The Death of the Perfect Sentence

Novels

Täiusliku lause surm

Death of the Perfect Sentence (Novels, Estonian)
Published by Mustvalge Kirjastus, 2015, pp. 176

‘He’s done it again!’ – Rein Raud is already known for having written a number of highly varied and multi-layered novels, and his latest work is no exception. It is above all a first-rate work of fiction, but it also provides a view into Estonia’s recent history which is witty and thought-provoking, leaving the reader not knowing whether to laugh or cry. The novel’s main ingredients, which include the KGB, Western spies, and Soviet dissidents, guarantee an addictive reading experience, and looming above all else is the central question of how to build a new society in conditions where the main legacy of the old one was the destruction of interpersonal trust.

Raud has set himself the challenging task of writing simultaneously about history and the present day, about politics and about human emotions – and he has risen to the challenge brilliantly. On the one hand, ‘The Death of the Perfect Sentence’ is a spy novel about how the young opponents of the regime try to outwit the KGB. But it can just as well be read as a tragic love story, in which profound human emotions perish when they come up against a system which is in its final death throws. Indeed, this is probably the key theme of the novel. In addressing the question of the lack of interpersonal trust, the author is not just referring back to the past – this is a problem which Estonian society and Western societies more broadly must grapple with today.  

‘The Death of the Perfect Sentence’ follows the KGB, and Estonia’s dissidents and regime opponents, as they engage in their adversarial manoeuvrings. The reader encounters both careerist KGB agents and the idealistic youth, but Raud succeeds in demonstrating that all the characters are multidimensional and dynamic – even a scoundrel’s actions have a purpose, sometimes even a justification, and happiness can be destroyed by higher ideals just as easily as by the desire to preserve a comfortable status quo.

Nor is the novel lacking in complex affairs of the heart. One of the opponents of the regime, a young sportsman, uses a former teacher and KGB secretary who is not indifferent to his attentions to further his political ends. But the young man’s interest in an art student, similarly of a professional nature since she is required to help smuggle secret documents out of the country, turns out to be fateful. The game is further complicated by the fact that the art student is having a relationship with someone who is himself one of the other links in this complex scheme for transferring KGB dossiers to the West, although neither of them is aware that they have both been dragged into it. Thus the young woman’s view of her lover, who can often be heard speaking Russian and is frequently away on trips overseas, changes completely. Complicated circumstances give rise to complicated relationships, with complicated consequences.

A clever device which Raud employs to add a further dimension to the novel is the placing of separate text boxes containing various thoughts and observations within the main body of the text. These are used both to comment on the novel from the perspective of a detached observer, and to recount various subplots which are linked to the main text but which would not have fitted within the overall narrative.

This approach gives an enjoyable rhythm to the reading experience, and it also means that despite the fairly sombre mood the text succeeds in being both gripping and witty. This novel presents a true-to-life description of the historical period based on the author’s own memories, but it also makes the reader think about the situation in present-day Estonia. Is today’s society really so different to how it used to be? Are people capable of changing? What is the right way to live in a society where there is a dearth of trust?

The specific details of Raud’s novel may be fictional, but through the atmosphere it creates and the features of everyday life which it addresses it tells a realistic and convincing story about why the Estonian people and the society in which they live have developed as they have.

Text by Peeter Helme


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