- Life Writing in Relational ModesThe Year in Estonia
A glance at some of the canonical works of life writing in Estonia, such as August Kitzberg's Ühe vana "tuuletallaja" noorpõlve mälestused (1924) or Jaan Kross's two-volume Kallid kaasteelised (2000, 2008), reveals the prominence of "a relational model of identity, developed collaboratively with others" (Eakin, How Our Lives 57).1 What makes relationality a worthwhile focus for our review of Estonian life writing of the last two years are its varied manifestations in texts that engage with different generic conventions and cut across different strata of (literary) culture, from award-winning authors to amateur biographers, and from leading publishing houses to scholarly presses and grassroots publishing initiatives.
One of the most noteworthy trends in Estonian life writing of the twenty-first century is the emergence of biogeographical spaces that form the basis of the author's self-perception and memories. One of the prime examples of this trend is the autobiographical novel Paradiis (2009) by Tõnu Õnnepalu—currently one of the most well-known contemporary Estonian authors—that unfolds on Hiiumaa, one of Estonia's small islands, and interweaves detailed descriptions of concrete places, buildings, and landscapes with the author's emotions and memories. Õnnepalu himself has described Paradiis as a work that combines documentary features and fairy tale elements (Laurisaar). In his latest work, an autobiographical trilogy published in 2019, Õnnepalu again interweaves fictional and factual, returning to the question of how a specific place, its people, and its landscapes shape the author's subjectivity as a (look from) "ühest maailma kohast maailma ja iseendasse" [self-reflection from a particular place in the world] (Pariis, back cover) entails. The first volume of the trilogy, the diary novel Pariis, describes the author/narrator's life in Paris in the summer of 2018 with reminiscences of the summer of 1993 when he was finishing his debut novel Piiririik (1993). Although the narrator's motivation is the desire to remember and relive the beginning of his journey as a writer, his [End Page 55] self-observations, reflections, and memories are overshadowed by contemporary Parisian landscapes and descriptions of Parisians.
The second, quite controversial volume of the trilogy, Aaker, does not focus on the author's interior life, his memories, and imagination, but on his experience of participating in an annual gathering of diaspora Estonians in the Muskoka region in the woods of northern Ontario. In his work, the author reflects on the meaning of North America (and North American identity), including the experience of being Canadian. He makes no effort to hide his criticism of the Canadian Estonian community, asserting that his bitterness stems from their sense of moral superiority over Estonians in Estonia (Aaker 273). The roots of the narrator's attitude lie in the Soviet era, when Estonians then living in the occupied homeland were regarded by refugees abroad as collaborators with the Soviet regime. Yet the work also stands out for its picturesque depictions of the local natural surroundings—the landscape, animals, and plants where the author utilizes his extensive knowledge of nature, as well as his reflections on the meaning of Europe, viewed from the opposite shore of the "Big Pond."
The last volume of the trilogy, Lõpmatus, is dedicated to one of Estonia's small islands, Vilsandi, which has been given the poetic name Lõpmatus (endlessness), a pun by the author as a response to a question by a friend "Kuhu maailma lõppu sa siis nüüd jälle pugenud oled?" [Where in the end of the world have you been hiding yet again?] (12). Distinct from Pariis and Aaker, this text presents perception of place and the narrator's vision of himself as interconnected; self-examination takes place by feeling one's way into a place and situating oneself within it. The novel consists of a collage of essayistic portraits that sketch firmer outlines of certain residents on the island, plants, birds, or locations that the narrator finds particularly meaningful. In addition to autobiographical cartography, important elements of the novel elucidate the narrator's confessional thoughts about time, particularly...