FEATURE: Two ways to write about Estonian history: Ene Mihkelson and Sofi Oksanen by Sirje Olesk

Two ways to write about Estonian history: Ene Mihkelson and Sofi Oksanen
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(c) Jüri J Dubov
By Sirje Olesk. Translated from Estonian into English by Tiina Randviir


The Finnish writer Sofi Oksanen’s (born in 1977) novel Purge (2008) has been very successful internationally. The “novel about life on collective farms in Soviet Estonia” (SO’s own summary), translated into more than twenty languages, tells a captivating tale of the difficult lives of two Estonian women of different generations in the twists and turns of history. The first reason for success is naturally Sofi Oksanen’s talent. Another reason is the fact that the events (in other languages the surroundings probably seem rather exotic) describe general issues in a simple, straightforward manner: violence and women’s fate in the brutal, male-dominated world, whether the sources of violence are state power structures in the 1940s and 1950s or organised crime in the 1990s. In an interview last autumn in Estonia, Sofi Oksanen described how different layers in the book address readers in different countries. People in countries that have recently been under a foreign power understand Purge very well. There is no need to explain in Spain or Poland what censorship is, although it is necessary in the Nordic countries. The eastern parts of Germany still remember the activities of the Stasi and the readers know what persecution and interrogation mean. In western Germany, on the other hand, the readers need convincing that, besides the evil Nazi Germany, there were gulags and communist terror. The crimes committed by the latter can easily be compared to the crimes of the Nazis. And so on and so on (Eesti Päevaleht 23 November 2010). Americans would read the English translation of Purge more like a novel of a family's or a people’s destiny, as critics have compared Oksanen with Tolstoy and Pasternak. In Britain, on the other hand, the book was categorised as a Nordic crime novel and Oksanen was compared with Stig Larsson, although the critics admitted that Oksanen wrote better than Larsson.

In Estonia, the novel was quite enthusiastically received, although many were annoyed because Oksanen was not quite precise in depicting historical events and realities of life. Professor Rein Raud said: “When I try to work out why it is Sofi Oksanen who has achieved such international success by depicting recent Estonian history and not, for example, Ene Mihkelson, Arvo Valton, Heino Kiik, Viivi Luik, Arved Viirlaid or another author who has tackled the same topics much more precisely and diversely, I can’t help thinking that the key to her success might lie in stereotyping: by combining the historical narrative with functioning clichés familiar to the Western reader, she touches precisely on those keys and strings that mega-success requires” (Eesti Päevaleht 5 November 2010).

However, we are well aware that people do not read fiction in order to learn about other people’s history. There are other sources for that. Those who like long prose mostly expect a psychological and captivating tale. Oksanen certainly offers that in her novels. Readers are additionally fascinated by the author’s genuine passion in telling the tale, and her ethical attitudes, with which she defends the humiliated, suppressed and insulted. The effect is even greater because her texts follow the rules of melodrama, a fact pointed out by Eneken Laanes, who has carefully researched the novels of both Mihkelson and Oksanen. Oksanen is a contemporary writer who consciously writes for as large an audience as possible. In the above-mentioned interview, she says that, in the aftermath of the success of her novels, the Estonian publishers could seize the opportunity to launch other authors, as is already being done in Finland. The realistic subtext to this attitude might be that today’s publishing and book marketing is work like any other, and not daydreaming about high art.

Why, then, have Estonian authors’ novels on the same topics not enjoyed similar success in translation? There are, of course, exceptions, e.g. Arved Viirlaid’s war novels have been translated quite enthusiastically. Viivi Luik is highly acclaimed in the Nordic countries. Now that Oksanen’s novels are doing so well, it is high time to do something about translating Ene Mihkelson’s books into German, Swedish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Czech, Hungarian and other languages. (There is already an agreement on a Finnish translation.) After all, both in her poetry and her novels, Mihkelson writes about the same era and events as does mutatis mutandis Oksanen. What then are the differences and why are Mihkelson’s works not very well known even in Estonia, although she does have her own dedicated circle of readers and critics have praised her work highly? The problem may be in her manner of writing, and in her method of approaching topics. Oksanen is a modern writer who expects to attract as many readers as possible. Ages ago, Mihkelson began writing in order to deal with a trauma. She wanted to know what had happened to the Estonian people in the middle of the 20th century, and how it influenced these people and their families. Oksanen's and Mihkelson's strategies of writing are different as well: Oksanen clearly reveals the story, whereas Mihkelson tries hard to hide and confuse it. Instead of smooth narrative, her work resembles polyphonic compositions that use the poetic language of late modernism. It is not essential what exactly happened (because Estonian readers know this only too well), but how whatever happened has influenced us. Human suffering in a totalitarian society, the system’s violence against people, and how the system changes people are familiar to more than just Estonians. Many readers for whom Mihkelson could be translated would thus understand her books without any problem. Mihkelson’s poetry has been read in German; her perception of life and attitudes are similar to those of Herta Müller.

