Arvo Valton on this side of infinity

Text by Rein Veidemann

Even small language areas can easily contain great literary cultures, with their own classics who have symbolic value. One such writer in the second half of the 20th century in Estonian literature is Arvo Valton, born on 14 December 1935.  The sheer bulk of his output – his Collected Works consist of twenty four volumes! – puts him ahead of the central writer of Estonian literature, A.H. Tammsaare, whose total work fits into seventeen volumes. (However, the most prolific writer in the history of Estonian literature is still Eduard Vilde, whose Collected Works were published in thirty-three volumes.) Arvo Vallikivi (Arvo Valton is his pen name) is a mining engineer by profession, and is thus well aware that there is a lot of scree mixed in with the ore, and it is always possible that someone might find a nugget of gold.

Valton’s entry into literature was explosive. His collections of short stories A Peculiar Wish (Veider soov, 1963), Between Wheels (Rataste vahel, 1966) and especially Eight Japanese Women (Kaheksa jaapanlannat, 1968) not only constituted a triumph of modernist short story writing, but caused an ideological earthquake in Soviet Estonia at the end of the 1960s. The alienation of human activity in a rigidly prescribed system, to which Valton opposed existence as a genuine, real being: such a treatment of life and literature was then considered as mocking the official doctrine and as an import of the capitalist West. Now that Estonia has once again lived under capitalism for a quarter of a century, Valton’s short stories of that period are worth rereading, in order to understand how topical their message sounds today. “A small person” always has to face the system, and can easily get caught between the wheels.

Parabolic language, the absurd, and surreal elements: all of these are involved when we talk about Valton and his typical prose.

One of the highlights of his earlier creative period is the novella Mustamäe Love (Mustamäe armastus, 1978). Considering how marriages are arranged today on the internet and that women allegedly get pregnant and even give birth virtually, Valton’s Mustamäe Love seems wholly prophetic, with its depiction of a near-absurd, distant relationship.

Valton's first novel was Road to the Other End of Infinity (Tee lõpmatuse teise otsa, 1978), a historical-philosophical novel about Genghis Khan and the Tao monk Chang Chun. This is one the books that I have read many times, and I have scribbled notes and exclamation marks in the margins. Since then Valton has provided readers with numerous novels, short stories, novellas, aphorisms and poems. He has written film scripts (including for the cult film The Last Relic), plays and libretti. He has translated from Russian, Mari, Komi, Udmurt, Moksha, Bulgarian, Polish and Hungarian literature. He has penned dozens of articles on topical political issues. Indeed, he has been a national politician and fought tirelessly against the planned phosphorite mines in Estonia in 1987. Valton’s political nationalism has been fuelled by his own background: in 1949 he was deported, together with his parents, to Siberia. He finished secondary school in Magadan and was only able to return to Estonia after Stalin’s death in 1953. The life of the deported people in Siberia is depicted in the novel Depression and Hope (Masendus ja lootus, 1989), which contains autobiographical elements. As a lecturer at Tallinn University, Valton helps to maintain a constant flow of people interested in Finno-Ugric culture. Valton is a living bridge to the kindred peoples struggling to keep their identity in hostile Russia. 

Valton is an institution, an independent dissident, always ready for controversy. He cannot stand any classifications. He is doubtful about the idea of generations in literature, which like all creative work, is a highly individual realisation of life. However, there is something to the idea of generations, because in the mid-1960s Estonian literature was enriched by a wave of talented writers: Paul-Eerik Rummo, Mats Traat, Hando Runnel, Jaan Kaplinski, Viivi Luik, Andres Ehin, Enn Vetemaa, Mati Unt, Teet Kallas and Arvo Valton. No prose writers equal in stature to Traat, Vetemaa, Unt, Kallas and Valton have emerged in subsequent decades. This was the second era of modernisation of Estonian literature, after the early 20th century Sturm und Drang of the literary group Young Estonia. 

Valton and his generation found themselves in two contexts. On the one hand, Estonian culture functioned under the Soviet regime as a means of intellectual resistance. On the other hand, there was the shadow life: literature and theatre were the fields of art where natural and obvious themes of the free Western society were examined, although only through hints and allusions.

Valton is one of the greatest innovators of the short story. Although he has also written novels, he regards ninety per cent of them as not being literature. According to him, literature is an art of words, born out of synergy. For him, poetry and novellas are the “engines” of this art of words. In his theory of short stories, he distinguishes four layers that ensure quality as a feature of all good literature: a real sequence of events, opportunities for associations, symbols and the presence of the author. Here, Valton admits the significance of his own experience: “If I justify a short story in regard to a novel, it is obviously also a self-justification: I have written a few novels, but they are not quite the real thing. Perhaps I write short stories because of my character. I seem to be a rather restless person. I quickly get bored with something, wishing to finish it off as soon as possible while hoping to achieve a kind of entirety, which is so much easier than in a novel.”

Half of the last, 470-page volume of Collected Works (2014) consists of the chapter Recollections, which contains a discussion of why Valton actually undertook the fifteen-year project (the first volume came out in 1999). “My life work is now done,” was the writer’s reply. And he continues: “Would anyone pick up these books at a time when most literature is digital, on the internet or in an e-book? At the moment I am not bothered by that. Or perhaps only a little bit and with self-irony: I seem like the last caveman with my book series.”

Indeed, it would be interesting to know how many readers there are in Estonia who would fill their bookshelves at home – if they still exist! – with Valton’s series of books. Who else would already be there, waiting for Valton? The already mentioned Estonian literary classics, some authors of Russian and foreign literature, such as Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, Honoré de Balzac, Nobel authors, collections of several Estonian poets and some other popular series.

However, I am afraid that such reading material in Estonian homes is gradually disappearing. In the first decades of the new millennium, the era of Writers and Literature seems to be over. I capitalise both words, Writers and Literature, to indicate their significance for several earlier Estonian generations, who have already or are about to depart from life.

There have probably never been so many individuals in Estonia who call themselves, or have been called, “writers” but whose fame largely rests on their media images rather than on their creative work and the appreciation of a wider readership. The same is true of literature: it is increasingly difficult to compile an overview of all the annual publications because of the enormous bulk, although at the same time more demanding readers and critics voice their expectations of quality literature, their desire for the big Estonian novel (big in terms of narrative).

This kind of thing is certainly possible, as evident in the work of translators who have provided Estonian readers with truly great Literature from other countries.

Arvo Valton’s contribution as a prose writer has been outstanding since the 1960s. Although he now sees himself as the “last caveman” – referring to his book series as “the last heroic deed of a conventional man” – it is by no means true that literature is in danger of extinction. The author expresses the hope that the era of literature will return, including the era of great Literature. I fully agree.

Arvo Valton’s restless and prolific spirit seems to claim that our duties are on this side of infinity, or quoting Valton’s novel Road to the Other End of Infinity (Tee lõpmatuse teise otsa): “None of us will live until the end of time, but immortality does not mean that we do not die /- - - /time and again people look around in fear and find an old interesting consolation and browse through books to track down signs that can help us here and now.”


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