Sunday, 29 March 2009

Karl Ristikivi - "Night of Souls"

Karl Ristikivi is the subject of two other postings so far on this blog. One deals with his life as an exile in Sweden, the other shows a couple of his poems. This posting consists of two excerpts from his 1953 novel Hingede öö, translated as Night of Souls. The original was first published in Estonian by Eesti Kirjanike Kooperatiiv, the exile Estonian publishing house located in Lund, Sweden. It was reprinted a couple of times after Estonian independence. As far as I am aware, the novel has never been published in translation into any language, even Swedish.

The novel 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.

Two excerpts here. The first is from near the beginning of the novel, when the protagonist enters the building. The second is from when he is in limbo, both an existentialist and a national one.

Night of Souls

[First excerpt]

When I arrived at the beam of light, I could see it was coming through a doorway which, unlike all the others on the street, stood wide open.

I realised immediately what the reason for this was, and was overcome by a feeling of mild disappointment. They were no doubt holding a public celebration, seeing in the New Year, this being some cinema or little theatre tucked away in this side street. By this time the performance would already have begun, which would explain why there was no one around outside walking in the direction of this oasis.

I hoped that I would at least be able to enter for a short while. The fact that the door was stood so invitingly open gave the impression that not all the tickets to this place, with its air of an orphanage, had been sold out. So I would at last be able to stay in that light and warmth, bought for a couple of kronor, for that short hour still left of the Old Year. It would, of course, mean abandoning my former plans. But better to end the Old Year with an admission of failure than starting the New with one.

And so I entered by the open door.


Wouldst thou be in a dream, and yet not sleep?
Bunyan: The Pilgrim's Progress

The music could now be heard quite clearly, since the following door leading into the hall itself was also open. It was from here that the light had shone through onto the street, since the entrance hall itself was rather dimly lit. The piece they were playing was a piano concerto which I had no doubt heard before but could not immediately place. It reminded me of something which had no connection whatsoever with this evening - the scent of jasmine. I could also see through the open door that people were sitting in rows of seats in the hall but the light which shone towards me was so bright that I could not see anything clearly since my eyes were slightly dazzled by the glare. Apart from the fact that my eyes were a little astigmatic by nature, as it was. Everything looked as if it was being viewed through condensation on the lenses of my spectacles.

For a short moment I felt like retracing my steps, but I forced myself to stay. I looked around the wide, yet low-ceilinged foyer, looking for a ticket window. But I could not see one anywhere. I could only see the dark panelling of the foyer, the beams of the ceiling which looked as if it had been blackened by smoke. The only thing the room contained was a set of coat pegs to my left on which many outer garments were hanging.


I now approached the door to the hall itself next to which stood two men wearing long black jackets, the likes of which I had not seen since my days at primary school, when the manner in which the schools inspector had fished his handkerchief out through the tails had been an unforgettable experience. They were both middle-aged men, with solemn, distinguished faces, more like English footmen than ordinary Swedish doormen. Under different circumstances I would not have dared enter between these two, but now I was not going to take any notice even should they ask me for my ticket. If I had known how long the performance had already been going on, I would have been able to make it look as if I had just come out for a short while. This is what happens in this country during the interval after the first half of the performance. (From which it should not be concluded that I am suggesting people should make use of this mode of entrance.) But without uttering a word, without even looking in my direction one of them handed me a programme and pointed to his left towards the last two rows where there were still a number of unoccupied seats.

It came as a certain relief that the audience had their backs towards me. The brightly lit hall differed markedly from the somewhat sombre foyer with its somewhat mediaeval atmosphere. Rather, the hall was Rococo, high-ceilinged and light, with pale-coloured parquet flooring with a mid-blue runner down the aisle. The hall was lit up by four chandeliers with electric candles and there also seemed to be some kind of spotlight whose beam was aimed at the other end of the hall where there was some kind of podium. It was a couple of steps up from the rest of the hall and there a young girl in a pink dress was seated half-hidden by a grand piano. I never gave a thought to the fact that the positioning of such a piano was rather odd. Just then there was a pause in the performance and I hastened to reach my seat, disturbing as few people as possible, since my steps still reverberated with disturbing loudness.

There was another matter, apart from the fact I needed no ticket, which I now noticed immediately and which increased my puzzlement. At any rate, there was something which would make me noticeable in this company in a rather unpleasant way. I began to wonder even more at the fact that the serious and grim cherubs had let me enter in the first place. Everyone present was in evening dress, the gentlemen in tails or evening jackets, the ladies wearing evening dresses, the majority of whom also had decorative stoles.

