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“Catch the Harpy” – Berlin and Cold War inspire an Estonian author

It doesn’t happen every day that a book by an Estonian author is published in English. It is even more rare that the writer has originally written it in English, as opposed to a translation. Sten Hankewitz, a life-long journalist and coincidentally also Estonian World’s stalwart deputy editor, who has lived in the UK and the US for years, has just done so. “Catch the Harpy”, Hankewitz’s debut novel, is set in the seventies’ Berlin, during the Cold War.

So Sten, what is Catch the Harpy” about?

It’s very much your weekend-read spy thriller, set in the very hotbed of the Cold War where the spies of both the free and the oppressed world – the West and the Soviet Union and its satellites – try to inflict the most harm on each other, if not outright destroy their enemy. Amid all this, there’s the US Army Intelligence Division, whose officer James Hart has to figure out who and on whose orders is terrorising his ranks. It’s a battle against a cunning enemy, and the outcome is everything you could not possibly expect.

Why Berlin?

I’m a huge history buff, and Berlin is, due to its history, one of my favourite cities in the world. Wherever you go there, wherever you look, you see something that reminds us of the days gone by – sometimes tragic, but often intriguing. I think the forceful partition of Germany after the Second World War, and especially building a wall around the Western-held occupation sectors of the city, are one of the most outrageous war crimes the communist sphere ever committed. It’s worth everyone’s while to commemorate this great injustice.

How much are you actually familiar with Berlin, for the historical accuracy?

The first time I visited Berlin was in 1989, pretty much days before the wall actually fell. In the late nineties and the noughties, I visited Berlin almost every summer as my father lived there. So I would think I know the city quite well, from both today’s perspective, and also the historical. All the locations in the book are historically accurate.

Was there a certain person or event that inspired the narrative?

Not really. What mostly inspired the narrative was the eternal battle between the good and the evil – the good guys in the West, and the evil empire of the East.

How much is it a fiction and how much an historical novel?

It’s definitely a fictional novel, albeit with historical, real-event aspects. As I said, all the locations and settings are accurate, the timeline of the real-life events described in the book is accurate, but the story itself, the characters and the events they encounter is a fruit of my fantasy.

You said in the foreword that you started writing it when you were twelve. The present world has changed a lot since – how much did it affect your writing and why did it take so long?

I have loved to write as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, I read a lot, and I dreamed of being someone whose books other people read. So I started to write about the subjects the closest to my heart – history, the Cold War, spies etc. But the thing is, when you’re growing up, if you read something you had written even a year ago, the progress and personal development you had done since makes your past writings look really juvenile. And that happened pretty much every time I reread what I had written until I had actually become cultivated and was set in my ways. So yeah, I started to write this book when I was about twelve, but what remained in the book from that period is only the idea, not the actual literary work.

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But you’re right in saying the world has changed a lot. And of course it affected my writing. When I was twelve, the Soviet Union had just collapsed and even though I hated that cruel, oppressive regime with all my heart already back then, I now see how this same oppression and cruelty hasn’t really left the building. It’s there in the form of Russia, but also China, North Korea, Cuba – and the worst part is, there are people around in the West who, despite never having experienced what it is like to grow up and live in a society where the regime tells you what to think and how to feel, admire the communist system and dream of building it in their home countries, and perhaps in the entire world. I think in part my book is also to counter such sympathies – something I thought about doing already in the very early drafts I wrote.

It is set in the seventies, but does it contain also some sort of coded message for present time and future, considering the ongoing tense security environment between the West and Russia, called “the New Cold War” by some?

Oh, definitely. Even though the hotbed of the Cold War isn’t Berlin any more, thank God, the Cold War itself hasn’t gone anywhere, it didn’t end with the collapse of the Soviet Union; there might have just been a quiet truce. But now – and for quite a few years already – the Russian Federation is employing the same Cold War technics as they did in the seventies and the eighties. Just read Edward Lucas’s book, “Deception: Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West”, where he eloquently describes the present world of spies and the harm they can potentially do and have done to the freedom-loving nations and people. If anything, the current Cold War, at least from espionage point of view, is even fiercer – and more dangerous – than it was back in the day of outright assassinations with umbrellas dipped in ricin.

In January last year, you reviewed “Command Authority” for Estonian World, a last novel by Tom Clancy which describes how Russia invades Estonia. At that point, many of our readers dismissed this narrative as laughable fantasy and some even accused us to cause unreasonable panic, although it was merely a book review. Two months later, Russia annexed Crimea and the fears about Russian aggression seemed very real again. What is your opinion now?

My opinion is the same as it was then – the Russian regime is dangerous not only to its immediate neighbours, but to the entire world. It’s a relief to see the Western nations have imposed sanctions on Russia, even though they don’t really work – but they do have the potential of inflicting long-term harm on the regime. I would prefer sending deadly aid to Ukraine, even though it’s not a NATO ally. Because this isn’t about NATO any more, this is about defending freedom-loving countries from an ultra-aggressive power with overtly expansionist policies.

