Sunday, April 13, 2014

Book 147, Estonia: "Things In the Night" by Mati Unt

So, Estonia!

... I know next to nuts about Estonia. Aside from the fact that it’s a Baltic former Soviet state that’s now doing pretty well for itself.

Translator Eric Dickens gives a little background to the culture of the country in this book’s afterword. He mentions, for instance, that the land’s best-known writer is actually the poet Jaan Kaplinski, and that Unt (a playwright-novelist of the baby boomer sixties generation)’s most famous novel is actually Autumn Ball, a 1979 experimental tour of the lives of six people in a Tallinn suburb who are destined to meet only at the end of the book: a poet, a technocrat futurist architect, a misanthropic barber, a TV-addicted woman and her kid son.

Yeah, he does seem to do a lot of that classic Eastern European head-scratchy stuff. But he also does stuff about vampires and werewolves too (okay, the latter refers to And If We Are Not Dead, We Are Alive Right Now, and I cannot find a link to an appropriate source, so I'll just add this awkward parenthesis instead).

Things in the Night, however, is about… well, I’m not sure what it’s about.  It begins with its narrator/main character, who also seems to be a writer, obsessed over the strange nature of electricity, travelling to destroy a power station in Liikola, but then he returns and wanders in woods seeking mushrooms, losing all sense of time, thinking about wild pigs who might eat his corpse, cacti and cannibalism and apocalypse, while ex-classmates like Tissen and functionaries like Yablochkov pop up and address him with long monologues about not very much at all…

Oh, and there’s a power cut at the end of the story, making the narrator’s apartment go cold, so cold he starts burning bottles of cognac for warmth, and no-one turns up for his birthday party, so he goes out and finds the streets deserted, until he gets to the cemetery, where everyone’s gathered, singing…

Plus, the whole thing’s addressed to a girlfriend named Susie, whom we never actually see. Who knows what that means?

Perhaps what’s most striking to me is how this book was published in 1990, just a year before independence, after which the country kind of blossomed into what’s pretty much Human Development Index paradise. Because the icy, grungy, collectivist Soviet-administered world it’s describing isn’t just a dystopia – it’s a world with no hope, no prospect of salvation.

So the night’s darkest just before the dawn? Not at all, in the eyes of Unt. He complained in a 2003 article, two years before his own death, that Estonians had been voraciously literate during the Soviet era, gobbling down Thackeray and Smollett and Voice of America, but now they had abandoned high culture in favour of commercialism. So there’s no pleasing some people. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool Camus-style absurdist, as he himself confesses.

I realise I’m making the book sound unreadable. And it’s not quite that – it’s frustrating if you’re looking for a plot, but it’s not bad if you’re just dipping in now and then as I was: a dreamy divagation here and there, with utterances in Russian and French and German, curious chapter headings, the occasional poem: a hazy stroll through one man’s stoic, everyday, unexcruciating hell.

Not quite sure if I can stand a whole lot more novels written in this style, though. Hoping for better luck in Latvia.

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Representative quote: 
My own sense of reason and powers of perception told me nothing more than that the whole town was cold and dark.
Because judging by the arc of what I could see from the window, there were no electric lights switched on anywhere.
There was no glow above the city some distance away.
The radiators were cold.
Thee electric stove would not heat up.
The coffee machine and the electric razor had stopped working.
And if anyone were to ask wheat else wasn’t working then I could simply say: just about everything except us.

And above the huge apartment buildings the moon, about which some learned men have once said, if in fact they did, but clearly they did, that the Moon reminds one of our Earth when viewed from the cosmos. There is the Man in the Moon, a very lonely man, and no one else, and we today on this Earth are just as lonely, and the Moon acts like a vacuum cleaner, a very quiet one, a silent suction pump, an utterly mute machine that sucks up our energy. It is dangerous to stand too long t the window. Your heart will be empty and turn to ice.

Next book: Aleksandrs Čaks's Selected Poems, from Latvia.

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