Jürgen Kaljuvee

Jürgen is an expat, traveller and coffee table philosopher who after a long journey through various world cities is currently passing through London.

Estonian writer Kaur Kender’s “Petty God” published in English

Jürgen Kaljuvee sat down with Aberdeen-based translator Edith Epler, to talk about Estonian writer, Kaur Kender, and translating books.

Kaur Kender (born in 1971) is an Estonian author who is well-recognised in the Baltic States and Finland and whose books have been bestsellers in Estonia. Kender was the winner of the Annual Prize of Culture Endowment of Estonia in 1999. His writing has been considered as controversial and provocative as his own life and personality – a semiotician and a former advertising executive, he has once said that sometimes he wishes that truck drivers and prostitutes would write more books because they have unusual stories to tell. Kender’s most seminal book, “Petty God” (“Yuppiejumal”), has now been published in English for the first time.

Estonian World’s Jürgen Kaljuvee sat down with the book’s Aberdeen-based translator and co-publisher Edith Epler, to talk about “Petty God”, Kaur Kender, and translating books. Epler (22) is originally from Estonia, but for the past seven years has lived in the United Kingdom. This year, she will be graduating from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland with Master of Arts in French and Mathematics. “Petty God” is the first book Edith has translated.  

Out of the many great books Kender has written (see bibliography at the end of the article), why did you pick this one in particular?

When I read “Petty God” for the first time, I was quite amazed at how many stories can intertwine in it, and I also enjoyed the wordplays. “Petty God” seems a timeless piece of literature to me: there will always be young ambitious yuppies, and there will always be some people who know better how to “play the game” in life – and some who are not that good at it. “Petty God”, for me, is about the human nature and the games we all play. It was therefore very interesting to see if the same story works as well in English as it does in Estonian. I find it really does!

“Petty God” has a very particular temporal, almost cinematic structure with parallel stories and overlapping scenes from different points of view. Personally, it was one of the most interesting literary experiences when reading it the first time and left quite a mark on a young impressionable mind. One felt as though someone mastering writing so well is doing a literary tour de force, revealing the technique of writing, handing over some special secrets to the general public. Did you feel the same, and if so, can you tell us more about and did you find the structure of the book innovative in a technical sense?

Yes, I did feel the same way! There’s such power in this book, isn’t there? The book consists of the monologues of the four main characters. You get four completely different ways of looking at the world and therefore, experience so much more through the four narrators.

Can you tell us about the biblical metaphors and games in the book to peek interest of the readers reading this article? For example, who are the main characters and what do the names give away of the message?

There are, as I noted before, four main characters. Their names are Siffer, Jaffa, Eva and Mada. Mada is Adam backwards, a sincere young man. Eva is Eve, a young woman who is in search of herself and her place in the world. Siffer is the cipher of the whole story – he likes to make a mess and he likes to take control; he is the serpent, who gives Eva “the forbidden fruit”. And finally, Jaffa is the Yahweh, the God of the whole story. He makes the final call.

What was the most difficult paragraph, sentence or word of the book to translate?

“Siffer: And then I got my paper back. The sentence was underlined in red and there was a correction next to it: And Timo said: “The bloody pool of my heart still storms.” Do you now understand who you can trust?”

In this part of the book, Siffer is explaining to a client why you shouldn’t trust people who claim they know how to write when you are dealing with advertising. He brings forward an example from the time when he was a student and he had to write a dictation. The teacher was dictating from a Finnish book called “Seven Brothers”, written by Aleksis Kivi. So, we actually ordered the English translation of “Seven Brothers”, just to get this one sentence right, the “bloody pool of my heart” sentence. That was quite something!

Who are the authors you could compare with Kender in the world literature and while speculating, from where could he have got some inspiration?

I would compare him with Bret Easton Ellis. Many BEE’s characters are just as young and mad as Kender’s, in my opinion. I would imagine that Kaur gets his inspiration from his surroundings: everything that he reads, everyone he meets… That’s life, right? You are influenced by your environment. But what is important is that some of us can take what they experience and write it down. These people are called writers.

Kaur Kender

Translating a book is not easy, especially if you are not a full-time professional translator, but a student as you were at the time, and yet nevertheless you carried it through. What kept you going and helped you see this effort to the finish line?

