Funerals and Song Festivals

Memoirs

Matused ja laulupeod

Funerals and Song Festivals (Memoirs, Estonian)
Published by Petrone Print, 2015, pp. 168

Mari Saat (b.1947) is not a prolific author. During her creative period of four decades, she has published four novels and a few collections of short stories. At the same time, Saat is one of the most fascinating Estonian women prose authors. The world of her works is based on intuitions and her strongly subjective form of expression, as well as on her wise world-view, which is more or less supported by her education in economics. The routine life described by Saat hides the glow of the immeasurably multi-layered world: this is psychologically intense and existential literature, examining both the elusive spheres of the human psyche and social problems, and exposing the complicated tensions between the rational and irrational, and the rational and the subconscious.

The popularity of memoirs and life stories that exploded in the 2000s is still going strong in Estonia. In her book of memoirs Funerals and Song Festivals, Saat maintains the same suggestive intertwining of the analytical and sentimental, the rational and irrational, which forms the basis for her works of fiction. The book belongs to the series Story of Time, in which Andrei Hvostov and Kristiina Ehin earlier published the stories of their childhood. Funerals and Song Festivals describes living in Tallinn in the 1950s and Mari Saat (Photo by Sven Arbet / Delfi) Elm / Autumn 2015 1960s, the time of Saat’s childhood: an era characterised, in her opinion, by the key phrases “nuclear arms” and “technical progress”. But descriptions of memories send out shoots to later periods and inspire the drawing of parallels with the present time. The book gives a subjective picture of Soviet urban society and, with detailed explanations and descriptions of relations and connections, this picture is stretched into a wide and comprehensive record of an era. Saat’s narrative is simple and clear: each detail or motif which has a strong additional contextual meaning is made comprehensible even to those readers who know nothing about the Soviet period. Even the title of the book is explained in an interesting and original way, “To preserve itself, a small nation needs to cluster together now and then, like a bee swarm does in its hive in a cold winter; the people need to get this feeling that they are somehow connected, surrounded by others of their kind, to feel the connection …. Estonians used to get this feeling at funerals and song festivals.”

Funerals and Song Festivals is also a kind of memory study: it does not give a comprehensive and chronological story of a childhood or a family, but the reader can follow the thematic or motif-based order of memory pictures, accompanied by discussions of when events could have happened and how they happened just the way they did. The selectiveness of memory, hidden shadows and provocative questions add some features of literary fiction to the book. In the introductory chapter “Memory”, Saat compares memory to a well, which is covered to make it safe for a small child and which makes her look forward, into the future. When one grows old, the memory well opens its depth and shows through the rippling water both the past and the present. “If you try to record the things that have happened based on your memory, you will only see what your memory prompts you to see.” There are 26 stories about such “showing” or “prompting”. Each memory picture is centred upon some key image, sense, person, moment etc. For example, there are Tallinn street views, the harvesting of potatoes at a collective farm, restricted border zones and spying, the burning of books because of censorship, toilet culture, the deficiency of goods, fashion, behaviour suitable for young girls, religion, etc.

Saat’s view of the past is healthy and easy; she avoids stressing the dramatic or traumatic aspects of the period and she finds some positive features in the complicated context of the time. For example, she says that a marvellous aspect of that period was that there were no cell phones and ordinary telephones were rare: it was not easy to contact people and this provided a certain feeling of freedom. Such memory pictures are often accompanied by a peculiar but not too ironic sense of humour, “It often happened in the Russian time that you bought something but it did not fit its original purpose; in that case, it could be used for some other purpose....” In general, the book is a harmonious intertwining of childhood memories with the world-view that stemmed from these memories, and of thoughts and reflections important for the development of personality.

Text by Brita Melts

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