Carthago Express

Short stories

Kartaago kiirrong

Carthago Express (Short stories, Estonian)
Published by Kupar, 1998, pp. 186

One of the leading Estonian fiction writers Mats Traat began his literary career as a poet in 1962. He has been recognised as a fruitful prose writer and the depicter of Estonian vitality and country life, and of the often struggling, but still unbelievable toughness of the Estonians. He has given an important role to ethical choices, to people pressed by fate; he describes the heroic, but quite often also tragicomic attempts of an ordinary man to keep his head above water and to do his duty bravely. Traat’s historical novels usually discuss the period starting with the buying of farms from the manor house owners in the second half of the 19th century up to the emptying of farms and people migrating to towns in the Soviet period. Beside large epic panoramas, his shorter works have also enjoyed remarkable success. In recent years he has written a number of cultural historical short stories.

The collection Carthago Express contains one short story from the year 1995 and six from 1996. The opening piece of the book Between Two Evils is laid in 1721. The person between two evils is a stableboy Jaak, who, together with a more courageous neighbour, makes a treasure-bearing goblin, but recoils at the idea of having to give it three drops of his blood to make it come alive. After being severely beaten by the estate manager Wagenmeister, Jaak dies. The author has brought to perfection the descriptions of the manager’s powerless frustration, which has turned into cruelty, the powerful and bored frustration of his wife, and the silly, shy and superstitious yearning for happiness of the young servants of the estate. This tragic story about the impunity of evil and the inherent incapacity of evil for fostering happiness has been rendered in a seemingly dispassionate way, with a trace of barely noticeable irony. This short story is quite close to Traat’s novel Trees Were, Trees Were Tender Brothers (Puud olid, puud olid hellad velled), which depicts an analogous story occurring in the next century, where the ethical hidden meaning of the story is also stressed with the help of mythological world. A real historical person, Pastor Roth, is only a minor character in this short story, but the characters of other pieces in this collection are all well-known historical persons. The main characters of three stories are all connected with a leader of national awakening Jakob Hurt – one story depicts young Jakob Hurt arranging his marriage, the second one is about J.Hurt’s father-in-law Pastor Oettel, while the third one characterises an ageing explorer and naturalist A.v.Middendorf. Jakob Hurt was a tutor in Middendorf’s manor as a young man. School inspector Sveshnikov, who had lived in Tartu at the beginning of this century and who has been mentioned in several memoirs, is the main character of the story “Sveshnikov”. The title story of the book, “Carthago Express”, is an inner monologue of the leading Finnish-Swedish poetess of the beginning of the century Edith Södergran. Only the wilful Södergran is free in her feelings. All the others worry about their ethical dilemmas and are not free even in their dreams about women. They are restricted not only by the moral norms of the period, but also by their own character, which might be too phlegmatic or too ready for compromises. A longer story The Cross of Power, which was awarded the short story of the year prize, depicts the life and the problems of governing of the Admiral Koltchak during the Bolshevik Civil War in Russia. This is about a man, who has the power to command power, who stands against the red tsunami and knows that there is nobody who could answer his questions, and that all chances of winning have already been played away.

Text by Janika Kronberg and Rutt Hinrikus

First published in the Estonian Literary Magazine no. 07

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