Baffling but strangely beguiling tale of vampires and an Estonian hero

Reviewed by Mark Thwaite

Diary Of A Blood Donor, by Mati Unt, trans. Ants Eert

Mati Unt (1944-2005) was not only a well-known novelist in Estonia; he brought avant-garde theatre to the post-Soviet state. His progressive credentials are writ large in Diary of a Blood Donor, a curious and oblique retelling of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Only in the latter stages of Unt's surreal book does it become clear that Stoker's myth is being reworked. All his characters are here (Mina is Minni, Lucy is Lussi, Jonathan is Joonatan), and Unt even uses something of the novel's form, a mixture of diaries, memoirs and letters. They are joined by Lydia Koidula (1843-86) the premier Estonian nationalist poet: Lydia of the Dawn, a real writer, haunts the novel, embodying the spirit of Unt's homeland.

Despite Stoker's innovative plotting, his story arc is clear. Unt, on the other hand, foregoes clarity for suggestion and what sometimes reads like the infuriating impulse to write down anything that comes into his head. We are told that one of Koidula's poems, which ends "the blossom filled country lanes of Estonia, the smelly land of my fathers", always has to be explained: "in those days 'smelly' meant fragrant or aromatic". Words, then, change meaning as reality changes. Smelly now means to stink, inverting what Koidula meant.

Writers and historians have to be alive to such changes to make sense of the world. Unt's baffling novel makes some sense when we realise that the madness of the Soviet system were once held to be rational. So it is vital to confront and rewrite our cherished myths.

Vampires gave Karl Marx a metaphor, used throughout Das Capital, to explain the parasitic qualities of the extraction of value from impoverished workers. Unt, citing Marx, sheds some light on the naturalised qualities of late capitalism, where the excluded and marginal are themselves said to be parasites. We learn too how costly the process of writing and thinking about writing is for any writer who recognises the vertiginous dangers as well as the joys of penmanship. But following Joonatan's meanderings, reading Lussi's fantasies, and learning about Minni's feelings, is often confusing and frustrating. Unt's vampire metaphor is contradictory and his narrative loose.

Unt writes of human complexity: "Lots of nuances remain unappreciated." Perhaps a fuller knowledge of Estonian history would help to better appreciate Unt's sometimes heavy-handed, sometimes whimsical, but strangely beguiling curio.

The Independent, Thursday, 24 July 2008

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