The Ballet Master: Estonian Literary Magazine

Novels

Ballettmeister

The Ballet Master (Novels, Estonian)
Published by Loomingu Raamatukogu, 2019, pp. 200

Urmas Vadi’s The Ballet Master is an absurdist satire of nationalist politics written by a cultural omnivore. The book, which itself has gone through several transformations, first as a film script, then as a play, carries the fingerprints of Ken Kesey and Daniil Kharms. It’s a work where the possible consequences of an Axis victory of the Soviet Union are considered through the perspective of a moose loose on Moscow, and where the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev may well turn out to be Czar Nikolai II in disguise.

The main plot revolves around a fireman, Jüri, who is tasked with escorting a motley crew of potters on a secret mission to rescue the Estonian President Konstantin Päts from a Soviet asylum after the country is occupied during World War II. Did I mention they are all disguised as celebrity ballet dancers – an occupation they know nothing about – and charm their way through dangerous situations by jumping around like frogs?

The tale moves at the speed of a Hollywood caper, and reads like one, too. The ballet master and his crew quickly veer off course of their original mission, and end up in Moscow, where they have to face the NKVD, engage in a battle of wits with a femme fatale, and dance their way out of a complicated situation. Meanwhile, two men, claiming to be Estonian President Päts and Russian Czar Nikolai II plot their escape and return to power from an asylum in Kazan. But then, don’t all men in asylums harbor delusions of grandeur?

At the heart of the matter, however, is an opposition between hardened state nationalism, and the playful, irreverent and tolerant notion of community. Jüri and his buddies are called upon to rescue Päts as the figurehead of the Estonian nation, but the old man (or his insane impersonator – the point is precisely that it’s impossible to tell the difference) is simply a smaller, more pathetic version of an actual emperor: authoritarian, power hungry, and cynical about the use of national sentiments for personal gain.

Meanwhile, Jüri’s antics – turning his traveling ballet show into a demonstration of “local folk dances” – may seem silly at first, but four men doing frog leaps generates camaraderie, turns violence into communion, and gets the boys out of all kinds of trouble. This is community at its best – constantly changing, improvising, not taking itself too seriously, and genuinely working to bring people together, not to reinforce political battle lines, where ordinary people on either side only end up as casualties.

The Ballet Master cements Vadi as one of the most original and important voices in Estonian literature. Like in his previous works – the Forrest Gump-esque satire of Estonian nationalism in exile titled Back to Estonia and Crash-meets-the-GreatEstonian-Novel-like Neverland – he speaks to the tensions in Estonian culture in the voice of a zany citizen of world literature. Vadi does not discriminate, he can allude to current Estonian affairs in one sentence, to an American film in the next, and to classic Russian literature in the one after. His sense of humor is one-of-a-kind, and in spite of the absurd plot, you feel for the characters and hope they succeed. His works are good candidates for translation, since the abundance of allusions and the fast-moving pace appeals even if you don’t get some of the more “Estonian” references.

The tale of kind-hearted tricksters on the road, charming people through dance is, of course, as old as time. The hardened nationalist Päts – he can stay in the asylum.

Text by Aro Velmet


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