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Best Estonian books in translation in 2023

Püant closed its brick-and-mortar bookstore in 2023.
Püant closed its brick-and-mortar bookstore in 2023. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

This year's roundup of new Estonian literature in translation includes an eccentric artist's book on the edge of "irony and agony," a historical novel tracing the life of an Estonian who became the first foreign female rikishi in Japan, and the first English translation of an autobiographical love story from a stove-heated "poor writer's house" in Tallinn. See the list below!

"The Shirt of a Happy Soul" ("Õnneliku inimese särk")
Short stories by Piret Päär illustrated by Katrin Ehrlich and translated into English by Adam Cullen (Varrak, 2023)

This is a family-friendly book of Estonian folk tales for both children and adults, some familiar, some new. "Every story that speaks to you is a journey to self-discovery, and if it weren't for them, I would be lost in this life," said Piret Päär, who graduated in performing arts in 1986. Being around a storyteller like Piret "has made me much richer. I know a well-told story is the best art and gift," her friend, writer Veronika Kivisilla, said. Katrin Ehrlich, a graphic designer who illustrated the book, said that her goal was not to retell the narrative but "to portray what the characters' thinking and feelings are." Adam Cullen, a poet and translator of Estonian literature, translated the book into English. Cullen has translated more than a dozen novels, numerous volumes of poetry, children's literature, and twenty plays.

"Saulesraksts" ("The Sun Script," original title: "Päikesekiri)
Novel by Rein Raud translated into Latvian by Maima Grīnberga (Jānis Roze, 2023)

Raud's latest work of historical fiction, published in 2022, is inspired by Anette Busch, an Estonian strongwoman who caused a sensation in Japan in the early 20th century, becoming the first foreign female sumo wrestler, rikishi, in Imperial Japan. One of her incredible feats was to flip a live ox onto its back. Busch traveled from Tallinn to Japan via Russia and Siberia. Unlike animals, some of the men she defeated on stage were unable to accept her victories and sought revenge. Tsuneo, the novel's male protagonist, an amateur linguist and descendant of a line of samurai, is traveling from Japan in the direction of Tallinn. His goal is to find an Estonian linguist named Jakob Linzbach, who is working to create a universal language. Tsuneo's family is the keeper of an ancient Japanese writing system that serves as the novel's title, and his dream too is to create the language of universal understanding. (Siim Lill's review is here)

"Don't Leave Me Alone: A Love Story" ("Ära jäta mind rahule: a love story")
Novel by Peeter Sauter translated into English by Adam Cullen (Tanooki Press, 2023)

Peeter Sauter's first-person narrative, first published in 2013, details his volatile relationship with his wife, Laura, in his trademark confessional style. Laura is 30, with a job and an apartment in another part of town, where she often stays. Peter, a middle-aged man of 50, is a writer of some notable success. Though perpetually broke, Peter seems content; he continues to write but is unambitious and deeply unapologetic about it. "Don't Leave Me Alone" is set in the Uus Maailm district of Tallinn, in the so-called "Poor Writer's House," an old wooden building heated by a stove. The novel is autobiographical and has been described as "enchanting," yet raw and uninhibited. Sauter writes in a philosophically inflated and sometimes tragic way about simple things: heating the stove and cleaning the kitchen, daily trips to buy liquor, and frequent visits of daughter Siss, a charming 9-year-old. It is a story about human vulnerability, addiction to relationships, and the triangles of all kinds of love.

"Novi vrag u selu" ("The Misadventures of the New Satan," original title: "Põrgupõhja uus Vanapagan")
Novel by Anton Hansen Tammsaare translated into Croatian by Boris Vidović (Bodoni, 2023)

The last and perhaps most disturbing novel by the great Estonian writer Anton Hansen Tammsaare (1878–1940) is both a parable of redemption and a powerful piece of social criticism. The plot is set in motion with a prologue in heaven, where God has given Satan a chance to succeed in living a decent and righteous life as a man, in which case Hell would also endure. So Satan ends up living on earth as Jürka, the put-upon tenant of a run-down Estonian farm. The schemes of his cunning, unscrupulous landlord and the social and religious hypocrisy he encounters severely test his patience and good nature. The Satan's attempts to adapt to the corrupt ways of modern society ultimately fail, leading to an apocalypse. The novel combines sharp social criticism, folk mythology, theological speculation, and rural realism, making it an enduring classic of European literature. "The Misadventures of the New Satan," an English translation by Olga Shartze with revisions by Christopher Moseley, came out in 2009. (Märt Väljataga's text, and more on Estonian classics is here)

"Mellan tre farsoter. Romanen om Balthasar Russow I-IV" ("Between Three Plagues, books I-IV," original title: "Kolme katku vahel, I-IV")
Four novels by Jaan Kross translated into Swedish by Enel Melberg (H:ströms, 2023)

