Treading Air



Treading Air (Novels, Estonian)
Published by Virgela, 1998, pp. 376


Paigallend (Treading Air) is the 13th novel of the grand old man of Estonian prose Jaan Kross, where he tells the story of his generation. The same subject – an unhealed wound in recent Estonian history – has been present in the majority of Kross’s short stories and in such novels as “The Wikman Boys”, “Mesmer’s Ring”, “Excavations”. The title of the novel – “Treading Air” – is a striking metaphor. The story of Ullo Paerand is partly given as a first-person narrative, from the main character’s viewpoint, and partly as the recollections of his schoolmate Jaak Sirkel, a character of several Kross’s previous novels. The novel opens with Ullo’s reminiscences of a childhood trip to Germany in the 1920s and ends with his death, or more strictly, with his vision of meeting his aged father, who had fled from his creditors to the West with his lover. The frivolous father deserted his family, just as the Western world was building a wall of silence and superciliousness between itself and Eastern Europe, blaming history. 

Ullo is the exceptionally talented only son of a wealthy father, who preserves the travel memories of his happy childhood in his extraordinary memory. All the more so, as he no longer receives any royal presents comparable to this trip from life. His father deserts his family and his luxurious childhood is followed by lean years. With his mother Ullo fights for a better future, in spite of small humiliations and an occasionally empty stomach he is able to get a secondary education in one of Tallinn’s best grammar schools. He has a rapid career, rising, due to his excellent memory and enterprising spirit, to an important position in the Prime Minister’s Office. Clearly discernible portraits of several historical characters can be found in the book. But fate lets Ullo down the second time round. The Soviet and German occupations do not leave him any chance of embarking on an honest career. Ullo works with nationalists for the restoration of the Estonian Republic, he refuses a favourable chance of escaping to the West offered by a representative of the Vatican. He lives his remaining life – some forty years – in inner emigration, doing menial work, making suitcases in a factory. The fate of a wingless bird is the price he has to pay for not making compromises, this is the resistance of the prisoner. The language of the novel is brilliant, the composition is skilful and the symbols are clearly understandable.

Text by Rutt Hinrikus and Janika Kronberg

First published in Estonian Literary Magazine 2003, No 17

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