Estonian Literature as a Cipher for the Estonian People. A Conversation – Joseph (the USA), Liviu (Romania), and Pavle (Serbia)

The idea for this blog post came from our curiosity about the Estonian national identity, hence unlike what all regular people would do (which is to go out and actually chat to some native Estonians about their way of life, thoughts, and opinions), we decided to read books! Books authored by Estonian writers, to be more precise. Joseph read The Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk, Liviu read The Same River by Jaan Kaplinski, and Pavle read The Ropewalker by Jaan Kross. We then gathered to have a chat about books, and what you see in front of you is a quite heavily edited version of our talk. (There were a lot of very strange tangents and a ton of uhhhhs and oohhhhhs that wouldn’t really suit the image of educated gentlemen we are trying to present here). Enjoy, and be sure to read the books! We wholeheartedly recommend them.

P: Since we first started talking about doing this, we didn’t really have a lot of contact with Estonian people. So, we figured it’d be best to try to figure out the Estonians through their literature! Books were chosen mostly because they cover very different aspects of life (and the way of life) in Estonia. With that said, I think yours was something more academic in the theme, Liviu?

L: Yeah, describing the Soviet times in Estonia in the early ‘60s. It’s actually more of a mystical, psychological take on youth. The main character – called only by his pronoun – is looking for enlightenment and he finds this guy, the Teacher. The book is actually set here, in Tartu!

P: Oh yeah, and the author lives here, right?

L: Yeah, yeah. The book is also very much about finding fulfillment, though because of the obvious youth of the protagonist, it’s more of a… sexual kind of fulfillment. Obviously, it does not really solve anything, and the protagonist actually grows up more when he realizes that the Teacher is kind of… arrogant.

P: Classic. So, do you guys have any close contact with Estonians?

L: Yeah, I have one quite close friend. She’s probably a bit warmer than your average  Estonian, though she probably just carries that warmth a little bit closer to the surface than others generally do. I always found that Estonians are quite interested in (ed.: pauses to think)… deeper things, either a spiritual or just complete understanding of our world. She had some interesting takes on religion, for example. And that’s also the case in the book, so there are similarities. Especially in those moments of mental clarity that the protagonist gets.

P: So, Joseph, what about your book?

J: Ah, well, I did some research, and I think the book is set somewhere during the Livonian crusades.

P: Estonia was one of the last countries in Europe that went from paganism to Christianity, wasn’t it?

J: Exactly. The main character of the book is torn between his native forest and this newly founded Christian village, and that dilemma is very much the core of the book. Like, do I go live in the village and stay here, and stick to the culture and history of my people, despite that a lot of the youth are leaving and the elders not really approving of my (short) stay in the village.

P: I guess that happened in many places. And it makes you think. What makes people people? Are Estonians pagans or are they Christians? Obviously, Estonians changed through the ages, but they are still certainly the same people in a lot of ways. So the book I was reading, set in the 1500s, follows a historical figure Bartholomew Russow in the then-Livonia, of which Estonia was a part of, which was under German occupation who didn’t really care to assimilate Estonians into their empire, mostly due to vastly underrating their abilities. Russow actually wrote an important document, the Livonian Chronicles, that describe that turbulent period of German – Swedish – Russian conflict over Livonia. And the themes of identity, especially national identity are very much present as well. How do you stop yourself from starting to look down on your countrymen, just because they don’t have the German education that you (Russow) have? It’s also kind of tied to today’s day and age of globalism. I found a lot of similarities to what is going on in my country. What was also very fun was that Russow is a kid, a broke student trying to get by without wasting his money solely on alcohol.

J: Yeah, when the people leave the forest, their tongues grow fat from the bread and they can no longer articulate the complicated snakish words. They lose a part of their identity and get out of touch with where they came from.

P: How would you guys describe Estonians in, let’s say, three words?

L: Definitely curious, for one. Rebellious, also. They do not like someone taking control out of their hands. In The Same River, it’s obviously the SSSR. It’s particularly evident in how the book treats the entire State vs Poetry, authority versus freedom of expression theme.

P: It’s hard for us small peoples out there; I guess there is always a need for rebellion.

L: Same goes for language in the books. For example, the Teacher also criticized how much German is actually present in the modern Estonian language.

P: That seems to be the sad fate of small countries. You have to choose between sides, between the ‘great’. At least to a point.

L: Yeah.

P: Wasn’t your book very much about how language influences identity?

J: Yeah, but it seems to be that language is a symbol of (Estonian) culture. So snakish allows people to talk to animals and have control over them, so there’s this fantasy element to the book.

P: Like being more in touch with nature?

J: Yeah. There was a certain purity in how our ancestors lived; at some point, they even move to live in the trees, a more pure life. Talking to animals, having control over them, shows the power language has. It can change the way you live. And if you lose the ability to speak snakish, you can’t live in the forest anymore, among the animals. You get to eat bread. That’s the element of the problem of modernization in the books. Farming is seen as a step backward.

P: It definitely has a folktale vibe to it. Let’s go back to the three words.

L: I’m stuck at two words. I don’t want to say that they’re cold!

P: It’s just that the weather is.

J: Yeah!

L: There is something that I’ve noticed. The protagonist goes to the countryside during the summer holidays. His most important moments of clarity occur while he is there. Being surrounded by nature does something to him and there’s definitely a connection between Estonians and Estonian nature. In the title, The Same River, which probably comes from a certain philosopher saying ‘you never step into the same river twice’. It’s a very fitting title.

P: They seem to have a good grasp of their country. They seem to be very familiar with the flows and ebbs of their country. I can’t say the same for me and my country. I doubt you traveled through the entirety of the USA, seems a bit too big.

J: Yeah (ed. laughs). The nature theme is obviously very present in the book I read, too. Actually, when I was reading the book, I didn’t even realize that it was explicitly about old Estonia. It has some very universal themes. Progress – if we can, does that mean that we necessarily should? Christianization of the continent, as well.

P: Are there some mythological creatures of Estonian folklore in the book?

J: I’m really not sure. But there is a very interesting creature called the Frog of the North.

L: Maybe Kalev?

P: The chocolate?

L: Haha, yeah, the brand is actually a reference to a folktale. Actually, all their chocolates are related to certain stories tied with Kalev.

P: Wow. Those are excellent chocolates.

L: Yup.

J: The Frog in the North probably fits there somewhere. The Frog was a guardian of the people, but when they stopped speaking snakish… You can probably guess.

P: Three words!!

J: I can say that they are indeed kind of cold. Or rather closed.

P: They do open up as time goes by.

J: Yeah. But they are also universally pleasant. I haven’t had an experience when someone was rude to me. They try their best to help you if you need help. As for the third thing/word, I would say they are very protective of their language in a way.

P: Interesting. I give up on finding just three simple words to describe Estonians. But I would probably mention proud, and stubborn, but in a good way. Like determined. And maybe mysterious, enigmatic in a way. Three words is definitely a simplification, though. There are many more words than three in the books we’ve read. But they are a great cipher to decode the Estonian puzzle. By the way, any sauna mentions in the books you guys read?

L: Strangely, no.

J: None here as well. I mean, it is set in a forest.

P: Ha-ha, yeah. Though now I am in the mood for it.

(End of conversation)