Wives and Sons

Novels

Wives and Sons (Novels, Estonian)
Published by Looming, 2006

Mats Traat earned a double praise for his fiction in 2006: his novel Wives and Sons, which was published in a literary magazine Looming, and has not yet come out as a book, was proclaimed the best prose work of the year, and his short story Old Devil’s Love was given the Tuglas short story award. In addition to that, Mats Traat was given the 2006 Cultural Award of the Republic of Estonia for Outstanding Lifetime Achievement.

Mats Traat who celebrated his 70th birthday in November 2006, is a living classic, who has published more than 60 books and is one of the most important Estonian prose writers. He is also the author of a number of poetry collections and an outstanding writer of short stories. His works map Estonian history through the stories of people, he writes about being an Estonian, but foremost, he writes the history of Estonian peasants.

Wives and Sons is a part of Traat’s monumental series Mingem üles mägedele (Across the Mountains). This is a great series of historical novels about the life of peasants; such works were mostly written in the first half of the 20th century. Wives and Sons is the 11th part of the series, which already amounts to almost 1600 pages. Most of the volumes of the series can be read as independent works, not requiring knowledge of other parts. The prologue to the epic series, a short novel Puud olid, puud olid hellad velled (Trees Were, Trees Were Tender Brothers, 1979), is a separate masterpieces focussing on the tragic conflict with reality of a dreamy young man, who was forced to take over a farm when still too young. The main intrigue of the series is initiated in Across the Mountains (1979), describing the life of Estonian peasants at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century (see Elm 05). In each new volume, the series draws nearer to the present time. Wives and Sons is set in the economic crisis of the early 1930s. Farm owner Hendrik has had to mortgage his farm; his family has to make do in a very difficult situation. Everyday life is centred on small problems and offers very little for the soul. The author’s empathy is admirable – he delves into the country life of the period, uses dialect in the speech of his characters and perfectly knows the conditions of the period. The mistress of the farm is finally hit by a surge of passion, whether the last moment of joy, or a sin that has to be redeemed? Her body is quickly ravaged by cancer and the master of the farm Hendrik, still full of vitality, buries her and finds a new wife. The novel concludes with the birth of Hendrik’s eleventh child, his ninth son. Life is not easy and for country people, life is a difficult task that has to be fulfilled. But for many generations it was natural and they made no pompous words of patriarchal peasants as the pillars of a nation.

Wives and Sons is a good realist novel, and an achievement among the novels published in 2006. As several outstanding novels of Traat have not found enough renown in recent years, the shower of awards may try to compensate it, but it may also mark a return to permanent values that are the themes of the whole of Traat’s work.

The short story Old Devil’s Love is an example of Traat at his very best. This is another cultural historical story (see also Elm 07), the protagonist of which is a writer and schoolteacher Jakob Tamm, who is hopelessly in love with his pupil. The author changes viewpoints and observes a period in the life of sentimental, honest, true and patriotic poet from near and afar, seeing it through the poet’s own eyes, through the viewpoint of a young girl and through the prism of time and history. A casual co-traveller asks the poet: “Whose shoulder can you lean on? Estonians have no literature.” It is the end of the 19th century, the poet is desperate because his dream of happiness has failed and because the role of ideals has become negligible in life. The author states that “a different world is mirrored in each drop of water” and “no matter how love is revealed to people, it is a blessing, no matter whether it is answered or not.” This short story portrays sensitively a human life with its emotional anguish and places it in an exact temporal context.

First published in ELM


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