Category Archives: Literature in Translation

Ernesto: The Unfinished Novella of Umberto Saba

Umberto Saba’s unfinished novella Ernesto, published this year in a new English translation by The New York Review of Books, is part of an ever-growing body of recent literature that explores the idea that human sexuality is more pliable and fluid than the rigid labels to which we assign it. The latest novels by Bae Suah (A Greater Music), Andre Aciman (Enigma Variations), and Anne Garreta (Sphinx and Not One Day) have also opened up important conversations about experimentation with sexuality. But what sets Ernesto apart and makes it stand out among the works of these other authors is that it was written in 1953, a time in which many considered homosexuality scandalous, or often illegal.

Born in 1883, in the Mediterranean port of Trieste, Italy, Umberto Saba is best known for his deeply personal and honest poetry. Written at the age of seventy when, after suffering one of his many nervous breakdowns, and confined to a sanatorium in Rome, Ernesto tells a loosely autobiographical coming-of-age tale about a boy’s burgeoning sexuality. Estelle Gilson, the translator, writes in her introduction to the NYRB edition, “What he was writing was for himself alone—his adolescent experiences in Trieste as they suddenly welled up within him and demanded release.”

Like his teenage protagonist in Ernesto, Saba was abandoned by his father, raised in Trieste by an aunt and a single mother, worked in a flour factory at the age of sixteen, and had serious questions about his sexuality. Because of the autobiographical and sexual content of Ernesto, Saba showed his drafts to a few carefully chosen confidants. In addition to his doctor at the sanatorium, one of the only other people to read Ernesto was Saba’s daughter, Linuccia, to whom he would send parts of the manuscript with very strict instructions about keeping his writings secret. In his letters to Linuccia, Saba requests that his daughter keep his drafts in a locked container and that she send his writing back to him immediately after reading it. Linuccia took her father’s instructions seriously and didn’t publish Saba’s novella until 1975, nearly twenty years after the author’s death.

Composed in five “Episodes” with an additional section entitled “Almost a Conclusion,” the strength of Saba’s writing lies in the bold and, at times, brutally honest language that he employs throughout his text. Set in Trieste, in the last few years of the nineteenth century, the sixteen-year-old protagonist is raised by his single mother and his elderly aunt. Ernesto’s world reflects the diversity of Trieste which, because of its location in northeastern Italy between the Adriatic Sea and Slovenia, was influenced by Italian, Slavic and German cultures. During this period of time, Trieste is an Imperial Free City within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and had been under Hapsburg rule since the fourteenth century. Although most of its citizens were Italian and loyal to an Italian Republic, Germans controlled the bustling business and commerce of the city and held positions of power.

Ernesto works as an apprentice in a German flour factory where he meets a laborer, a lower-class Triestine, identified as “the man” with whom he has his first sexual encounter. Ernesto’s erotic exploits with the man leave him bewildered, ashamed and confused not only because of the illicit nature of his experiences, but also because he is still sexually attracted to women.  Ernesto’s sexual encounters with the man take place in the first Episode but the emotional consequences linger with Ernesto throughout the narrative. The language of Saba’s Ernesto is candid, especially when describing the titillating and erotic first sexual encounter between Ernesto and the man. The two negotiate the intimate details of what the sex will be like as Ernesto is both excited and scared about this new experience:

“There’s a lot of things you can do in an hour,” the man said urgently.

“And what do you want to do?”

“Don’t you remember what we were talking about yesterday? That you almost promised to do. Don’t you know what I’d like to do with you?”

“Yeah, put it up my ass,” Ernesto replied with quiet innocence.

In an essay entitled “What Remains for Poets to do,” Saba argues that “It remains for poets to write honest poetry.” Saba applies this pursuit of literary honesty to his prose as well when he inserts his own commentary into the text to explain and justify Ernesto’s explicit language. Saba’s interjection of his own voice into the narrative are some of the most beautiful and enlightening pieces of writing in the novella:

With that brief, precise utterance, the boy unwittingly revealed what many years later, after many experiences and much suffering would become his “style;” his going to the heart of things; to the red-hot center of life, overriding resistance and inhibitions, foregoing circumlocutions and useless word twistings. He dealt with matters considered coarse, vulgar (even forbidden) and those considered “exalted” just as Nature does—placing them all on the same level. Of course, he wasn’t thinking of any of that now. He had blurted the sentence (which practically had a laborer blushing) because the circumstance warranted it.

