Karl Ristikivi is among the best writers of Estonia, and even as a young man he was considered the literary successor of Estonia´s great writer A. H. Tammsaare. He did not betray the confidence his readership had in him, becoming one of the most interesting and masterful writers, never losing his empathy and discreet belief in life´s beauty, even in his most difficult years. A writer in exile, Ristikivi identified himself as a member of the European cultural sphere, weaving the allusions of its cultural context, literature and history into his literary works.
Karl Ristikivi was born in 1912 in the western part of Estonia, at Varbla, as an illegitimate son of a farm maid, and lived with his mother on farms where she could find employment. At his village school the little boy became interested in reading. A relative made it possible to continue his studies in a commercial school and at evening school in Tallinn. He then began writing, first for magazines, and then – with success – for children. This enabled Ristikivi to become a student at the University of Tartu, quite accidentally, of geography. But the ancient Hanseatic town had fascinated him deeply and Ristikivi´s first novel, Tuli ja raud (Fire and Iron, 1938), the winner of a novel contest, began his Tallinn trilogy, every book dedicated to a different class of newly urbanized Estonians. The first novel is about a farmhand coming to town in search of work and becoming a steel factory worker, the second, Õige mehe koda (The House of a Righteous Man, 1940) about the life of town merchants, and the third, Rohtaed (The Herb Garden, 1942) about a teacher. His panoramic Tallinn bears in it something from John Galsworthy´s London, and the trilogy has something very essential of a townscape and its space, history and human experience, .
In 1940 Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union and the young writer decided to leave Estonia in the tumult of war in 1944. And in exile in Stockholm, without the possibility of ever turning back to homeland, he instead found strength and inspiration in his European identity, having, in the way of a writer, said goodbye to his homeland both in an unfinished trilogy and in a very diverse novel from his other works, the first Estonian surrealist novel, the existentialist and modernist book Hingede öö (All Souls' Night, 1953). In this wonderful novel, at the same time realistic and dreamy in the Calderón style, overwhelmed by the oppressive feeling of loneliness, and yet so playful and cinematic, the nameless protagonist, a young man, wanders through the corridors of a strange house, the House of a Dead Man, during New Year´s Eve, every step taking him to a new symbolic situation, and is at last witnessing a Kafkaesque court session over the Seven Deadly Sins.
Then the writer, working in the Swedish state health insurance office, turned back to the historical genre. His novels are nearly without exception set in Europe: Italy, Spain, France - and deal with European history, making up different historical-philosophical trilogies – of chronicles, of biographies, and of intertwining history and the present time, also with books like interludes between trilogies. Ristikivi´s gigantic historical sequence consists of 12 novels grouped into three trilogies and two intermediary novels. He wrote in his correspondence about his wish to structure this novel cycle as a Gothic cathedral.
Ristikivi began with the three chronicle novels, of which he described the first one, Põlev lipp (The Burning Flag, 1961), to be the matrix novel, in which Conradin von Hohenstaufen, the Duke of Swabia, the last of his dynasty, tries to join Germany and Italy under his crown. The trilogy tells about the Siege of Acre, the Order of the Temple and, in the third volume in picaresque form, early 14th-century Catalonia. In the background of history, simple important human feelings have their role: faith and love, friendship and loyalty are put to the test. It is more openly exposed in his trilogy of biographies, where the novel Nõiduse õpilane (Student of Witchcraft, 1967), the title borrowed from Goethe´s poem Zauberlehrling, finishes this part of the sequence. Literary critics have studied the connections between Ristikivi´s works and music, and more clearly it comes to mind in Rõõmulaul (The Song of Joy, 1966), the second book of biographies, of a singer, David, of Welsh origin. But musicality also broadens into the composition of his novels and his whole work.
Also interesting are the interludes: of these, Imede saar (Island of Miracles, 1964) is a dystopia in the Platonic tradition, or that of Marco Polo´s travel book. The last trilogy connects the past in parallel with the present day, and is concluded with Rooma päevik (A Roman Diary, 1976), ending in mid-sentence.
He was a curious, inquisitive writer, even trying the detective story genre, and it was characteristic to him to leave the impression of the need to decipher – the universal codes sprouting from history, foretelling the common intellectual future of Europe.
Ristikivi wrote only a few poems, published in a single collection put together by his friends and entitled Inimese teekond (A Human Journey, 1972), but with it he belongs among the classics of Estonian poetry, and his poems have been translated into Russian and French. The Christian background is here interwoven with the antique tradition and tells a story about two travellers, Ovid and Ulysses, their yearning for home, and equally, the joy of the journey.
Although his diary (The Diary of Karl Ristikivi 1957-1968, 2009), which has been compared to a secret drawer, reflects the loneliness of a refugee who does not find a life partner, his intricate fabric of novels, rich in myths and symbols, is a song of humanism and traditional ethics, and although also often sad, he never loses hope of solving life´s mystery. Ristikivi was a prolific critic as well, and was interested in literature on the theoretical level.
Karl Ristikivi died in 1977 in Stockholm.

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