In his latest novel, Paigallend (Hovering in the Air; more literally: A Suspended Flight), the "grand old man" of contemporary Estonian literature and his country's "permanent" candidate for the Nobel Prize, Jaan Kross (b. 1920), once again has demonstrated his skills at constructing a vital historical narrative. The novel can be seen as a consummation of Kross's long narrative saga- comprising, to date, fifteen novels and a dozen or so shorter narratives-about Estonia's becoming a cultured nation capable of establishing an independent state.
Paigallend repeats as well as sums up Kross's fundamental ideological- philosophical positions. The novel does not add much to the psychological structure of his "nation-building"; its solidity has been gradually achieved in his earlier discursive-monologic narratives. The narrative center in Paigallend looks almost intentionally deprived of psychological tensions, to make room for political developments. No attempt is made to depict the intimate part of the life of Ullo Paerand, the novel's main character; when it briefly appears, its function seems to be rather to accentuate the protagonist's weaknesses as a human being.
In contrast to the main characters of Kross's other novels, Ullo Paerand is not a historical but a fictional personage. At the beginning of the novel he is presented as an average Estonian-really "nobody" in the cultural or political sense-fated to share the lot of one million Estonians who could not or did not want to flee the country during World War II and, as a consequence, had to suffer, like Kross himself, from both the German and the Soviet Russian occupation. Like the hero of a picaresque novel, Ullo moves through different spheres of Estonian society, providing the reader with access to both the "outside" and the "inside" and letting him see it from the changing time perspective, as the narrative progresses from the first Estonian republic (1918-39) to the postwar years. The narrator Jaak Sirkel, one of Kross's doubles, alternately transmits what he himself remembers of his schoolmate Ullo, in the 1930s and later, and what the latter tells him in 1986-the second year of Gorbachev's perestro|ka-about the crucial peripeteias of his past life during the war, under the German and Russian occupations and in postwar Soviet Estonia. Ullo may also remind us of a picaresque hero because of his cleverness, despite his ups and downs, at finding a way out of even the most complicated situations.
However, radically distancing himself from the picaresque mode, Kross soon lets his character evolve from a nobody into a somebody, pushing him into the very center of Estonia's political-ideological turmoil. With the Germans leaving and the Soviets entering the country in 1944, Ullo shares the desperate attempt of a small number of Estonian politicians to declare the country's continuing independence and make the outside world hear it. At the critical moment when he could flee the country, Ullo, like Timotheus von Bock in Kross's most celebrated novel, The Czar's Madman (1978; see WLT 68:2, p. 399), makes the decision to stay, because, as he tells his wife, "when thousands go, a million must stay." Under the Soviet regime, Ullo writes a poem in which the image of the Greek patriot Manolis Glezos hides the dream of his own country's liberty. Ullo is also close to the leading Estonian intellectuals-such as the writer Friedebert Tuglas-who consolidate a tacit resistance to the occupying power.
Unlike his father, who fled from Estonia and his family to the West before the war, Ullo thus assumes full responsibility for the fate of his country. Like Jaan Kross himself, he is above all an adherent of existentialist philosophy. From the end of the 1950s existential ideas gradually started to infiltrate through the "iron curtain" from the West to the Soviet Union, and especially its more liberalized periphery, the Baltic countries. However, it was first and foremost the existential limit situation of Estonia itself that awakened the alert members of its populace to their responsibilities. For Estonia to survive the long Soviet occupation and retain its premises as a nation, protests from abroad-above all, from those Estonians who had fled the country and settled in the West-were not enough. Estonia as a country, in the physical-geographic sense, needed to have its own intellectual- resistance vanguard. Kross and his fictional characters Ullo Paerand and Jaak Sirkel, in Paigallend, incarnate such a historical responsibility.
The clever, subtle title of Kross's novel might mean, on the one hand, Estonia's openness to the world and to higher spiritual-intellectual- moral values, a transcending of oneself. On the other hand, it might embody a nation's (as well as an individual's) inevitable relatedness to the earth, with all the corresponding limitations imposed on the human being (and the nation). In the final account, however, it could signify a nation's responsibility for that particular patch of earth which has given rise to a language and a culture capable of contributing to the inner richness of humankind, regardless of how invisible "big monologues" between global superpowers have rendered it in the eyes of the world.
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|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1999|
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