I think it was just such an interesting experience! I mean, I really did like the search for the right words and constructing sentences and reconstructing them and so on. It was an entertaining process, and I learnt a lot! Studying in the university can feel quite draining at times, so “Petty God” actually helped me take my time off when I needed it and focus my attention to something else. Good times…

Kender wrote his first book about 15 years ago. Who is the young “Kender” of today in Estonia and who you would also consider translating? Or would you rather translate some of his other untranslated books which I am sure the non-Estonian speaking public would be interested in reading?

I was absolutely taken by Robert Kurvitz’s novel “Terrible and Sacred Air” (“Püha ja õudne lõhn”). As Kaur’s books changed the literary scene years ago, Kurvitz has now changed the game completely: nothing like this has ever written in Estonian before. It’s almost like Scandinavian crime fiction, but crazier. There is also plenty to choose from, will I decide to continue translating Kaur’s books: “Abnormal” (“Ebanormaalne”) and “Bank Con” (“Pangapettus”) come to mind.

We know you have studied French literature as part of your studies in Aberdeen in Scotland. Is a French translation possibility in the future?

Very good question! We will see what future brings! Translating a book is quite time-consuming and for now, I’ve reread “Petty God” so many times that I can’t just yet see myself going back to it, but never say never, right?!

The book is now available as a paperback as well as an e-book. As a translator, is it important for you in which format the book is published?

Oh, definitely! As a translator, I guess the most important thing is that the book is published in both formats: paperback has a value because it’s an actual book you can hold in your hands – and a book is such a perfect gift, whatever the occasion. E-books, on the other hand, make people’s lives easier: we always have too many things and when we go travelling or when we move, you need to pack everything. With e-books, there’s no hassle, they are not heavy and travelling with thousands of books is not that difficult anymore as long as they are in your e-reader!


“Petty God” is available on amazon US and amazon UK. Cover: Kaur Kender (photo courtesy of ERR).

Artist of the week: interview with singer-songwriter Ingrid Lukas (video)

Born on 20 August 1984, Ingrid Lukas is an Estonian singer-songwriter, pianist and composer. Ingrid studied piano for three years at the Tallinn Music High School, before moving to Zürich, Switzerland with her family in 1994. In 2007 she graduated from the HMT Zürich (Hochschule für Musik und Theater) as a vocal teacher of pop-jazz music. Since 2007 she has been performing with her own band and is currently signed with Universal Music.

Ingrid’s music is based on the beautiful Estonian music traditions, haunting, extremely lyrical and melodic. Using that background, along with her Swiss influences, mixing jazz and even some pop elements into her music, Ingrid manages to create a unique and personal atmosphere. That, together with an exceptionally clear voice and strong expression of thoughtful lyrics makes her very unique vocalist.

Estonian music journalist Valner Valme has described Ingrid’s music as such: “I’d say that it comes from the Estonian soil, rises through the Norwegian dawn and lands on the mountain ranges of Switzerland.” Canadian music critic John Kelman, of Allaboutjazz, wrote about Ingrid after her last album release: “Lukas’ Silver Secrets is hitting the streets, demonstrating palpable growth in her writing and overall conception, as well as an attendant increase in confidence. A capable pianist, it was Lukas’ voice – a combination of delicate fragility, unassuming honesty and, at times, unexpected power – that separates her from so many young singer/songwriters her age. Lukas’ ability to feel somehow grounded in the music even as her delivery – and that of her fine band – gave it an ethereal, otherworldly quality, made for a compelling and appealing set that felt somehow like being transported to an alternate reality for 80 minutes or so.”

After a debut album “We Need to Repeat”, Lukas recently released a new album ‘Silver Secrets’ under Universal Music, and is back in her home town Zurich, between a tour in the US and another one about to begin in Germany in late October. We met at a café in the Zurich Old Town to talk about her music and future plans, which includes a soon-to-be released third record.


I have recently listened to both of your albums – in fact, my wife and I keep both of them in our car as part of our favourite music to listen to, when we are travelling. I have also noticed that while most artists’ records only have one good song at most, and the rest are so-called ‘filler’ songs, I must say that on your albums the number of songs one wants to listen to again and again, is much higher than usual. Out of many such great tracks, is it hard to select one title song and do you get to pick this title song yourself – or does your producer give you guidance and recommendation on this?

Thanks a lot – I appreciate that. The structure of the record including its title song is never a decision for the producer alone, but rather a dialogue and collaboration between the artist and the producer. For the first two records, the producer played a smaller role in this process, but I expect the role to be more significant, and collaboration with Universal to be more intense for the third album.