Ene Mihkelson (born in 1944) started as a poet and has depicted the changing winds of 20th century Estonian history and the resulting destinies of people. Her novels show that the framework of ideologically correct relations and the balance that effortlessly functions in Oksanen’s Purge do not necessarily fit into real history and the human relations in Estonia after WW II. People cannot be divided into good and bad, or victims and villains; life forces them to make choices that are immoral, and leads them to temptations they cannot resist. Greed, cowardice, fear and feeling afraid and guilty to the core are things that Mihkelson has been writing about all along. Her novels have been called a series tackling the identity of Estonians: Rural Roots (1983), The Torment of a Name (1994), The Sleep of Ahasuerus (2001) and  Plague Grave (2007). A critic said that these novels depict “an increasingly tense insight into the heart of memory and time”. In a cryptic way, the same topics have been dealt with in Mihkelson’s poetry, in her original harsh poetic language, which has only recently attracted a few followers of Estonian literature. Critics selected The Sleep of Ahasuerus as the best novel published in the newly independent Estonia, and Plague Grave received the best prose work award when it came out. Mihkelson’s latest collection of poetry, Tower (2010), received the Baltic Assembly's literary award.

The literary historian Luule Epner has said that Mihkelson’s novels are inspired and galvanised by an urge for truth. These works move between personal and social memory, trying to explain the present via the past, and vice versa. In Rural Roots, the author describes the loss of a home. Due to the time of writing and publishing, the events taking place during the Stalinist era that caused the loss of the home are conveyed vaguely and in allusions which a more superficial reader might miss. The novel  The Torment of a Name is the same story, and asks, now going a bit deeper, what has happened to our people and how our psyche has been influenced and distorted by the past and hushed-up past events. It is one of the first descriptions in Estonian literature of the Singing Revolution, the beginning of the second period of Estonian national awakening. The events of this turbulent time form a background to reflections which the writer can now indulge in without having to fear censorship. She asks: “…what was done to us in that period called socialism?”

Eneken Laanes summarises the novel The Sleep of Ahasuerus by claiming that it explores the pressure of the past on the present, on the individual level. The narrator’s voice is polyphonic - both I and she talk - which makes following the text rather complicated, but conveys very sensitively the atmosphere of suspicion and silence. This is the atmosphere for a woman whose father was killed in the forest and whose mother refuses to take her daughter in after she comes out of the forest.

In all of Mihkelson’s novels, the protagonist or the narrator or a character identifying with the narrator is a contemporary person who examines, questions and observes. In other words, this person suffers by living through the events that happened about a half century ago with people close to him or her and in which he/she might have taken part as a child. This is conveyed in fragments, via associations, and remains confusing for readers who do not know the described period and circumstances. Mihkelson’s novels demand slow and attentive reading, and readers who are used to allusive modernist texts. The situation in Ahasuerus is especially complicated. What after all happened with Vilma and Meinhard Reiter, i.e. the narrator’s parents? Mother Vilma is alive, but does not stay with her daughter, because after the mother left the forest she adopted another name, set up a new family and rejected the abandoned child subconsciously and sometimes consciously. In their long phone conversations, she occasionally calls the narrator “my dear daughter”, but at the same time she is wary of her, because the daughter wants to talk about things the mother has decided to forget. The identity of the father, Meinhard Reiter, has been stolen, his body buried as someone else's, and that someone else took his name in order to use it in the great hide-and-seek games of the 1950s. Talking with the involved people, reading archive documents and comparing various recollections lead the doubting daughter to the inevitable conclusion that her father was not killed in an ordinary attack against the forest guerillas, but in an organised KGB operation. As a result, her father’s name was stolen and the man who stole it later became close to her mother. The writer Tõnu Õnnepalu interpreted the whole Ahasuerus story as the Estonian version of Hamlet, although in this case Hamlet is a women who seeks the truth about her family’s destiny. Her mother refuses to talk about her late husband, her relatives are reluctant to discuss his family and the official researchers have (accidentally?) given a traitor an award for his services.

The whole story is extremely confusing and is clarified only for the protagonist at the cost of great physical suffering; for others, it is an old story they wish to forget. The protagonist visits the usurper of her father’s name, the old man now again bearing the name Kaarel Kolgamets, who reads out to her (it is important that he does not just tell her!) his own memories of that fateful raid. The re-independent Estonia has awarded the brave resistance fighter a medal and the relevant officials are not prepared to admit that they have made a mistake. Times are unpredictable and still confusing; the shadows of the past have not dissolved and haunt people’s minds, health and destinies.

