The Death Of The Perfect Sentence by Rein Raud, translated by Matthew Hyde
Published by Vagabond Voices, 2018
A political thriller set mainly in Estonia, but partly also in Finland and Sweden, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union. It follows a group of young Estonian pro-independence dissidents who have an elaborate scheme for smuggling copies of KGB files out of the country, and whose fates are entangled, through family and romantic ties, with the security services who are tracking them. It describes the curious minutiae of everyday life, offers wry observations on the period through personal experience, and asks universal questions about how interpersonal relationships are affected when caught up in momentous historical changes.
Reconstruction by Rein Raud, translated by Adam Cullen
Published by Dalkey Archive Press, 2017
For five years, Enn Padrik has postponed the investigation into the apparently religiously inspired suicide of his daughter and her friends at a commune near Viljandi, but now he cannot do it any longer. He has to travel all over Estonia and even to France to talk to those who might remember anything relevant. Some of these people seem to have been waiting for him, others refuse to talk. And little by little, a bigger and quite unexpected picture starts to emerge.
The Brother by Rein Raud, translated by Adam Cullen
Published by Open Letter Books, 2016
The Brother is, in Raud’s own words, a spaghetti western told in poetic prose, simultaneously paying tribute to both Clint Eastwood and Alessandro Baricco. The novel opens with a mysterious stranger arriving in a small town controlled by a group of men–men who recently cheated the stranger’s supposed sister out of her inheritance and mother’s estate. Resigned to giving up on her dreams and ambitions, Laila took this swindling in stride, something that Brother won’t stand for. Soon after his arrival, fortunes change dramatically, enraging this group of powerful men, motivating them to get their revenge on Brother. Meanwhile, a rat-faced paralegal makes it his mission to discover Brother’s true identity.
The Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk, translated by Christopher Moseley
Published by Grove Press, 2015
Andrus Kivirähk is one of the most highly acclaimed and prolific contemporary Estonian authors and is known for his highly imaginative stories and his unusual sense of humour.
Set in a fantastical version of medieval Estonia, The Man Who Spoke Snakish follows a young pagan boy, Leemet, who lives with his hunter-gatherer family in the forest and is the last speaker of the ancient tongue of snakish, a language that allows its speakers to command all animals. But the forest is gradually emptying as more and more people leave to settle in villages, where they break their backs tilling the land to grow wheat for their “bread” and where they pray to a god very different from the spirits worshipped in the forest’s sacred grove. The Man Who Spoke Snakish is a fascinating exploration of the struggle to preserve ancient traditions in the face of modernity, as well as a satire of this prehistoric period in Estonia’s history that is often idealized and mythologized by nationalists for their political agenda.
The Willow King by Meelis Friedenthal, translated by Matthew Hyde
Published by Pushkin Press, 2017
Set in Estonia, at the end of the seventeenth century, the novel follows a young Dutch student, Laurentius, who arrives in Estonia, accompanied by a rose-ringed parakeet. He has come to study at the famous University of Tartu and us searching for a cure for the mysterious melancholy that torments him and wants to find the location of his soul and how it relates to the human body. Meanwhile the poor are being devoured by hunger and the city walls of his university town don’t keep them out; in his feverish sleep he dreams of a king with a high crown, and his waking life is stalked by paranoia. It’s an atmospheric novel that looks at the superstitions that were prevalent in that time period and the advent of the Age of Enlightenment.
The Inner Immigrant by Mihkel Mutt, translated by Adam Cullen
Published by Dalkey Archive Press, 2017
The collection of essayistic short stories, penned over a thirty-year period, follow Fabian, Mihkel Mutt’s strange and self-indulgent alter-ego, and his adventures in newly independent Estonia. Mutt’s stories highlight the lingering absurdities of the previous Soviet regime, at the same time taking an ironic aim at the triumphs and defeats, the virtues and vices of the Estonian intelligentsia.
The Cavemen Chronicle by Mihkel Mutt, translated by Adam Cullen
Published by Dalkey Archive Press, 2015
The Cavemen Chronicle is a portrait of the bohemian culture in Estonia in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The “cavemen” in question are the regulars at the underground bar called “The Cave,” including artists, musicians, writers, and philosophers, who escape the dreary Soviet reality “above” with vodka and high-minded discussion in their secret hideaway. The arrival of national independence upsets the balance of these dissidents’ lifestyle, and the narrator recounts how each individual adapts to their newfound freedom.
