About Ristikivi


When I was a schoolboy in the mid-1970s, I happened to come across a book by Karl Ristikivi "The Island of Wonders" (Imede saar), published in Tallinn in 1966 as part of the book series of the literary magazine "Looming". The editors of this series managed to publish, deep in the Soviet era, works of value of foreign literature, and valuable modern Estonian originals. Unfortunately, for a schoolboy, they were mostly too dull, without adventures or Red Indian romance. But "The Island of Wonders", which appeared to be historical, but also had some features of science-fiction, held me under its spell. I read it through, but as a whole, it still remained mysterious and incomprehensible.
Mysterious remained also a sentence in the very short foreword, which stated that the first edition of the novel had been published in the Kingdom of Sweden in 1964. No translator was mentioned. Could it really be possible that Estonian fiction was published in other parts of the world as well?

This was the first reprint of a work of exile literature to appear in Estonia, and, by chance, also my first encounter with the Estonian literature written in the free world. The Iron Curtain allowed certain works by certain authors to pass through, but very rarely was it possible to discuss them, write about them, and then only very critically. Ristikivi was a relatively harmless author - he did not loudly and passionately herald the ideals of the struggle for liberation, and did not participate in the activities of political organisations. That is why it was possible to publish "The Island of Wonders" at home, albeit without seeking the author’s permission first, and without paying royalties. Some years later nobody even talked about the fact that such a book had appeared.

"The Island of Wonders" is an anti-utopia, telling the story of seamen who tried to escape the plague and found themselves on the island of Allotria. The story is set in Mediaeval Europe, but by describing the island, the author presents a vision of a future civilisation. It is a paradox that this very book was chosen to be published in Soviet Estonia, as the island society can be interpreted as both a Western civilisation and a model of a totalitarian state.
The life and work of Karl Ristikivi is full of paradoxes. He was born, out of wedlock, in the poor back-country of Läänemaa district in 1912, studied geography at Tartu University, and became an acknowledged writer publishing the novel "Fire and Iron" (Tuli ja raud) in 1938. Together with the two following novels, which were still published in Estonia, these books form his Tallinn Trilogy, where the connecting motif of all novels is "Man’s Journey" (Inimese teekond), depicted within the genre of psychological realism. This same title was also used for Ristikivi’s only collection of poetry — "Man’s Journey" (1972),which is one of the most complete and beautiful books of poetry in the whole of Estonian literature.

Ristikivi’s own journey took him over the sea: to Finland in 1943, and, one year later, to Sweden. Oppression and the lack of freedom in any form was unacceptable to his pacifist nature. The status of a political exile was the result of free choice. He stayed away from his occupied homeland until his death in 1977, although he was frequently invited to return. Returning to homeland would have been the betrayal of his ultimate freedom — his freedom of conscience.

The first novels Ristikivi published in exile: "All That Ever Was" (Kõik, mis kunagi oli; 1946) and "Nothing Happened" (Ei juhtunud midagi; 1947) were retrospective views of the last years of the Estonian Republic in 1939-1940. The last title is ironic: the Soviet military bases had already been installed in Estonia, Estonian soldiers were sleeping fully dressed in their barracks, weapon in hand, ready to hear the call to fight for freedom. But this is only the historical-political background to the novel which is only hinted at and which keeps the tension high. Toward the end of an era, a nostalgic parallel of the subdued colours of the evening of life of an old country pastor is drawn. The writer does not intervene in the events, but follows life in all its rich nuances at a distance, from a kind of higher, god-like point of view.

The last volume of this sequence which was planned as a trilogy, was not written. It was the commentary of Ristikivi who was eager by nature to discuss more eternal matters.