The episode ends with an act that deftly mixes emotions of both tenderness and shame: the man kindly turns over the stained sack of flour at Ernesto’s request so that no one will be suspicious of what happened between them.

Shame is a theme that Saba returns to repeatedly in his narrative as Ernesto attempts to find fulfillment, pleasure and love with a man and a woman. The fact that the man is never given a name is perhaps significant because Saba, likely through his own sense of shame at recalling these events, can’t bring himself to give Ernesto’s seducer a true identity. After two months, Ernesto decides that he can no longer keep having these sexual encounters with the man because they make him feel dirty and keeping such a secret from his mother feels shameful and wrong. After his trysts with the man, Ernesto has the overwhelming desire to prove himself a man and is impatient to have sex, for the first time, with a woman. He is ashamed because all of his friends have bragged about sleeping with women and the only sex he has had is with a man. Shame is what motivates him to seek out sex with a prostitute which erotic scene in the book is equally as tender and explicit as the one with the man. This time, however, he gives the prostitute a name because sex with a woman, even though it is a prostitute, is not as shameful as having sex with a man.   Once Tanda undresses Ernesto, she finds the best position that will give Ernesto the most pleasure for his first time. And after he climaxes she washes him with a disinfectant and his sense of shame and embarrassment cause him to excessively overpay her and leave suddenly.

Themes of loneliness, alienation and sadness—demons with which Saba himself wrestled throughout his life—also pervade Saba’s coming-of-age narrative. Ernesto is initially drawn to the man who propositions him with sex because the man loves the boy. Because of the absence of a father in his life, Ernesto wants to please the man who shows him affection and adoration. He likes the prostitute because she is warm and tender with him and this causes him to eagerly anticipate his next visit with her. Ernesto’s mother is stern with him and shows him little affection although affection is something he craves more than anything. Like many young people inexperienced with matters of intimacy and sex he mistakenly equates physical attention with emotional connection and love.

Some of Ernesto’s sadness, alienation and even shame is relieved by the unlikeliest of characters, his dour mother. Ernesto’s mother is a presence that lingers throughout the entire story and even when the man is trying to seduce him, Ernesto mentions his mother and the guilt he feels over keeping a secret from her. The woman, who was abandoned by Ernesto’s father before the boy was born, is overbearing and overprotective of her only child. Yet, she believes that she must be harsh in her rearing of the boy and must not show him very much affection. When Ernesto no longer wants sex with the man, he gets himself fired from the factory so he never has to see him again. The loss of his job devastates Ernesto’s mother and he feels compelled to confess his true reasons for not wanting to return to the factory. When Ernesto tells his mother in great detail about the whole affair with the man, the full force of the emotional connection between mother and son is fully revealed. Saba writes a touching scene that is sympathetic to both the character of Ernesto and his mother:

With his mother’s kiss and the sense that he would be forgiven, Ernesto felt himself reborn. It was one of the few kisses she had ever given him. (The poor woman wanted so much to be, and even more to be seen as, a “Spartan mother.”)

The narrative structure of the novella centers around a triangulation of people—the man, the prostitute and Ernesto’s mother—who provide the boy with affection and comfort.

We can’t help but wonder if Saba’s own sense of shame and loneliness haunted him for the rest of his life and was the reason, at least partially, for his many depressive and nervous episodes for which he was hospitalized. He was married for many years, and although they remained married, the couple’s relationship was troubled and they spent quite a bit of time living apart. It is fitting that Saba writes Ernesto in the last few years in his life as part of his therapy in the sanatorium. But it appears that so many years of shame and hiding who he truly was became too exhausting for the author because he can’t gather enough strength to finish writing Ernesto. Saba writes about his decision to leave his novella unfinished: “Add to those pages Ernesto’s breakthrough to his true calling, and you would, in fact, have the complete story of his adolescence. Unfortunately, the author is too old, too weary and embittered to summon the strength to write all that.”