You recently moved to live in the US, the country which is partly responsible for the protection of Europe, yet doesn’t need to worry too much about its own security, at least for some decades to come. How real do you think is another major conflict in Europe?

That depends on how effective the Western nations are in curbing Russia’s expansionist plans in the years to come. It’s pretty unreasonable to expect a change from within Russia itself, so it really falls upon us to prevent and deter any efforts by the Russian Federation to further expand its borders. If we fail in this, if the Western heads of state prefer words to action, as it sometimes seems to be the case, I think another major conflict is very realistic.

How does living in America compares to Europe on these days? Is the freedom of speech still intact?

The freedom of speech is, indeed, intact, even though certain politicians, especially some Democrats, try to think of new ways to curb it. But Americans will never let anything to happen to the freedom of speech, I’m quite certain. It’s one of the aspects that make America exceptional, especially considering how many European countries have curbed freedom of speech and even all but banned thinking certain thoughts.
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But in general, I think Americans are genuinely sincere, something you don’t encounter that much in Europe. And, in another contrast with Europe, America is an individualist country. Something of Margaret Thatcher’s dream that no longer exists in Europe, but is very well alive in America: “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour.” It’s part of the American Dream to be one’s own person, to look after and to take responsibility for oneself first and foremost. This is something I really admire; one of the most important factors – in addition to guaranteed freedom of speech – that makes me love America.
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How easy or difficult is to publish books on these days? Did you also offer your manuscript to major publishers or went all the way in the self-publishing route?

Thankfully, today we live in a world where pretty much anything is possible, and so is publishing a book by oneself. I took the self-publishing route since this is my first book and I wanted to prove myself as an author before offering any of my writings to an agent or a publisher. Amazon’s CreateSpace gives aspiring authors a great platform to publish their work and list it on Amazon worldwide.

Catch the Harpy” is your debut – are we going to see a follow-up from you?

We will have to wait and see…

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Catch the Harpy: A Cold War novel  Sten Hankewitz

In Sten Hankewitz’s debut novel, you’ll find everything you’d expect from a thriller – spies, war, romance, and betrayal. It’s the seventies, and the Cold War is in full flare. In the heart of the conflict lies the city of Berlin, where, more often than not, the heat is turned to the max and the spies of both the free and the oppressed worlds try their best to destroy each other. Amid all this, the US Army Intelligence officer, James Hart finds himself caught in a fierce espionage battle against a cunning enemy. To solve the crisis, he has to expose the assassin that has infiltrated the Western ranks. This, however, proves to be a task most demanding…

“Catch the Harpy” is available on Amazon.

Book review: Coming Home by Charles (Kalev) Ehin

Estonian-American writer Charles (Kalev) Ehin tells a moving story in his book of the reconciliation of an Estonian family torn apart by war.

In September 1944, approximately 75,000 Estonians fled their beloved homeland. Memories still fresh from the brief Soviet occupation in 1940-41, and the Red Army advancing towards Tallinn, they hoped to avoid what would be a sad fate in the hands of the brutal communist regime. Many never saw their homeland again. Overall, between 1940 and 1959, approximately 145,000 ethnic Estonians perished as a consequence of the Communist tyranny.

The then eight-year-old Kalev Ehin was lucky. Aboard a German troop carrier with his father, he made it out of port of Tallinn, two days before the Soviet tanks rolled into the Estonian capital. Surviving a British night raid and living in the displaced persons’ camps in Germany, he eventually moved to the US where he still resides, in Salt Lake City, Utah. But he was also among the lucky few that managed to return to Estonia in advance of it regaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Recalling his visits to Soviet Estonia in 1982 and 1986, Ehin’s book is a moving, emotional and, at times, an analytical personal account of historical events, at the backdrop of both tragedy and joy that characterises Estonia in the 20th century.

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In the foreword, Ehin says the book is only one of millions of similar personal accounts that have occurred in the past and continue to take place today. But it is important for numerous reasons.

Even in Estonia, there are many people in the opinion that the ones who managed to escape, horrified by the advancing Soviet troops, somewhat betrayed the country, and those left behind suffered considerably more. That may be so, but Coming Home is a great reminder that Estonian refugees suffered too, first by often leaving their loved ones behind, then barely surviving in their new homelands and finally, in many cases, by never being able to see their birth country again.

Coming Home depicts the fate of countless refugees who lost their homes and were separated from the members of their families and relatives by the events of World War II and later by the Iron Curtain for more than four decades. The book is also a partial chronicle of a small country’s frantic struggle against the Nazi and the Soviet terror, repression and, later, of systematic Russification of its ten-thousand-year-old language and culture.

