If this book is difficult to read, it’s not because of the story, that follows the life of Estonian Ullo Paerand, from his childhood in the early 1920s to his death in the mid-1980s, it is because of the tone of the story. Even though the events both in his private life and in Estonia are numerous and tragic, the tone of the novel remains strangely detached, not really cold but slightly ironic. It takes time to get used to it, but it’s worth it.
We always remain at a certain distance from the main character, because his life is told by a former high-school friend, a writer, who only knows as much as Paerand tells him, so that after his death, a lot of questions are left unanswered. Of course, we may suppose that through this man’s story, Kross also wants to draw his country’s fate during 20C, but I think I will more remember the man than the historical events, because they are mostly alluded, as if everybody knew them already. But the man is drawn in full details, with his weaknesses and strengths, and I felt I could truly see him, even if I didn’t completely understand his motivations.
Ullo Paerand is born Ulrich Berendt in a wealthy middle-class family of Tallinn. As a child, he is gifted and pampered, and one of his most vivid childhood memories is when their father bring the family to visit Berlin during the post-WWI depression, where German money was so devalued that people had to bring a suitcase full of bills to buy a piece of bread. We can feel from the beginning that he’s called to be an intellectual, poet or writer, someone brilliant and exceptional.
But, suddenly (or so it must have felt for a young child), Paerand’s father abandons his family to follow another woman. He leaves the country for some other business in the West and never keeps in touch. The gradual fall into poverty, seen through the child’s eyes, is apparent when mother and son have to move each time to a smaller flat. His academic gifts put him through high-school and help him find a lot of odd jobs to make ends meet (writing his comrades’ essays for a fee, then working as an assistant for one of his teachers, etc.). These hardships certainly makes him angry against his father, but this resentment mostly remains muted. One true sign, I think, is when mother and son both let go of Berendt’s name and take advantage to transform their name into something sounding fully Estonian, Paerand. We are told later on, in passing, that he may or may not have seen his father just before WWII, but we never know for sure what went on during this one-time reunion.
As an adult, Paerand gets to work as a clerk for the Presidency of the independent Republic of Estonia. He is thus a privileged (yet lowly) witness of all the unlucky events that befall the small country: the gradual loss of independence with direct threats by the powerful Soviet neighbours, the invasion of the country by Nazi troops, the terror and arrests. All this time, Paerand remains humble, never raising his voice in anger, despair or rebellion. Most events in his life seem determined by luck and not really by his own choice, despite all the efforts he puts in. Never does he come across as a hero, and that’s what makes him truly human and believable.
At the end of WWII, while the country is being invaded back by the Soviets, Paerand and his wife make the most difficult choice of their lives: instead of fleeing overseas, they decide, in a fleeting moment, to stay in the country despite the hardships to come. Paerand will be put to work in a suitcase factory for the 30 next years and we get to think that he has abandoned all desire to write or be an intellectual. The end of the book is not so developed, but the tone is bitter and dark. The narrator loses touch with his friend for over 10 years because he’s condemned to the Gulag before being allowed to return to Estonia. They miss some opportunity to meet and talk before Paerand dies a rather absurd, banal death.
It’s difficult to understand what Jaan Kross, perhaps the most famous Estonian writer, has meant in this book, but although I can’t decide how to define my reading experience, I grew attached to this fictional character and I really regretted to let him go at the end of the book. Isn’t that just what defines a great book?