Four Months amongst Estonian Short Stories

Martin CarayolMartin Carayol is a PhD student at INALCO, Paris, and a teacher of Finno-Ugric linguistics at Caen University. In addition to his thesis, he is also writing a book about European rock, and has a blog about it. You are welcome  to answer his questionnaire about Estonian short stories.

Who would have thought that my love for literature would lead me straight from France to Estonia? Anyway, here I am in Tartu, studying the formation of the Estonian short story canon, as a part of my doctoral thesis.

It seems quite unusual to have foreign students in the humanities here in Estonia: Most foreign students in Tartu seem to deal with sciences or economy, but as a matter of fact I think Estonia should also try to attract specialists of literature, history and languages, people who would help build a cultural bridge between Estonia and other European countries, learn Estonian, and advertise it.

And what better way to do so than to explain to others how rich and interesting Estonian literature is and how incredible it seems that a country with so many fewer inhabitants than France, Germany or Italy has managed to produce texts which would deserve to be taught in European schools just as much as many texts written in those big Western countries? That’s what the European miracle is all about: There is no ‘small country’ here when it comes to culture. Each and every one in the Union has treasures to share.

And the Estonian examples are just overwhelmingly numerous. Let us stick to my field – short stories. Friedebert Tuglas, who wrote mainly in the 1910s, is considered the most prominent short story author here. And the fact is that he wrote astounding stuff. “Popi and Huhuu” is the Estonian short story par excellence, but I would advise bold readers to try “The air is full of passion” too. It might well be the strangest thing ever. And it is beautiful in its weirdness. Check it out — if it exists in your mother tongue.

It appears Estonians just love weird things in literature, as many of their best authors dealt with fantasy (which they call ‘ulme’) at some point. Today, fantasy authors are the latest craze: Mehis Heinsaar (who writes magical realism à la Borges or Châteaureynaud), Indrek Hargla (who writes in all genres – the guy is a phenomenon – check out his horror story “Väendru”, for instance), or Andrus Kivirähk who revisits the history of Estonia with a great tongue-in-cheek kind of humour… By the way, humour seems to be everywhere in Estonian short fiction: In a more realistic tradition, Peet Vallak, Arvo Valton, and Jüri Ehlvest come to mind — God, how come these guys are not translated all over the world?

So it is indeed a pleasure for me to spend four months here studying the history of Estonian short stories and their canon, discovering new stuff all the time, and haunting the University library every day…

Many Estonians are rightly convinced that culture, and especially literature, is the most efficient way to make their country better known internationally. I’ve met people here who really love their literature; some of them were even short story fans like me and we had interesting conversations about short fiction traditions. But at the same time, many more efforts could be made in that field: Estonia needs more foreign translators, everywhere, more scholars, to help lift Estonian culture to the level of recognition it deserves.

Estonian cultural heritage must become a part of Europe’s cultural heritage. Let us all work for that!

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