In the Backyard



In the Backyard (Novels, Estonian)
Published by Noor-Eesti, 1933, pp. 187

Oskar Luts, In the Backyard (1933)

This is really more a story than a novel, or perhaps even a series of loosely-related character sketches. It does not have an elaborate plot, and the one it does have often tends to trail off its course. However, the work is famous for how vividly it describes certain slum characters of 1930s Estonia. A cross-section of the inhabitants of a tenement house is given: we see cobblers, coachmen, hustlers, washerwomen, poor widows, lowdown servicemen, students, drunkards, and their miserable everyday lives.

The book opens with a few coarse, even brutal scenes: the central character, Tatyana Nikolaevna, a poor widow with two children, cannot sleep – there is a party at a hustler’s apartment upstairs. There is a fight, and afterward, someone is lying on the staircase, bleeding. Tatyana’s lodgers come home blind drunk. The woman’s two small children are starving and by page 25, she is raped. Everything is totally bleak, dirty, hopeless and depressing, like the beginning of a naturalist novel.

But this is the work of the greatest humourist of Estonian literature. It is very hard to believe, but the text indeed eases into a more light-hearted manner. Quite unbelievably, things start looking up for Tatyana when a friendly woman moves into the neighbouring house and offers her help with fighting her hardships. And most importantly, we are given a wealth of comic developments. For example, the cobbler accuses everyone of having stolen a pair of shoes from his workshop, the police are called and the house is thoroughly searched until it is discovered that the drunk cobbler forgot to take the shoes from his client at all. The most famous comic motif that has become a commonplace reference in Estonian culture is “Villa Hydrangea“ – a garage inhabited by a few merry bums who seem to have the best and the most carefree life in the whole backyard. All this is described in very lush and lively language.

What we do not get from this work is a moral. Contemporary criticism actually received the work very poorly: the main accusations were that the author does not discuss the reasons for the poverty and degeneration of his characters; that he lacks social awareness; and that he offers no solutions. In short, critics were expecting a naturalist novel, and probably a socialist solution. But the very fact that the author did not choose this path is the reason why the work is so interesting, special, and continuously popular.

Text by Johanna Ross

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