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The first-person narrator/protagonist of Jaan Kross's Tabamatus (perhaps "Unapprehendability"--yes, the title is as abstract as it is ambiguous) is a young law professor and scholar who is on the run from the German military occupation in Estonia in 1941-42. One of the objects of this protagonist's earlier scholarly inquiry was Juri Vilms (1889-1918), a lawyer and a founder of the Estonian Republic, who was executed in Finland, presumably by the German expeditionary force there. Meanwhile, the author--himself a legal scholar and historian, in addition to being a poet and novelist--was in fact imprisoned during the same German occupation (only to survive a long term in the later 1940s and 1950s, imposed by the subsequent Soviet reoccupation); thus autobiographical details abound in the novel as well. Finally, to square off these three parallel lives, the Swedish polar explorer S. A. An-dree (1854-97) is introduced in chapter 1: not only was Andree among the first to undertake polar exploration via balloon, but his courageous--even reckless, and eventually doomed--undertaking adds figurative resonance to Vilms's historical journey northward, across the ice of the Gulf of Finland, and to a similar course taken by many young men of Kross's and his protagonist's generation in the early 1940s. Andree's voyage evokes other bold launchings as well, whether of love affairs or of independent states.

The ultimate literary model (not only for Kross but for Shakespeare, Napoleon, and others) for such a conception of history is, of course, Plutarch's Bioi paralleloi, which model nevertheless is challenged by Henry Ford's "History is bunk," by my "Those who believe that history repeats itself are condemned to repeat themselves," and by Voltaire's "History is a pack of tricks played upon the dead." But Kross's narrative multipentimento, so to speak, can be reconciled with general skepticism about historiography, not only by the poetic license traditionally granted the historical novelist, but also by Kross's actual practice (without benefit of New Historicist prompting), which implies that both historiography and historical fiction are, after all, both narratives--different in method and purpose, but similar in kind.

Indeed, Tabamatus includes dozens of historical figures in its cast of characters, rounding these off with still others who are not identifiable by name but nevertheless a clef. Furthermore, the concrete details, both "real" and "invented," of the material lives of the "fictional" protagonist, Vilms, Kross, and Andree round out the novel in grand style. A projected index of names to this book would be quite lengthy, and the overlapping and inter-penetrating of (hi)stories of characters from different decades is, for the most part, sure-handed and convincing, extending even to the present, including the reachievement, in 1991, of a sovereign Estonia.

More could be said about the absence of the darker and sillier sides of human nature in the novel, the various articulations of the narrator's frame story with the insets, the treatment of the love interest, and the (predictable) "coincidence" which even more directly unites the protagonist with Vilms. But we had better close with a metatextual salute to the historical Jaan Kross, currently at work on his most recent historical novel, in a free Estonia envisioned by the martyred Juri Vilms.

George Kurman Western Illinois University
COPYRIGHT 1994 University of Oklahoma
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Author:Kurman, George
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1994
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