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Although it is a personal account by one displaced Estonian, it characterises thousands. Tens of thousands of Estonians in the United States, Canada, Australia, Sweden, the United Kingdom, who mostly had better opportunities and life than the ones left behind, but who nevertheless never stopped worrying about Estonia and used every little opportunity to do everything at their disposal to support folks back home and achieve Estonia’s independence again, from financial support to pressing President Ronald Reagan at the White House. Books like Coming Home ought to be published also in Estonian, to narrow the invisible barrier and raise understanding between the “proper” Estonians and the “expat” Estonians.

In parts, Ehin’s book is indeed very personal, dealing with the loss of his mother and his long-lost sister who were left behind in Estonia in 1944. He never saw his mother again and only reunited with his sister on his first trip back 38 years later, in 1982.

With a great memory for detail, in his book, Ehin brings to life many of the seldom-mentioned tragic effects of the secret agreement made by the Soviet foreign minister Vyatcheslav Molotov and his German counterpart, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and expanded by the Yalta Conference by tracing the trials and tribulations of the members of his family from 1940 until the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In what could be a great beginning for a historical film, we learn how his dad, a civil servant, was ready to hide the family from the Soviet deportations in the bushes of a garden house in Nõmme, a neighbourhood in Tallinn. Later on, he doesn’t make a secret of the fact that his dad collaborated with the Germans because he believed that it was the best choice between two terrible options and he wasn’t the only one who thought that way – a historical fact.

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In a yet more film-like scenario, the book also accounts many lucky escapes for young Ehin and his family. Having relocated to southern Estonia (first Antsla then Põlva),his family learned during the last days of the Nazi occupation in 1944 that the Russian offensive had advanced to fifteen miles from where they lived. Taking the last train out of the Põlva railway station to Tallinn, the railroad bridge less than three miles behind them was blown up by the retreating Estonian and German troops.

Returned to Tallinn, the Estonians are making last attempt to regain independence, in the wake of the retreating Germans and advancing Russians, and Ehin’s dad takes a young boy with him back to the front lines near Tartu.

“The Red Army was now controlling about one-third of Estonia. Constructing infantry trenches and bunkers was a last ditch effort to help stop the Red Army offensive. Father and I departed Tallinn for the earth works and the destination of our group was a little village called Luua, less than twenty miles north of Tartu. The mood of the men and women riding on flatbeds and in open freight cars was almost festive. They joked, laughed and sang folk songs for most of the trip. Of course, Estonians are known to sing for any reason, even if they were headed for locations not too far behind the front lines,” Ehin vividly remembers.

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“Once the Soviet forces broke through, there were hardly any combat-ready troops left to fall back to the newly constructed fortifications behind them, and there were no available reserves. It was the beginning of the end for Estonia.”

Ehin’s book then takes us on a journey out of Estonia, on one of the last ships to leave the port of Tallinn before the Red Army invades the city, hardship in the displaced persons camp in Germany, a lucky escape from an Allied night raid on Ulm, in which the city was pretty much razed, and nearly being sent to a concentration camp. Once the war is over, a job on an old Estonian freighter that had evaded the Russians and was now docked at the port of Kiel, followed, and further exciting life-learning trips culminated with the young man emigrating to the United States, twelve years after fleeing Estonia.

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There, Ehin enlisted in the US Air Force. “I was anxious to do my part in deterring Soviet aggression around the world,” he writes. He made a good career, from commanding a missile crew in Nebraska, to managing an F-16 Fighter Acquisition Program in Tehran, Iran, eventually completing his PhD degree at the University of Oklahoma and, until this day, working as a professor emeritus at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Apart from the moving personal account of historical events, Coming Home is also intriguing in its description of Soviet Estonia in the early 1980s. While visiting his sister after 38 years apart, Ehin couldn’t help but notice the looming hardship and the Russification policies forced upon the people of Estonia. “I was continuously infuriated and depressed over the intolerable economic and repressive political systems that had been imposed on these proud, ancient people.”

On a brighter note, Ehin describes the feelings when visiting the Song Festival and the upbeat spirit of Estonians under the occupation.

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“How long do you all believe the native Estonians will be able to withstand the intense Russification efforts of the Soviet Central Government?” he asked his relatives, many years before there was any hope of the country regaining its independence.

“The Estonian people are like the sea and the conquerors are like the waves. The waves will eventually pass. We will survive,” was the optimistic response.

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Kalev’s Song  – An Estonian story of survival

While visiting the Estonian Song Festival in 2009, Ehin’s grandson made a video documentary of his trip. While there, they retraced the path Ehin’s family took avoiding the horrors of war as the Soviet army invaded Estonia during WWII, and which inspired his book, Coming Home.

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Coming Home is available on Lakeshore Press. Cover photo: Charles (Kalev) Ehin with other young Estonian expats in the United States in the late 1950s.

