Names on a Marble Slab


Nimed marmortahvlil

Names on a Marble Slab (Novels, Estonian)
Published by Eesti Kirjastuse Kooperatiiv, 1936, pp. 540

With an autobiographical background, “Names on a Marble Slab” (Nimed marmortahvlil) describes the Estonian War of Liberation (1918–1920), centred around some schoolboys from Tartu who go to the war as volunteers. The novel is one of the classics of Estonian literature. During the first republic (1918–1940) the work quickly became “the true” depiction of the War of Liberation. During the Soviet occupation (1940–1991) the work was banned and had a reputation of a cult book. The popularity of the work today has been helped by a feature film of the same name (2002).
The main character in the novel, Henn Ahas, is at the beginning of the book vacillating between two world-views – socialism and nationalism. Each of these views is espoused by two of Ahas’ closest friends, and in addition Ahas’ brother is fighting on the Red side. In the first half of the novel there is a thorough grounding in both viewpoints and in the conditions of the war years. One of the basic questions in the book is: how to choose, and which one? The main character ponders at length which is right, the Red or the White side? – he vacillates like Hamlet. Ahas does not immediately join with his schoolmates, who decide to go to fight for Estonia, but he does join them later.
Another central problem posed in the book is how war changes a person. The main part of the book centres around this. The battles are described realistically and in detail; the novel is based on historical events, depicting the changes the young men undergo in war with psychological empathy. It is not a mere portrayal of the daring rush into battle, or scenes of unrealistic bravery; the work does not make war heroic, but rather one might say that Kivikas takes an anti-war position. It shows the metamorphosis of schoolboys in battle, the fear of death they feel at the beginning (in the first battle Henn and some of his comrades take to their heels), and in time a passion for killing is awaked in the young men, out of their revulsion. By the end they will not even stop at killing prisoners. This is related to the suffering and brutality that the boys have to face. Most vividly the change in a man in war is portrayed in the person of Kohlapuu, who in the beginning is a convinced pacifist (he refuses to fire on the enemy), but who later develops into the fiercest of fighters, the first one to kill, and who finally goes mad.
At the end of the novel, Ahas finds a solution to the question of which side to choose, which ideology to support: he must fight for an independent Estonian state, with a just society. Most of Ahas’ schoolmates perish, and only their names remain, on a marble slab.

Text by Anneli Kõvamees

10 Books fom Estonia, No 2, Spring 2009

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