Let’s talk about your first album for a moment – We Need to Repeat (Ronin Rhythm Records – 2009). When I listen to it, and especially on certain songs like “Two Souls”, I believe one can hear some remote influences from some of the great artists of our time, like the father of minimalism Steve Reich and Philip Glass – and possibly even the greatest Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. What makes this minimalist musical texture interesting is that it is then interposed with a style that one could call the Estonian Pagan Poetry, or the Estonian vocal folk tradition. But who and what would you name as your influences?

Undoubtedly, Arvo Pärt has been a great source of inspiration for my music and continues to be.  Then of course the great Estonian singing tradition in general has given me a quite a bit of power. Estonians have annual and bi-annual song festivals which are rather grand affairs and sometimes it feels that every third person in Estonia is in a singing choir. In particular, much of my work has roots in the Estonian folk runo-song singing tradition, and indeed I am strongly attracted to the simplicity and power of these special songs, which have survived for centuries. Apart from music, in a wider sense I am inspired by the people around me and my relationships to them. Finally, I draw ideas from the elements of nature, especially nature in Estonia – its sea, cold freshness, and darkness – and Switzerland with its archetypical mountains.

Turning now to your second album (Silver Secret –  Universal 2011), it is widely known that it was produced as a collaborative effort by the Icelandic producer Valgeir Sigurdsson, who is also a producer  for Bjørk,  and hence some people have even called you the ‘Bjørk of Estonia’. Do you consider this as a compliment – is it an accurate comparison and do you see any similarities? Or do you see your musical direction as quite something different from that of Bjørk?

First of all, it is a great honour and compliment to be compared to Bjørk, and of course I have been influenced by her music at some point of my career.  I view all influences and interactions with other artists almost like conversations and they all come and go in phases. For instance, my Bjørk’s phase was some ten years ago and I realised already back then that I need to find my own way and sound more like Ingrid Lukas, rather than Bjørk.  As for my collaboration with Valgeir Sigurdsson, I like the way he creates sound and records instruments – and mixes them, which is completely unique. If I compare my music to a nude body, then we could say that he was the right person to dress it.  How did it start? One day I simply emailed him, talked about my music, sent him some samples and asked if he would be interested to collaborate – and to my great pleasure he was!

If you could name few top singers you have been listening to recently, who would you mention?

Bon Iver, Sigur Rós, Radiohead, and Agnes Obel come to mind.

Do you have a specific process of preparing for your next record, such as collecting a library of sound families and lyrical fragments, or does a new inspiration just come to you spontaneously at the most unexpected moment?

I have a general approach, but its particulars vary slightly and evolve with every song and record. I do have a small notebook which I take everywhere since as soon as I get an idea, I need to write it down. I once went running and inspiration came to me, but I had no pen so I had to ask from a passing policeman for a pen and paper to write down my ideas [laughs]!

So whenever I hear some ideas or sounds, I have to write them down immediately not to lose them. Sometimes it is a single sentence which can be so powerful that it becomes the refrain for a song. Then I usually sit behind the piano and start singing and playing with this sentence. Once I have these anchor sentences, accompanying melody comes rather easily – I simply start improvising and see where the music takes me, and I only need to go along, really. I then tape these sessions and later on decide whether there is something to it that could make it into the recording stage. If there is, then I begin breaking down the text into verse, bridge and other similar components, and I start working towards musical arrangements and the interplay of words and sounds. This is the general framework or approach for all my work.

I sometimes even hear melodies in my head while at sleep – I wake up in the middle of the night and start playing on the piano that I keep next to my bed, so I can immediately capture it.

You once said that your roots are in Estonia but your wings in Switzerland, which is a nice metaphor for an artist who is part of the Estonian diaspora abroad.  Which countries do you see your wings taking your music next to?

The immediate plans are to grow my audience in Germany, Scandinavia and the UK, and potentially in the US someday.

Which composer or singer do you dream about collaborating with?

I would love to collaborate with artists such as Thom Yorke of Radiohead or Jónsi of Sigur Ros.  My immediate aspiration is to work with the Estonian poet Doris Kareva, whose poetry I like very much. I have made the first contact with her and I hope that someday she could write the lyrics and I could arrange them into a song or songs.

Finally, what advice would you give to young Estonian singers and musicians who would like to follow in your footsteps and try to break into the world music stage, like you have?

As a musician, it is important to have an independent character and you have to know the strengths and weaknesses of your musical character. I am only drawn to musicians who have a very distinct personality, which you can feel in their music to the extent that it feels like they have poured their soul into it.  Do not try to copy anyone, but try to find your own style and voice, even though it may take a bit longer to find success. Finally, do not be afraid of failures along the road, and make sure that you are able to learn from these failures, and never, ever give up!


