HE COMES TO SUCK YOUR PLOTLINE

By SAM MUNSON

Diary of a Blood Donor reviewed

It sounds absurd: a parable about Stalinism and Soviet nationalism disguised as a comic retelling of the Dracula story, set in Estonia in the mid 1980s. But Mati Unt has produced a dark, powerfully coherent book with his newly-translated novel "Diary of a Blood Donor," originally published in 1990.

"Diary" is a disturbing and comic tale of obsession, politics and the vagaries of literature. The book's protagonist, an Estonian writer (whose name, Jonathan Hark, is a reference to the central character of Dracula, Jonathan Harker), receives an anonymous letter inviting him to Leningrad for a meeting where the cruiser Aurora (which fired the shots inaugurating the Russian Revolution) has docked.

"This meeting is vital," the letter insists, and so Hark is off on a journey that will take him into the clutches of Michelson, a mild but terrifying figure from Estonia's history, who has returned to his homeland to wreak a bizarre vengeance on it. On the way, Unt introduces us to Bruno Renner, asylum inmate and unwilling servant of Michelson; to Minni and Lussi (nods to Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra), Hark's girlfriend and her roommate; to Joosep, a crazed drunkard and agent of the internal security apparatus; and to Lydia Koidula, a long-dead, recently re-incarnated Estonian poet and the unwilling tool of various political factions.

Unt's literate, deadpan voice is a source of great, grim comedy. "Although the letter writer hadn't said his invitation was a secret, he could be testing my character," thinks Hark. "In any case, would my friends believe me? They might think I was drunk or playing a practical joke on them. Many of them have received invitations to strange places, like the symposium of the Supreme Soviets: lands inhabited by pagans, the PEN club, torture chambers and auctions of Picasso's art. An invitation to the Aurora wouldn't rate very high on that list."

Unt' source material enriches the book as well. Bram Stoker's 1897 novel "Dracula" is, for all of its shallowness and sentimentality, a brilliantly constructed story. Unt's book - with its epistolary fifth section and its shifts in narrative perspective and time - pays homage to Stoker's in form as well as content.

Unt's bizarre but vivid vision makes even the book's difficult second section, which comprises a series of apparently unrelated events and situations, populated with nameless characters and separated by large gaps of space and time, almost hypnotically compelling.

Unt's long conclusion is appropriate to the morally murky and politically tortured circumstances of his characters, and he deploys it to great tragicomic effect. "Blood regeneration is facilitated by high calorific food. Love comes in by way of the stomach. Who loves, lives long. During a long life one is liable to witness any number of incredible events. But sometimes nothing happens. The surface of water is still. When the wind doesn't blow, sand doesn't fly. And light is always bluer or redder than it should be."

Diary of a Blood Donor
by Mati Unt, translated by Ants Eert
The Dalkey Archive, 2008

New York Post, May 18, 2008


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