Sunday, 15 March 2009

Karl Ristikivi - 33 years of Swedish exile

Sweden is usually better than, for instance, Great Britain in identifying and translating major authors from throughout Europe. The literary magazine "Ariel", published in Tollarp, Skåne, at a publishing house of the same name is adequate proof of this. This publishing house also looks across the water to the Baltics.

But even "Ariel" have missed the elephant in the room, an animal symbolic of memory rather than forgetfulness. This "elephant" of Estonian literature is Karl Ristikivi (1912-1977).

I shall not write at length here about this author, as I have already done so on the following blog, i.e. the World Literature Forum, here.

All I want to point out here is that perhaps the greatest exile Estonian novelist, who lived literally half his life in Sweden, is totally unknown and untranslated in that country. Why?

Maybe the sensitive issue of "Baltutlämningen" caused Swedish publishers to be cautious of the Baltic authors that lived in their midst. Maybe the exile Estonian community at the time did not promote him enough among the Swedish-speaking majority. But suffice it to say that Ristikivi wrote around 15 of his novels in Estonian in Swedish exile, living and working initially in Uppsala, then in Stockholm and Solna, where he died. Plus one small volume of poems, which is highly regarded in Estonia. Most of these books were published at the Estonian exile publishing house in Lund.

I have the English translation of virtually the whole of his major existentialist-modernist novel "Hingede öö" (Night of Souls) on my hard disk, but have hitherto failed to interest any publishing house in it. One British publishing house said that this 1953 novel was "dated" and left it at that. Since then, I have tried here and there, but to no avail. (As I have published five books translated from Estonian with Dalkey, Harvill and the CEU Press in Budapest, I do not think that the problem here is my competence as a translator from Estonian.)

"Hingede öö" tells of a young man who enters a house in the middle of Stockholm on New Year's Eve, partly to get away from the drunken, yelling crowds, and finds a world where time and space are distorted. He wanders about for hours, meets all kinds of unusual and usual people, attends what looks like the trial of various people for the Seven Deadly Sins, and leaves, some 20 minutes later. The book is vaguely reminiscent of Hermann Hesse's "Steppenwolf"; there are maybe hints of "Alice in Wonderland".

The rest of Ristikivi's œuvre is more conventional, but of high quality: a trilogy of Crusades novels written in chronicle style; a trilogy of historical biographies about Saint Catherine of Siena, a Welsh bard called David, a Socratic fable about one Johannes Faber; plus several other novels, set in Flanders, Catalonia, Italy and so on, ending up with his swan song "A Roman Diary", published the year he died.

I hope that Sweden, of all countries, will not continue to ignore the works of Karl Ristikivi.

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