Adam Cullen – the American who fell in love with Estonia and its literature

How many non-Estonians – especially the ones coming from a global language background – do you know who can speak fluent, or even conversational Estonian? It probably isn’t too easy to come up with even one. Well, let Estonian World fix this and introduce to you Adam Cullen, a 28-year-old Minnesotan who not only speaks and writes Estonian, but also translates prose and poetry from this tiny northern European language into English. His latest translation – Tõnu Õnnepalu’s widely talked about novel, Radio.

Adam grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the US state known for its friendly people and frigid winters, and famous for the classic film (and the more recent TV-series), Fargo. But after having visited Tallinn while studying in St Petersburg, Russia, he fell in love with Estonia and its language: “Something in the lilting, wispy melodies of the Estonian I heard spoken on the street entranced me, was somehow familiar and oddly home-like, and there was no escaping it.”

In Estonia by pure chance

It was a weekend trip to Tallinn from St Petersburg in the rainy and foggy autumn of 2006 that brought Adam to Estonia for the first time – “by pure chance, as these things go,” he recalls. “In a sense, it blind-sided me in the most positive way possible.”

“Maybe the shock of encountering relative normalcy in contrast with life in Russia lobbed me into an altered state of mind, maybe it was destiny, or perhaps it was an odd bottle of Vana Tallinn, tainted with an accidental dose of unsullied Ida-Viru phosphorite – in any case, I can clearly remember standing in front of the window of the Olümpia hotel, looking out over the city (wearing the complimentary bathrobe, holding a stopka of vodka in one hand and zakuski in the other), and saying to my roommate, ‘I feel like I could live here’.”

That same year, Adam returned to Tallinn on his own a few times. “I purchased an Estonian-English dictionary and a couple of newspapers, selected a few albums with Estonian artist names and song titles, and got down to learning it.”

Adam Cullen in Noarootsi. The structure in the background is an Estonian plastic sauna.

“Yes. Estonian is difficult.”

Adam says it took him close to a year to reach full conversational fluency in Estonian, and a little over that to begin translating simpler texts, “in exchange for money and/or Saku Tume”, a dunkler bock-style beer produced by the Saku brewery. “One of my methods for honing my skills in languages had been translating in my free time and purely to increase my own proficiency, so it was a relatively smooth transition.”

It’s said – mainly by Estonians themselves, but also by others who have tried to learn it – that Estonian is one of the most difficult languages in the world. Adam agrees: “In technical, linguistic terms, sure. Yes. Estonian is difficult. At the same time, gaining fluency in any language that is not your native tongue is a task, as I see it.”

Adam points out that in his opinion, too many members of larger countries never have the need, the opportunity or the will to expand their linguistic – and by that, he also means cultural – horizons. “I really only take a harsher stance towards expats, who live in smaller countries and around smaller languages, where they can get by using the ‘world language’, and who use it as an excuse to forego showing the respect of learning anything apart from ‘tere’ and ‘kaksteist kuud’,” he says. “Tere”, in Estonian, means “hello”. This being a family-friendly publication, we will not explain the word play around the other expression.

To experience what it means to be an immigrant

Adam by the sea.Adam moved to Estonia in 2007, right after finishing his undergraduate degree. As it happened, his flight left only a day after his last final exam. “I was working at a café at the time and held a degree in liberal arts – with which you can do anything, and which qualifies you to do very little,” he states. “I figured I could continue working at a café, bury myself in loans and aim to attend graduate school; or, I could relocate to another continent, attempt to find a job, experience what it means to be an immigrant, and see whether it is possible to gain fluency in a language through utter immersion (it is). The choice really wasn’t that difficult in the end.”

Adam’s entrance “into the world of literary translations was all thanks to a chance Christmas party and enough blood sausage and chanterelles”, as he puts it. He had been translating as a volunteer for Fenno-Ugria, an organisation dedicated to spreading knowledge of the Finno-Ugric cultures, and was invited to attend its annual Christmas party. “Also invited to the event were Ilvi Liive and Kerti Tergem from the Estonian Literature Centre, the office of which was in the same building,” Adam recalls. “They soon learned that I dabbled in translation and was interested in broadening that part of my life. Contact information was exchanged, and the rest is the present.”

So far, Radio is the only book he’s translated from Estonian into English that has appeared full-length and in print. “There are several other novels and short stories that I have translated (commissioned by the authors themselves or done out of personal interest) and are available for any interested parties. I have also translated several theatre works, at least one of which is in print, a wide range of poetry, and cultural/Finno-Ugric/architectural/historical texts that are in print. One poetry collection should be published in time for the Baltic States headlining the 2018 London Book Fair.”

