Back to Estonia


Tagasi Eestisse

Back to Estonia (Novels, Estonian)
Published by Jumalikud Ilmutused, 2012, pp. 279

Urmas Vadi (b. 1977) is one of the most thrilling contemporary authors of Estonian literature, and is almost a phenomenon. Without hesitation, he can be called a “multitalent”. He is known as an author of short stories and plays, but also as a scriptwriter, a radio voice and lately more and more as a producer. Vadi had already written in several genres, but he tried out the genre of the novel only in 2010, when he presented one of his prose works, Letters to Aunt Anne, as his first novel. Actually, the genre of the book was unclear: it was a testimony of his inquiries into the form and process of writing a novel, and a reflection on his intentions. Vadi’s new book, Back to Estonia, is without doubt a true novel, but it still is, characteristically to Vadi, a kind of an innovative artistic effort. Back to Estonia is not a simple and traditional novel, but a novel within a novel – a perfect example of metafiction – and it is extraordinary because of the pranks and puns (including three monkeys who follow the plot!) that are used to accompany and connect the two (or more) planes of the text, because of the author’s games with fictionality and documentality, and because of its unique ending. 

At first glance, the story seems to be rather simple. The narrator, called Urmas Vadi, writes about the life of the protagonist John (or Juhan), describing his work and breaking points in his life, his depression, idée fixes and fantasies, which finally take him to Australia, a trip initiated by a job John has been offered and which introduces still another story into his life – a novel about the post-WWII Forest Brethren in Estonia, written by an Estonian exile author. With this fictional novel, read by John, Vadi gives quite a ghastly overview of the most tragic period of the Estonian history of the 20th century, spiced with overflowing national patriotism. But all this is rendered with such a thick daub of the grotesque that it ultimately feels like a parody and is, probably consciously, made to be reminiscent of Andrus Kivirähk’s The Man Who Spoke Snakish. On the other hand, this weird national-romanticist story is framed by the present-day life of the bored John, with all its twists and turns, where fantasy
suddenly grabs the reins. Vadi’s novel becomes a brilliant literary game, with reality and the fictional culminating on the last pages of the book, where the whole novel is suddenly shown in an entirely new light. 

In the midst of playing with all kinds of fantasies, Vadi presents a multifaceted narrative that can be examined and analysed in a number of ways. At first, it seems that Back to Estonia is, in a sense, a travel book, because the trip to Australia, and the meetings and events the protagonist experiences there are written in a realistic way, despite the fact that at the end of the book we can see that the trip had been taken only in his imagination. Then it  becomes clear that this is certainly a novel about identity, as the protagonist John is seeking, after the “death” of his father, some new turns in his life to escape his daily routine. Thirdly, Vadi examines the different forms of exile: the enforced exile during the Soviet occupation and the “new exile”, popular among the young people of today who wish to have adventures and travel and see the world. And lastly, the novel poses questions about the existential angst-related psychological state called “internal exile”. All these paths are connected by a question looming in the background about Estonianness: who is, actually, a true Estonian? Is it a person who is idealistic and patriotic to the limit, or is it a person who peacefully lives his quiet daily life? The author himself does not offer any opinions and leaves a great deal of space, both noble and ironic, for the reader’s interpretations. 

Text by Brita Melts

First appeared in Estonian Literary Magazine

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