The tetralogy "Between Three Plagues," first published in 1979–1980, is a biographical novel of – probably Estonian born – Balthasar Russow (c. 1536-1600), pastor of the Estonian Holy Spirit parish in Tallinn and author of the famous Chronicle of Livonia (1578, 1584). The first novel starts in the 1540s and ends in 1600, when the political conditions have fundamentally changed and medieval Livonia has disappeared from the map. During the Livonian War, northern Estonia becomes part of Sweden, the south comes under Polish rule, the islands are occupied by Denmark and Russia under Ivan the Terrible, who was a regular but much-feared visitor. The war is accompanied by various plagues, occupations and peasant uprisings, and in the midst of all this, the pastor tries to write his chronicle, because he wants "to tell the truth." But what is the truth? How does the writer manage to survive? What are the three plagues? The horrible conditions of those days? Perhaps the three European powers, Sweden, Poland and Russia, who are fighting for supremacy in the Baltic Sea region? Or war, famine and disease? As Kross wrote this in the 20th century, maybe the plagues are Nazi-Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union and the Western Allies who abandoned Estonia after World War II. Maybe the word "between" is the most important of the three words in the title. Estonia and Estonians are always between something and someone. (read more from "Jaan Kross – an Estonian ambassador" by Cornelius Hasselblatt)

"Echos of the Stone" (original title: "Valikkogu")
Poetry collection in English by Mathura (Chair Poetry Books, 2023)

Mathura (Margus Lattik) is an Estonian poet and visual artist, whose work has received several national and international recognitions and awards, including the Gustav Suits Poetry Award. "Echo of a Stone" is his first collection of poems in English. He said he wanted to write about different places and landscapes to explore the ways in which people connect to the land, the soil, and nature. "When I write about a landscape that is not my home, I often take on a particular persona to explore what it would mean to be rooted in that landscape. It is as if I am asking myself who I would be if this were my landscape, my country," he said in an interview published in the Estonian Literary Magazine. "I believe that in these times of diluted identities, it becomes more and more important to have at least some sense of where we come from." Mathura studied English philology at the University of Tartu and has belonged since then to the literary group Erakkond (The Group of Hermits). He has studied at the Vrindavan Institute for Higher Education in India and researched the indigenous culture of the island of Palawan in the Philippines.

"De dood van de perfecte zin" ("The Death of the Perfect Sentence," original title: "Täiusliku lause surm")
Novel by Rein Raud translated into Dutch by Frans van Nes (Uitgeverij Pegasus, 2023)

Rein Raud, who served as rector of the University of Tallinn from 2006 to 2011, is considered one of the country's most respected, award-winning prose writers. "The Death of the Perfect Sentence" is a spy novel mixed with memories in which young resistance fighters try to outwit the KGB. But it is also a story of missed opportunities, the destruction of love, and the death of trust. The latter is perhaps the central message of the work. Raud's mastery of style is unsurpassed in the short story genre. Raud's outwardly simple and concise style is always full of points of view and criticism. He often inserts remarks and digressions in isolated boxes in the text. He uses them for meta-commentary on the narrative (for instance, one box responds to a query from a friend who read the draft manuscript) or to share tales that are only loosely related to the main theme. This gives the novel a unique rhythm and makes the story (which otherwise has a grim atmosphere – think KGB, arrests, painful memories, and forced choices between conformism and imprisonment) not only exciting but also a witty reading experience. (read a review by Peeter Helme, an Estonian writer, journalist and ERR's literary radio programs anchor, here.)

"Tyyni valtameri" ("Pacific Ocean," original title: Vaikne ookean)
Novel by Kai Aareleid translated into Finnish by Outi Hytönen (S&S, 2023)

"Pacific Ocean" is about the intrinsic human yearning for love and its painful collision with the mundanity of life. An overarching air of sadness makes the story melodramatic. In one of the most poignant episodes, Emma, who works as a doctor, performs a caesarean section on her husband's mistress, helping to give birth to the pair's child. Aareleid's writing is meticulously structured and devoid of excessive detail. She shows how relationships crumble to dust and shadows, but seems to say that even when hidden love can be precious, even when crushed. The events take place during the restoration of the independence of the Baltic States in cities of Tallinn, Riga, and St. Petersburg. Everything that matters is hidden. The secrecy is also conceptual; it is the heart of another dimension, parallel to the character's own. Besides telling the love stories of three women, "it is also a story of the secrets of the times and of not daring to speak out, of trying to establish the borders between silence and lies, showing how deep the effects of the lack of freedom of expression and taboos can run," the deputy head of the Estonian delegation to the Baltic Assembly, Sven Sester said. The book has been awarded The Baltic Assembly Prize in Literature in 2022. (Read Kärt Hellerma's review is here)

"Ciudades en llamas" ("Burning Cities," original title: "Linnade põletamine")
Novel by Kai Aareleid translated into Spanish by Consuelo Rubio Alcover (West Indies, 2023)

