The Enigma of Estonian Literature: Title Picks by Translator Adam Cullen

Estonian literature is an enigma. Not Churchill’s Russian riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma – no, the abyss between the Russian and Estonian cultures and languages is vast despite their geographic proximity, the former being Indo-European and the latter Finno-Ugric in essence. Rather, the culture – and the language – of Estonia is like a mist-draped bog, an eerie and muffled pine forest. Listen to just a few bars of music by the experimental folk violinist Maarja Nuut, and you’ll gain at least a grain of understanding.

Skipping a broader overview of Estonian literature’s history and its latest trends (which you can read in a piece I wrote for Words Without Borders this spring), I’ll go straight to naming some recently translated titles worth checking out, including (hopefully) modest mentions of my own work.

Beginning with the classics, I would recommend Christopher Moseley’s translation of the Estonian great Anton Hansen Tammsaare’s The Misadventures of the New Satan (Norvik Press 2018): God is about to cash in his chips, give up on the human race, and shut down Hell, prompting Satan to scramble to prove that man truly is capable of salvation. Another is August Gailit’s beloved Toomas Nipernaadi (translated by Eva and Jason Finch, Dedalus 2018): a roguish wanderer leaves behind a trail of lies but also manages to deliver hope to the tiny settlements in which he rests his legs, sowing hope and inspiration among locals.

Taking a leap forward in time but keeping with the bizarre, I highly recommend the compact collection of three short stories by Mehis Heinsaar titled The Butterfly Man and other Stories (translated by Adam Cullen and Tiina Randviir, Momentum Books 2018). Heinsaar is a weaver of the uncanny who wavers between the realistic and the supernatural with the utmost ease. Estonian myths in their purer form can be found in the collection Deep in the Forest: One Hundred Estonian Fairy Tales About the Forest and Its People (translated by Adam Cullen, Varrak 2018). For those intrigued by life in Estonia during the Soviet occupation, I highly recommend my translation of Kai Aareleid’s Burning Cities (Peter Owen Publishers 2018), which follows a young girl searching for footing in the ruins of her bombed-out hometown and her parents’ crumbling marriage.

For poetry enthusiasts, two collections were published this year by Parthian Books: Eeva Park’s The Rules of Bird Hunting (translated by Jayde Will) and New Baltic Poetry (Estonian poems by Veronika Kivisilla, Helena Läks, Maarja Pärtna, and Mats Traat, translated by Adam Cullen and Jayde Will). Those with children will certainly enjoy Contra’s Everyone’s the Smartest (translated by Charlotte Geater, Kätlin Kaldmaa, and Richard O’Brien, The Emma Press 2018), which is wonderfully illustrated by the Estonian artist Ulla Saar.

By now, you might have noticed that every title listed here was published in the current calendar year. Part of the reason for this is that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had the honor of being Market Focus Countries at the London Book Fair last April. This distinction was accompanied by heightened attention on the global literary scene both before and after the whirlwind week, which was followed in turn by the first-ever EstLitFest Estonian literature festival in London. Of course, a wealth of other translations of Estonian literature has been published to date and countless more titles lie ahead on the horizon (for example, Eno Raud’s classic children’s book The Gothamites, translated by Adam Cullen and to be released by Archipelago Books in 2019). From the last two years alone, I would also recommend three works by Rein Raud: The Death of the Perfect Sentence (translated by Matthew Hyde, Vagabond Voices 2017), The Reconstruction (translated by Adam Cullen, Dalkey Archive Press 2017), and the “literary spaghetti western” The Brother (translated by Adam Cullen, Open Letter Books 2016).

All in all, the wilds of Estonian literature deserve exploration as much as the country’s dense primeval forests and mires. To keep an eye on developments and gain a deeper understanding of its winding path, my final recommendation here is the Estonian Literary Magazine, published biannually by the Estonian Institute and available for free online.

Adam Cullen (1986) is a poet and translator of Estonian prose, poetry, theater, and children’s literature into English. Cullen is a member of the Estonian Writers’ Union and several of his translations have been nominated for the Cultural Endowment of Estonia’s Prize for Literary Translation. Originally from Minnesota, he has lived in Estonia for over ten years


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