Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Estonian writer’s secret drawer

Karl Ristikivi, one of the most important Estonian writers of historical novels, died 40 years ago today. He kept a diary for a decade or so, and this was published in 2009 to some local acclaim - one reviewer said his diary resembled a secret drawer. However, Ristikivi remains unknown in Britain, and none of his work, and certainly not his diary, has been translated for publication in English.

Karl Ristikivi was born in 1912 in western Estonia to an unmarried maidservant. He was baptised as a Russian Orthodox, like his mother, with the first name Karp. His childhood was spent on farms where his mother was employed, but in 1927 a rich relative offered to send him to study in Tallinn. He left college in 1932, and took up writing, contributing stories to magazines, and publishing children’s books. This earned him enough money to study (sociology) at the University of Tartu from 1936. He graduated in 1941. Between 1938 and 1942, he published three volumes of his so-called Tallinn Trilogy. In the tumult of the war years, he managed to secure himself a position at the Estonian Bureau in Helsinki, and from there, in 1944, he crossed to neutral Sweden, never to return to his home country.

Domiciled in the Stockholm area, Ristikivi worked for the state health insurance office, writing novels, magazine articles (for the Estonian press) and, occasionally, poems in his spare time. His novels (including three trilogies) were largely set in Europe in different historical time periods. None of these have been translated into English, indeed Ristikivi remains largely untranslated into any language. Further information about his life is not readily available online in English, although Wikipedia does have an entry, and there are articles about him at the Estonian Literary Magazine and Karl Ristikivi Society. There is also an informative thread about him at the World Literature Forum.

In 2009, one of Estonia’s largest publishers, Varrak, brought out a 1,000 page edition of Ristikivi’s diaries: Päevaraamat (1957-1968). The original manuscripts are held at the Baltic Archive, part of the Swedish State Archive in Stockholm. The diaries were edited and annotated by Janika Kronberg, a writer who has been head of the Karl Ristikivi Museum and Director of the Estonian Literary Museum. A review of the book, by Rutt Hinrikus, can be found at the Estonian Literature Centre.

Hinrikus says: ‘As is often true of diaries, Ristikivi’s does not contain the information one would expect, nor does it reveal great secrets. Rather, it corresponds to all the characteristics of the canonical diary: it is monotonous, full of repetitive openings, memory fragments, returns to the same themes. It is unexpectedly circumstantial while also unexpectedly private - a very human document in its moving helplessness. Nevertheless, it is very deliberately written as the diary of a writer, a public figure who belongs to the public sphere. While concealing everything that is deeply personal, information is periodically divulged about conditions surrounding writing, including the writer’s health. The author knows that the diary is a personal document, but he also knows that one day it will be found and read. Otherwise, why would it be composed so thoughtfully? The writer notes the dates and ceremonies that are important to him, and emphasizes the way he recollects the past. He heals past trauma through scriptotherapy, sometimes dramatizing the past in order finally to be freed from it. Daily writing allows him to lighten his heart, and helps him begin writing again. The first-person narrator of Ristikivi’s last work, Rooma päevik (Roman Diary) refers to his diary as a hermit’s monologue. Ristikivi interrupts the fictive monologue of Roman Diary in mid-sentence. Ristikivi’s own writer’s diary, however, resembles a secret drawer. The writer does not hold out the key to the reader, but hands him a secret message directing him to the next hiding place, where yet another secret message awaits him.’

Here are a few entries from Ristikivi’s diary, as translated and found in Hinrikus’s review.

1 August 1957
‘It is a very ordinary day, this day on which I begin my diary. I do not know which attempt this is, nor whether I will get farther with it this time than I did the previous times. But now I have decided to keep it for 10 years. Thus it would replace the newspaper clippings---which I am now finished with—after 10 years of work.

And so, for starters, my coordinates. I am 44 years old and work in the Solna health insurance office/---/This is located diagonally across the street at Rasundavägen 100, and I am sitting under the window.’

12 October 1957
‘I am afraid of people, afraid of illness, afraid of accidents. And unfortunately this is not without reason’

26 November 1959
‘When day dawns and with the coming of the lighter season of the year, these existential fears recede and Ristikivi exerts himself to find a topic that would attract him enough to be able to start writing again. Often the greatest obstacle is not so much the present with its everyday fears and routine, but images from the past that continue to make themselves felt. Just as the writing of history is a dialogue between the present and the past, so also is a diary. Sixteen years ago I left Estonia. I had no real place there, neither do I have one here.’

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