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Literature from Estonia: 16 Books to Get You Started

Estonia celebrated its 100th year of independence in February, even if like Latvia and Lithuania, it was occupied and reoccupied by the Soviet Union and briefly by Nazi Germany during the past 100 years. Most articles about Estonia today talk about this northernmost Baltic country as being a digital wunderkind, which it is, of course, but what interests us here is its literature. Covered by dense forests and surrounded by water, Estonia, with a population of 1.3 million people, was for much of its history occupied by powerful neighbors: Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Russia. But in the 19th century it developed a prose tradition and during this time Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald worked on compiling the national epic poem, Kalevipoeg, which was then published. The poet and playwright Lydia Koidula became an important literary figure, deftly expanding the horizons of the Estonian language. (Estonian is closely related to Finnish, and unlike the languages of Latvia and Lithuania, is not from the Indo-European language family.)

Between 1918 and the beginning of World War II, the Estonian Writers’ Union was founded and another female poet gained prominence. Marie Under began writing her poetry in German, but then switched to Estonian. She was one of the leaders of a romantic literary group and was also appreciated for her erotic poetry. During the first Soviet occupation in 1940 she wrote patriotic poetry. She then fled to Sweden just before the Soviet Union occupied Estonia again in 1944 following a brief invasion by Nazi Germany. She continued to write poetry in exile that had political and philosophical overtones and was banned in Soviet Estonia. She was nominated for the Nobel Prize eight times.

During the Soviet occupation the Estonian Writers’ Union in exile was founded in Stockholm in 1945 and an Estonian-language publishing house was set up as well.

But Estonian literature endured even under Soviet occupation; writing became akin to fighting for freedom. One of the country’s best-known authors is Jaan Kross, who was arrested by both the German and Soviet authorities and was deported to a Gulag. His epic trilogy Between Three Plagues, which recounts the life of Balthasar Russow, a Livonian Chronicler, is considered a masterpiece. It has recently been translated into English by MacLehose Press; the final volume will be published next fall.

Writer, theatre director and essayist, Mati Unt wrote throughout the 1960s and brought avant-garde theatre to Estonia. His work spanned modernism and explored mythical and ideological concepts. One of his books, Diary of a Blood Donor, is a recreation of the story of Dracula and he weaves in the famous poet Lydia Koidula as a character, but transformed into a vampire. In another of his books, The Autumn Ball, which was also made into a film, he describes the lives of residents who live in Soviet-era welfare housing on the outskirts of Tallinn.

Andrei Ivanov, who writes in Russian but grew up in Estonia, is a reminder of the complicated situation of the Russian-speaking minority from the days of the Soviet occupation, nevertheless, his writing skills pushed him to the forefront where he is known as the best Russian language writer in Estonia. In one of his novels Harbin Moths, he describes the lives of Russians living in Estonia during the period between the two World Wars.

Witty and ironic, Mihkel Mutt has recorded his country’s transition from occupation to independence, in particular in the recently translated The Inner Immigrant.

Two women poet and prose writers occupy an important space in today's literary landscape. Maarja Kangro is considered to be one of the most original and compelling contemporary Estonian writers. Her work ranges from biting social comedies to political reportage, and often raises questions about injustice and solidarity. Kristiina Ehin brings together her country’s cultural and folkloric past and present in her work, exploring Estonia’s oral tradition of singing. 

Luckily, many more Estonian authors, heretofore never translated, will see their works published over the coming year.  

Below is a selection of works by Estonian authors, with the books placed in a more or less chronological order of the various plots, for you to discover this rich and exciting literature.

Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are the Market Focus countries at this year’s London Book Fair, 10-14 April 2018. Public author events around the UK are organised by the British Council Literature. 

Banner photo by by Aivar Pihelgas Visit Estonia

The Dedalus Book of Estonian Literature

The Dedalus Book of Estonian Literature offers a wide-ranging selection of fiction from the end of the nineteenth century until the present day, including work by Estonia's classic and most important contemporary authors. This anthology features work by significant authors such as Eduard Vilde and Juhan Liiv and extends to the modern day with contributions from leading contemporary authors such as Peeter Sauter and Eeva Park. Translations by Eric Dickens. 