“Õnnepalu’s style of writing connects to me”

He admits that one question he is frequently asked is, “Why Estonian literature?” “The English-language market is already gargantuan, and Estonia’s proportional place in the translated-literature market naturally corresponds to the size of its population in comparison with the cultural giants,” Adam explains. “However, Estonians have maintained a ravenous appetite for original Estonian-language books, making it far from difficult to come across works that inarguably deserve translation into the overwhelmingly global English. What remains is just to convince publishers of these works’ potential in a vast market; work that the Estonian Literature Centre has done marvellously.”

So why Radio? The publisher, Dalkey Archive Press, approached Adam about translating the novel, and he was happy to accept the challenge. “Õnnepalu’s permeatingly peaceful and musing, observant style of writing does connect to me on a personal level, and I hope to have the opportunity to translate more of his works in the future,” he says. “I acknowledge that the work can put patience to the test (one review called it ‘plotless’, which I do not agree with and have my own arguments against), the intimate process of translating Radio gave me a much deeper appreciation for its style and Õnnepalu’s writing overall.”

Learning the Sami language

While the Estonian language has only about 1.3 million native speakers worldwide, another language Adam is learning has even less – about 20,000. That other language is Sami, spoken by the people in the northernmost parts of Finland, Sweden and Norway. “Similarly to Estonia and Estonian, it just felt right,” Adam explains his interest. “Call it intuition, something deeper in the soul or in blood (I have my suspicions concerning the Swedish side of my heritage); call it an unbridled fascination. It is what it is, and to tell the truth, I haven’t really felt the need to question it. Most of my choices in life have admittedly been based more off of feeling than much else.”

Adam concedes that his grasp of the Sami language is still in its infancy, and hence he’s not translating any works from Sami. But he has also learned Russian – a far larger language than Estonian or Sami – and has translated some texts from it to English. “Unfortunately, I have little time for anything more presently.” Nevertheless, the Russian language is something that intrigues Adam – “because of hazy recollections and awarenesses of the Cold War, the scant direct brushes I had had with Russian culture itself, and the mystification that is Cyrillic. The right instructor and escapades in Ukraine and Russia sealed the deal.”

Adam Cullen.Learning other languages is, as Adam puts it, intimate for him, and not a hobby. “When you really acquire a language, you consciously and subconsciously adopt and meld into yourself inherent pieces of the culture,” he explains. “The outcome is a fluid and ever-expanding identity; something much more considerable than a mere means of communication. I strive to pick up the basics for getting around in a local language when I am travelling or staying short times in another country, but as for speaking, I really only find it humanly possible to focus on a few special ones to the extent I find respectable.”

Translating poetry in rhyme is futile

Adam translates prose and poetry alike, and says they’re entirely different to translate: “The nuances embedded within not only the combination of words and the rhythm, but also the slight tones given by particular and peculiar conjugations, make translating it a lengthy process,” he says of translating poetry.

“As a colleague of mine put it: every translation of a poem is merely the latest draft – days, even years later, a fresh look at the text will draw new dimensions and interpretations to the surface; poetry changes in tandem with the reader.”

Adam does occasionally translate poems in rhyme, but as he admits, “doing so is somewhat a futile endeavour. Brilliant translations that preserve and reformulate both the rhyme and the meaning can certainly be done, but other times, so much of the original dissipates and the end project is so utterly original in and of itself that it is more an inspiration of the first, not a translation of it. Poetry often celebrates and revels in the original language; its harmony can be solely dependent upon it.”

At the moment, Adam is working on yet another translation of a novel – the latest by Mihkel Mutt, titled The Cavemen Go Down in History (in Estonian, Kooparahvas läheb ajalukku). He has also signed contracts for a collection of short stories, as well as a poetry anthology. “Naturally, I also have my eye on a number of other works that interest me!”

“It’s not impossible to encounter warm friendliness in Estonians”

Coming back to Adam’s life in Estonia, one question that comes to mind is, how easy or hard is it for a man from the American Midwest – one of the friendliest places in the whole wide world – to get used to the somewhat cold, sometimes even unfriendly attitude of Estonians? “Settling into life in Estonia and Estonian life means confronting some stark differences,” Adam grants, adding that “‘Minnesota nice’ is an incontestable fact”. “However, it is not impossible to encounter warm friendliness in Estonians, especially among those who are more travelled.”

“One main obstacle to this remains the manner in which many Estonians seem to develop their circle of friends – in my experience, many ‘complete’ the process after they make their pinginaabrid (grade-school ‘bench-mates’), and check it off their list of things to do in life,” he explains. “This is especially aggravating for a newcomer to the country (as I’ve experienced it both in Tallinn and small-town Estonia), especially when proficiency in Estonian is not an issue. Paradoxically, it is almost harder to make close friends when you do know the language.”

Adam Cullen. Photo by Jacques-Alain Finkeltroc.