Aareleid's second novel, "Linnade põletamine", was considered one of the most important Estonian-language prose works of the year when it was published in 2016. "There are several layers in the novel's Estonian title. First, a connection to playing cards: linnade põletamine [literally, 'burning of cities'] is one of the simplest card games one can play, known in English as War, in French as Bataille, and as Life and Death in German. It is an almost endless game, governed merely by chance. Lives and bridges are burned in 'Linnade põletamine' and it all takes place in Tartu, a city that was almost destroyed by fires during the Second World War and was still full of ruins in the 1950s and 1960s." Aareleid talked about her book in an interview with the Estonian Literary Magazine: "The protagonist, Tiina, who grows from a girl to a young woman in the course of the story, is surrounded by empty spaces, both in the streets of the city and within the walls of her home. On the one hand, the book is about waning love, the breakdown of a marriage into silence, unasked questions, secrets, lies, and addictions; on the other, it is the tale of one child's loneliness, which is all the more tragic because on the surface her life isn't lacking anything." (continue reading the interview here)

"Hiärrá Paavvâl äigikirjeh" ("The Chronicles of Mr. Paul")
Short stories by Mehis Heinsaar into Inari Sámi by Jukka Mettovaara (Anarâškielâ servi, 2023)

Mehis Heinsaar is a writer of Estonian letters with the most absurd humor, surrealism, and magical realism. Mr. Paul is probably a flamboyant schizophrenic with a touch of melancholy or an immortal Zen philosopher. His 46 chronicles, first published in Estonian in 2001, are a very peculiar collection of texts. There are kindergarten girls, lots of furniture and silence, men who are sometimes mystical, and an umbrella man. From four lines to fifteen pages long, these absurdly pedantic adventures are reminiscent of Erik Satie, Brigitte Fontaine, Alexandre Vialatte, and Lewis Carroll. Mehis Heinsaar has received numerous awards for his short stories and continues to develop a fascinating dream world that has met with great critical and popular success in Estonia. Inari or Aanaar Sámi are indigenous peoples living around Lake Inari in Finland, where about 300 to 400 natives speak the language as their first tongue.

"うみ" ("The Sea")
Children's story by Piret Raud first published in English in 2021, translated to Japanese by Yayako Uchida (Iwanami Shoten, 2023)

A surreal and magical story by Estonia's leading children's book creator about the importance of bedtime stories. "The Sea loves her family and everyone in it – the fish, the starfish, the turtles, the worms – and her family loves her back. The only problem is that they are so loud! So, the sea takes a vacation to clear her head and enjoy some peace and quiet. In her absence, the fish run amock, loving their newfound freedom, but they soon realize that there's no one to read a bedtime story. A naughty cat with ill intentions promises to read to them," is how Raud describes the book. Illustrated in her fun, quirky style and imaginatively told with her characteristic wit, this story will resonate with many parents.

"Minun valtakuntani" ("My Kingdom," original title: "Minu riik")
Poetry collection by Asko Künnap translated into Finnish by Hannu Oittinen (Enostone, 2023)

"My Kingdom" is a union of illustration and content created by the poet himself. Künnap is a graphic designer, visual artist, board game designer and stage performer. The book contains 12 short poems with images, several prosaic digressions and an appendix with humorous explanation of terms and names. Tartu's Soviet-era dormitory district Annelinn is explained as "a camp for Tartu deportees on the opposite bank of the River of Rivers." The subtitle, "My kingdom is not of this world," emphasizes the implied biblical reference in the title. There is also an adaptation of the prayer called NEMAA! and the proclamation of the triangle. The kingdom itself appears as a tiny Estonia, with three vipers replacing the lions on its coat of arms. The translator, Hannu Oittinen, described the book as both boastful and judgmental of its own achievements, something between "irony and agony." The idea of a death struggle is the strongest thread, he said. Künnap's world is filled not only with gentle monsters, semi-detached places, and silent objects, but also with dreamlike texts, the sea, confessionalism, and linguistically refined details. The self-aggrandizing irony is often tinged with guilt. There is a little bit of hope, as well as love. The book is undoubtedly one of the most important Estonian poems of the year, Oittinen said.

"Pupiņas pākstī" ("Little Beans in the Pod," original title: "Oakesed kaunas")
Short stories by Mari Saat first published in 2014 and translated into Latvian by Rūta Karma (Mansards, 2023)

Saat is one of the best writers in Estonian literature. Her very first book, "Katastroof" (1973), won the Friedebert Tuglas Short Story Prize. Since then, she has published short stories, novels, and children's books. "Oakesed kaunas" brings together 10 of her best short stories. Saat's work is original, very serious, and unique in Estonian prose. She sharply criticizes social issues through the prism of human imagination and dreams, even sleepwalking. Her sensitive understanding of the mechanisms of the human psyche is remarkable. As a writer, Saat has an unusual background: she holds a doctorate in economics and teaches business ethics at Tallinn University of Technology. She is married to Raul Meel, an internationally acclaimed avant-garde artist.

Read more about contemporary Estonian literature in the "Estonian Literary Magazine", which is published twice a year in English online.

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Editor: Helen Wright

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