Saturday, 25 September 2010

Estonia: Left in the Dark by "Things in the Night"...

My trip to Estonia, in the capital city of Tallinn, was a step into the unknown on several counts. Certainly I knew little of Estonia as a country – save for the fact that it is a Baltic state in Northern Europe that underwent an unfortunate and debilitating set of occupations in the past century by the Soviets, then the Nazis, then the Soviets again – before gaining independence again in 1991. More recently, massive economic growth post-independence has been matched by a major slump in the recession period of 2009.

The book of my choice “Things in the Night” by Estonian writer Mati Unt, actually takes place both on the limits of my journey’s parameters (i.e. all books must be set after 1990), and also on the cusp of this small country’s transition from Soviet rule to independence.

Another step into the unknown was that I was not at all familiar with Mati Unt (1944 – 2005) as a writer – although he is obviously highly regarded in his native country.

What immediately became clear to me upon reading this novel, was that Unt was a writer very much in the postmodernist vein. The first few chapters concern an unknown activist, with unknown motives, making his way towards a small power generator with a view to blowing it up. The narrative takes place in the form of an interview with an unknown interviewer.

However, it is soon made apparent that this section is actually an unfinished novel by a famous Estonian author who then proceeds to form the main narrative of this novel. Thus Unt makes his intentions clear from the start – this is to be no clear cut, plot-driven linear novel – rather it increasingly becomes a post-modern metafiction. To clarify: metafiction is a type of fiction that self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction, exposing the fictional illusion. It self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in posing questions about the relationship between fiction and reality, usually using irony and self-reflection.

If this sounds a little overly “art-for-art’s sake” and disengaging; well sadly that’s how the novel is in my opinion. And I am not a Luddite in terms of literary convention; I am a big fan of postmodern writers ranging from Kurt Vonnegut to Salman Rushdie to Thomas Pynchon. Indeed, one of my favourite books on my “Reading The World” journey so far has been the highly experimental “Natural Novel” by Georgi Gospodinov of Bulgaria. Despite its unusual structure and non-linear plot; Gospodinov’s novel managed to be both engaging and genuinely interesting in terms of giving an insight into an unfamiliar culture and society (you can read my blog entry on this book below).

Sadly – and again, I stress that this is just my opinion – “Things in the Night” is neither engaging nor enlightening. Although of course, as with other works on my travels – I am no doubt missing a number of allusions within the text that are specific to Estonia at this time…

The fact that this review so far has dealt (necessarily) with form and structure rather than any content is telling. I would have liked to come away from this novel with a greater sense of content, of the experience of Estonian people, and of how the crucial events of Estonian independence in the early 1990s actually played out.

That said, there ARE some worthwhile nuggets to be found in this work, and it would be churlish to suggest that there is no definable plot here at all. So I also include an attempt at a straight plot review here also:

“Things in the Night”
begins with a Prologue, the first sentence reaching out: "My Dear, I feel I owe you an explanation." The explanation is, mainly, for a novel-project the narrator has long planned - "a book on electricity", he explains, one of his long-time ambitions. Appropriately enough, the next chapter is: The First Chapter of the Novel - but that doesn't get too far: first reality intrudes, and then the whole project peters out, the writer hitting a dead-end very early on.

The planned novel was one of protest and about taking action: the central character wants to blow up a power plant. It's less about changing the world - the act is a gesture, and one of futility at that - than a demonstration of the character's dissatisfaction. As is, he can't even go through with it. But “Things in the Night” continues in this vein of protest, a lashing out in all directions, with no specific targets.

As I have mentioned, this book was written in a then still Soviet Estonia, and in the book life there is explored using a variety of approaches. At one point the narrator explains why he doesn't just describe the situation as it is:

“Because at an everyday level, life in this country is simply appalling, and if you start trying to describe the horror of it, you really have to devote yourself to the task, stack up thousands of pages of all kinds of absurdities [...] but I don't want to write about it all, and nobody would want to read it anyway. One should rather push this frustration down into the subconscious and write as Proust suggested: one of the characters doesn't close a window, doesn't wash his hands, doesn't put on a coat, doesn't say a word to introduce himself. That is a more honest and pure feeling.”

Personally, I would have preferred the detail!
Still, some of the horrors are described, culminating in a nightmarish scenario of a power outage in sub-zero weather, a blacked-out city frozen solid. This is the nearest the novel comes to a plot (coming in the second third of the book) and contains some genuinely eerie descriptions of the abandoned winter nightlandscape of the city that the writer ventures out into.

As I say – there is no clear linear narrative, although the story does progress - albeit fitfully and with a variety of digressions. There's a significant woman in his life (never elaborated upon): Susie; and an antagonist of sorts, Tissen. There is also a large collection of Cacti that the narrator keeps in his high rise apartment flat and whom he engages with to a much greater degree than any of his neighbours, and which he describes at great length...

And there I take my leave of Estonia on my literary trip: a complex novel by an obviously gifted writer, but one which – I have to say – I personally did not engage with. But that is no bad thing – this is a round the world trip and not every location will be an ideal one for every individual! I hope that I haven't been too harsh on this novel: I was just expecting more. Of course, the best way to form your own opinion is to read it yourself - which I would encourage you to do for every book on this journey!

From Estonia I move onto the neighbouring state of Latvia (courtesy of “Tale of the White Crow” by Iveta Melnika) which - at the time of writing this book - was undergoing a similar transformation from Soviet rule to independence. In contrast to Unt’s work, this book is in the form of a diary by an adolescent girl growing up during these major changes, so I anticipate a very different - and more realist - perspective on this particular location.

Having already been to Riga in Latvia (where this book is set) as a connection to get to Estonia, I know where to catch a bus to Tallinn - rather than getting a taxi which can be very expensive. To buy the ticket on the bus, trolley or tram costs €25, but if you buy the tickets in a kiosk it is only €15. There are kiosks everywhere and they are easy to recognise with their yellow sign saying R Kiosk. The ticket is then validated on the bus, trolley or tram.

From Tallinn airport it is a quick flight to Riga, the capital city of Latvia. It is back via AirBaltic and – if you are quick enough – you can get a relatively cheap flight. Mine was €52 Economy Class, leaving at 21.35 and arriving in Riga at 22.30 (there were only a couple of seats left when I booked...)

And so, on to: “The Tale of the White Crow” by Iveta Melnika. This is set from the 1990s era of Perestroika (which brought both freedoms and uncertainly to many former Soviet states) through to the new millennium.

I look forward to updating you soon…

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