A White Bird. Biographies from Harala


Valge lind

A White Bird (Novels, Estonian)
Published by Virgela, 2000, pp. 320

Mats Traat (1936) debuted in the 1960s together with the powerful new generation (Jaan Kaplinski, Paul-Eerik Rummo, Arvo Valton, Mati Unt, Enn Vetemaa and others); he is one of the pillars of Estonian prose of the second half of the 20th century. A White Bird is the ninth volume of his monumental series depicting country life. The first volume of this series, Let’s Go Up to the Mountains (Mingem üles mägedele), was published in 1987; it began with the wedding of a young farmer Hendrik in 1885. The action of A White Bird takes place in the 1920s, in the first decade of the Estonian Republic. Hendrik’s aim in life is building his farm. Establishing a strong foundation to one’s life is not easy, each time when it seems that things have become easier, another obstacle looms ahead. This time it takes the form of fatal news that Lilli, Hendrik's young second wife, has fallen ill with tuberculosis, which kills her in the end of the novel.

Traat is one of most obstinate narrators in Estonian literature; he pays no attention to postmodernist games and continues his realistic epic series, depicting country life in the literary style of the first half of the 20th century, telling about the fate of the nation over a long period of time. A White Bird can be read as an independent work, just as many other parts of this series, but in the general context of the great epic its voice is much more impressive.

Biographies from Harala is a representative work of Traat as a poet – a collection of powerful epitaphs, where the dead, buried at the imaginary Harala cemetery, tell us about their lives one by one. (Here Traat continues the tradition of E. Lee Masters. He even refers to his work by letting one of the characters, who had gone visiting his sister over the ocean, die and be buried at Spoon River graveyard.) As a whole, these biographies give a monumental mosaic portrait of Estonian village life. The first biographies were written already forty years ago, the first selection containing 55 biographies was published under the same title in 1976. The present collection of Harala biographies contains 168 ‘biographies’. Each compressed story, most of which have clearly been inspired by real life, could be expanded into a short story or even a novel. The characters tell their stories laconically, very seldom one of them mentions some others, and there are no author’s comments. The people resting in their graves are mostly simple country people; some of them had gone to seek their fortune in towns. But all of them had to admit that they had not found what they had been searching for; things they had been expecting had not happened; they had been shaped by their lives; nobody had ever wondered what they had been thinking.

The last part of the book was written during the recent decade. Life in the new Estonian Republic has shortened many a path to the Harala graveyard. Traat is very sensitive to social factors and true to the viewpoint of small people. The general atmosphere of these biographies is joyless, Estonian life depicted as dramatic or even downright absurd.

In 1977 the first edition of Harala biographies was awarded the annual literary prize. It is remarkable that even then the author did not falsify the recent history of Estonia. During his literary career of forty years, Traat has been true to his once chosen viewpoint of hard-working uncompromising people, who have often been conquered by life, and he has not been affected by censorship or fashionable trends.

Text by Janika Kronberg

First appeared in Estonian Literary Magazine

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