In a time when the daily news regularly include surveillance, travel bans, lack and loss of trust in institutions, and there is talk about building new walls between countries, the time is right to think back to the travel ban and the Iron Curtain between Western and Eastern Europe and read Ilmar Taska's novel Pobeda 1946.
Estonians know Ilmar Taska as an award-winning short story writer as well as a figure in TV and film. Pobeda 1946 (A Car Called Victory in English) is Taska’s debut novel, though his story Apartment for Rent made it into Best European Fiction 2016 as well.
Pobeda 1946 could be molded into a film and a play, and why not an opera, too. The novel will undoubtedly gain international acclaim. The book is already translated into Finnish by Jouko Vanhanen, and the largest Finnish publisher WSOY-Bonnier Books released it in May. The novel has enjoyed unprecentented media coverage in Finland.
Taska’s work contains all the archetypes to which the Soviet era (as well as any totalitarian regime) gave rise: victim, resistance fighter, collaborator, informant, and torturer, survivor, silent sufferer, exile, and the New Soviet man transplanted into occupied Estonia–the latter being a phenomenon that the new regime used to stake out its superiority over the previous lifestyle, not to mention over people in various stages of ruin committed by that same regime.
Taska gives everyone a voice in this moral grey zone, into which the Soviet system thrust its subjects. Even so, Pobeda 1946 avoids black-and-white attitudes and dispositions. The work is tactful and psychologically believable. Each character in it is the main protagonist of her or his own life through their logic and personality, through their goodness and evil.
The work’s main characters are simply referred to as “the woman”; her young son, a.k.a. “the boy”; and a mysterious figure who drives around in a brand-new Pobeda, luring people into the snares of the KGB–appropriately named only “the man”. Two other fascinating characters are woven into the story: an Estonian opera singer named Johanna, who is the woman's half-sister, and her lover, London-based BBC Radio News anchor Alan, who is striving to get her out of the country.
The alliance between the Soviet Union and the UK has chilled, and Europe is divided by the Iron Curtain. A small independent country, Estonia, is now a western Baltic province of the USSR with a large influx of immigrants. The travel ban enforced by the Soviet Union has forced Alan and and Johanna to communicate surreptitiously via Alan’s radio broadcasts. They don’t receive each other’s letters anymore, because the letters are diverted to a desk of the secret police.
Taska's work draws readers into predicaments that skillfully violate an age-old truth: never rat on your neighbor! Under the new regime, fellow citizens have become potential “enemies of the people”, whom the man must uncover and apprehend. Yet, a friendship planned between the man and the boy turns fateful for the whole triangle. The boy’s character might indirectly represent Taska himself, who was born after Stalin’s death to a family of Estonian intellectuals who had been deported to Siberia. In any case, the grand narrative that unfolds–one that commences before the author’s own birth–makes itself known in his creative DNA.
Pobeda 1946 reveals how the “sacred” notion of that new era rapidly dissipated. The materialistic Soviet selfishness that accompanied the new system diminished both empathy and a willingness to help one another. The lives of each character teeter on the brink of peril with any showing of camaraderie, while the new political atheism swiftly led to manipulation, exploitation and travel ban. Fear lurked behind everything in one of the most closed societies in human history.
The reader’s attention is riveted by scenes in which the man’s behavior–dictated by the occupying regime’s guidelines–trivializes a value that is so vital to us all: trust. Monument to the cessation of trust (a binding element in love for one’s neighbor) is a situation where passion erupts between two people who are ruled by a state of heightened sensitivity.
Taska has a fantastic ability to utilize all of the human senses while bringing his story to life: hearing, sight, smell, and touch. This sensory register is almost entirely absent from Estonian novels, save for poetry. Shedding light on a bygone era of turmoil, Pobeda 1946 undoubtedly speaks to us today as we steer through the world’s increasingly troubled waters.
The German language version of the novel (published in Switzerland by Kommode Verlag) will have a book launch at Spheres, Zurich, Switzerland (Nov. 1) and at the University of Vienna, Austria (Nov. 9). This winter the novel will be published in English, Danish, and Lithuanian as well. Pobeda 1946 was already presented at the Frankfurt and Turku Book Fairs and is in the program of the Helsinki Book Fair.
Translated by Adam Cullen and copy-edited by Dario Cavegn.
Editor: Dario Cavegn