In Mihkelson’s novel, uncertainty in memory, history, identity and people’s fates are expressed in the manner of a narrative, and the protagonist has simultaneously two voices: I and She. Such polyphony makes it difficult to follow the narrative, but shows very well the ambivalence of memory, and the bewilderment of people when they try to find out about something in the past, something complicated, violent and perhaps shameful. This novel occasionally turns into a thriller, when the main character attempts to match up family lore: what she has heard from her mother and what she has read in the archives.

The past is also examined in Mihkelson’s latest novel, Plague Grave, where the protagonist questions her aunt, her mother’s sister, who looked after the four-year-old child when her parents fled to the forest. It could be said with some simplification that in The Sleep of Ahasuerus the protagonist is trying to find her father, whereas in Plague Grave she asks about her mother. The stories that Ene Mihkelson as a writer conceals, instead of intriguingly unrolling in the style of Sofi Oksanen, are different in the two novels. These two novels are therefore totally different works, united by insights into life and history, and by similar poetic narratives.

Mihkelson carefully tackles the suppressed frustrations of a nation’s collective memory in each of her novels, going deeper with each novel. Both Ahasuerus and Plague Grave have a remarkable number of different layers of meaning and fragmentary plot lines, which the dedicated reader can follow and connect. There are several reading strategies: someone interested in history follows the fate of the guerillas in the forest and the relevant Cold War KGB operations (e.g. when the English/Americans dispatch Estonian secret agents to the guerillas’ bunkers, where the bogus guerrillas hired by the KGB are waiting for them; some are transferred to the West as double agents, etc). In Mihkelson’s Ahasuerus, such radio-play secret agent games acquire an eerie meaning when the protagonist tries to find about how her guerilla father died in a raid in the forest in 1953, and is convinced that her father’s dead body is recorded in the archive as another man's. What happened to her father’s name? What became of the man who took his name? 

Vilma in Ahasuerus could be the parallel character to Aliide in Purge. However, Vilma is blurred, ill-defined, because we learn only as much about her as the narrator or her stand-in bother to tell us. I listened to my mother and wept for her for the first time in my life and also for our family that will never be. Only in the evening when I wept with my mother did I finally realise why we have never been able to be mother and child and that nobody from outside will ever understand how alienated we are (AU 272).

What do we know about Vilma? She marries very young, a man much older than herself, whose family does not approve of her as much as she would wish. She then has a child, but leaves it and goes to hide in the forest with her husband. Why does she not stay with her child? Because the child would be in danger? Because she wants the child to be safe with her sister? Because she does not care for the child? What happens to Vilma in the forest, when she dumps her husband Meinhard and chooses another man– Kaarel? Why does she do it?

In this and in the next novel, Mihkelson also writes about how the children and grandchildren (there may still be hundreds, if not thousands of them in Estonia) of the forest guerillas were influenced by the life and death of their parents “from the third and fourth generations onwards”. The author additionally wonders how the politically repressed people and their children suffered because they were not allowed to talk about their family traumas. The narrator in The Sleep of Ahasuerus visits archives and doctors, and her blood pressure reacts like the most sensitive barometer. Forty seven years have passed since the day in February her father was killed during a raid, but her body reacts as if all this has happened quite recently. In addition, there is a scene in Plague Grave where the narrator, driving along the roads near the village where she was born, suddenly hears brief, but very real sounds of a battle and learns later that this was exactly the place where a raid against the forest guerillas took place decades ago. Both her parents were there as well. DYING IS AN ART, but killing isn’t. My father was murdered and the explosion of painful energy has not faded away. I am floating on a sea of violence like a cork and beg for mercy, to no avail (AU 462).

Mihkelson’s books can also be read as psychological novels about the relationship between mother and daughter, between daughter and father, family and the desert of solitude and alienation that a family can be. “We were a rubbish family”, and “We were a bunch of traitors”, says Kaata in Plague Grave. This novel is additionally a story of two young girls, thirsty for life, whose destiny is determined by the war and what came after. Sanna hides in the forest with her husband and leaves her child to her sister Kaata to look after. The book starts when the same child, half a century later, asks them both to explain how it all happened. What she learns contradicts our usual image of the heroic tale of the forest guerillas, as well as the most natural relationship between mother and child.