Radio by Tõnu Õnnepalu, translated by Adam Cullen
Published by Dalkey Archive Press, 2014
Radio follows an Estonian filmmaker who is heading home after spending a decade living in Paris. He is an oversensitive and narcissistic man, openly gay, though suffering from a somewhat shaky sense of self-esteem, and stuck moreover in an ongoing identity crisis: is he an Estonian or a Parisian at heart? Is he an urban dandy or a rural hack? The story of an exile and of a writer anatomizing a homeland he perhaps wishes to repudiate.
The Ropewalker: Between Three Plagues Volume I by Jaan Kross, translated by Merike Lepasaar Beecher
Published by MacLehose Press, 2016
The first volume in an epic historical trilogy Between Three Plagues – described as the Estonian answer to Wolf Hall – Jaan Kross’s trilogy dramatizes the life of the renowned Livonian Chronicler Balthasar Russow, whose greatest work described the effects of the Livonian War on the peasantry of what is now Estonia. Russow is a diamond in the rough, a thoroughly modern man in an Early Modern world, rising from humble origins to greatness through wit and learning alone. As Livonia is used as a political football by the warring powers of Russia, Sweden, Poland, and Lithuania, he continues to climb the greasy pole of power and influence.
The Czar’s Madman by Jaan Kross, translated by Anselm Hollo
Published by The Harvill Press, 2001
Timotheus von Bock’s release by the Czar from nine years’ incarceration does not spell the end of the Baron’s troubles: he is confined to his Livonian estate to live under the constant eye of police informers planted among his own household and is subjected to endless humiliations. It is claimed that he is a madman and in need of ‘protection’: a man would need to be insane, after all, to have taken a Czar at his word when asked for a candid appraisal of the state’s infirmities. From the year of his release from prison and return to his wife Eeva, a woman of peasant stock to whom, with her brother Jakob, he has given a solid education, the Baron’s life is recorded in a secret journal by this same Jakob, a shrewd and observant house-guest. Reconstructing the events leading up to the Baron’s incarceration in 1818 and subsequent to his release in 1827, Jakob little by little brings to light mysteries surrounding the ‘Czar’s madman’. Was his madness genuine? What was the secret understanding between him and his boon companion Czar Alexander I, who committed him to prison?
Purge by Sofi Oksanen, translated by Lola Rogers
Published by Grove Press, 2010
Sofi Oksanen is a Finnish-Estonian writer, who was born and lives in Finland but has close family ties to Estonia, and most of her novels explore significant chapters in Estonian history.
When Aliide Truu, an older woman living alone in the Estonian countryside, finds a dishevelled girl huddled in her front yard, she suppresses her misgivings and offers her shelter. Zara is a young sex-trafficking victim on the run from her captors, but a photo she carries with her soon makes it clear that her arrival at Aliide’s home is no coincidence. Survivors both, Aliide and Zara engage in a complex arithmetic of suspicion and revelation to distil each other’s motives; gradually, their stories emerge, the culmination of a tragic family drama of rivalry, lust, and loss that played out during the worst years of Estonia’s Soviet occupation.
When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen, translated by Lola Rogers
Published by Knopf, 2015
1941: In Communist-ruled, war-ravaged Estonia, two men are fleeing from the Red Army – Roland, a fiercely principled freedom fighter, and his slippery cousin Edgar. When the Germans arrive, Roland goes into hiding; Edgar abandons his unhappy wife, Juudit, and takes on a new identity as a loyal supporter of the Nazi regime. 1963: Estonia is again under Communist control, independence even further out of reach behind the Iron Curtain. Edgar is now a Soviet apparatchik, desperate to hide the secrets of his past life and stay close to those in power. But his fate remains entangled with Roland’s, and with Juudit, who may hold the key to uncovering the truth.
