Friday, August 21, 2009

BRECHT AT NIGHT:How Estonia takes up residence in the mind

Translated from the Estonian
By Eric Dickens
Dalket Archive: 208pp., $13.95

In 1940, Helsinki received an unexpected visitor: Bertold Brecht. Eventually to be known as the most famous German playwright after Goethe, author of The Three Penny Opera, The Caucasian Chalk Circle and numerous other plays, a vast array of poetry, Brecht was also a committed Communist who was on the run from Nazi Germany, believing Hitler personally wanted him dead. The scene is almost comical: he arrived with his wife, his mistress, his children and twenty-six bags of luggage.

Just another traveler, you understand, appreciative when someone speaks good German but convinced he or she might be a Nazi agent. His protector was the very wealthy Estonian playwright then living in Finland, Hella Wuolijoki, with whom he will collaborate on a number of plays and will eventually plagiarize from but who more importantly has a direct link to Stalin and his secret police. (Brecht, if you aren’t familiar with him was an ardent defender of Stalin and all his murderous acts, glibly arguing that Finland should have given into Stalin, “whereby the Finnish workers and peasants must exchange their national freedom for social freedom (inside the Soviet system).”

But why Helsinki? Why go there in the midst of the aftermath of The Winter War? It is a way station on Brecht’s journey to of all places: Hollywood which he intends to get to by way of Moscow and Siberia!

In “Brecht at Night,” his fourth novel to be translated into English, Estonian author and innovative stage director, Mati Unt makes Brecht a curiously compelling contradictory character and very appealing as a reflection of the alienating reality of his plays which highlighting their artificiality allows the reader the necessary distance to think and with the information, with the feelings provide by what he or she might witness, to act…

All this might seem tedious in the extreme but Unt is simply too good of a writer to allow that to happen. The connection between an epitome of irony, Hella Wuolijoki, this wealthy patron, committed communist and the owner of a vast estate provides Unt with the jump cut to that place where she comes from: two hours today by high speed ferry, across the Baltic Sea. If I give you one country (Latvia) that borders on it I am sure you can name the other country that borders on Estonia and of course you remember that in August 1939 you again remember that Hitler and Stalin agreed to the occupation of Estonia by the Red Army…

It is in this lurch that Unt’s novel becomes both a witty portrait of Brecht and is a model of how to understand the devastating effects of Stalinism. Unt well knows, as did Brecht, if you focus too much on details of human awfulness it becomes debilitating but if you find a way…

Unt particularizes the murders, by way of quotation from now available documents and through imagination of how the Communist takeover of Estonia was implemented allowing the euphonious M Unt (no relation) who was the communist appointed Minister of the Interior to say, “With good luck, you have the choice between life and death, and it is not sure which is better.” Or, “Then I had to dismiss all the elders of the various Estonian provinces. There were no doubt decent people among them, but in times like the present you can’t pay too much attention to individuals.”

History records that M. Unt was shot in his turn but no date was recorded.

(A version of this appeared in the Los Angeles Times.