Friday, 27 March 2009

Mati Unt - "Brecht at Night"

What follows is two excerpts - a sneak preview, if you like - of the forthcoming translation of the novel Brecht at Night (originally published in 1996) by the Estonian author Mati Unt. It will be appearing in due course with the Dalkey Archive Press in Illinois, USA. Two earlier novels by the same author have appeared with this press in English translation, here and here.

The novel is a postmodernist one, constructed on the principle of synchronicity. Bertolt Brecht is living in relative comfort in Helsinki in 1940, along with his wife and mistress, after fleeing Nazi Germany and living first in Denmark, now moving on to Finland. His ultimate goal is to travel to the USA by the Trans-Siberian Railway. Meanwhile, a mere 80 kilometres away across the Gulf of Finland, Estonia is being occupied by the Soviet Union. The style is typical for Mati Unt: a large number of short fictional or semi-fictional excerpts, interspersed in this case with poems by Brecht and real Soviet documents pertaining to the occupation. This ties in with the earlier blog articles here about the book of essays about the 1940 and 1949 deportations.

The two excerpts are something of a contrast and highlight the synchronicity of events. The first is from the narrative part of the novel. It depicts Brecht's inability to understand the Finnish and Estonian way of life. In it he is speaking to Hella Wuolijoki, the Estonian-born Finnish playwright with whom he cooperated on his Puntila play. The second excerpt is a small part of one of those documentary inserts, in this case a real article, published by former Estonian KGB agent Vladimir Pool in the Estonian daily Postimees in 1991, and which lists the names and fates of all the members of the Estonian government and the members of parliament. It is written is a sober, factual style, and therefore contrasts starkly with Unt's zany rendering of the way the very bourgeois Brecht perceives Helsinki. This second excerpt describes the fate of the President of Estonia, Konstantin Päts and that of his son Viktor.

In the published version, Brecht will be called just that. In my manuscript, I stuck to the way that Unt called him BB, which has overtones of "baby". He is indeed rather helpless, and his women have to help him. The italicised parts in the two excerpts are part of the novel. Hella is Hella Wuolijoki, Helene is Brecht's wife, and Grete his mistress.


by Mati Unt

[First excerpt]


The next evening Hella is present again. BB was a little befuddled the previous day. It was, after all, his first day in the mists, the North and the night. BB has talked so much about this that his senses have become dulled.

The world outside has not managed to impinge, and his inner world is in a flurry, has changed into politics, philosophy and goodness knows what else.

"Hella, I have to admit that I’ve still not had a walk round your city," admits BB. "I’ve stayed in my room ."

"Take it easy," says Hella in a motherly way.

BB looks at her and thinks that she has a face, yes, a face like the Moon, but that her body is pretty massive too. For some reason it arouses a measure of unease in BB.

"Please sit down, I mean: sit down would you," he says and sees in his mind’s eye how the iron bedstead of the Hospiz sinks under Hella’s weight. But not all the way. Hella is large, but doesn’t weigh an awful lot. The bedsprings creak, but the piece of furniture is far from collapsing. BB would like now to ask Hella how much she weighs. Below the hundred kilo mark, at any rate.

Naturally, he doesn’t ask.

A long pause ensues. I know, thinks BB, that Grete is where she usually is, but where is Helene? She isn’t in her room. She’s in the communal kitchen making coffee. She has popped out for a moment. As for the weather, it’s like it was yesterday. Otherwise, there’s very little to be seen in the sky round here. The part he can see is colorless, in other words, gray.

The pause continues for so long that Brecht is tempted to term it the general pause.

In theater terms, this means a long pause, an impossibly long pause. With such a pause, a great artist proves to himself, the audience, and the critics how ridiculous it is to keep silent for so long. He has a thousand little ploys up his sleeve, facial expressions or slight gestures, with which he can surprise his audience. He draws it out as long as he possibly can. He senses when the audience is growing bored. There is no need to even start coughing. A maestro knows by telepathy when to cut the silence and return to the author’s text. He starts speaking again. The scene continues as if nothing had happened. This is what Hella is doing right now, someone whose plays, which always have a pause at some point or other, are very popular in Finland.

Hella appears to have laid the golden egg.

"Ich liebte eine Deutsche," she then says, "as a young girl I fell in love with a German".

"Oh yes?" says BB cautiously. He is not prepared to enter into intimate relations with Hella. I can’t do everything here under the sun, thinks BB. And Hella is too rotund for BB. Should be bonier, I suppose.

His wife Helene comes in. Grete may soon come and do some stenography, as canonical BB treatment demands.

Hella, who is quite healthy and normal, can see that the woman sitting there scribbling under the palm is ill.

When Grete was 17 years old, a gypsy woman foretold that she would live to the age of 33. Strangely enough, that is what happened: 1908 + 33 = 1941

Hella doesn’t know that Grete is busy stenographing. She thinks that the consumptive woman is doodling. Many people do when listening to a lecture or are thinking third thoughts in some second place.

"You haven’t asked why I said Ich liebte eine Deutsche says Hella, growing a tad nervous."

"Well, why did you?" says BB with the required enthusiasm.

"Our major author Tammsaare wrote a novel with that title."

"Oh did he?"

"He did."

"I understand," says BB, suppressing a yawn.

In fact, BB doesn’t think anything at first. Fine, this "Tammisaari" wrote some novel or other. So what? I suppose those Finns read everything ever written. Something is being written everywhere. This has been caused by the growth of literacy. Literacy pops up all over the place. They all start writing in the end. Once you’ve mastered the alphabet, you start writing. Why shouldn’t "Tammisaari" start writing if he really wants to? It’d enrich culture in general, or some global model or other.