Apothecary Melchior and the Mystery of St Olaf’s Church by Indrek Hargla, translated by Adam Cullen
Published by Peter Owen Publishers, 2016
First in the Apothecary Melchior series, this mystery novel follows an amateur sleuth and plunges the reader into 15th-century Tallinn when Estonia is at the edge of Christian lands and the last foothold before the East: a town of foreign merchants and engineers, dominated by the mighty castle of Toompea and the construction of St Olaf’s Church, soon to become the tallest building in the world. Apothecary Melchior is a divisive figure in the town: respected for his arcane knowledge and scientific curiosity but also slightly feared for his mystical witch-doctor aura. When a mysterious murder occurs in the castle, Melchior is called in to help find the killer and reveals a talent for detection. Melchior uncovers a mystery surrounding St Olaf’s and a secret society that has been controlling the town for years, uncovering truths about the town that may spell danger.
Burning Cities by Kai Aareleid, translated by Adam Cullen
Published by Peter Owen Publishers, 2018
While looking back at her family history, the protagonist of Burning Cities, Tiina, revisits the first two decades of her life following the Second World War, in Tartu, Estonia. The city, destroyed by Nazi invasion then rebuilt and re-mapped by the Soviets, is home to many secrets, and little Tiina knows them all, even if she does not know their import. The adult world that makes up Communist society, is one of the cryptic conversations, undiagnosed dread, and heavy drinking. From the death of Stalin to the gradual separation of her parents, Tiina, as a young girl, experiences both domestic and great events from the periphery, and is, therefore, powerless to prevent the defining tragedy in her life – a suicide in the family.
I Loved A German by A. H. Tammsaare, translated by Christopher Moseley
Published by Vagabond Voices, 2018
I Loved A German is a story about two young lovers Oskar, an Estonian university student, and Erika, a Baltic German descended from a now-defunct nobility. The Baltic Germans have lost their former aristocratic position in society since Estonia declared its independence, however, old prejudices remained between the Baltic Germans and the Estonians who once worked on their estates. After meeting Erika’s grandfather to request her hand in marriage, Oskar questions the source of his love: is he merely a slave pining after his master? Does he really love Erika as a person, or is he was subconsciously drawn to her ancestry and the dynamics of the old order?
The Misadventures of the New Satan by A. H. Tammsaare, translated by Olga Shartze
Published by Norvik Press, 2018
Satan has a problem: God has come to the conclusion that it is unfair to send souls to hell if they are fundamentally incapable of living a decent life on earth. If this is the case, then hell will be shut down, and the human race is written off as an unfortunate mistake. Satan is given the chance to prove that human beings are capable of salvation – thus ensuring the survival of hell – if he agrees to live as a human being and demonstrate that it is possible to live a righteous life. St Peter suggests that life as a farmer might offer Satan the best chance of success, because of the catalogue of privations he will be forced to endure. And so Satan ends up back on earth, living as Jurka, a great bear of a man, the put-upon tenant of a run-down Estonian farm. His patience and good nature are sorely tested by the machinations of his scheming, unscrupulous landlord and the social and religious hypocrisy he encounters.
Pobeda 1946: A Car Called Victory by Ilmar Taska, translated by Christopher Moseley
Published by Norvik Press, 2018
In 1946 Tallinn, a young boy is transfixed by the beauty of a luxurious cream-coloured car gliding down the street. It is a Russian Pobeda, a car called Victory. The sympathetic driver invites the boy for a ride and enquires about his family. Soon the boy’s father disappears. Ilmar Taska’s debut novel captures the distrust and fear among Estonians living under Soviet occupation after World War II. The reader is transported to a world seen through the eyes of a young boy, where it is difficult to know who is right and who is wrong, be they occupiers or occupied. Resistance fighters, exiles, informants, and torturers all find themselves living in Stalin’s long shadow.
The Beauty of History by Viivi Luik, translated by Hildi Hawkins
Published by Norvik Press, 2016
1968. Riga. News of the Prague Spring washes across Europe, causing ripples on either side of the Iron Curtain. A young Estonian woman has agreed to pose as a model for a famous sculptor, who is trying to evade military service and escape to the West. Although the model has only a vague awareness of politics – her interest in life is primarily poetic – the consequences of the politics of both past and present repeatedly make themselves felt. Chance remarks overheard prompt memories of people and places, language itself becomes fluid, by turns deceptive and reassuring. The Beauty of History is a novel of poetic intensity, of fleeting moods and captured moments. It is powerfully evocative of life within the Baltic States during the Soviet occupation, and of the challenge to artists to express their individuality whilst maintaining at least an outward show of loyalty to the dominant ideology.