But when I had seated myself in an empty seat in the next to the last row, I breathed a sigh of relief. Right beside this empty seat was sitting a young boy whose dress was even less suited to the occasion than mine. I was at least wearing what could be termed restaurant dress. He was wearing a brown jacket, a black roll-neck sweater, quite worn and patched corduroy trousers and army boots. Nonetheless I did not notice him until I was right next to him and clearly no one else had noticed him either. He stood up to let me pass, and when I excused myself with a silent movement of the lips, he smiled obligingly. This could have been because he regarded me, dressed as I was, as someone supporting and confirming his status in such staid company. Perhaps, I had nevertheless met him somewhere before, without really taking any notice of him. He had that sort of face which looks familiar at first glance, since all its elements are so commonplace.


[Second excerpt]


Anyhow, I heard the door slam shut behind me, locking as it did so. I knew it was locked since I turned and tried the handle but could not open it again. I had by then already begun to suspect that it was not the right door and that it had only been left unlocked by accident.

Just then, I heard the distant ringing of bells and the thought flashed through my mind that now, out there in the city, the New Year had begun. Or at least the Old Year was coming to an end. But it was so far away that it left me quite unmoved. I had nonetheless steeled myself against that ringing, which was something I have always feared.

I even received the impression that I counted the strokes and heard that there were twelve. But considered carefully and with hindsight, I could well have been imagining this.

Even more embarrassing was the fact that I have to give an explanation for the rooms through which I had been walking. I had lost interest not only in what had been occurring behind my back, but also what was going on around me. This can best be compared with how a sick patient resigns himself to his condition, satisfied with the mere fact that he is not in pain.

So much had changed compared with my previous life. (Yes, I have said it now and cannot take it back, even if wanted to do so. For I know all too well that too much has been said and can lead many in the wrong direction, searching for an explanation and or conclusion where I did not intend to explain or conclude. But be that as it may, let us term it so for simplicity’s sake, knowing at the same time that one word can have very many meanings.) I had been wandering around, mostly observing and listening, taking in impressions and distilling feelings out of them. I had almost always felt a forbidden joy, a thief's joy, that I had simply wandered into this happy situation by accident, where I was empowered to see, hear and feel. Now, all had changed, perhaps only within me, but in conjunction with that, all that surrounded me appeared too to have changed. Something new had not come to replace the joy of discovery, and this gave me a paralysing feeling of emptiness.

I do not know precisely how I arrived at this small room, which was divided in two by a counter and above it wire mesh. Behind the counter sat an oldish man wearing some kind of dark uniform, and who had pushed his hand out through a small opening.

"Your identity papers, please!"

I had no papers of any kind on me and said so. He smiled regretfully, but also with slight distrust.

"How can that be? You must have some papers. Otherwise I cannot let you through."

"Very well, I can always go back..."

I turned round, in order to leave by the door, but there stood a soldier who was half-barring my way with his rifle. He said nothing and I concluded from the cornflower blue roundel on his cap that we would not understand one another’s language.

I went back to the counter The official had, however, shut the window and was still sitting where he was before now sorting some pink-coloured cards, while a cardboard notice by the window said: "CLOSED".

Someone touched my shoulder. It was a small middle-aged man in a worn and patched grey Wehrmacht uniform, who shook his head in an irritated and weary manner, saying:

"Under no circumstances can you remain here. You'll have to go on!"

I tried to explain: "I can't go anywhere, I haven't got any identity papers," even myself aware of the fact that this was a feeble and naive excuse which would be to no effect. The soldier at the door looked at me with a mocking smile on his lips; he seemed used to such scenes. The official at the counter pushed the last cards into a drawer, locked it and went into a back room accompanied by the jingling of keys.

"Could you not at least give me some advice as to what I ought to do now?" I said again, addressing the man in Wehrmacht uniform. I believe that he even found it difficult to understand my poor German, let alone grasp my situation.

"Forbidden! Forbidden!" was all that he repeated, in the way you talk to children, idiots and foreigners, and he pointed at the sign on the wall which said simply:


And lower, above the spittoon:


"Please show me, then, where I can go. Take me along - oh, never mind!" My former torpor was already beginning to suppress my anger. It little mattered what he did, if I was not allowed to stay where I was. That is to say, it was not entirely a matter of indifference, since I was glowering at the soldier at the door.

The man shrugged his shoulders. He twisted his head and looked at his uniform jacket from which all his stripes had been removed.

"I am not permitted to do anything. You must leave, or else..."

"Or else?"

"Or else you will have to solve the problem yourself," he said with resignation. He seemed to have lost the hope that I would ever understand anything, and he was right in so thinking.

Then suddenly a new man rushed out of the back room behind the counter, he was quite similar to the previous two - small of stature, middle-aged and with a wrinkled face. But he was holding some kind of form written in French, issued by either the police or the customs, and he came up to me waving his hands and giving the flurried explanation of which I understood anything apart from the fact that he kept repeating the words: "Interdit!" and "Defendu!" When I did not react, he turned to the German and began to abuse him in fluent German. Although his words sounded anything but pleasant in tone, the German began to laugh on hearing his mother tongue.


Translated from Estonian by Eric Dickens

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