Even though Saba’s text is incomplete, he gives us enough of a glimpse into pivotal events in the life of Ernesto to make his novella an important, historical piece of gay and bisexual literature. It also helps us better understand Saba’s poetry which writing is equally as personal and intense as Ernesto. To this end, I include a particularly apt final poem of Saba’s called “To the Reader” filled with all the conflict and terror that Saba perhaps felt in composing Ernesto:

This book, Good Reader, though a balm to you,
shames its creator and should go unread.
Although he spoke as a living man, he was
(or should have been, for decency’s sake) dead.

 

(This review first appeared in the July issue of Numero Cinq.)

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Filed under Italian Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation

Konundrum: Selected Prose of Kafka Translated by Peter Wortsman

In this new translation of Kafka’s prose published by Archipelago Books last year, Peter Wortsman has chosen a wonderful selection of shorter writings that showcases the range of the author’s brilliance.  Old favorites such as “The Metamorphosis,” translated in this collection by Wortsman as “Transformed” appear in the volume with fresh, updated language for a 21st century audience.  For those who are new to Kafka’s writing, the inclusion of additional classic short pieces such as “The Penal Colony” and “A Report to an Academy” make this a perfect volume with which to be introduced to his writing.

For enthusiasts who are already devotees of Kafka, some surprising new translations of smaller pieces can also be found within the pages of Wortsman’s translation.  Letters, aphorisms, and short stories that would today be classified as flash fiction are all included in this new volume.  I especially enjoyed the short prose that Wortsman includes in order to highlight the different aspects of Kafka’s personal side—his sense of humor, his anxiety, his thoughts on writing and his loneliness.  In his Afterword, Wortsman writes about his love of Kafka and his decision to attempt a translation of this legendary author:

Translating Kafka for me is a bit like looking back at a first love, an attachment saved from sentimentality and necrophilia by a corpus of work in need of no face-lifts or taxidermy to entice, still as alive and relevant as any musings of an elogquent insomniac committed to extreme particularity of expression.  I give you these precious nuggets of a gold miner in the caves of the unconscious.

One of my favorite pieces that Wortsman translates, entitled “I can also Laugh,” appears to be in response to a comment made to Kafka by his fiancé Felice about his lack of a sense of humor.  Kafka’s emphatic response to her begins:

I can also laugh, Felice, you bet I can, I am even known as a big laugher, even though in this respect I used to be much more foolhardy than I am now.  It even happened that I burst out laughing —and how!—at a solemn meeting with our director— that was two years ago, but the incident has lived on as a legend at the institute.

Kafka goes on to describe in great detail how, having received a promotion at his job, was required to appear in front of the director of the insurance company in order to give thanks for his new position.  Such an occasion was expected to have an atmosphere of solemnity but during the meeting Kafka developed a ranging case of the giggles.  He tries to pretend that he is just coughing, but he begins laughing so hard that he can’t stop himself.  It was fun to see that Kafka, whose writing is so often associated with feelings of existential angst, loneliness, and isolation actually had a good belly laugh every now and then:

The room went silent, and my laugh and I were finally recognized as the center of everyone’s attention.  Whereby  my knees trembled with terror, as I kept laughing, and my colleagues had no choice but to laugh along with me, though their levity never managed to reach the degree of impropriety of my long-repressed and perfectly accomplished laughter, and in comparison seemed rather sedate.