Hanuman’s Travels by Andrei Ivanov, translated by Matthew Hyde
Published by Vagabond Voices, 2018
Hanuman’s Travels, which was shortlisted for the Russian Booker in 2010 is a picaresque tale of two asylum seekers, one a Russian Estonian man (the narrator) and the other an Indian (the protagonist), and about their daily lives in a Danish refugee camp and on the road in the late 1990s. While they are waiting to go to the Danish island of Lolland, which is said to be a paradise, the two companions in misfortune survive in any way they can. Among scams, big and small disgraces, humiliations and lies, a map is gradually drawn – a detailed map of itineraries where the hopes and the fears of thousands of marginal people flounder and intertwine. Their struggle at times engenders dismissiveness and even intolerance, but also humanity, courage and the wisdom born of experience and resignation. Andrei Ivanov was inspired to write this novel by his own vicissitudes as a stateless person living in Denmark.
The Saviour of Lasnamäe by Mari Saat, translated by Susan Wilson
Published by Vagabond Voices, 2015
Natalya Filippovna may be a middle-aged, single mother and member of the Russian minority in Estonia, but she is content with her simple life. She has a flat, a job at an electronics factory and, most importantly, she has her bright and ambitious teenaged daughter, Sofia. Money is tight, but they make do — that is, until Sofia requires a lengthy, expensive dental procedure and Natalya loses her job. With bills piling up and Sofia’s dental procedure only part finished, Natalya reluctantly accepts an undesirable mode of income. As she and Sofia adjust to their changing situations, Natalya falls for a mysterious, kind man, and her life takes yet another unexpected turn.
Days of Grace: Selected Poems by Doris Kareva, translated by Miriam McIlfatrick-Ksenofontov
Published by Bloodaxe Books, 2018
Doris Kareva is one of Estonia’s leading poets, admired especially for poems that balance precision and control with passion and bravado. Her achievement, according to Estonian Literature, is in writing poems which are both ‘plentiful and fragile like a crystal…balancing on the line between the human soul and the universe, between sound and silence’. Days of Grace spans over forty years of her poetic output, showing how the sustained depth and clarity of her poetry lies in her ability to create ambiguity and suggest harmony at the same time, with a multiplicity of meanings generating the opposite of clarity: a form of hinting which at its most illuminating becomes utterly oracle-like.
On the Edge of a Sword by Kristiina Ehin, translated by Ilmar Lehtpere
Published by Arc Publications, 2018
On the Edge of a Sword is a selection of Kristiina Ehin’s latest work – deeply personal, unflinchingly honest, autobiographical poems which, at the same time, are also a heartfelt defence of the right of the Estonian language to exist and flourish in our increasingly anglicised world.
The Rules of Bird Hunting by Eeva Park, translated by Jayde Will
Published by Parthian Books, 2019
Eeva Park began as the author of mood poems depicting nature and has said that she mixed feeling and thought in her poetry, while her prose is a mixture of understanding and memory. This original collection, translated by Jayde Will is an exploration of values, real and imagined incorporating the best of Park’s work from the last three decades.
Toomas Nipernaadi by August Gailit, translated by Eva Finch, Jason Finch
Published by Dedalus Books, 2018
Toomas Nipernaadi is one of the more peculiar works in the Estonian literary canon, and its eponymous male protagonist is, without doubt, one of the most exciting characters in the language. First of all, he seems merely to be a man who travels from place to place charming people and telling stories, only to forget it all in the blink of an eye. But perhaps, more than anybody, it is precisely he who does remember. Perhaps all the hearts he touches will remain dear to him.
The idea of Toomas Nipernaadi is said to have come to Gailit when he heard a man’s echoing footsteps in a Berlin theatre, and those who wish to will hear this sound in the text of his novel. In many ways, the protagonist can be seen as the writer’s alter ego. Those close to Gailit knew that beneath his self-confidence and brio, a tender and melancholy soul was hiding, which the reader will no doubt be able to recognize in Toomas Nipernaadi.
