Monday, 13 April 2009

Jaan Kross: "Uncle" - excerpt

Jaan Kross (1920-2007) was undoubtedly one of the most significant Estonian authors of the 20th century. His numerous novels have been translated into many languages, including English. Kross even wrote around a dozen short stories.

My chief work-in-progress at present is the forthcoming story anthology The Dedalus Book of Estonian Literature for the Dedalus publishing house in Sawtry, UK. This will contain 15 stories by various Estonian authors from the 1890s to the present day, plus an excerpt from Karl Ristikivi's novel Night of Souls, as described elsewhere on this blogsite.

Here is a short excerpt from the draft translation of a Kross story called Uncle (1989), which will be included in the anthology. The main part of the story tells of Estonia just after the Soviets have occupied the country for the second time in 1945, but reaches back in the excerpt here to the German occupation in 1941, when the Germans were picking all the goodies out of Estonian libraries and museums, to send to the Reich as war booty. The excerpt deals with the way the Estonians sought to confuse the German efforts at theft, by muddling the numbers on the crates of, in this instance, books.

The rest of the story tells the fates of Hilda Meigas and her husband, two fairly ordinary Estonians caught up in the maelström of the war and postwar Soviet life. By 1945 Hilda is working as a village schoolteacher, the schoolhouse being what was once Mardimäe manor house, because she was disgraced in Soviet eyes when her late husband changed sides and fought for the Germans. But here we go back to 1941, to a description of book storage as one method of preserving the national heritage.

Nazi Reichskommissar Karl Sigismund Litzmann was running Estonia in 1941. His surname, if not his actions, caused much hilarity in Estonia, as "lits" is the Estonian for "whore". The style of this excerpt is typical of Jaan Kross.


The chain led back to the spring of 1941, that is to say when the order had arrived in Tartu from a certain adviser to Herr Litzmann at the General Commission in Tallinn to swiftly pack together and transport, in part to Tallinn, in part to country manor houses, such-and-such valuable collections housed in the University Library. Those items most valuable from a German cultural (and, consequently, global cultural) point of view were to go to Tallinn, those of lesser importance to the stone cellars of suitable manor houses throughout the Province of Tartumaa.

The order to set to work the appropriate librarians plus those assistants they had come from the Vice-Chancellor of the university. Carpenters had begun (swearing as always) knocking together crates, heads of department (anxious as always) bustling about and directing operations, bibliographers (critical and whispering as always) making book inventories and packers-cum-bearers (sweating and sniffing as always) lugging piles of books and manuscripts down creaking flights of stairs. Each, of course, according to his nature. Perfunctorily and smoothly, assiduously and laboriously, thoughtlessly and twitteringly, inquisitively and mutteringly. Some hurried, others dawdled, some made sure the order was carried out to the letter while others again tried to find the easiest way of wriggling out of it. For there were two, even three attitudes for the order and as many reasons for carrying it out.

Some wished to do everything correctly. More rapidly or more slowly but above all, correctly. Others were indifferent to results as long as they got the mark notes and penni coins at the end of the day to pay for the items printed on their ration coupons. A third group which formed after much cursing and whispering among themselves, a group which grew even larger after the thin cigarettes and dishwater coffee of the lunch break, well, this third group began to hatch their own plans. Why should the most valuable items be packed in the first place? To save them from air raids? All well and good. But not only for that reason. To also send them out of Estonia at the first opportunity! And why the hell should they have any interest in that? To rescue them from the impending battles in Tartu. Fine. But encouraging their theft?! No! The order the librarians had received was a monolithic order from a monolithic robot. Like the majority of orders at the time. Any attempt to sabotage it could in itself prove deadly. But a deadliness which may, in fact have spurred on rather than scared off. Lord knows. The order came from Berlin to Tallinn and Tallinn to Tartu like a vehicle speeding along on caterpillar tracks. Armoured, targeted and utterly merciless. Like most orders at that time. Resistance to the order shot up like so much grass (weeds, they would have said in the other camp). Victorious grass. Whose existence always presented the risk of a thickening of the blood, but which thrives and grow rank over everything. The result: the contents, numbers and addresses of the crates became all of a jumble.

Where what ended up, whether in Germany, Tallinn, Haapsalu or in the manor houses of the Province of Tartumaa, no one there ever found out for sure. Even now, in August '45, no one had a complete overview. But one thing was clear: some of the crates, about two or three lorry loads, had ended up at Mardimäe Manor in the cellars of the present schoolhouse. And now that the order had been given to return evacuated books to Tartu, these too had to be returned. Lorries drove out, to that end, from locations in Tartu, including the University, to seven or eight places that week. So the chain split off in seven or eight different directions. It was therefore pretty unlikely that anything had been left to chance.

Translated from Estonian by Eric Dickens

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