On the language front, however, Adam believes native-speaking Estonians should be harder on foreigners and foreign spouses to at least progress to the point of basic communication. “A culture is only worth the value its holder places upon it. It does take effort on both sides, that of the native and of the newcomer.”

Estonia needs “a sprinkling of ‘Minnesota nice’”

Adam also adds he doesn’t believe foreigners in Estonia should be more accommodated than they already are. “Far too many new establishments bear English-language names, far too many signs and advertisements do the same. It bleaches away the experience of being abroad from your homeland, of travelling an essentially foreign country – if anything, foreigners should be more flexible and open to taking in the incredible culture and language of the land they are visiting.”

But, “a little sprinkling of ‘Minnesota nice’ in Eesti would not be the worst thing. A deep care for community (which is indeed growing in certain neighbourhoods) and being pleasant by default would be welcomed.”

And what could Minnesotans learn from Estonians? “Minnesotans could pick up a bit of Estonians’ appreciation and reverence for nature; their penchant for ‘returning to the wild’ (although we Minnesotans certainly take full advantage of our lakes and the North Woods, Arctic weather permitting) and especially the no-nonsense, DIY attitude.”

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Cover photo by Jacques-Alain Finkeltroc.

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!

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

15 quotes by Anton Hansen Tammsaare

It’s not easy to find quotes by the Estonian author, Anton Hansen Tammsaare, written in English. Although he was a very intelligent man who could speak six languages – French, German, Finnish, Estonian, English and Russian – he only wrote his works in Estonian. For those of us who can’t speak Estonian but want to explore the works of Tammsaare, here are fifteen of Tammsaare’s most famous quotes taken from his novels, including Truth and Justice and I Loved a German.

1. “Maybe we should never read in the morning what was written at night; morning and midnight, they either misunderstand each other or do not understand at all.”

(Võib-olla ei peaks kunagi hommikul seda lugema, mis südaöösel kirjutatud: hommik ja südaöö ei mõista teineteist või nad mõistavad võõriti.)

2. “If a man is married to the right woman, he will not fail to meet important deadlines.”

(Kui mehel on õige naine, siis teeb ta kõik õigel ajal.)

3. “While I am writing these lines, I believe quite strongly that I loved you before we met; only that I did not know that it was you whom I loved.”

(Ma usun neid ridu kirjutades üsna kindlasti, et ma armastasin Teid juba enne meie tutvumist, ainult et ma veel ei teadnud, et just Teie see olete, keda ma armastan.)

4. “A student must be sober because it is more difficult to learn than to teach.”

(Õpilane peab kaine olema, sest õppida on raskem kui õpetada.)

5. “Young people’s words can never be taken too seriously, because they are bad at reading people, especially when it’s about themselves.”

(Aga noorte inimeste sõnu ei või kuigi tõsiselt võtta, sest nemad on halvad inimesetundjad, eriti kui küsimuses on nad ise.)

6. “Wealth is closer to the truth than poverty.”

(Varandus seisab tõele lähemal kui vaesus.)

7. “Land and nation, as a wife, must be won over every day, lest they slip into another’s hands.”

(Maad ja rahvast, nagu naistki, peab iga päev uuesti võitma, kui ei taha, et nad libisevad mõne teise kätte.)

8. “A person may have more than twenty friends when he is not demanding or overly proud of himself.”

(Inimesel võib ka üle kahekümne sõbra olla, kui ta aga ise pole liig uhke ja nõudlik.)

9. “Nothing is impossible as soon as a person starts thinking seriously about it.”

(Miski pole võimatu, niipea kui inimene hakkab sellest kord tõsiselt mõtlema.)

10. “Everything I have learned can be reduced to this: I want to be what I am not.”

(Kõike, mida olen õppinud, tunnen ainult sel määral, et tahta olla see, mis ma ei ole.)

11. “Suffer with joy, young one, love would not come if there were no pain.”

(Kannata aga rõõmuga, noorik, ega armastus muidu tule, kui valu ei ole.)

12.  “The right mistress’s voice is sweeter than another man’s rye.”

(Õige perenaise hääl on magusam kui teise mehe rukis.)

13. “The greatest fortune is love.”

(Suurim õnn on armastus.)

14. “Work hard and love will follow.”

(Tee tööd ja näe vaeva, siis tuleb armastus.)

15. “A poor man can see days of toil all around him.”

(Päevi saab vaene inimene igal pool näha.)

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This article was also published on Tania Lestal’s blog, Estonia – Paradise of the NorthPlease consider making a donation for the continuous improvement of our publication.

Tõnu Õnnepalu’s book “Radio” goes live in English

Estonian writer Tõnu Õnnepalu’s Raadio was original published in Estonia in 2002, but this year Dalkey Archive Press has released Adam Cullen’s English translation of the novel. The book deals with universal human problems, including questions of isolation and identity, while also confronting more specific challenges of how to come back to one’s homeland after years abroad as well as introspective crises over sexual anxiety. Each of these themes, as well as Õnnepalu’s approach to fiction, were recently discussed during an event launching the English language edition of Radio at Waterstone’s Books in London’s Bloomsbury.