But even an exile is not free in his attitudes and choices. Having settled down among free foreign people, he is obliged to use words as weapons and try to explain even to deaf ears the situation in his occupied homeland. This was his national task and his mission in the free world. But is not also a conflict stemming from here, the split in the spirit that craves freedom more than anything in this world? How can a character, who is not born to fight and to explain, but to narrate and discuss, relate to such a situation?
The exile which Ristikivi had chosen proved to be doubly traumatic. He has analysed this "feeling of impasse", the term which the Soviet propaganda was endlessly hammering on, in a deeply personal novel "All Souls’ Night" (Hingede öö;1953), at the same time hiding what was personal behind an intellectual game. It is therefore no wonder that this work, which allows different interpretations, and the basic texts of which are John Bunyan’s "A Pilgrim’s Progress", Lewis Carroll’s "Alice in Wonderland", Hermann Hesse’s "Der Steppenwolf" and T.S. Eliot’s "The Cocktail Party", has been appreciated as the apogee of Estonian modernist literature. The book, which the author himself has suggested should be read as a travelogue, tells of the exile of a creative and reasoning man in a 20th century world. The protagonist walks about Stockholm on New Year’s Eve, and enters Dead Man’s House. He wanders aimlessly through the house and meets people who seem to be familiar in a dream-like way, whilst still remaining a total stranger himself. The novel which is divided into three parts, has been modelled on the Third Brandenburg Concerto by J.S. Bach. The first, intuitively written part describes the wanderings in the labyrinthine house; the analogue to a couple of chords from the second part is the author’s letter to an imaginary reader; the third part depicts a demagogic court trial, where the first-person narrator is judged by the Seven Deadly Sins.

"All Souls’ Night" is the most accomplished and influential expression of the creative tide of Estonian literature. Its publication was followed by a silence of eight years, when Ristikivi published only reviews ands literary essays. But behind the silence the idea of Ristikivi’s main work was taking shape, a unique historical sequence, which was realised in eleven novels and a collection of short stories between1961 and 1977. With this work he actually became the forerunner of Jaan Kross, whose historical sequence "Between Three Plagues" started appearing only in 1970.

Differing from Kross, who drew the subject of his works from Estonian history, Ristikivi headed towards Europe. His regular travels, beginning since the end of the 1950s, which took him mostly to the Mediterranean countries, gave impulses for new works. This new subject area was opened by a novel "The Burning Flag" (Põlev lipp), published in 1961. This novel, which depicts events from the 13th century, follows the failure of the campaign of the child-king Konradin von Hohenstaufen to re-conquer the Kingdom of Sicily.

Later, Ristikivi has often referred to "The Burning Flag" as the key novel, both regarding its contents and its composition. In the foreword, the narrator warns us that he is telling this story in its own right and that more than the dust of historical document she loves the blue mist of legends. This novel, as well as the two following ones, is a pastiche, in the style of Mediaeval chronicles and is, thus, also in formal accordance with the spirit of the era it depicts. The model of its composition has been, in Ristikivi’s words, who was very much interested in classical music, again, J.S. Bach, this time his "Die Kunst der Fuga". And the motif, which came into the existence in this book, and continues through all his following novels, is the idea of a Christian universal state stemming from the Middle Ages, the attempts to create and defend such a state and its degeneration into political intrigues. What an interesting and educational analogy does this sequence, which has been written with a very good command of geography and cultural history, offer to the uniting of Europe in the end of 20th century!

Although Ristikivi has, with the poetic licence characteristic of writers, declared "woe to the facts" when they did not coincide with his vision, the historians have never had any objections to his interpretations. On the contrary, the defence and fall of Akkon, the last stand of the Christian world in Palestine, to the Moslems in 1291,has been depicted in the novel "The Last Citadel" (Viimne linn;1962) with an empathy which has been widely acknowledged. In Ristikivi’s next novel - "The Riders of Death" (Surma ratsanikud;1963) - describes the Byzantine mercenaries who defended Europe against the Turks, but these events already take place in the time of decline of the era and its ideas.

The citadels, states and religious power fall and are replaced by others, the borders of Europe become narrower, but the ideals, originating from the Middle Ages persist, as Ristikivi’s novels move, step by step, towards modern times. The Middle Ages become a vision of an ancient era of integrity, its ideas live on, as do the presence of the Templars, the main characters of "The Last Citadel" can be sensed in the following books which are set in later times. The Order of Templars, or the Brotherhood of the Holy Grail, is conceived by Ristikivi as the last citadel of humanism, in his books he uses numerous legends telling of the survival of the Order of Templars in the guise of the Rosicruceans or Freemasons.