Records by Ingrid Lukas:

We Need to Repeat (Ronin Rhythm Records – 2009)


Silver Secrets (Universal – 2011)


For details on current German tour and other information see Ingrid Lukas’ website:


Front page and main photos: Anja Fonseka

How our age defines where we like to live: 25 – New York, 35 – London, 45 – Zürich

From time to time a magazine or a think tank publishes a study or survey, comparing the cost of living for different cities. In recent years, Zürich has come up on the number one spot invariably, and as more expensive than for example London or New York. Consequently, I have been getting questions from various parts of the world in a line of “Can you afford to take public transport anymore or do you have to walk to work?” and “Would I need a second mortgage to be able to eat at restaurants there?” I would like to address these concerns and explain why Zürich is expensive and why it is a good thing – and finally also put the discussion of New York vs London vs Zürich in bed once and for all.

Why is Zürich so expensive?

London commuters fear strain on the trains

Zürich is expensive for one simple reason – labour and service here is expensive, because people get paid a lot. In fact, another survey shows that the highest salaries in the world also happen to be in Zürich. Now, because almost every product or service we see around us is touched by human labour at one point or another – whether explicitly as in taxis in the form of cab driver pay, or implicitly in groceries in the form of transportation costs and check out girl salaries – everything you can buy, costs more money here. The good news is that the extras seem to be going to service staff, and everyone seems to be happy.

To illustrate this story, I recall one of the first occasions when my wife and I visited Zürich and ate at a small restaurant in downtown near Münsterbrücke. We could not help but to notice that the entire floor of about 10 tables was serviced by only one guy, who was not only taking orders and cleaning the tables, but also processing the payments. I finally pointed out to him that in New York or London there would be probably five people doing his job. He replied that it is only him here, but luckily he also gets paid five times as much. That is probably true, as people immigrating to mega-cities are willing to work for almost nothing and sometimes tend to feed themselves only by looking at the incredible skylines those cities have to offer.

Expensive is good – optimising on constraints and valuing time

One of the least recognised benefits of expensive cities is that they teach you how to optimise both time and money (which often amount to the same thing). When things are expensive, you begin questioning if you really need them, and as a result you notice collecting and consuming less “rubbish”, which in itself is a good thing -one could argue.

Because time is expensive in expensive cities, people do not hang around or loiter there aimlessly and idly on the streets. They are also more punctual, as they begin valuing not only their own time, but also that of the others. Then it should come as no surprise that when they measured the speed of postal clerks or the punctuality of trains in a study quoted by the book A Geography Of Time: On Tempo, Culture, And The Pace Of Life, Zürich postal clerks and trains easily came up on top.

Consequences of expensive cities – skinny people in large spaces

One of the consequences of living in expensive cities is that people find it too expensive and tend to stay away from them. As a result, there seems to be a lot of space – for instance, real estate here is less expensive than in many densely over populated mega-cities like New York, London or Hong Kong – but on the other hand food is expensive. One of the clear consequences of this for example is that people in Zürich tend to eat less and are skinnier but live in bigger spaces, whereas people in hyper-cities like London tend to be fatter and live in smaller spaces. A casual visit and a glance at the street picture of these two cities will certainly confirm this observation.

Where should I live then? 25 – New York, 35 – London, 45 – Zürich

A natural question arises that if some cities are more expensive than others, where should one live if you are an expat and if you can choose where in the world to live? The answer is that it depends on your values, which in turn depend mostly on you age.

To add a bit of colour to this argument, an older British gentleman living in Zürich once made an observation that your value system and your preferences for certain cities will change over time. He summarised it with a simple expression: 25 – New York, 35 – London and 45 – Zürich, which I thought is quite catchy and quotable.

The reasoning is that in your twenties you want to be in a place like New York, which resembles a giant night club, thronging young people who live and party as though Friday is the last day of their life, and on Mondays begin working like it is the first day of their life.  As you grow a bit older, you realise that there are other things besides living in a compact grid and being able to attend multiple gallery openings in a single night and so you move to London which is a bit more serious place. Finally, as you graduate to the later part of your youth in your forties, you want to live in a place where you can also raise a family, have a lake view, be close to nature and have a bit of breathing space.

There are many expats that have certainly followed this path.


Cover photo: Zürich.

Pictures: Wikimedia Commons.

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