There is another layer in both novels, if indeed the reader is able to grasp it: the relationship between Estonians and Baltic Germans, between the manor and the village. The tenacity of German culture stretches from Estonian manor houses to imperial castles in Vienna, thus offering a kind of conciliatory dimension to the hideous family tragedies of a small nation, where a mother shares her bed with her stepson, a wife betrays her husband and a mother-in-law betrays her son-in-law, where a son lets his mother fade away in a house that resembles a haunted castle, and a daughter fears the knife in her mother’s hand. The Estonian critics who accused Oksanen of demeaning the Estonian people and praised Mihkelson’s work had not read Mihkelson carefully. But, never mind. 

Mihkelson’s characters are not characters in realist prose, just as her story is not a story in the usual sense. Her work focuses on questions to which she seeks answers, and on the language that she employs. Mihkelson uses late modernist poetics in order to tackle difficult matters so that they will seem personal (this is achieved by describing bodily reactions in her texts) as well as general. The writer is as subjective as possible, because in this way she is able to get closer to the reader. At the same time, she tries to protect her privacy, to reject in advance all suggestions of autobiography, which would inevitably limit this to a particular case. Mihkelson also wants to say that this could be the suppressed tragedy of many people, poisoning the Estonians’ perception of history and the present time.

Everything Mihkelson writes about is seen at the time of writing. She is not writing because of historical events, and not because of the story. She writes in order to understand how such a time and such stories have influenced the characters. The past is observed through the glance of today’s viewer: Is memory a disease of the brain? I asked. Is the short circuit of denied tensions like a self-absorbing hole that vanishes without a trace?  (KH 318).

The novel The Torment of a Name begins with the depiction of one of the happiest moments and most meaningful events in the history of Estonia, the movement toward restoring independence. In April 1988, the narrator participates in a huge public meeting in Tartu, at the end of the National Heritage Days. A procession moves from the university towards the Estonian Student Society, and the students for the first time openly wear the national colours, blue, black and white, although separately.

The novel Plague Grave was published in early May 2007, only a week after the unrest in Tallinn caused by the removal of the Soviet Bronze Soldier monument. The book was, of course, written before, but it starts in an amazingly prophetic way, describing the exact location of the monument as the “place of the final battle”, surrounded by police tape. However, the author does not think that the final battle will be between Estonians and Russians, but between “our and their” conquerors and the conquered (those who deported people to prison camps and the forest guerillas?). In a sense, “they” are all “we”, i.e. those who betrayed and those who were betrayed are all part of the same family. Using almost interrogation methods, the narrator questions her mother and her aunt, and what she hears from them constitutes confessions of back-stabbers and traitors.  For the sake of surviving, the convolutions of the brain have been swept clean (Plague Grave, p 261). Abysses open up that cannot be filled by merciful time or a placatory fact. Only the murdered father remains pure; he was better than everyone else.

Kaata and Sanna have been in no-man’s land, the name of which depends on who is looking back and from where. After the war, this no-man’s land was a little island of freedom for thousands (the forest sets one free!), full of ideas and hopes, and still our homeland, for others already a thicket, a place to hide to stay alive. It then became a human hunting field, still like home, but surrounded by invisible barbed wire.

The mutual hunting time is usually concealed from the public eye. Whoever remembers will forever suffer. Whoever is able to forget has no memory. The third kind dig up mass graves, and the bones of those who were killed separately are gnawed by animals, covered with dirt and soil (Plague Grave p 311).

Mihkelson’s novels are an uncomfortable read, for several reasons. What she depicts does not correspond to our official narrative of history. Heroes and traitors, victims and villains, are all mixed up and whoever decides to take a closer look at their deeds and motifs will be faced with ugly and painful revelations. At the same time, the end of Ahasuerus, for example, is quite cathartic. The literary critic Eva Rein admires the remarkable skill with which the novel tackles “individual and collective historical trauma in a way that does not increase pain or divide people, but creates a space where understanding, mercy and forgiveness are possible.”

Amongst contemporary writers, Mihkelson’s manner of writing about the past most resembles what Herta Müller achieved in her novel Herztier. Viivi Luik, who met and talked to Müller, said in an interview: “I got the impression that Herta was full of fear, terror, pain and courage, and she will not be at peace until she has poured everything out of her, until she has written her books. /---/ To this day, Herta Müller is tormented by Ceauşescu’s Romania, from where she escaped. Or, in other words, Herta Müller has a dark area inside her, a hell, and her task in this world is to show it to people” (EE 18.X 2009).

Mutatis mutandis: this kind of dark area is also present in Mihkelson’s work, although the crucial issue for her is to understand how people who have been through horrors can live on. Mihkelson, who according to Viivi Luik “tells us about the past, which can wake up at any moment”, is a creator comparable to Herta Müller. Through her texts, a serious reader can reach depths only rarely achieved in literature.







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