If one was to ask an enthusiastic reader with an interest in classic European novels for a list of their favourite books, it is likely that one would hear the same names rattled off, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Zola, a lot of Russian and French authors, maybe the odd novel from Scandinavia or Italy. It is unlikely that many novels from the Balkans or the Baltic countries would be mentioned. For both reader and publisher alike, the question is always whether this is simply a matter of the greater cultural reach that certain languages enjoy, or whether one cultural hemisphere is indeed richer than another when it comes to that form of cultural expression.
For my own part there have been many times when I have come across a celebrated name in another literature, I have been keen to find a translation, and have been disappointed to find either no translation, or very old translations that are hard to acquire in a readable edition, reading a classic from another literary tradition in a tattered third hand copy isn’t for me. For any Dedalus reader it will of course be well known that Eca de Queiroz in English has been one of our great accomplishments, and if such a great Portuguese author can be so little known and appreciated in the English-speaking world for so long, it should tell us that great writers wait to be brought to bigger audiences.
August Gailit (1891-1960) published Toomas Nipernaadi in 1928. An important figure in Estonian Literature he was the founder of the Siuru movement, a neo-romantic movement (named after a fire-bird in Finno-Ugric Mythology) with less formalist preoccupations to the Young Estonian Movement. It is worth making clear that Estonian like Finnish is not an Indo-European language, whereas Latvian and Lithuanian are. Indeed the Estonian epic the Kalevipoeg was drawn together from Estonian folklore inspired by the way the Kalevala was created from Finnish folklore, both story sequences having many overlapping themes and figures.
It should come as little surprise to find that Toomas Nipernaadi has a strong romantic era feel to it. This is particularly the case when one contemplates the character of Toomas. He is introduced to us as a solitary raftsman haphazardly working his way down the river as Spring returns. A poor forester Kudisiim and his daughter Loki, who have a small cabin on the riverside run to help a raftsman they believe to be in danger. Instead of finding a beleaguered raftsman upset at his misfortune on the river they find a lackadaisical Toomas on the riverbank whistling and playing his zither without a care in the world. Unable to understand his lack of will to get back on the river and reach bustling rich settlements like other raftsmen who have passed by, father and daughter return to their cabin, perplexed by this strange wandering newcomer. And so it is that Toomas finds himself in the first of the little communities we see him effect.
The very next day Toomas begins to involve himself in the life of Kudisiim and his richer neighbour Habahannes. He asks many questions about Kudisiim, his home and his neighbours, wanders about the woods singing and playing his zither, whilst giving very little substantive information away about himself. As the days pass he helps to repair Kidisiim’s cottage and becomes ever more romantic in his overtures to Loki. After one of his many dream-filled speeches to her she musters courage enough to ask him to take her with him on his raft. Moll, the daughter of the richer neighbouring farmer scoffs at the credulity of Loki believing anyone would have any interest in such a simple girl as her. One would normally be inclined to think that either a romantic elopement or a tragic betrayal of innocence might unfold next in the story. Instead we have a characteristically Nipernaadi-ish conclusion.
He meets Loki at night, they board his raft and set out along the river together. Some way along the river, Toomas discovers that Moll not Loki is aboard the raft with him. Moll has scared Loki off by frightening her with tales of wicked men like Toomas, intending to take her place. Discovering the deception Toomas jumps off the raft leaving her to helplessly drift down the river. We next meet Toomas strolling chirpily down a dusty road in the wood, as though all the preceding drama had never happened and we never hear about any of the characters he met again. We simply follow Toomas into a new environment where he tells entirely new tales of his provenance and where we wander what mischief he will cause next.
At first one feels Toomas must be something of a trickster figure, a transformative presence who enters stable or rather staid communities and stirs up changes by his fancies and his provocations. After each escapade in each village Toomas sets off to somewhere new with a forgetfulness akin to Peter Pan, making himself anew for a new environment. His effect on women is particularly pronounced. He courts almost every woman he meets, flattering them with compliments and inveigling them into his extravagant imaginings. The reader can’t help but be amused by a man who is on occasion described as resembling a scarecrow, carrying on like a gangly Don Juan.
Toomas’ farfetched dreaming is notable for how many normal people are brought under its spell. At one stage he claims to be a professional fen drainer who has amassed untold riches by draining fens and discovering treasure troves. His passionate conviction draws scepticism, credulity and ridicule, but as much as one can’t help but be aware of the absurdity of the claim, one is most sympathetic to the characters who want to believe Toomas’ romantic tales.
At the end of the novel we learn the rather melancholic truth about this eccentric wanderer. As the weather is turning and winter approaches Toomas comes to a fishing village. Once again insinuating himself into a local family and making all sorts of wild promises to a young woman. A new note of strain and desperation has made its way into his behaviour, reality and its dry reason catching up with him, until one day a lady arrives at the cabin of the fisherman he has been frequenting, who reveals herself to be Inriid Nipernaadi, Toomas’ wife:
‘I’m Nipernaadi’s lawful wife, have been for the last sixteen years. Has he not told you about it? Oh yes, I know him; when he goes on his summer travels, he’s a workman, farmer, tailor, or a chimney sweep, if you please. Then he denies his real profession and family, lives like a bird on a branch. This is what he’s like, I’m used to his ways and peculiarites. Come spring he disappears from me and his friends and then there’s no use looking for him.’
Inevitably one finds oneself comparing Toomas’ Nipernaadi to Don Quixote. But whereas the latter wakes from his delusions to a complete sense of his tragic absurdity, we can’t help but reread Toomas’ earlier attics and see in them the self-aware attempts of a romantic man to embellish with magic and adventure an existence that feels too mean and prosaic. When his wife appears to bring him home like some indulgent maternal figure, he peevishly insists, ‘the summer belongs to me’, it is not winter yet, he does not have to go home to reality quite yet.
The very best books, however much one might focus on form, style and influence, make some claim on us through our feelings, and Toomas Nipernaadi’s great appeal is just what a sympathetic figure he is, and how much time one would have for him if he turned up in the summer months with ambitious fen-draining and treasure finding plans.