BB maybe doesn’t know about Whorf and Sapir’s theories, which were expounded at about the same time. What can be said about them (in very simplified form) is this: they thought that language determined thought, maybe even behavior. According to this theory, every nation that has its own language has a correspondingly idiosyncratic way of thinking. And it is pleasant to think that in accordance with this theory the Estonians (like the Hopi Indians) are enriching the kaleidoscope of the world.

If it needs enriching, and if this world is necessary in the first place.

If BB had known these theories, he would no doubt have found fault with them. But he doesn’t know them! So he doesn’t find fault with them. He thinks: well, OK. "Tammisaari" fell in love with a German. Many people have fallen in love. And some have even fallen in love with Germans, thinks BB. So, love in what way?

BB poses this question.

"Tammsaare’s novel is about a neurasthenic... and masochistic person, but what is happening to me is positively romantic."

"Are neurasthenia and a romantic disposition opposites?" he asks, just in case.

"I dunno," says Hella, casually.

"Do tell," requests Helene.

Hella smooths her dress over her belly and begins:

"Anyway, I was a schoolgirl and read so much that I became anæmic."


[Second excerpt]


On 30th July 1940, Päts, along with his son Viktor (the latter was a member of the Riigikogu and thus belonged to the group of government officials), and his daughter-in-law Helgi were sent to the city of Ufa, Russia, by way of an administrative disciplinary order. The domestic servant Olga Tünder traveled along with them of her own free will. On 26th June 1941, all the Pätses were arrested and were taken to the internal penitentiary of the Bashkir Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic which was run by the People’s Commissar for Security and located in the city of Ufa. Konstantin Päts was incriminated for crimes as set out in Paragraph 58-3, Clause 4 of the Criminal Codex. The President tried on a number of occasions obtain permission to have himself and his family sent abroad. He was also very concerned about the state of health of his grandson, and made the proposal that he himself could be exchanged for Thälmann or Rákosi, but his proposal was refused. The small boy died.

On 14th September 1942, the President was taken, along with his son Viktor, to Moscow, so that investigations could continue and they could be interrogated by the Special Chamber Commission. After the interrogations had taken place, he was sent for a while to the internal penitentiary in the city of Kirov, and on 24th March 1943, without any decision by the courts, he was put on forced medication, in the closed psychiatric hospital in Kazan (Tatarstan). At a special session of the Special Chamber Commission on 29th April 1952, his case was reviewed and he was again subjected to forced medication. By this time, Päts had spent 9 years in a closed psychiatric hospital under a special régime, and his son Viktor was no longer in the land of the living. He had been arrested at the Ivanovo Prison and death had followed on 4th March 1952 in the Butyrka Prison in Moscow.

The organs of the People’s Commissioner of the Interior had wanted to recruit Viktor Päts as his assistant and use him in some scheme or other. But Viktor's proud and unwavering nature did not allow him to make compromises, and so he paid for this with his life.

In June 1941, shortly following his arrest and his being sent to the Pensa Prison, Viktor Päts had been affected so badly by the illegal judgement that he tried to take his own life, by hitting his head repeatedly against the wall of his cell.


Next in line after the Sverdlovsk oblast regarding these grim statistics comes the Vyatka (Kirov) Oblast. In the city of Kirov itself the following were shot: Hugo-Bernhard Rahamägi and Aleksander Ossipov (as mentioned above), plus members of the Riigikogu Johan Uuemaa (10th April 1942) and Aleksander Saar (1st August 1942). In the Vyatka camps the following government officials died of dystrophy, tuberculosis and other serious diseases, which the prisoners, whose morale had been smashed and were weak on account of hunger, so they could no longer cope with work in the forest : Prime-Minister Kaarel-August Eenpalu (27th January 1942); the Archbishop of the Estonian Roman Catholic Church Eduard Profittlich (22nd February 1942); the General-Chief-of-Staff of the Estonian armed forces, Major-General Juhan Tõrvand (12th May 1942); ministers Mihkel Pung (11th October 1941), Karl Terras (25th December 1942), Karl-August Baars (27th February 1942), August Jürimaa (15th June 1942), Aleksander Jaanson (2nd October 1942), Karl Johannes Viirma (11th November 1942), Karl Ibsberg (27th June 1943); members of the Riigikogu Jaan Põdra (4th February 1942), Joakim Puhk (14th September 1942) and Johannes Orasmaa (24th May 1943), plus Hendrik Lauri as mentioned above, who had been sentenced to be shot when already dead.

Translated from Estonian by Eric Dickens

The pedantic listing of dates of death simply adds to the horror of the cold statistics. This excerpt lasts several pages. It is a strange feeling for the translator to copy these names and dates over into what is otherwise a wacky, tongue-in-cheek text. This is one of the better instances of committed postmodernism, as some postmodernist novels distort the boundaries between reality and fiction. Mati Unt, by contrast highlights them, while maintaining the right to humour.


Eric Dickens said...

I just got my translator's copies of this novel through the post this afternoon (i.e. 19th June 2009). It gives me satisfaction that the book will now be available to everyone, whether via bookshops or libraries. Such a zany, yet sobering, novel is a good complement to the previous two Unt novels that have appeared with Dalkey, one translated by myself, the other by resident of Hawaii, Ants Eert.

So three novels by Mati Unt are now easily available in English. I hope that someone in the English-speaking world, but who is totally unconnected with Estonia, will "discover" him.

David McDuff said...

Congratulations, Eric. That's great!