. The answers to fundamental questions are sought in genetics, theology, mathematics, religion, semiotics, and mathematics, yet all that is arrived at is paradox. Although the works contain an element of dream-worlds, they do not belong to the usual type of science-fiction, but are more reminiscent of the works of Borges or Hesse – the challenging of the gods in An Eye reminds one of the magic theatre in Steppenwolf, a magical train of thought where people are merely biological waves in the brains of a god, and here Kaplinski appeared to be influenced by the American philosopher Alan Watts, who claimed the world to be the dream of a mad god. He opposed the revolution of the West to the evolution of the East and posits Western technological development as the reason for global problems.

In 2007 his novel Seesama jõgi (The Same River) appeared – it took twelve years to complete it – which, in the form of Bildungsroman, is semi-autobiographical, a fluent, mystical, intellectually deep story of a summer in the middle of the nineteen-sixties. It has been said to be personal, intimate, and universal, and through the conversations of a student of oriental studies and his mentor the world view of a young, talented man, touched by poetry and love, painfully develops, experiencing the injustice of life of that politically complicated period. Among the most widely read Estonian novels, it has also been very well received in translation.

His later prose was often from a viewpoint of an aging man: a rare and needful aspect in a really soul-stirring way. Kaplinski enriched Estonian literature with his travel writing and children’s books.

Kaplinski's soulmate, Ludwig Wittgenstein, once said that philosophy is an expression of itching. Kaplinski caused an "itch" with his sharp wit and erudition written in prose which is nonetheless easy to read when he touched upon the sore points of human existence.

Kaplinski was a Nobel Prize nominee. Among many others from different languages, he translated the works of Tomas Tranströmer into Estonian.
Jaan Kaplinski passed away on August 8, 2021.

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