Jaan Kross, Treading Air (1998)

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?

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3 thoughts on “Jaan Kross, Treading Air (1998)

  1. I’ve just found Smithereens’ comment on “Treading Air”. You were reading my translation, so I suppose I can comment with some authority. Kross has now died (on the same day as Benazir Bhutto). There were obituary notices in newspapers all over the world. But few people know how many books he wrote. See my biblio-obituary on the Three Percent website, at the University of Rochester, New York State, at:

    http//:tiny.cc/GVfVG

    A lot of the smaller episodes that Kross describes were autobiographical, or at least had been suffered by friends. So a certain tongue-in-cheek attitude avoids the novel dripping with sentimentality, and black-and-white views of everything. It introduces a kind of Mr Average element. As you mention, the picture of Ullo involves the weaknesses, as well as the strengths.
    One of the elements of the book – and one of the key reasons I chose this book specifically to translate from among his 15 or so other novels – was that by telling the story of Ullo, he is indeed telling the story of Estonia. Also the tragedy of family life ruined by a dodgy dad and historical circumstances. The fact he suffers from depression or madness towards the end of his life is in the same area as when Paul Celan and Primo Levi committed suicide years after the horrors of Nazism. Nagging memories became unbearable. But suicide is dramatic. The fact that Ullo fades away is probably truer to life for many Estonians, also burdened with memories.
    One key thing regarding reading a book from a country you may know zilch about is: read the introduction. I put quite some effort into compiling those ten pages, plus the list of names at the back. Unfortunately, the publisher left out a further list of all the expressions left untranslated in German, Russian, Italian, etc., which people will now skip over. I hope to remedy this in any reprint.
    Some impatient readers think, yes, yes, never mind all that introduction stuff, let’s get on to the meat of the story itself. This is foolish when you are dealing with a country unknown to most foreign readers. It is vital to know that Estonia had three occupations (Soviet 1940-41; Nazi German 1941-44; Soviet 1944-91). It is vital to have some idea of the geography of Estonia in general and Tallinn in particular. The changes of government, the battles, the culture are all things that Estonian readers will automatically know. Not so an American, Canadian, Australian or British reader.
    When Ullo’s father runs away,, there wasn’t this West-East divide. Estonia was a free and sovereign republic, not a Soviet Republic. This is very different to someone fleeing Soviet Estonia in the 1970s or 1980s. Once again, this fact must be known if the reader is to fully understand the book.
    The sudden job in the Prime-Minister’s office is partly an excuse for Kross as author to get Ulo on the Russian-Estonian border when the Russians bullied Estonia into signing a treaty that, in effect, made the Soviet Union the boss. But such leaps in fortune regarding jobs are not impossible. Even I, a humble English teacher, managed to teach at the Estonian Ministry of Culture in the mid-1990s, merely by going and asking.
    You rightly bring up the key decision by Ullo not to flee abroad. This is wholly autobiographical on Kross’ part. It is described in Kross’ 600-page autobiography. Kross actually quotes there from “Treading Air” (Chapter 34). Kross says, by way of introduction:
    “On 21st September, after making my final attempts to contact people who knew more or less what was going on, we met at the House of Art and decided to travel in a south-westerly direction. The idea was to get as far as Munalaskme by evening. There, some admirer of Greenberg’s, the local schoolmaster and a spinster, offered us somewhere to stay for the night.
    Our trip out of town has been described earlier as Master Paerand and his wife’s journey in the appropriate section of “Treading Air”. It’s all the same except for the fact that we walked, while Ullo and his wife had access to bicycles.”
    I think that the meaning of the book is to show how a fairly average Estonian fared during good years and bad. Ullo was not a politician or a film star, but a fairly average person, of quick intelligence, but not with a privileged background.
    Kross himself was like that. His father was a kind of skilled metalworker, not a professor. After returning from 8 years in a labour camp, Kross too had to live by his wits, as described in the novel “Excavations” (1990). Kross’ own skill as a writer included evading Soviet censorship to an extent by dressing up contemporary facts in historical garb. During the 1980s, when the Soviet Union was cracking and crumbling, he started writing more autobiographical works, or at least ones set in the twentieth century. His last novel deals with a post-Soviet matter: a Swedish exile Estonian trying to swindle an Estonian out of a plot of land containing valuable medicinal mud.
    The second volume of Kross’ autobiography will appear in February 2008, bringing the autobiography to a total of around 1,000 pages.

    Eric Dickens, 1st January 2008

  2. Pingback: Estonian Writer Jaan Kross Dies at 87 « Smithereens

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