In his next trilogy, the so-called biographical trilogy, Ristikivi depicts the transition period between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. He examines the lives of St. Catherine ("The Bridal Veil", Mõrsjalinik; 1965), of a musician ("The Song of Joy", Rõõmulaul; 1966), and of a scholar ("A Sorcerer’s Apprentice", Nõiduse õpilane; 1967). The last one of these three, "A Sorcerer’s Apprentice", the action of which unfolds at the beginning of 15th century, is an earlier variation of the theme of Dr. Faustus, and furnish ample proof of Ristikivi’s skills in tying together different literary motifs and legends, borrowing his subjects from folk-tales and vampire stories, offering suspense to ordinary readers, and pleasurable and entertaining recognition of familiar allusions to literary connoisseurs. A wonderful frivolity and a joy of playing, which Ristikivi held in such high esteem, found expression in "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice", and in his later ironic criminal novel "Double Play", Kahekordne mäng; 1972) to such an extent that we can even allude to Umberto Eco’s "The Name of the Rose", where similar methods have been used.

Double play is also relevant to the action which takes place on two time planes in the next three novels, the most important of which is "Dragon’s Teeth", Lohe hambad; 1970). In 1949,a Catalonian exile in Paris reads the historical novels written by his father, which discuss the wars between the Low Countries and Spain in 16th century, and tries to find a publisher for them. Although having been taken to another space and era, "Dragon’s Teeth" is a novel about exile, reflecting the spiritual quest of Ristikivi himself and his efforts in interpreting his own actions.

Ristikivi’s swan song, a book which tries to linkup all the motifs of his work, is the novel "A Roman Diary" (Rooma päevik; 1976), written following, to some extent, the example of Lawrence Sterne’s "A Sentimental Journey". During the lifetime of Winckelmann in 1765, one Kaspar von Schmerzburg, inspired by ancient myths and for nostalgic reasons, arrives in Rome. He finds a Christian city of ruins and discovers in himself a desire to become an ancient knight-errant. In his dreams before his death and his hallucinations he sees Knights Templar wandering on the plain of ruins and the fighting of gods at the Pantheon. The novels intentionally ends in the middle of a word.

But Ristikivi offered surprises even after the unfinished diary of Kaspar von Schmerzburg and after the end of his own journey. In1985, his long-time friend and publisher Bernard Kangro published his correspondence with Ristikivi under the title of "Letters about a Novel" (Kirjad romaanist) in Lund. This is a fascinating book explaining many questions concerning the background of Ristikivi’s novels. Let us consider, for example, the question why Ristikivi distanced himself from current Estonian theme, moving to a time and space, which the exile critics interpreted as escapism, and reproached him for. In his paradoxical way Ristikivi answered them that it was much easier to borrow from the history of Europe, as Europe did not know him, the borrower, and could not, therefore, protest against his actions. This has remained true; none of these works, although fully deserving it, have been translated to other languages. The more important reason is, however, that according to Ristikivi, Europe and Estonia were an inseparable entity and the history and fate of both could not be examined separately.

Undoubtedly, Ristikivi is one of the most European authors of Estonian literature, and maybe one of the most cosmopolitan. In his poetry he expresses the belief that "Our roots are not in our childhood./---/ Our roots are everywhere/ we have ever passed on our way." The fact that Europe does not know him suits his natural reserve and self-irony. Conversely, we know that he knew Europe well, he found roots especially on Rhodes and elsewhere in Greece to such an extent that, living his life alone, he even left his savings to a long-time friend there. Nothing can better express this concord between his life and work, real and ideal, than his own lines:

""Suddenly the wanderer’s staff turns green,"
"And sprouts roots and flowers.""

Text by Janika Kronberg
First published in The Estonian Literary Magazine

Copyright © Karl Ristikivi Selts