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Back catalogue #10 – Anton Hansen Tammsaare, Tõde ja õigus I / [Truth and Justice I]

Back Catalogue, Anton Hansen TammsaareWhen I saw it on a bookstore shelf, I knew I could not miss out on this. A comparatively obscure five-volume novel from Estonia, filling up the better part of 3.000 pages, sounded like the quintessence of all I stand for in literature history. What was not to like? Little did I suspect, however, that this oversized discovery would also prove to be one of my most genuinely emotional reading experiences in years, going far beyond scholarly bravado and fetishistic consumption. Even as I write this note, the novel’s atmosphere and characters continue to vibrate in my mind like a fond memory from childhood. Whatever irony there was in me reading just such a book, it is gone. A shade less dismal and modernistic than Frans Eemil Sillanpää’s tale of Finnish peasantry, Meek Heritage (1919), Tammsaare’s epic of north-Estonian rural life is an equally powerful monument to the grandeur of humble things.

I would like to say a few words about the first volume, first translated from Estonian into German in 1938 as Wargamae, then from German into French in 1944 (!) as La Terre-du-Voleur, and recently retranslated from Estonian by Jean-Pascal Ollivry as La Colline-du-Voleur, courtesy of French publisher extraordinaire, Gaïa. The result of this daunting enterprise is excellent in every respect. So good, in fact, that I will keep my commentary shorter than usual, out of reverence for a book that still haunts me.

Is it the quasi-biblical intonation that commands respect? When young farmhand Andres and his bride Krõõt relocate to a god-forsaken spot in the inhospitable marshes of northern Estonia to inhabit a dilapidated farmstead that they have purchased on a loan, it feels like the world is beginning anew. Not in Eden or Canaan, however, but in a dreary expanse of water, mud, and barren moors. Strong, single-minded, and taciturn Andres – from thence known as Vargamäe Andres from the vernacular name of his property, “Thief’s Hill” – has only one thought: beget a numerous progeny and turn his Vargamäe into a rich and prosperous home for generations to come. He is a young patriarch to be, ready to take on life and its many hardships, still unaware of the sphinx-like indifference of nature and the complexity of human relations (or too confident and candid to care). Rough-edged, hardworking, and honest to a fault, Andres towers like a giant over the entire 600-page novel and its many subplots, even as his dream turns into an obsession, his steel-like muscles stiffen under thirty years of unceasing labor, and his quest for truth and justice in an imperfect world begins to loom over his family like a curse.

For all his failures and contradictions, Andres is a sublime and monumental character, as intense and monolithic as something out of Homer. Tammsaare’s realism, however, never shies away from the grotesque and lowdown aspects of life, embodied in Andres’s neighbor and eternal rival, Pearu, an equally memorable creation: a quarrelsome, deceitful, and ultimately pathetic peasant figure living at the foot of Vargamäe hill. If Andres is a biblical patriarch in the making, Pearu is a Brueghelian rustic, no less extreme and psychologically opaque than his stately and occasionally self-righteous counterpart. In one of the first scenes, we see him come home drunk, smash the gate with his sleigh, drop his pants and threaten to take a dump in his own water-well to manipulate his wife into submission!

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Anton Hansen TammsaareWhat is great about Tammsaare is that ideas and ideals, including Andres’s never-ending and increasingly sterile quest for “Truth and Justice”, are not projected from outside onto the uncivilized world of mid-nineteenth century Estonia, but rather extracted at great pains from the raw texture of peasant life, as it were from the mud, the dung, and the violence of it. The rural world is not a paper décor for a drama of abstractions: it is a primeval reality, portrayed in its irreducible wildness and majesty, its timelessness, its brutality, its ancestral moral codes. It is the countryside as Turgenev had discovered it a century before, with its inextricable admixture of viciousness and grace. After all, the closest Pearu ever comes to moral redemption is his obsessive memory of his neighbor’s wife Krõõt’s crystal clear voice as she called home her stray pigs. The image of the young woman chanting to swine in a rye field was to be his one and only vision of beauty, but one that rings true, and not “idyllic” in the least. The reader, too, is not likely to ever forget that moment.

Upwards of fifty secondary figures populate the world of Vargamäe, all of them depicted with gusto and talent for characterization, particularly when their reasoning sounds inexplicable, obscure, and alien. Cheerful moments abound. Comic interludes are legion, including a few glorious dog antics. Yet, there is an inherent seriousness and solemnity about these people that once again recalls biblical models. More than puritanical rigidity (which it is, up to a point, Estonian peasants being protestants as a result of their allegiance to German feudal lords), their gravity and mulish stubbornness is a life-or-death commitment to their social standing as rural proprietors, to their pride, to the overwhelming but inescapable task of being human. Their every gesture, from love-making to recreational wrestling, has a moral intensity and a presence so thick that they can be cut with a knife. It is no wonder that seemingly trifling marital scruples threaten to spell doom for the entire community. It is Greek tragedy and Shakespearean comedy all wrapped up into one. With pigs and cattle as a bonus.

Unsurprisingly, Tammsaare has been compared to Zola. French critics do tend to have a rather narrow and gallocentric range when it comes to the novel. In fact, it would be a stretch to call this brand of writing “naturalistic” (and I say this in fairness, being myself an unconditional admirer of Zola and his school). Like Istrati or Gor’kij before him, Tammsaare can be ascribed to a twentieth century “second-wave realism” that had survived the puberty crisis of naturalism and was now entirely immune to its pseudo-scientific ambitions and nihilistic worldview, while at the same time retaining its unflinching perception of the gritty texture of life and its interest in the humble (without the narrow-mindedness and complacency of turn-of-the-century regionalism). These writers’ point of view was neither Manichean and domesticated, as in nineteenth century so-called “poetic” realism, nor hypnotized by human baseness, as in Zola. In their experienced hands, prose had turned into a powerful and all-encompassing but fine-tuned instrument for the exploration of the human condition in its diversity and contradictoriness, ranging from the animal to the sublime.

Tammsaare is not only Estonia’s foremost novelist (which in itself would be unimpressive enough), and he is more than a historical curiosity for scholars: he is a master of European stature, and he fully deserves the posthumous presence that his French publishers have courageously granted him by having the entire Truth and Justice (1926) cycle retranslated from scratch. If the likes of Władysław Reymont and Sillanpää have won the Nobel prize for their peasant novels (in 1924 and 1939 respectively), it is inevitable to think that Tammsaare, who was every bit as good as them, has missed world fame by a hairbreadth. In fact, he would have been a perfect candidate for the Swedish Academy standards of those decades.

If you happen to nurture fond memories of Riccardo Bacchelli’s larger-than-life hero in The Mill on the Po, Lazzaro Scacerni, be sure to meet his Estonian counterpart, Vargamäe Andres!

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