Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Treading Air - Jaan Kross

Thanks to the recently generated inquisitiveness on Estonian Literature, I have just finished reading "Treading Air" by Jaan Kross , translated by Eric Dickens.

Treading Air, is the story of post World War I , Estonia until ( well, mostly) the end of WW II and occupation by Soviet Union. Ullo Paerand ( Ullrich Berends ,before he Estified his name) , narrates the story of his life to his school-mate at Wikman's( and junior by few years) Jaak Sirkel ( considered as an alter ego of Jaan Kross).

Ullo had a wealthy childhood, with his business-man father and his mother. His memories of his early childhood is about those long summer vacation he and his family enjoys in Germany and other places in Estonia. This life does not last long as his father leaves the family to live with a mistress, and eventually abandon the family and the meagre amount of money he sent for their living. Soon, the family has to find other sources of income for survival, apart from changing their living style. They are moved from one house to smaller houses continuously and his mother do odd jobs for a small wage. Ullo earns fairly decent amount income, by writing compositions for his classmates , translating porn magazines from French for his house owner and helping his teacher in his thesis work.

Ullo has been a gifted , intelligent young lad with a phenomenal memory , and finding job and admiration had never been difficult for him. After a short time job with Sports Encyclopedia , he earns a temporary job at the National Election Commission, to do the paperwork for the forthcoming Election. This following events and change of fortune, takes him to the role in the Prime Ministers Office. Next few years of his life and fate is interlinked with the fate of Republic of Estonia. He become an integral part of the political spectrum, even representing the Prime Minister in signing the treaty with Soviet Union ( in allowing Soviet Troops to enter Estonia in the war against Germany which in effect seals the fate of Estonia).

Estonia has been occupied by Germans first, and after their defeat in the WW II, it was attached to Soviet Union ( there is this mocking scene of discussion between Joseph Stalin and Roosevelt on the future of Baltic States, which was ironic and funny), which lasted for almost 40 years. Ullo, had been arrested both by the Germans and by the Soviets for his involvement in the Estonian Nationalist Movement. Though he did not participate directly in the National movement, his experience with the Prime Minister and Government in the earlier administration, make him a wanted man in the new clandestine Government set up during the last days of German occupation. As most of the members of this cabinet were caught and put to trial , Ullo was also goes through the sentence, and spend the remaining of his life in a suitcase factory until retirement.

This is a historical novel and there are many characters shaped the history of Estonia are appearing in the narrative. Translator Eric Dickens have given an introduction to this book in particular and history of Estonia in general at the beginning of the novel and a detailed 'who-is-who' of the people appearing in the book for the readers reference. He was also kind enough to give me some additional insights to the life of Kross and the book.

The construction of this novel is by the narration of Ullo to his friend Sirkel. Thus it is not a continuous and flowing, but at random recollection of incidents in his life. However, the pattern and chronological sequencing has been maintained and have covered the eventful life of him (until the Soviet Occupation) fairly well. While the prose is ironic, and sad, there is an element of detachment. At no point, the writer or narrator get carried away by the events. While this is the story of Ullo, it is also the story of Estonia , or any other country suffered similar turn of misfortune. Ullo had been offered with a couple of chances to escape his country and move to the west and freedom ( once by the Italian pastor, impressed with his knowledge, with a condition of converting to catholic faith , and once by himself trying to escape with others to Sweden, returning at the last moment) , to stay back in his country to be part of it future.

As mentioned earlier, this is written in a mixture of narration by Ullo to Sirkel, recollections and few notes by Sirkel. Jaan Kross, is a master story teller, and have few very interesting passages which are very moving.


Treading Air

Jaan Kross ( translated from Estonian by Eric Dickens )

Harvill Press

338 Pages

Rs 675

More Reads : Guardian , Estonian Literary Magazine, Times , Independent ( obituary)

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