Kafka, 1923

Three additional works of short prose that particularly attracted my attention in this volume were the ones dealing with Greek mythology: “The Silence of the Sirens”, “Prometheus”, and “Poseidon” all showcased Kafka’s ability to take elements of the fantastic and put a realistic and even humorous spin on them.  Kafka images Odysseus chained to his mast with wax stuffed in his ears to avoid the alluring songs of the Sirens.  But Kafka goes on to describe the Sirens as being silent when Odysseus passes by so the Greek hero looks rather ridiculous with his blocked-up ears.  In “Prometheus”, Kafka images the hero chained to a rock with his liver being continually eaten by eagles; but how long can this really last?  Kafka points out the absurdity of Prometheus’s punishment by concluding, “…the world grew weary of a pointless procedure. The gods grew weary, the eagles grew weary, the wounds closed wearily.”

My favorite of the three myth-based stories is the one that imagines the god Poseidon sitting at his desk under the waves and crunching numbers.  Kafka presents us with a Poseidon whose job as god of the sea no one truly understands.  Because he is so busy in his management position, he never gets to enjoy the sea over which he rules.  Poseidon would love to find a new job, but what else is he really qualified to do?  Kafka ironically and humorously concludes his story, “He liked to joke that he was waiting for the end of the world, then he’d find a free moment right before the end, after completing his final calculation, to take a quick spin in the sea.”

Wortsman concludes his translations with a series of notes that Kafka composed while very sick and unable to speak because of the pain he suffered due to his tuberculosis.  The notes, entitled by Worstsman as “Selected Last Conversation Shreds,”  are sad and tragic and show us the author’s painful last days:

To grasp what galloping consumption is: picture a bevel-edged stone in the idle, a diamond saw to the side and otherwise nothing but dried sputum.

—–

A little water, the pill fragments are stuck like glass shards in the phlegm.

—–

Might I try a little ice cream today?

—–

It is not possible for a dying man to drink.

—–

Lay your hand of my forehead a moment to give me courage.

Wortsman has put together and translated a truly enjoyable selection of Kafka’s prose that has wetted my appetite for more of the German-Jewish author’s writing.  Stay tuned for more Kafka posts!

About the Translator:

Peter Wortsman was a Fulbright Fellow in 1973, a Thomas J. Watson Foundation Fellow in 1974, and a Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin in 2010. His writing has been honored with the 1985 Beard’s Fund Short Story Award, the 2008 Gertje Potash-Suhr Prosapreis of the Society for Contemporary American Literature in German, the 2012 Gold Grand Prize for Best Travel Story of the Year in the Solas Awards Competition, and a 2014 Independent Publishers Book Award (IPPY). His travel reflections were selected five years in a row, 2008-2012, and again in 2016, for inclusion in The Best Travel Writing. He is the author of two books of short fiction, A Modern Way to Die (1991) and Footprints in Wet Cement(forthcoming 2017), the plays The Tattooed Man Tells All (2000) and Burning Words (2006), and the travel memoir Ghost Dance in Berlin: A Rhapsody in Gray (2013), and a novel Cold Earth Wanderers (2014). Wortsman’s numerous translations from the German include Telegrams of the Soul: Selected Prose of Peter Altenberg, Travel Pictures by Heinrich Heine, Posthumous Papers of a Living Author by Robert Musil, Peter Schelmiel, The Man Who Sold His Shadow by Adelbert von Chamisso, Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist, and Konundrum: Selected Prose of Franz Kafka, many of which are published by Archipelago Books. He edited and translated an anthology, Tales of the German Imagination: From the Brothers Grimm to Ingeborg Bachmann, from Penguin Classics. He works as a medical and travel journalist.

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Filed under German Literature, Literature in Translation

Letters to Poseidon by Cees Nooteboom

Arguably the most enigmatic of the Ancient Greek gods, Poseidon is not as revered or respected as his brother Zeus, the god of the sky, lord of the universe, nor is he as feared as his brother Hades, master of the gloomy and dark underworld.  Poseidon’s realm is the sea, the ultimate middle child whose domain is the middle of the earth, the watery depths that occupy the space between sky and underworld.  Peter McDonald’s new, verse translation of the Homeric Hymns, beautifully and succinctly captures the multidimensional nature of this deity:

Hymn 22

To Poseidon:

Here the first great god that I
mention is Poseidon, mover
of the earth, the unpastured sea;
ocean god, presiding over
broad Aegae and Helicon.
Earth-shifter, the gods assigned
you a twofold part, the one
horse-taming, the other to find
safety for ships; I salute
you Poseidon, carrier
of the world and absolute
god with black and streaming hair:
keep your heart in charity
with those sailing on the sea.