The Sweepstakes of Love by Toomas Vint, translated by Matthew Hyde
Published by Dalkey Archive Press, 2016
In this collection which contains both autobiography and fiction, the prominent Estonian artist and writer Toomas Vint, whose career spans the Soviet period and Estonia’s regaining of independence, demonstrates his characteristic mischievous, dark sense of humour, an artist’s eye for visual detail, and an experimental approach to form. His main themes are the fine dividing line between fantasy and reality, man’s foibles, frailties and capacity for self-deception, and the absurd and sometimes tragicomic nature of the human condition.
The Same River by Jaan Kaplinski, translated by Susan Wilson
Published by Peter Owen Publishers, 2011
A semi-autobiographical Bildungsroman, set in the early 1960s, this novel narrates the efforts of Kaplinski’s youthful alter ego to lose his innocence and attain sexual and mystical knowledge. The 20-year-old protagonist finds an unofficial teacher in a retired theologian and poet, who is out of favour with the communist authorities. After a summer spent in intellectual and erotic soul-searching, the sexual and political intrigues finally overlap, leading to a quasi-solution. As KGB and university apparatchiks take a close interest in the relation of the two poets, the student outgrows his mentor, who despite accusing the human race of puerility, turns out to be a big and jealous child himself.
Brecht at Night by Mati Unt, translated by Eric Dickens
Published by Dalkey Archive Press, 2009
This “documentary novel” is about a little-known period in the life of the great Bertolt Brecht, when the writer, having fled Nazi Germany, became stuck in Finland awaiting the visa that would allow him to leave Europe for the United States. As BB, the avowed communist, continues enjoying the bourgeois pleasures of pre-war life with his wife and tubercular mistress, the Soviet Union is not-so-quietly annexing Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia; and the gulf between Brecht’s preferred lifestyle and his inflammatory polemics grows larger and larger. Both affectionate and irreverent, this portrait of one of the twentieth century’s great authors mixes together a variety of comic styles, excerpts from contemporaneous documents, and Unt’s trademark digressions, producing a kind of historical novel as interested in interrogating the past as simply recreating it.
Diary of a Blood Donor by Mati Unt, translated by Ants Eert
Published by Dalkey Archive Press, 2008
In this contemporary retelling of Bram Stoker s Dracula, Estonian writer Mati Unt offers a playful yet unsettling mixture of fact and fiction, combining pieces of Estonian political history in particular the figure of Lydia Koidula (1843-1886), widely regarded as the first Estonian woman to express an Estonian longing for independence with portraits of life in contemporary Estonia, all set against a backdrop of vampirism and the Gothic novel.
Baltic Belles: The Dedalus Book of Estonian Women’s Literature, edited by Elle-Mari Talivee, translated by Adam Cullen, Jason & Eva Finch
Published by Dedalus Books, 2019
This anthology presents readers with a broad selection of fiction written between the late 19th century and today. The collection opens with the early realist Elisabeth Aspe, who described both village life and urban fear during the final decades of the 19th century. Early 20th-century works by female writers often discussed the young creative individual’s encounters in the transformed urbanized world, some of the most outstanding examples of which are by the great Betti Alver. After World War II, Estonian writing bore the unmistakable signs of Soviet censorship. Nevertheless, Viivi Luik’s momentous novel The Seventh Spring of Peace managed to avoid suppression, and the wonderfully unique Asta Põldmäe seized her opportunity to write. Very strong authors such as Eeva Park, Maarja Kangro, and Maimu Berg flourished with the return of freedom of expression in the late 20th century, and continue to do so today. They represent the best of Estonian short-story writing, handling social topics very sharply and suggestively, and scrutinizing the country’s soul in a highly personal manner.
Everyone’s the Smartest by Contra, illustrated by Ulla Saar, translated by Kätlin Kaldmaa & Charlotte Geater
Published by The Emma Press, 2018
Contra (Margus Konnula) is one of Estonia’s most productive contemporary poets. Since his debut in 1995, he has published at least one poetry collection each year. Everyone’s the Smartest is Contra’s first full-length poetry collection for children, although he has published a wealth of children’s poetry in youth magazines and anthologies earlier. The poems focus primarily on school. Contra’s gently amusing and joyous verses take on familiar topics such as going to and coming home from school, lessons and class breaks, classmates and teachers, learning and teaching.