Tõnu Õnnepalu (Anton Nigov, Emil Tode)

Estonian Literary Magazine: Paradise



Paradise (Novels, Estonian)
Published by Varrak, 2009, pp. 196

The novel titled Border State, which appeared in 1993 under the name of Emil Tode, catapulted Tõnu Õnnepalu, previously known as a poet, into the contemporary European literary market. The title acquired the status of a symbol and critics have kept an eye on the writer ever since, with justification. A scene from Border State comes to mind here, where the protagonist is sipping milk from a tall glass in a Parisian bar (NB! Not in a café for some reason, which would be ‘classic’ and expected of Paris!), and senses something depraved in doing this. For him, that glass of milk stands for the ‘final escape from all those revolting glasses of milk that he was forced to drink in his childhood’ – especially if the milk was still warm from milking.

The depravity of the glass of milk in Border State is only a minor detail, a reference to the rather biblical treatment of sin that Õnnepalu tackles in his subsequent novels as well. In that context, the detail is suitable for marking the enthusiasm of an East-European, freshly released from the Soviet paradise, which has quickly turned into boredom and indifference towards the comforts and benefits of a Western welfare society. Being expelled from paradise and recognising the futility of the escape is gradually replaced by the inevitable nostalgia, a yearning for return.

In his new book, Paradise, Õnnepalu has formulated that return. In his seven-day writing cycle, he assumes the role of God, who created Paradise as a model of a safe world, which is nevertheless already lost or about to be. It does not matter that Paradise actually exists, at the edge of Hiiumaa Island somewhere in the Baltic Sea. A few decades ago, Õnnepalu worked there as a teacher, before his literary ‘career’ took off. The book is autobiographical, blog-like, consisting of flashbacks, momentary impressions and material from memory; photographs and a map of the area add a documentary aspect. The author does not emphasise the artistic side of his text. On the contrary, this return to the periphery milieu of decades ago seems quite unpretentious. Still, for the writer and the reader, both the book and the place it describes offer a chance for the author to take time out, distance himself from everyday hassles and developments that move in who-knows-which direction, and look at the minutiae of life from a new perspective, which could actually be simply the same old forgotten one.

The book received the 2009 annual state cultural award; it is successful and widely read. A book like this, written with Õnnepalu’s sensitive pen, was obviously much needed. And an increasing number of people seem to feel that the world is ‘moving faster and faster somewhere, where nobody wants to go,’ quoting from a poem in Õnnepalu’s last collection, spring and summer and. The whole text of Paradise is carried by precisely the same mood. While writing the book, the author spent a week in the very location where the events unravel, although another place where he can withdraw from the world is an old manor house in central Estonia, where the author has been living for the last couple of years.

Regarding the development of Õnnepalu’s work, we can be pretty certain that, without a temporary absence, escape – or even without betrayal and infidelity – the simple brilliance of Paradise would have been unthinkable.

Text by Janika Kronberg

First published in ELM

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