“If we always knew in advance what was going to happen, we would behave like machines. So in a sense it is the unexpected things in life that make us who we are.” —Rein Raud
In Rein Raud’s latest novel he cleverly inserts his own voice into his narrative by including text boxes with personal stories, observations, anecdotes and proverbs. For example, one such text box in the novel states:
When the big boss walks past
the wise peasant bows low
and quietly farts.
This is, admittedly, an odd way of starting a review about a book that deals with spying and subterfuge during the waning years of Soviet Occupation in Estonia. But Raud’s inclusion of these observations into his text is the perfect demonstration of the author’s ability to mix serious topics with his subtle and wry humor.
The novel begins with descriptions, in alternating chapters, of a group of Estonian youths who have formed an alliance to collect and smuggle secret KGB files out of Estonia. Each person is given a background story so that we better understand their motivations for undertaking such a potentially dangerous operation. These Estonians , like the Ethiopian proverb says, bow low to their masters, the Soviet occupiers, but they find subtle and subversive ways to fight back against their oppressors. Among the group is Indrek who, when he reaches eighteen, moves out of his parents’ home and has no desire to do what is expected of him and work at a construction brigade. Erwin seems to be the most restless of the bunch and no matter what happens with the rest of the group he is determined to find his way to freedom. And the most interesting is Anton who is caught between two worlds because of his Estonian father and Russian mother.
As the story progresses the role of each of these Estonians in their alliance becomes clearer. By alternating between different points of view, the story maintains its suspense until very end when all of the characters’ roles in the operation are revealed. The varying points of view also provide a rich and multifaceted peek into the lives of everyday Estonians during this time period. I found it especially fascinating that the book allows us to see how different people and different generations dealt with life under Soviet rule. A young man named Raim, for instance, lives with his conservative parents who spend quite a bit of time watching Finnish television. The USSR was not able to block the Finnish TV signals, so Estonians got a wider view of what was going on beyond the Iron Curtain than their counterparts in Russia. Although Raim has joined his friends to combat the Soviet regime, his parents seem more resigned to their fate. Raim’s father isn’t necessarily interested in seeing the blue, white and black Estonian flag fly over the capital once again, but he would like to be able to travel to Finland without having to go through a labyrinth of officials and paperwork.
Another interesting way in which Raud demonstrates the tension and conflict between oppressor and oppressed is through the insertion of a romance into the narrative. An Estonian young woman named Maarja who becomes involved in the mission to smuggle KGB files to the west develops feelings for Alex, a Russian economist from Leningrad whom she meets at a café. Neither of them knows that the other is involved in the smuggling of files so their romance, at first, progresses as a separate plot within the novel. The author makes an intriguing choice in their relationship to use a woman as the Estonian character to represent the smaller, weaker and oppressed and to use a male as the Russian to represent the larger, stronger oppressor. But their romantic involvement and their characters are much more complicated than a simple case of conqueror and conquered. Alex is a kind young man who treats Maarja with respect and their romance is simple, romantic, tender and naïve; when Maarja’s friends begin to question her choice of a Russian boyfriend she, too, buys into their paranoia and mistrust of Alex. In the end it doesn’t matter if Alex is kind, genuine, romantic and able to whisper the perfect sentence into Maarja’s ear because the deep seated mistrust in anything Russian will destroy their hopes.
The best writing and most enlightening parts of the book are the ones in which the author inserts his own voice and commentary into the fictional story. Raud describes his life as an Estonian living during and after the occupation, his first trip to Finland, and his motivations for writing this book. There is one particularly poignant text box in which he discusses an old Chinese curse and how it relates to his experiences living through a communist regime:
“May you live in interesting times”
In 1936, shortly before Sir Hughe Montgomery Knatchbull-Hugessen departed on a diplomatic mission to China, one of his friends told him about a Chines curse he had once heard: ‘May youlive in interesting times!’ Or at least that is what Knatchbull-Hugessen claims in his memories. There are some other British authors who appear to have know of such an expression too. The Chinese, however, do not. The closest thing in meaning which they have is the following: ‘It is better to live as a dog in peaceful times than as a human in a world of confusion.’
And what about it?
Just like anyone else, I have done things in my life which I am not proud of, and even one or two things which I regret. But I have no reason to be anything other than happy that I have lived in a period when I have, and that I have been able to experience one world changing into another. So what if this has stirred hungers in me which have damaged me? I am willing to pay that price, if only for the perspective it gave me, which is something I do not encounter in people who have lived under only one political order.
As someone who has only lived under one political order, I wholeheartedly agree with Raud’s assessment. When I read books like his or Sergei Lebedev’s novels about life under Soviet rule they feel more like movies or dreams to me than reality. The Death of the Perfect Sentence and politically charged literature that is similar to it are important so that we can have some iota of perspective, especially in these turbulent political times. A lack of perspective, I think, is one of the reasons for many Americans apathy at the mess our current president has made of the American system of government. It is alarming to me how many people I encounter that don’t understand or care about the news; those who are not adequately alarmed by the machinations of our current president seem to have the attitude that our system has always worked for us and allowed us to be free so why wouldn’t it continue to do so? Raud’s book is timely and important for those of us who, whether we like to acknowledge it or not, are living in “interesting times.”
One final aside that the author includes in the narrative is a very personal account of his attitude towards this book. He writes, “Even after I put the final full stop in the draft of this story, it took me a long time to shake the moods which it evoked in me. It was hard to think of anything else…And I still feel that I am somehow trapped inside it.” I found The Death of the Perfect Sentence thought-provoking, relevant and chilling and it will linger with me for a long time to come. We had better learn from countries like Estonia or we might find ourselves bowing low to a big boss…
Coming soon on the blog, I have an interview with Rein Raud in which we discuss the themes of family and relationships in his books, his interesting use of narrative voice and his thoughts on the current state of literature in Estonia.
About the Author:
Rein Raud was born in Estonia in 1961. Since 1974, he has published numerous poetry collections, short stories, novels, and plays. For his works he has received both the Estonian Cultural Endowment Annual Prize and the Vilde Prize. Having earned his PhD in Literary Theory from the University of Helsinki in 1994, Raud is also a widely published scholar of cultural theory as well as the literature and philosophy of both modern and pre-modern Japan. For more information on purchasing The Death of the Perfect Sentence visit https://www.vagabondvoices.co.uk/bookshop-changelings/the-death-of-the-perfect-sentence or the author’s website: http://reinraud.com/