Radio by Onnepalu

Õnnepalu begins by explaining the significance radio had and continues to have in his own life. He explains that radio provides a deeply intimate connection to the wider world which is crucial when living on a small island off of Estonia’s mainland, as he has done for many years. For Õnnepalu, who has never owned a television, there is a kind of immediacy to radio which can approximate the reality of being at a musical performance or having a personal conversation, something other forms of modern communication devices have never been able to replicate. It was the radio which the novel’s protagonist used as a means to answer questions about his own identity and to better understand the contradictions in society, something which appears to be partly based on Õnnepalu’s own experiences.

The novel’s protagonist is an openly gay filmmaker from Estonia who spent a decade living in Paris where he engaged in a one-off love affair with the aging diva Liz Franz. Upon arriving back in Estonia, he attempts to reconcile what he sees as the pomposity of consumerist Paris with the equivalent pomposity of Soviet Estonia. For those interested in a rather poetical (rather than merely political or materialist) interpretation of the contrasts between the capitalist and communist world, Radio will surely offer a great deal of stimulating material. Likewise for those wanting to explore how themes of sexual frustration and isolation were dealt with by one of Estonia’s most cutting edge novelists in the aftermath of Soviet rule, Radio also will prove an important reference point.

It was widely acknowledged that Cullen’s translation of Õnnepalu’s lengthy work was quite a difficult task, not least because there are not many professional translators of Estonian literary works. During the evening, the multi-lingual Õnnepalu was asked if he ever reads any of his novels in translation to see if a translator has correctly captured the original text. Õnnepalu responded that he does not, but rather prefers to put his full trust in the translator even when he is literate in the language into which his novel is being translated. He did however offer an amusing anecdote about when a Taiwanese reader discovered one of his novels in Paris and decided to translate it into a dialect of Chinese based on a conglomeration of the French and English translations. Noting some discrepancies between the French and the English (and not being literate in Estonian), the man sent Õnnepalu questions so that he could clarify which meaning got it closer to the original. This was one of the only times Õnnepalu actually examined his works in a language other than Estonian.

After the event Estonian World asked Õnnepalu further questions about his novel and his general approach to writing.

Do all members of any society suffer an identity crisis at one time or another? If so, are certain kinds of people affected by an identity crisis more than others? 

In a certain extent it is absolutely normal and human to have an identity crisis at one or another moment of your life. It is to ask: who am I, what do I believe, is it real what I’m doing and looking for, or is it just a play, a role? Often it is not so conscious, it just happens in a way and takes a form of, for instance, a divorce, changing (not very wisely always) one’s profession or the place of living. The person tries to move from the situation that seems not to be true to a more real one. But perhaps it is not the outside situation but one’s own attitude toward it that is not true?

Tõnu Õnnepalu by Enn Veevo

Of course, there are moments when a whole nation passes through an identity crisis, like it happened in Estonia in the beginning of 90ies. There were ideals: many people somehow believed that the beautiful (idealised in the false memories) life of the time before the war comes back with the restored republic. Of course, then happened a clash between the beliefs and reality. In fact it gave a great dynamics (even if sometimes unhappy) to the society. There was much creativity, much seeking. In everyone’s life this kind of collective crisis takes a personal form. It may lead to something new; it may lead to bitterness, drinking, suicide, to many things. But altogether the life of a human being is made up of crises. Childhood, school, puberty, love, getting old, dying etc.

It is generally admitted that the people at the marge of society are more apt to have an identity crisis. Ie, gay people. It is a half-truth. If you are different from what a woman or a man is meant generally to be at this very moment of the time, you may start to reflect yourself more, to ask more, who I am and why. A person who believes he is totally “normal” asks more about others than about himself. This is his way to have an identity crisis. It may take a form of hatred, of being very critical toward some other people. But still, it is an identity crisis, it may be even harder as it never names itself, is always seeking an outside object that is always a false object. So one may die in bitterness and hatred, just because one never faced one’s own identity crisis and searched always the reasons of unease and unhappiness from among the others, from outside.

A writer must, in any case, face his own crisis, ask about who he is; must at least try to be honest towards himself: it’s the only justification of being honest towards the others (which is seldom pleasant).

What would you say are the main frustrations of the protagonist in Radio

His main frustrations are his ideals. They are too high. His ideals are impersonated in the figure of Liz Franz, a famous chanteuse whom he idolatred in his early years. The real Liz Franz is never at the height of the ideal one, even if she is sometimes surprisingly better and cleverer than the protagonist has believed. And so about himself, his loves. They are always disappointing. His main task is to learn to face the life and himself directly, not through the perverse glasses of ideals. This is a hard and painful task, but he makes a small progress indeed. Thanks to Liz Franz, her disappearing from his life, he has to remake it without.

