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At the Ceremony for the 140th Anniversary of A. H. Tammsaare’s Birth


Just last Saturday, I attended a performance of Andrus Kivirähk’s play The Witching Hour on Koidula Street. It is a play about love, though it pretends to be about writers and literature. However, for a moment, let us believe what it pretends. Let us truly take it as it seems. We have two classic Estonian writers: A. H. Tammsaare and Mati Unt. Two ghosts, two spirits. But in the play, there is something important between the two ghosts that also sets them apart in the afterlife. What this is, is time. All Estonians can still remember Unt. The way he was. His mannerisms. His patterns of behaviour. His tricks. Time doesn’t allow Unt to be played any other way than how he was. It’s at least a good thing that similarity in outer appearance wasn’t pursued in the case of either ghost!

Still, the Tammsaare written by Kivirähk and played by Tõnu Oja doesn’t haunt us as if we were watching an episode of Dancing with the Stars. None of us compare Tammsaare with the real Tammsaare, because we simply do not know what he was like as a person, exactly. I tracked Andrus down after the performance and asked him if he thought Tammsaare was a good person. Andrus thought he was. It seems like he was also a good person in Tõnu Oja’s opinion. Tammsaare cared.

Tammsaare’s colleagues recorded a great deal about their own activities. We know a thing or two about the cultural scene at the time: who behaved in what way, and what their attitudes were towards fellow writers, their works, and the Republic of Estonia. Tammsaare’s essence doesn’t seep out of these memoirs all too often, because he apparently didn’t always walk the same paths or frequent the same cafés and gatherings as other cultural figures of that era. He was in poor health. His friends were also different and more practical. Chancellor of Justice Anton Palvadre, for instance. Be the reasons what they were, Tammsaare seemed to stand apart, not belonging to artistic groups or working to improve the world together with other beloved writers.

Today, Tammsaare also stands a little apart somehow. He is sacred to us. However, for Estonians, it’s customary that when something is very dear, valuable, and almost holy – when it is a type of relic – then we stow it away in a cupboard or behind glass. We only take it out on very special days, protect it from everything ordinary, and afterwards place it back upon a pillow to rest until the next time.

In reality, however, it would be wonderful if Tammsaare were dear and mundane, close to all of us and offering some support in our endeavours. When we open the glass doors of Grandmother’s bookcase and breathe in that scent of old books, take a Tammsaare work off the shelf and release it of the dust jacket that still looks brand new, we find our way to the core. And in truth, it turns out that Tammsaare is no author of some distant era who wasn’t even very well known by his contemporaries. Tammsaare is not only a very good author, but an extremely easily-readable author. To modern-day youth, the word ‘classic’ might sound a little boring. Yet, Tammsaare isn’t boring at all.

I’m not only talking about the style of his writing or the fact that it is fascinating. It is fascinating, of course, but there is something else there. Tammsaare wrote about life’s abundant facets. We know the way he viewed school, church, love, marriage, death, freedom, man, and woman. And, I might add, we are able to know it somehow without pretension, effortlessly, through books and over the course of stories. Not like reading Voltaire’s The Philosophical Dictionary, although a similar collection could certainly be assembled from Tammsaare’s various written works.

Tammsaare was so admired by his peers that his books were quickly adapted into plays. Playwrights require prose that has enough resonance for some part of it to stick in people’s minds; for it to take flight and start living its own life. Theatre desires passion and humour, colourfulness and a quick pace. Complex streams of thought are difficult to stage in a way that fills auditoriums with audiences. Playwrights have an instinct for what works. While acting Tammsaare, actors have created great roles for which they are remembered, and this continues to this day. Of course, modern-day actors are faced with a more difficult task: every new role that is created must be compared with those that have become legendary. And as we all know, we have a habit of gilding over all that has been and appreciating less that, which is in the present.

