Monday, December 15, 2008

Things in the Night (A Review)

Mati Unt was part of the "Sixties Generation," that cohort of young Estonian writers who came of age as Soviet censorship waned and a new variety of controversial foreign works became available in their country. Any hopes they may have had of "socialism with a human face" were soon thwarted by both the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia and the underground availability of Western media, which kept Estonian intellectuals well-informed about events abroad. Stalinism, meanwhile, was starting to dissipate, enabling the introduction of numerous great works of foreign literature. Several especially controversial books, such as Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and the Margarita, were even translated into the Estonian language. The Soviets' reasoning was that so few people (roughly one million) spoke Estonian anyway (Russian was the primary tongue of choice), so what was the harm? Mati Unt's second book, The Debt, nevertheless caused a storm when it was published in 1964 for failing to adhere to the Soviet version of moral uplift.

Not surprisingly then, Unt's 1990 novel Things in the Night (translated from Estonian for Dalkey Press by Eric Dickens), written very strongly in the postmodernist vein, is centered on questions of subjectivity and the tension of hidden energy. As such, there is little linear plot to speak of, other than a story arch concerning terrorism and conspiracy. As a metaphor, Unt is especially interested in the phenomenon of electricity, that source of power that pervades our homes, schools, business, and government buildings, but which can also behave in strange and surprising ways (a taxi driver's profanity-laden tirade, for example, describes a fishing trip that is disrupted by a bizarre electrical build-up that charges the entire boat and its occupants). This pastiche mode frequently leads the storyline it into other unrelated topics as well (particularly cacti and cannibals), in addition to poems and fragments of other voices and narratives, such as letters, journals, monologues, and the protagonist's planned novel about an anarchist. The effect is altogether that of an extended stream-of-conscious, as the narrator wanders through a homeland either standing on the brink of transformation or doomed to tragedy; clearly, some unseen force is buzzing in the air, and there is an ever-present pressure felt in daily moments.
Because at an everyday level, life in this country is simply appalling, and if you start trying to describe the horror of it, you really have to devote yourself to the task, stack up thousands of pages of all kinds of absurdities, changes in the shops' opening hours, shortages at the greengrocer's, water taps that run without stopping, thousands of people who speak a foreign language, the lack of greenery around, the wrong time zone on our clocks and watches, rudeness and ill-breeding, loud arguments on trains, shoes that fall to pieces almost immediately, standing in a line for plane tickets, millions of things, billions of obstacles that are put in the way of people here every minute, but I don't want to write about it all, and nobody would want to read it anyway. One would rather push this frustration down into the subconscious. . .
One of the hallmarks of postmodernism is paranoia, and Things in the Night exemplifies this motif with a kind of dark subtlety.

If the first half of the book feels annoyingly meandering at times, the understated climax is astonishing in its austere urban silence. Without electricity, the monotonous apartment blocks of Tallinn are frozen under deep snow and biting temperatures and the narrator's cactus collection is mortally endangered. Lennart Meri, Estonia's president from 1991 to 2001, appears as a kind of national savior, which I personally felt was rather simplistic, but Unt is nevertheless very adept at the art of understatement and obviously politics is unavoidable when the Soviet Union is collapsing all around you. In other words, Lennart remains in the background, instead of rolling into Tallinn on a white horse.

In the end, however, Unt was a rebel, albeit a genteel one, and maybe it is the difficult act of finding balance between the individual and the collectivist society (such as the Soviet Union) that is the general theme of Things in the Night. Perhaps the narrator's lone sojourn through a darkened Tallinn reveals a need to connect, to communicate - I'm not sure, it was a difficult book to decipher at times. Says the Investigator:
"Now, at least, you are of the opinion that every individual should develop as much as he is able without fear of spreading himself too thin, grow too expansive. You are supposed to say to everybody: get on with it! Since we can't diminish the masses, we'll change them into individual beings, atomize and pluralize them. . . Most properly developed people don't need a leader or a person to point them in any direction, no didactics, nothing but themselves. That's what you think, but as you know, you are inconsistent in your thinking and there's no guarantee that these ideas will last very long. At any rate, they are dominant for the present and you are acting in accordance with them."
In contrast to the autumnal mood that characterized much of Things in the Night, the novel closes, with quiet and ironic optimism, in springtime in a cemetery, possibly at the dawn of something new for Estonia - like a victory for the singular human being over stagnant communism.

In short: this is not a book for everyone. It is certainly not casual reading. Things in the Night is recommended only if you are willing to 1) do a lot of pondering, 2) take the time to familiarize yourself with a little-known country and its history, and 3) accept that this is very much an internalized story that, like a lot of postmodernist literature, does not follow traditional plot structure and character development.


Related Posts with Thumbnails