The Ropewalker and A People Without a Past by Jaan Kross

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Translated by Merike Lepasaar Beecher

Reviewed by Gill Davies

Thanks to the wonderful Maclehose Press I have discovered another writer in translation who deserves to be much better known. Up to now, according to Wikipedia, only four novels and one collection of stories by Jaan Kross have been published in English translations. The two novels I am reviewing are additions to that list – and we can hope there will be more. The Ropewalker and A People Without A Past are the first two volumes in a trilogy, published in Soviet Estonia between 1970 and 1980 and set in Livonia (present-day Estonia) in the mid sixteenth century.

The trilogy, Between Three Plagues, is based on the life of Balthasar Russow, born around 1536 in Tallinn, whose Chronicle of his life and times made him Estonia’s first historian. Russow rose from humble origins, via education and the support of patrons, to become acquainted with many of the key figures of his time. Through him, Kross presents a panoramic picture of early modern European politics, with rival empires warring over the riches of the Baltic trade. He shows the resilience of the ruled as well as the accommodations they have to make, not only to the conquerors but also to their own employers and rulers.  This choice of subject relates to Kross’s own life. The Soviet invasion of Estonia took place when he was twenty, in 1940. This was followed soon after by the Nazi invasion and occupation. He was arrested by the Germans in 1944 for nationalist activities and then by the Soviet authorities in 1946. He was sent to a labour camp in Russia for eight years. After his return to Estonia in 1954 he began his life’s work as a writer of poetry and fiction, concentrating on historical subjects so as to avoid engaging with current political topics. His novels nevertheless explore contemporary questions indirectly, showing the impact of invasion and occupation on the lives of ordinary people.

But the novels are much more than political allegories. They provide a vivid and rich picture of everyday life in the Baltic towns and coastal hinterland. The characters range  across members of the ruling Order, the merchants and shopkeepers, traders, sailors, churchmen and teachers, servants, farmers and peasants at a critical turning point in eastern European history. The detailed evocation of life at the time is a pleasure to read. The research for the novels must have been epic in itself – but it’s worn lightly and the details are an integral part of the narrative and fascinating in themselves: the decoration of  domestic interiors (like windows made from pig’s bladder); meals, drinks and utensils (the introduction of the fork in polite society); clothes (sheepskin coat, dogskin cap, birch bark shoes); modes of transport; conventions, manners, and much more. The weather is ever-present – you can really feel the Baltic seasons. In the first novel there’s a beautifully described nocturnal sleigh drive across the frozen sea to do some diplomacy in Sweden.

The epic scale of the trilogy shows how the resources and strategic importance of Livonia, especially Tallinn, are the object of machinations and destructive invasions from its neighbours in  Russia, Sweden and Poland-Lithuania. In addition, the ruling class of Livonia and the local landowners, including the church, are squeezing all the money and goods they can from the powerless peasantry and townspeople. (Thus, ‘there’s the land tax and the hearth tax. And the name tax and the farmyard tax. And there’s six shillings a year on each farmhand.’) And moving through this world is the local boy who through his gifts and some good fortune finds himself becoming useful to the wealthy and powerful. At times the story was reminiscent of Hilary Mantel’s account of the rise of Thomas Cromwell and the parallels between sixteenth century England and Estonia are intriguing.

The novels while introducing a large cast of characters and with a wide geographical and temporal spread are held together by the story of Balthasar Russow. As well as a historical epic, the trilogy is also a bildungsroman telling of Balthasar’s education (intellectual, moral, political and sexual) and how it takes him into the different national, social and political groupings of his time. The opening of The Ropewalker is extraordinary. Italian acrobats stretch a rope from the church steeple in Tallinn for beautiful, stony-faced twin boys to balance and dance along. The protagonist climbs to the top of the steeple to watch them in awe and admiration – it’s a metaphor, we realise, for the balancing acts that Balthasar will have to perform as he grows up and learns the complexities and subterfuges of the world around him. His intelligence, quick wits and fearlessness make him a very useful servant, go-between and spy.

With their range across an area and epoch of Europe with which many (most?) English readers will be unfamiliar, these historical novels may seem a challenge to read and enjoy. But the brilliance of the writing makes the places and characters really come alive and lack of familiarity with the period and setting is no obstacle at all. And, as a bonus, there is a frontispiece of a lovely map of old Livonia and Tallinn; very interesting and informative translator’s introductions; a few notes at the back that explain occasional obscure historical references; and appendices that give a little background to some of the historical figures and the place names in the text. I completely agree with Doris Lessing that Kross is ‘a marvellous novelist … a world writer’ and I am looking forward to volume three.

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Jaan Kross, The Ropewalker. Between Three Plagues: Volume 1. Translated from the Estonian by Merike Lepasaar Beecher (Maclehose Press: London, 2018). 978 1784299781, 544pp., paperback.

Jaan Kross, A People Without A Past. Between Three Plagues: Volume 2. Translated from the Estonian by Merike Lepasaar Beecher (Maclehose Press: London, 2018). 978 1784299545, 432pp., paperback.

BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P). Vol 1 & Vol 2