Tammsaare himself provides us with a remedy to this tendency as well. The only clear thought that came to me and could be formed into words last summer while visiting the site where volume one of Tammsaare’s Truth and Justice was being filmed and some member of the cast unexpectedly asked me the impression it gave me, it was precisely that: realism. Life on Vargamäe, ‘Crook’s Hill’, was gruelling and there were very few choices to be had. Tammsaare does not gloss over the time he writes about. It wasn’t all la-di-da. Tammsaare crafts his characters with love and sympathy, giving them lives typical of the period: fields of activity that feel like closed circles with no way out. If anyone gets out of the book while young and handsome, then there is hope they may live happily ever after. Liisi and Joosep left Crook’s Hill, and therefore, there is a chance that perhaps their love lasted forever and life was beautiful. In Kivirähk’s play, Tammsaare quickly looks the passage up in his book when standing face-to-face with a modern-day youth; though it can actually be any young person who believes in hope and love and a beautiful life.


            True, whoever isn’t written out of the book is released by death. That, which comes between birth and death can be found aplenty in Tammsaare’s works: parallel storylines, parallel lives, and so many people shuffling in and out of the scenes, their lives filled with constant activity. Yet, things still go as expected and as ordained by the time and place of the characters’ birth.


            Nevertheless, Tammsaare’s works are filled with love: Pearu mourns Krõõt and smooths the road for her funeral procession, Jürka of Hellsbottom planes a coffin for his dying old companion and reminisces about fair times, Karin ultimately throws herself under a tram for her husband, and Villu of Katku kills himself because he believes himself unworthy of Anna of Kõrboja’s love. Yet all of this is love, even though it is presented in a painfully powerful manner. Tammsaare was no Romain Rolland, mind you! Idealism is what ultimately leads to heroically awful decisions and acts! Tammsaare’s protagonists do not ruin the world in the name of their ideas – they live peaceful lives ordained by fate and, for the most part, let others be as well. Whenever any tend to become ideologically overbearing, Tammsaare most certainly deals punishment.


            Yet in order to balance out this human woe, Tammsaare also penned satirical descriptions of bankruptcy masters, lady socialites, Pearu’s pranks, the strange teachers of Mr. Maurus’s school, and Pearu and Maurus’s monologues, which are more actable than today’s stand-up comedy.


            To share in all of this, however, one must let go of the idea that Tammsaare must be held in a glass-doored cupboard, among the smell of old books, in an untouched dust jacket, devoid of fingerprints. Just like we were instructed as children: books are to be taken care of – no dog-earing pages, and heaven forbid one underlines their favourite passages. Read your Tammsaare books to tatters, young people – just go ahead and read! They contain an unbelievable amount of material that speaks to every generation troubled by life’s eternal worries: those handsomer in their younger days and beset by ever more woes in their older years. I hope I’m not several decades late with this advice. But even if I am, I have to hope that more of Tammsaare’s works are adapted for film than merely volume one of his Truth and Justice pentalogy. The material for doing so is endless.


            And there is Tammsaare material suitable for every era, I might add. Certain books and certain authors were banned during the Soviet occupation. Tammsaare’s works were also closely guarded. However, this censorship was paradoxical, in a way. One was free to read Tammsaare’s books, but one could not write about them freely. Reading his works was a part of the quiet and tenacious struggle for national survival.


            Throughout his lifetime, Tammsaare vigorously worked to ensure that translations of his works might also make their way to readers in other countries. Then, the Second World War began, and the author’s own life ended. Tammsaare translations, which had enjoyed a fruitful beginning, came to a sudden halt: for example, three Tammsaare novels were translated into Dutch over the course of three years, but total silence dominated in the Netherlands starting from 1941.


            Over the last couple of decades, Tammsaare’s great but unfulfilled wish to find a fine, professional publisher for his novels in the English-language world has been achieved. In 2014, Truth and Justice: Andres and Pearu was published as an e-book, and a print version will be published for the 2018 London Book Fair.


            Truth and Justice was published at nearly the same time in both French and Finnish. In Finland, an entire monograph of our national classic’s works has been published.


            So, as you see, Tammsaare is needed by other peoples in our era as well. Let us then also continue to keep him close at hand.