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Apothecary Melchior and the Ghost of Rataskaevu Street

Tallinn, 1419. What links the Keeper of the Tower, a prostitute and a Flemish painter to a haunted house on Rataskaevu Street? All three claim to have seen a ghost near the house, and each is found dead soon afterwards. Melchior Wakenstede, apothecary and assistant bailiff, is charged with unearthing the truth. With a cultivated sense for justice, Melchior investigates the deaths and attempts to find out whether, as the denizens of medieval Tallinn believe, ghosts can reap their revenge upon the living. When a powerful merchant dies, Melchior perceives a corporeal connection between this and the other deaths. As Melchior becomes embroiled in the conflicts and rivalries between religious orders, merchant guilds and Teutonic Knights, all vying with one another for control of the town, what he discovers is more incredible and more terrible than any ghost. Translated by Christopher Moseley.

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The Ropewalker

The first part in an epic historical trilogy by one of Estonia's greatest modern writers. Jaan Kross's trilogy dramatises the life of the renowned Livonian Chronicler Balthasar Russow, whose work described the effects of the Livonian War on the peasantry of what is now Estonia. Like Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell, 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. Even as a boy, Russow has the happy knack of being in the right place and saying the right thing at the right time. He is equally at home acting as friend and confidante to his ambitious patron and as champion for his humble rural relatives. Can anything halt his vertiginous rise? Translated from the Estonian by Merike Beecher.

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A People without a Past

The second part in an epic historical trilogy. The year is 1563, and by any account Balthasar Russow can be said to have risen in the world. Fresh from his studies in the German town of Stetten, he has assumed the role as pastor of Tallinn's Holy Ghost Church. Moreover, he is betrothed to a maiden of the town - much to the chagrin of her father, who has no wish to welcome peasant stock to the family when there is no shortage of upstanding young German men - and is poised to begin the chronicle that will ensure his everlasting fame. But tribulations still await the Pastor who is no longer such a young man. Livonia is still plagued by foreign powers, with Tallinn braced to withstand a prolonged Muscovite siege. And he will discover that marriage is often a battlefield in itself. Translated from the Estonian by Merike Beecher. The third volume of Jaan Kross' work is forthcoming in October 2018.

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The Willow King

Estonia, at the end of the seventeenth century: Laurentius arrives in the country, accompanied by a rose-ringed parakeet and hounded by melancholy. He has come to study the latest research - on bloodletting, the evil eye, the position of the soul in the 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. Compelling, evocative and beautifully written, The Willow King is an unsettling tale of a time of witchcraft, of public executions and public dissections, when science and the supernatural were intertwined. Translated by Matthew Hyde.

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The Czar's Madman

Timo 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? In The Czar's Madman Jaan Kross weaves together the elements of intrigue surrounding those historical characters who survived in post-Napoleonic Russia, and by a skillful shifting of chronology and viewpoints, creates a superbly rich and moving narrative. Translated by Anselm Hollo.

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Sofi Oksanen is Finnish and Estonian; her novel Purge is set in Estonia. Deep in the overgrown Estonian forest, two women are caught in a deadly snare. Zara is a prostitute, and a murderer. Aliide is a communist sympathizer, the widow of a party member, a blood traitor. And retribution is coming for them both. A haunting, intimate and gripping story of suspicion and betrayal set against a backdrop of the oppressive Soviet regime and European war.

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The Inner Immigrant

These 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 ironic aim at the triumphs and defeats, the virtues and vices of the Estonian intelligentsia. Translated by Adam Cullen.

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The Reconstruction

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 can no longer. He travels all over Estonia and even to France to speak to people who might remember anything relevant. Some seem to have been waiting for him, others refuse to talk. Little by little, a bigger and unexpected picture starts to emerge. The Reconstruction spans the lives of two generations from the late 1970s through 2011, the changes in the world at large and the Estonian society in particular, the transition from a world of rights and wrongs to a world where most things are neither, but the yearning for absolute truths still won’t go away. Translated by Adam Cullen. 

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