How personal a novel is Radio

It is very personal, like all my novels have been. And it is not at all, like all others. I have used my own experience to build up the main character, but it is not me; it’s a character, often he is and acts and believes in the opposite way than I would. It’s like in theatre: an actor builds up a role on the basis of what he or she is. There is no other basis. But the role is not him or her. It’s a way of reflecting what one is and what one might have been. We have many possibilities in us, better and worse of what we are in reality. Acting in the play or writing a book is a harmless and sometimes useful way to live the possibilities you have but you never realise (and even don’t want to realise). It’s a curious experience to be somebody else – who is still yourself. There are all the others present in us, but happily and unhappily we live in the narrow limits of what we really are.

Do you think non-Estonians would have radically different interpretations of Radio than Estonian readers? 

In some topics, most certainly. An Estonian reader takes more personally and perhaps more painfully the relationship that the protagonist has with his national identity, with his country, its culture. For a reader abroad, they are just a country and an identity, a culture. He knows much less about them, but thus he may better catch what really matters in the books. It’s finally not so important that it happens to be Estonia. Well, it is important, but still. I would like myself to be such a reader who knows little about the realities that are in the book. It would be a fresh sight. Some things are more clear while we look from the outside, from the distance.

What excites you most about having your novels translated from their original Estonian? 

Most exciting are the unexpected reactions: often the faraway readers see very sharply the main reason why I had written the book. They have told me very interesting things about myself and my writing. It’s a great privilege to have such remote readers. Otherwise, the readers are similar everywhere, as they are human beings and book readers (which is a universal tribe). Everybody reads oneself in the book, not the author. Being author is a possibility to meet different people through the books you have written. It’s a nice and precious possibility.

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Cover photo: Tõnu Õnnepalu. Photo by Rene Suurkaev (EPL/Delfi).

Radio is available on Amazon.

Book review: “Radio” by Tõnu Õnnepalu

“A bus ticket from Tallinn to Tartu costs twenty Estonian kroons” is how Tõnu Õnnepalu’s hefty tome Radio begins, and it is indeed hefty. As opening sentences go, it’s devoid of much beyond the literal meaning but it sets the scene for much of the following 600 odd pages.

The narrator, an openly gay Estonian filmmaker, is returning to his homeland after a decade spent living in Paris. The contrasts between the glitz and glamour of France and the drab, grey coldness of the pre-EU Estonia become quickly apparent (especially as the narrator has a habit of including the French for certain words in parenthesis). Stuck in a permanent identity crisis and with self-esteem at the doldrums, he weaves together a memoir of a love affair, his thoughts on returning home, and a caustic guidebook to modern Estonia, its history and people. It is the latter in which I think it shines most.

Radio by Onnepalu

Aside from the narrator, the only character of whom we ever see more than two dimensions is Liz Franz (always “Liz Franz” – never “Liz”), a famous singer and former (heterosexual) paramour of our narrator. Her rise to stardom, career, interests and foibles is described in detail and clarity. Yet the other, more minor characters drift in and out in a transient fashion, not unlike the cardboard cutouts you see at shooting ranges, and you care about them almost as much.

Where the novel shines, however, is in its description of near-contemporary Estonia. Õnnepalu’s description of an unemployed husband is spot on:

“His wife works and ensures the family’s economic subsistence, and often very successfully, at that. The husband has lost his job or has not yet found himself in the professional field. He sometimes has creative ambitions. He plans to start writing opinion pieces (opinions) for the newspaper, although initially limits this to participation on Internet commentary pages, where he publishes fairly politically-incorrect positions concerning ‘blacks’ (who are practically non-existent in Estonia), Russians (Estonia’s primary minority), gays, women, politicians, as well as other social categories and phenomena.”

Sound like anyone you know? The book is littered with other witty and erudite observations on modern Estonian life and people, and would probably make a disturbing reading for them, although I hardly think they’ll be reading Radio.

What makes the novel rather heavy weather though, is the lack of sympathy one has with any of the characters. Our interlocutor’s narcissism not only drains sympathy from the reader at a rate of gallons, but the drab and lifeless characters he interacts with are seen only through his own eyes, clouded with self-obsession.

As the novel ploughs on, even the sparkling witticisms on Estonian life break up the narrative too much. You get the impression that the same story could have been told in a book one third of the size.

Still, Õnnepalu follows in the great tradition of other literary classics and this is worthy of much praise – the only problem with Radio is that by the end, you really don’t give a damn.

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Tõnu Õnnepalu’s book “Radio” was published in English by Dalkey Archive Press in March. Translation by Adam Cullen.

Cover photo: Tõnu Õnnepalu.

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