Vastsed Harala elulood (Recent Life Stories of Harala)


Vastsed Harala elulood

Recent Life Stories of Harala (Poetry, Estonian)
Published by Ilmamaa, 2011, pp. 192

Mats Traat (b. 1936), the grand old man of Estonian literature, has, both in his prose and poetry, been talking about Estonian history and the fate of (country) people for half a century. Just as long is the time that he has been talking about the life stories of Harala. The “epitaphs”, written since 1961, i.e. laconic biographies in verse of people buried in the Harala cemetery, were for the first time gathered into the collection of poetry Life Stories of Harala in 1976. Ten or eleven years ago, when an updated version of the first collection and New Life Stories of
Harala appeared, it seemed quite likely that more was to come about Harala. Especially considering the huge popularity of biographies and descriptions of people’s traumatic past in the Estonian literary field, it was only logical that Traat would want to keep his Harala people going, with all their life tragedies and fears.

Harala is a fictional place created by Mats Traat, and all the characters who tell their stories through the epitaphs are fictional as well. These invented biographies of people from a village cemetery, in verse form, have three main aims. Firstly, the obvious and rather monumental aim is to depict Estonians’ past, creating poetic narratives of national traumatic experiences, and in a sense also creating history through various human destinies. According to Mats Traat himself, he is a writer who tries to record the vanishing of eras and lifestyles: “Writers are indeed in search of lost time.” Harala life stories, in parallel or in sequence, open up vastly different eras, and bigger or smaller events, mostly in 20th century Estonia, which all influence simple people, and bring the past temporally and spatially closer, demonstrating history’s tight links with individual destinies.

Secondly, and  qually important, is to “build” a specific place, although fictional, through people. Literature then makes it part of real Estonia and it expands to become a metonymic generalisation about a bigger whole, Estonia. Harala is home to a group of individuals and to a village community. This space is created by just one person, the author, but he creates it for hundreds of people: via human types living at different times and under different social conditions; the spatial experience varies and Harala as a location becomes a dynamic phenomenon.

The third aim is to depict death, writing “towards death” and in a sense describing (collective) mourning; as Traat has said, “Life is but one big mourning”. This fact indicates why Traat’s Harala is such a miserable, unhappy and difficult place, often shown through descriptions of, and reasons for, death; natural deaths are remarkably scarce in Harala. The location is thus largely mapped by paths of death: the place with the most constant meaning in the village is the cemetery.

At the time the Harala life stories began, in the deepest Soviet era, writing epitaphs constituted a defiant and stubborn act, enabling the poetic form to conceal incidents of history that would have been censured in other forms. Recent Life Stories of Harala tackles crucial points in history as before, and the new epitaphs reveal no changes in the mentality of the village community or in human destinies. Thus the function of the publication of 182 “recent” life stories is primarily to maintain the existing poetic place, and there is no doubt
that Harala will survive, its inhabitants pass on, and the cemetery expand. Despite the emphasis on transience, the idea of Harala is nevertheless to remember something significant
in our shared past, and to reveal it through individual lives. Carried by sadness and anxiety,
this is an incredibly vast poetic narrative.

Text by Brita Melts

First published in the Estonian Literary Magazine, No 1/2012

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