By Jeff Bursey
In the last few years the works of Estonian writer Mati Unt (1944-2005) have been published in translation by Dalkey Archive Press.
The latest, Brecht At Night (1997; Eng. trans. 2009), combines, among other things, criticism of Bertolt Brecht’s role as the workers’ writer, Estonian history and postmodernist playfulness. In his introduction Eric Dickens writes: “Shall we continue to call it a ‘novel,’ or shall we, like W. G. Sebald, insist on avoiding the term?” and that’s a question readers will decide for themselves.
At the start of Brecht At Night the German playwright is fleeing to Finland in the spring of 1940 to escape the reach of Nazi Germany. His admiration for Marxism, along with being Jewish, have marked him as an enemy in his homeland. In Finland he waits for the chance to escape elsewhere, hopefully the United States. Mostly Brecht makes love to one or the other of the females who have fled with him, considers his future, worries about Hitler, and wonders dialectically about various matters.
As Brecht ceaselessly analyzes things in abstract terms (“Nothing to be done if the un-dialectical tactics of the interim Soviet government have caused more enlightened minds to move to the right,” runs a typical thread of Brecht’s thought), Estonia and the other Balkan countries are losing their independence and becoming satellite states of the USSR. Unt’s delving into parts of Estonia’s wartime history, such as the effects on it of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and the examination of the actions of several individuals during the Second World War, are concrete matters that take in betrayal of country, servitude and death. These are matters Brecht’s brilliant mind can’t, and won’t, encompass.
Unt’s Brecht is a figure based on real events from the playwright’s life, but is not a rounded character; Unt’s not much interested in the other characters either, and even less in crafting a sweeping linear narrative. When he discusses being in Finland as the USSR collapsed and relates it to Brecht’s nomadic life in the 1940s—“The situation reminded you of the film Casablanca…”—it’s not to indulge his ego. Nor is it (as required by novelists nowadays) a tiresome pairing of characters in the present world to a distant ancestor whose secret life they’ve just discovered. Another crummy historical novel isn’t what Unt is writing. So, what is Brecht At Night about?
It’s about something more important than characters and plot lines. It’s about something profound that’s not handled often today in fiction. It’s about the loss of a nation, with everything subordinated to that. This tragic story retrieved from history contains an emotional charge comprising anger, sadness and bitterness. What couldn’t be uttered while Estonia was part of the USSR (“During the Soviet era, from the 1960s… Unt never overstepped the mark…”, Dickens writes) can now be said openly to enlighten those who are unfamiliar with what transpired in the Baltic in the Second World War. Some passages call to mind the lacerating takes on the mendacity and machinations of tyrants found in Solzhenitsyn’s The Red Wheel. Characters, plot, scenery—they matter little when a country is disappearing in front of the world’s eyes.
The marvel of this novel is Unt’s balancing act. Brecht At Night, despite Dickens’ reservation about what to call it, is a novel that avoids becoming a documentary or polemic; in merging genres (biography, anecdote, personal experience and historical documents) with irony and self-awareness, the style is postmodernist, yet those emotions referred to earlier keep the tone from being smug or distant. (Unlike Brecht, one will grow to realize.) Thanks to its formal constraints, Brecht At Night is engaged with life and holds its fury in check. The somewhat disturbed surface of the novel tells us about Brecht’s nomadic life, his opinions on Stanislavski (Unt was a director and playwright) and something of the nature of the women in his harem; underneath that flows Finnish life, where “a peace and friendship agreement between that country and the Soviet Union” exists, in troubling fashion, since Finland lost the Winter War to Russia in March 1940; below these layers, like a benthic storm, is what the Soviet Union is accomplishing in Estonia.
The narrative voice that tells us of these things can be tricky occasionally to figure out. Here’s a typical passage from a more fictional part of the novel:
On the Friday, Brecht is sitting in the railroad station restaurant with the Finland-Swedish poet Elmer Diktonius.
Diktonius is a proletarian author. At least that’s what Brecht has thought since he found out that Diktonius had been the music teacher of the head of the Terijoki government, Otto Ville Kuusinen. What Brecht and Diktonius do not of course know is that Kuusinen’s wife is right now wading through the icy River Ussa, in the direction of the labor camp at Vorkuta in deepest Russia. Thirty women prisoners have arrived from Kochmes and some are walking barefoot through the freezing water. Nor are these two men the only ones who don’t know. No one knows this. Kuusinen’s wife has disappeared without trace. And not even Kuusinen knows where his wife is, and presumably doesn’t want to know, as it is better not to have any connection with an enemy of the people. Brecht regards Kuusinen as the true leader of the Finnish proletariat.
A later passage, titled “Where Did They All Vanish To?” summarizes various people’s fates:
Riigivanem (i.e., Prime Minister) F. Akel… was arrested by the organs of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs on 17th October 1940 and shot in Tallinn on 3rd July 1941. His final resting place is unfortunately unknown. Friedrich Akel was the last of the former state officials of the Estonian republic that was shot before the deportation of those arrested began. Before him, four leading state officials had been shot…
The Estonian consul in Turkey, Ernst Veberman… was arrested by the Cheka on 20th December 1940. On the next day, Stalin’s birthday, he ended his life by suicide in the prison in Tallinn.
If you leaf through the criminal cases where the Special Chamber Commission sentenced people to be shot, you can find people who were no longer alive when sentenced.
This passage comes from an account by Vladimir Pool, a former KGB official, published in an Estonian newspaper in 1991 which Unt reproduces. Unless it’s a trick of the translation, the similarity of tone in both passages is deliberate. Unt is skating close to officialese, which on one level is far from Brecht’s theorizing or poetry (quoted often), yet on another not too far from the distancing from reality Brecht encourages:
Brecht wanted an actor (and an individual) to see himself from the outside. Brecht was a proponent of estrangement and alienation.
At any given moment you should be able to ask yourself: what is going on? What is happening now?
What is going on is evident, but not to Brecht. His lack of awareness, in the circumstances, is monstrous. Here, fiction achieves what analysis alone can’t; it brings together subjectivity and judgment on a subject, and through inventive juxtaposition shows us not just what history was like, but how it felt to be dragged through it, and what we need to do to learn from the experience—to empathize. It is impossible to imagine Brecht able to offer any comforting words to Akel, Veberman, or Kuusinen’s wife; such advice as ‘seeing yourself from outside’ would not be bracing in their circumstances; it could only be cruel, or, at the most benign, an impossible luxury.
More so than in the exquisite and humorous Things in the Night (1990; Eng. trans. 2006) and the vampire-driven Diary of a Blood Donor (1990; Eng. trans. 2008), Unt speaks openly about the damage Soviet rule caused and the blindness ideology causes in everyone, artists and politicians included. In Brecht At Night we have a fresh example of how fiction can rescue us from forgetfulness, and from worship of Great Ideas and Great Men.
Brecht At Night by Mati Unt, Trans. Eric Dickens (with introduction and afterword), 221 pages, Dalkey Archive Press, paperback, $17.50; ISBN: 9781564785329