Voices in Estonian Literature
Written by Doris Kareva

Never before has Estonian literature been so full of different voices. Indeed, for a nation of about a million there are now about 500 publishers, plus journals, newspapers, the virtual world… There are so many readings, performances and happenings, poetry slams and literary festivals like Prima Vista in Tartu or HeadRead in Tallinn, to name just a few, bringing together well-known writers from all over the world. No one – no matter how dedicated – can attend all the events, nor read all the books published.

While Estonian language, which is among the Finno-Ugric family, is not too easily understood or translated into main Indo-European languages like English, French or German, Estonians have always been very diligent translators themselves, taking good care that the most important world literature also exists in Estonian. For example, in the “Open Estonian Book” series (also called “Marble Series”), 111 philosophical books have been translated into Estonian over a range of years, brought out by different publishers. For more than ten years, the journal Ninniku has freely published translations of world poetry, of all ages and languages.

This is to say that Estonian literature is quite naturally part of world literature and Estonian writers are usually well-read. That is why an interesting kind of 'bonsai culture' has developed in this corner of Europe: within a relatively small group of writers, there are authors of all genres, appeasing most tastes. Our national epic “Kalevipoeg” (“Son of Kalev”), written more than one hundred years ago by Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald, has recently been retranslated into English for the second time, as well as into French and even Hindi. However, no new “big novel” of universal value and representative of national psyche has been written for a long time. Maybe this is also too idealistic to ask for – Estonians are rather good at self-irony, as quite many texts happen to prove.

Probably the most well-known, prolific and popular Estonian writer is Andrus Kivirähk (1970) with his slightly grotesque, but healthy sense of humour. He writes with admirable ease for adults and children, for stage, and TV as well as columns for newspapers. Cartoons based on his stories are being shown at a number of film festivals. Among influential authors, Mihkel Mutt (1953) should also be mentioned. As a writer and editor, he cleverly combines cultural background with style and wit in his short stories, novels and a sequence of memoirs. Jan Kaus (1971) is another fluent and influential author engaged in most genres of literature, but also a dedicated facilitator of art and culture in true Renaissance spirit. His criticism reaches from witty sarcasm to warm empathy.

Naturally, there are authors, whose influence surpasses their lifetime – like Mati Unt (1944-2005), a legendary ever-restless modernist; or Juhan Viiding (Jüri Üdi) (1948-1995), a tragic trickster, whose witty, colloquial and deceivingly simple poetry set the rhythm for two or three generations. Most Estonians are likewise looking forward to the day when freethinker Jaan Kaplinski (1941) – a famous poet, writer, translator and essayist – will receive a well-deserved Nobel Prize.

Among world-class women writers in Estonia, well respected, widely read and translated Ene Mihkelson (1944) is deeply entangled in the collective psyche of Estonians. Reading her works is not always easy, but certainly cathartic. Viivi Luik (1946) appeared on the literary scene as a poet prodigy at the age of sixteen. The same powerful mirthful and sinister magnetism also flows in her three novels. Mari Saat’s (1947) prose contains a delicate, yet psychologically loaded questioning of ethics. Also, Maimu Berg (1945) is socially alert, writing in inventive, bold and brilliant way, and Eeva Park (1950) writes down-to-earth prose and poetry that is vibrant with sensations. A broad academic and cultural background as well as intellectual wit has made Maarja Kangro (1973) well known as a translator, poet and essayist. Her short stories as well as poems are sharp, clear and often funny.

Moving from broad daylight towards more shadowy and mysterious areas, one can’t help noticing Jüri Ehlvest’s (1967-2006) style of prose – it is somewhat feverish, confusing and complex; intriguingly cryptic. Ervin Õunapuu (1956), a talented artist and writer, is equally dark and intense, obsessed with rather morbid and/or religious themes. As for Mehis Heinsaar (1973) – from his very first short stories, he has been claimed the master of Estonian magical realism; his poetic and imaginative writing has been inspirational to many. Furthermore, a huge audience of readers has been absolutely thrilled by Indrek Hargla (1970). Melted together in his novels are medieval history, crime and science fiction in a most fascinating way.

Style and elegance are also characteristic to Tõnu Õnnepalu (1962), who has written novels under different pseudonyms (Emil Tode, Anton Nigov), wonderful essays and slowly flowing poetry about changing moods and seasons with a melancholic or philosophical touch. Poet, essayist, modern thinker and translator Hasso Krull (1964) likewise blends sophisticated cultural studies with traditional cultures and rediscovered ancient roots; his writing is a true benchmark. Jürgen Rooste (1979), poet par excellence, is the pumping heart and motor of his generation. His Dionysian blues full of ecstasy, despair and laughter are as famous as his persona: always bursting with ideas and empathy.

Triin Soomets (1969) is one of the most remarkable female poets in Estonia. Her complex psychological, melodious and highly enhancing poetry has a slight, but haunting metaphysical touch. Kristiina Ehin (1977) is also probably the most well-known and loved Estonian poet particularly in English-speaking world. She gracefully weaves Finno-Ugric mythology and folklore in her very contemporary and personal poetry, charming wide audiences.

Besides the poetical and mystical, however, one can easily be captivated by the poetry of disillusionment. Elo Viiding’s (1974) writing oscillates between prose and poetry, aiming at perfection and ultimate quality. Her clear and often commanding voice has great power and cutting irony. François Serpent (Indrek Mesikepp, 1971) is associated with the movement of “new honesty, new sincerity”. His lucid poems reveal in their bareness an existential human condition here and now. Furthermore, Sven Kivisildnik (1963) is the champion of intellectual bravado, never failing in his mission. He has published both the bulkiest as well as the thinnest book of poetry in Estonia, consisting of one sentence: Come to your senses!

Needless to say, all authors mentioned here have received numerous prizes and have been widely translated. The time and space permitted here allow just a brief glimpse into Estonian literature, which is doubtless as rich and exciting, as full of surprises and pulsating with fresh energy as any other literature. Just ask the translators.

However, there is a lot more to discover for those starting the journey into the heart of Estonian literature. Bon voyage!

For more information about Doris Kareva, click here.

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