Madis Kõiv was a writer, physicist and philosopher, thinker and suggestive interpreter, who throughout his creative work concentrated with extraordinary talent on memory and the relativity of it. In his sequence Studia memoriae the remembered events are tied together in a rather unusual but forcible way, questioning the place and time of a happening. It is hard to find a parallel with him in memoir literature, discussing memories as reconstructions, not as final truth. His plays have made it into the centre of the Estonian theatre as an essential part of contemporary dramatic literature.

Madis Kõiv was born in 1929 in Valga and grew up in the language area of the South Estonian Võru dialect. He finished secondary school in post-war Tartu and studied physics at Tartu University, working later as a lecturer and scientist in this field until 1991 at the Institute of Physics, Academy of Sciences. A nuclear physicist by profession, his specialty was nuclear and quantum physics. Kõiv was deeply interested in analytical philosophy and promoted philosophical education. He was a founding member of the Society of Analytical Philosophy in Estonia and active in creating the Estonian-language philosophical terminology. He was an honorary doctor of the University of Tartu and the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre. Kõiv was honoured with various awards, e.g. the Cultural Award of the Republic of Estonia for Outstanding Lifetime Achievement in 2007.

He came to literature in Tartu in the nineteen-sixties, with the birth of the new theatre, although most of his plays didn´t make it to the stage before the nineties, as the author had no intention to publish them. His first play to be staged meant the beginning of the so-called `Kõiv period´ in theatre. Kõiv himself confessed that he never thought of himself as a real writer, but as a physicist writing plays as a pleasant pastime. His plays vary from philosophical reflections to those uniting cultural history, identity psychology, and pieces based on the past, on the life of peasants in South Estonia, its genius loci, using the local dialect, the language of this place. He was not afraid to add scenes almost impossible to stage, a real challenge for the producer. He named Thomas Mann as one of those authors whose novels were a kind of essential texts for him, and rewrote therefore Mann´s creation for the stage. His philosophical plays focus on European intellectual culture, intellectual and philosophical adventure: for example Filosoofipäev (The Philosopher’s Day, 1997) describes one day of the life of Immanuel Kant, disputing with Leibniz, young Fichte and Spinoza. In Hammerklaviersonate Beethoven, Hegel and Hölderlin meet. Kõiv was also the author of original manuscripts for several feature films and four radio plays.

In the play Küüni täitmine (Filling the Barn, 1998), written together with the poet Hando Runnel and subtitled as a sneering play, the barn collapses together with the theatre hall and the theatre burns, while the work in the barn – timeless pitching of hay – goes on eternally, endlessly. Kõiv´s incomparable monologues awake memories and Runnel´s ballad-like songs accompany the erotic atmosphere of the closed barn, the hot summer day and the desperate, thoughtless work of the kolkhoz.

In his novels the relativity of time and space, philosophical reflections and dealing with past as a riddle with several answers dominate. The author was not expecting to find any final truth out there, and his books are full of dreamlike and labyrinthine associations.

Together with the psychiatrist and writer Vaino Vahing he wrote one of the most original novels in Estonian literature, Endspiel. Laskumine orgu (Endspiel. Descent into the Valley, 1988), consisting of dialogues between a physicist and a psychiatrist and discussing the intelligentsia of nineteen-seventies Estonia, their mentality, the fate of the sixties, described as a symbolic journey down to a valley, reflecting it psychologically and philosophically.

Kõiv’s central topics were memory, identity, and the essence of the past. His Studia memoriae VI, Suvi Raplas ja kinnijooks Pääbul (Summer in Pääbu and Standstill in Rapla, 2009) portrays the war summer of 1944 in Estonia, the air-raid alarms, the breaking front and retreating Germans on the background, thoughts, perceptions and fears of a very sensitive 14-year-old boy, colourful and sonorous, brought back from the past. Very personal details and a keen sense of place somehow achieve a universally important meaning.

The books of Madis Kõiv often consist of fragmentary and subjective recollections, explaining the forming of identity, capturing the essence of the past. Absorbing with the colours and feelings, the introspection restores the long departed world and makes it vital to understand and perceive as a part of the essential nature of a human being.

Madis Kõiv passed away in September 2014.

Text by Elle-Mari Talivee


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