It is this greatly feared, earth-shifter, master of the sea, to whom Cees Nooteboom decides to address a series of letters.  The author, writing these notes from his Mediterranean garden on the island of Menorca, imagines the lonely deity still ruling over the sea with his trident and his seahorse-drawn carriage.  Nooteboom uses the image, history and myth of this long-neglected deity to meditate on time, space, mortality and death; he is especially captivated by the anthropomorphic nature of god who is prone to anger and vengeance.  Nooteboom has many questions for Poseidon, among the most important of which are how he feels about being forgotten and abandoned for all of these centuries since the emergence of the one God and His Son:

I have always wondered how it felt when no one prayed to you any longer, and no one asked anything of you.  There must, once upon a time, have been one last supplicant.  Who was it? And where?  Did you and the other gods talk about it?  We look at your statues, but you are not there.  Were you jealous of the gods who came after you?  Are you laughing now that they too have been abandoned?

The tone of Nooteboom’s letters ranges from deeply philosophical and meditative, to humorous and playful.  On the one hand he feels sympathy for a god who is supposed to be immortal, but is no longer worshipped—in a way this abandonment has been like a death for this neglected ancient deity.  But on the other hand, Poseidon has a certain amount of freedom now to talk with the other gods and laugh at the irony of his situation:

What is a human being to the gods?  Do you despise us for being mortal?  Or is the opposite the case?  Are you jealous because we are allowed to die?  Because your fate is, of course, immortality, even though we have no idea where you are now.

No one talks about you anymore, and perhaps that hurts.  It is as if you have simply vanished.

In between the twenty-three letters he pens to Poseidon, the author also includes meditations, observations and thoughts about time and space via objects (his watch, a dying aloe plant), places he visits (a museum, an airport in South Korea, a beach), and newspaper articles (a story about infanticide or a looted Egyptian museum.)  Nooteboom’s thoughts about the looted Egyptian museum reflect the seventy-nine-year old’s ever-increasing awareness of his own mortality.  As he reads an article about the looting of a the museum, he is captivated by the head of a mummy that has been discarded on the floor, separated from the rest of its body:

Is a person who has been dead for a few thousand years as dead as someone who died last year?  Is there a hierarchy in the kingdom of the dead, giving those with more experience of death a different status from the newcomers, those who have not yet been touched by eternity, but who still smell of time, of life?  Are there social distinctions between mummies and corpses?

This book gave me a fresh perspective of not only the god Poseidon, whom I have to admit I had never given more than a passing thought, but also of how we look at the concept of divinity and immortality.  Nooteboom concludes his letters: “Of course I know that I have been sending letters to nobody.  But what if, tomorrow, out on the rocks, I should happen to find a trident.”

About the Author:

Cees Nooteboom (born Cornelis Johannes Jacobus Maria Nooteboom, 31 July 1933, in the Hague) is a Dutch author. He has won the Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren, the P. C. Hooft Award, the Pegasus Prize, the Ferdinand Bordewijk Prijs for Rituelen, the Austrian State Prize for European Literature and the Constantijn Huygens Prize, and has frequently been mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature.

His works include Rituelen (Rituals, 1980); Een lied van schijn en wezen (A Song of Truth and Semblance, 1981); Berlijnse notities (Berlin Notes, 1990); Het volgende verhaal (The Following Story, 1991); Allerzielen (All Souls’ Day, 1998) and Paradijs verloren (Paradise Lost, 2004). (Het volgende verhaal won him the Aristeion Prize in 1993.) In 2005 he published “De slapende goden | Sueños y otras mentiras”, with lithographs by Jürgen Partenheimer.

