Three Solveigs

Novels

Kolm Solveigi

Three Solveigs (Novels, Estonian)
Published by Ilmamaa, 2015, pp. 411

Mats Traat is one of the great narrators of Estonian literature, a living classic whose works can stand side by side with those of other great authors and can be compared with, for example, those of A. H. Tammsaare. Traat has published 16 novels, six short novels and a number of collections of short stories and poetry. None of his prose texts, even the weaker ones, can be called a failure. Young Traat started to write because he could not ignore the injustice, stupidity and lies that surrounded him. He found most of his subjects in the country life which had been ruined by the establishment of collective farms. All through his working life he has remained a documenter of country life, even when he discusses the pain and fascination of human existence in a more general way.

Traat’s latest book, Three Solveigs, is a thick volume containing seven stories, some of which could be called short novels and the others short stories. This collection is similar to Traat’s earlier works, Carthago Express (1998), The Iceland Summer (2003), Old Devil’s Love (2007) and some others which contain short stories on historical and cultural-historical subjects and have national and international public figures (such as Jakob Hurt, Edith Södergren etc.) among their characters.

All of the stories describe interesting people from cultural history, some well-known, and others less-known or virtually unknown. The author researched the lives and personalities of people whom he found to be interesting, reconstructing their personalities from facts, but also adding his own imagination and presenting the feelings and thoughts of these reconstructions from the characters’ points of view. Traat does not attempt to drastically change the traditional images of his characters or to expose or re-evaluate them. Rather, he finds new aspects and unexpected points of view and tries to empathise with the people and situations and make them believable to his readers.

The title story of the book, “Three Solveigs”, is set in Pikakose in northern Estonia, a place where the famous Estonian actors of the 1920s and 1930s, Erna Villmer and Liina Reiman, spent their summers. The third Solveig of the story is Helmi Viitol, the mistress of the house. This almost novel-length story about unfulfilled dreams, yearnings and the elusiveness of life is related to the title story of Traat’s earlier book The Iceland Summer.

“Puusepp”, one of the short novels included in the book, gives us some glimpses into the life and work of the famous surgeon and researcher Ludvig Puusepp. Traat presents the life of the great surgeon by mixing documented information with fiction, paying more attention to certain periods of his protagonist’s life. Traat begins, “Ludvig Puusepp was born in Kiev on 3 December 1875, according to the Orthodox Calendar. This date is the cornerstone of the story”. The narrator seems to be browsing through the life of the researcher, searching for decisive moments for more detailed study, such as Puusepp’s activities in the RussoJapanese War. Puusepp’s private life is depicted in the most relatable way, especially his relationships with his first wife, who died early, and with his second young wife. The narrator’s voice brings the story to its end by evaluating Puusepp’s life work, “His life work was an important step on the long road to human self-knowledge. Puusepp lifted brainand neuroscience to an unprecedented level.” In addition to cultural historical stories, the second half of the book contains two longer and two shorter texts where the novel-size bulk of material is concentrated in a smaller number of pages. The masterful short story “Lionell” is a paradoxical and tragic story of the total injustice which destroys the life of a reckless young man. The last story, “Õllekatel”, is probably based on historical court documents, and it impressively completes the book.

The epitaph-like “Histories from Harala”, modelled after the work of Edgar Lee Masters, occupy an important place in Traat’s work. He continues to add new life stories to his Harala cycles, and the prose genre allows him to explain them in more detail.

Traat is an old-fashioned writer: he does not experiment, but remains true to his subject. He presents cruel and stupid people, and erroneous and weak people who have to face injustice and disregard, as well as the devastating effect of stupidity and greed. “Look at what people can be found in the world!” could be the motto of the diverse gallery of characters Traat sets before us. He is not interested in the noble and tragic beauty of defying fate, but observes the senselessness and price of unavoidable defeat.

Text by Rutt Hinrikus

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