The Same River


Seesama jõgi

The Same River (Novels, Estonian)
Published by Vagabund, 2007, pp. 322

Jaan Kaplinski (b. 1941) is probably the best-known Estonian public intellectual and poet. He has taken part in two poetic revolutions: the first, in the 1960s, consisted in introducing modernist diction and oriental imagery into Estonian poetry. The ambition of his incantatory songs was to heal the cleft between the self and the world, private and public being. Despite (or rather thanks to) official suspicion, he achieved almost rock-star celebrity among his generation. In the early 1980s, in the second of the two revolutions, he renounced the shamanic claims of his poetry and took an "antipoetic" turn – purifying his language of literary tropes and concentrating on recording little, everyday epiphanies. In recent decades he has switched to prose, writing essays, travelogues, memoirs, and "theo-fiction" in the manner of British philosopher and science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon.

Seesama jõgi (The same river. Vagabund, 2007), which took almost twelve years to write, is Kaplinski’s first proper novel. This semi-autobiographical Bildungsroman, set in the early 1960s, narrates the efforts of Kaplinski's youthful alter ego to lose his innocence and attain sexual and mystical knowledge. The twenty-year-old protagonist finds an unofficial teacher in a retired theologian and poet, who is out of favour with the communist authorities. After a summer spent in intellectual and erotic soul-searching, the sexual and political intrigues finally overlap, leading to a quasi-solution. KGB and university apparatchiks take a close interest in the teacher-disciple relation of the two poets. The student outgrows his mentor, who despite accusing the human race of puerility, turns out to be a big and jealous child himself. This, in brief outline, is the novel's plot, in which realist descriptions alternate with mystical epiphanies, psychological probings, and reflections on culture, with precisely rendered shots of the social climate of the period, big emotions with subtle ironies. These "emotions recollected in tranquility" and tongue-in-cheek observations of his former naive self, together with unpretentious, nimble, and occasionally self-mocking style, make the novel an unqualified success.

Text by Märt Väljataga

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