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Filed under Literature in Translation, Nonfiction

Beware of reading too much Latin poetry: Stendhal’s Italian Chronicles

The nine stories in this collection are Stendhal’s translations and retellings of historical records from Italy in the 16th century which depict the upper classes behaving very badly: forbidden love, murder, adultery, torture, poisoning are all found within the pages of Stendhal’s translations.  Written between 1829 and 1840, most of the stories in this volume were not published until Stendhal’s death.  He tells us himself, in the beginning of “The Duchess of Palliano”, why the stories from this time period and in this part of Europe so fascinated him. Stendhal believes that “Italian passion” is something that no longer exists in the literature and culture of his own era.  Love, in particular, he observes, has given rise to so many tragic events among the Italians and Stendhal is fascinated with visiting Italy and searching through the archives of Rome, Florence and Siena to find stories of these “Italian passions”:

In order to get some idea of this “Italian passion,” that our novelists speak about with such assurance, I found it necessary to study history; and I found that the great histories written by men of talent, though often quite majestic, say almost nothing of such details. They tend to take note only of the follies committed by kings or princes.

Stendhal, in his extensive research, has a penchant for finding stories in which upper class Italian women from prominent 16th century families fall in love with men of lower rank for which unforgiveable indiscretions they are put on trial and condemned to death.  In “The Duchess of Palliano,” A Duke, in service to his uncle Pope Paul IV, takes advantage of his authority by pillaging local villages and engaging in all sorts of erotic debauchery.  One of his favorite pastimes is bringing home mistresses, one after the other, while at the same time expecting that his wife, the Duchess of Palliano, remain faithful and look the other way as far as his own sexual trysts are concerned.  Inevitably, the neglected Duchess falls in love with a handsome young man of the court and through a series of betrayals the Duchess and her lover are found out.  Her lover’s throat is slit and the Duchess herself is put to death by strangulation.  Stendhal doesn’t hold back from translating the gruesome details of these Italian chronicles—descriptions of torture, murder, suicide are all included in these passionate stories.

The longest story in the collection, “The Abbess of Castro” is one that has the most passion because of the primary source letters that Stendhal translates.  Elena de Campireali, the daughter of a noble family who possessed great wealth and many estates in the kingdom of Naples, is the central figure of this tragic story.  Elena’s father and brother are horrified when they learn she has fallen in love with a lower class brigand named Giulio Branciforte.  I found Stendhal’s introduction to Elena’s story particularly amusing:

It would appear that Elena knew Latin.  The verse she was made to learn spoke always of love, a love that would seem completely ridiculous to us if we were to come across it in 1839; that is, it treated of passionate love, love that was nourished by great sacrifices, love that can subsist only in an atmosphere of mystery, and love that is always found accompanying the most horrible misfortunes.

A fair warning from the author for those who might engage in too much translation of Catullus, Ovid, or Propertius!

Guilio visits Elena every night by standing under her balcony window and giving her a bouquet of flowers with a letter attached.  Stendhal includes translations from large excerpts of their passionate letters.  Guilio writes to Elena in one of the notes embedded in her flowers:

To tell the truth, I do not know why I love you; I certainly cannot propose that you come and share my poverty.  But what I do know is that if you do not love me, my life is worthless to me; it is useless to say that I would give it up a thousand times over for you.  But before your return from the convent, this life was not an unfortunate one; on the contrary, it was full of the most wonderful dreams.  So I can say that the sight of my happiness has made me miserable.

Stendhal has a valid point: we don’t see letters like this in the 19th or, for that matter, in the 21st century, do we?  Like the other stories in the collection, there is no happy ending for these two lovers.  Even though they profess their undying, eternal love for one another, in the end they cannot prevent her family from keeping them apart.

Despite the fact that these stories end in with the lovers’ deaths, they are full of passion, intrigue and interesting historical descriptions and details that Stendhal uncovers through his research.  Italian Chronicles is a fascinating look into the lives of 16th century Italian nobility through the eyes of the astute, erudite 19th century French novelist.

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Filed under Classics, French Literature, Historical Fiction, Literature in Translation

Review: The Death of the Perfect Sentence by Rein Raud

“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

My Review:

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.

(Ethiopian proverb)

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/

 

 

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