The Writer of a Small Nation by Jaan Kross

The writer of a small nation is, on the whole, primarily a member of that small nation. He is a member since his birth, and long before the others recognise him as an already existing or a future writer. When contemplating the problems of a writer of a small nation, one should therefore start with the problems of belonging to a small nation. Because these problems, if indeed they exist, are imbibed from his infancy. But to what extent and if at all, such problems exist?
I have no wish neither to amplify nor deny these problems. But, by simply relying on a few childhood memories, I have to admit that they do exist. At least during my own formative years.

I remember the time when I was old enough to read a newspaper, but too young to understand a map properly. I had read in the paper that Tallinn, where I lived, was situated in North Estonia. And then I discovered on the map that there were two Americas - the forked North America and South America, almost the same size and shaped like gammon. From that I concluded, feeling very pleased about it, that somewhere further down, southward, besides the small green patch containing Tallinn, there must be another green patch, roughly the same size - South Estonia. We were thus twice bigger than I had previously thought. I searched all the maps, trying to find South Estonia, the extension to my homeland, but all in vain. Latvia and Lithuania kept cropping up, and I knew they were countries in their own rights. I was deeply disappointed that Estonia did not turn out to be twice bigger, as I had so much hoped for an instant.

The time followed - it simply had to! - when I turned my drawback into an advantage. Big was not in the least better than Small. Quite the opposite. Big was definitely worse in every way. Well, perhaps not in every way, nor always. One had to admit, after all, that Big was stronger than Small, at least at elementary level. But Big was no doubt more common, greyer, duller. And to belong to a large crowd, also to a big nation was by no means as fascinating as being a member of a small nation. One could even convince oneself that it was positively useful to be small. I remember how, after the Berlin Olympics in 1936, all the 12-year-old Estonian boys reasoned like that: the ranking list of countries according to the medals won - first came the Germans, secondly the Americans, sixteenth were the Estonians. But the Germans got 3 points for every million of their population, the Americans got 1.6 and the Estonians got 13! Everybody who was 12 in body or in soul claimed that to express the true ability and strength of nations... Luckily, I was already sixteen at the time and could cast a critical eye over the enthusiasm of the 12-year-olds.

My first literary efforts (1937-1940) completely lacked any aspirations to become a writer. I therefore also lacked the problems 'of a writer ofa small nation'. And, even less - or more: each of us who was destined to become a writer in Estonia, had to become, could become and did become not only a writer of a small nation, but a writer who had lost his country. The writer of such a nation faced a great number of utterly specific problems. So that the general problems of such writers were totally overshadowed by the specific problems. By the general problems I mean primarily such eternal worries that the number of your readers is limited, that your literary work hardly ever buys you food, that breaking the barriers of language happens but seldom and the response to your work in the wide world is practically nil.

The problems of a writer who has been deprived of his country became especially harsh for us, starting from the '40s: our literature was allowed to represent (in a philosophical sense) only the socialist collectivism and in a political sense the Stalinist imperialism. Both were alien to our sceptical peasant individualism. Alien also because of being forced upon us.

The Estonian writer could afford to insinuate something against the official ideology or ignore it (this still meant being against) only between the lines. Or when the censors turned a blind eye. It cannot be denied that things like that, at least in Estonia, did occur. Some of my work obviously got published only thanks to such occurrences.

In the Soviet Union the Russian writers and literature were naturally repressed as well. But clearly less than those of smaller nations. Less, simply because the Russian nationalism had long been the concealed undercurrent of the Soviet Union, under the surface of an internationalistic claptrap. National dissent and the ensuing separatism was typical of the so-called small nations in the Union. Therefore not only the writing, but also the writers were repressed. Firstly by Russians, then by Germans and finally once again by Russians, the Estonian men of letters were almost destroyed (mainly between 1940 and 1955, but even after that, until about 1985) as follows: 5-6 writers were condemned to death and shot, approximately 250were sent to hard-labour prisons (for 5 or up to 25 years) or deported indefinately, mostly to Siberia. About a dozen never returned. One third of those who remained at home, escaped abroad in 1944. They never returned.

If we project that on to the relevant Spanish scale, the numbers would be at least twenty times bigger than ours.

The more or less ordinary problems of a writer of a small nation returned to our lives at the beginning of '90s, since Estonia regained its independence. And even then they did not come in a peaceful and normal way, but in post-revolutionally feverish way. For the time being.

The old, state-owned and fully centralised publishing system fell apart. New, private publishers popped up like mushrooms, but lacking experience and sufficient capital, many disappeared fairly quickly. The prices of paper soared, and so did the prices of books. The latter had been ridiculously low during the Soviet period anyway, and the books had looked dreadful. Higher prices pushed down the numbers of copies, to a half, a third, a tenth - but then again, they really had been abnormally huge before. The writers, including the secretly worshipped full and semidissidents, had to acknowledge that, in the new situation, they were no longer the household gods of our national culture, but mere workers in the general social bustle, each as important as his talent (or perhaps smaller, at first). Several colleagues began to say: Estonian literature will be forced into extinction...But in the course of a few years it turned out that national literature, even in such a small and ravaged country as ours, is still a surprisingly tough and restorable organism - if its restoration is stimulated by the disappearance of the hitherto existing, paralysing and petrifying censorship.

So now we are burdened with only the normal troubles of the literature of a small nation: linguistic isolation, the indifference with which the world mostly treats us and our helpless resignation in the face of it -instead of trying to fight it with every possible means within the limits of good taste. Most important of all is the sense of proportion: the amount of time for all sorts of meetings where these means are being discussed, should be reasonable. The rest of the time a writer should stay at home- the smaller the nation of the writer, the more he ought to stay at home, at his desk, writing truly remarkable books.

First published in the Estonian Literary Magazine


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