Literature from Estonia: 16 Books to Get You Started
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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