Recenzo: Kvin Noveloj (Don HARLOW)

Kvin Noveloj

by F. Tuglas

Tallinn: Eesti Ramat, 1984. 127p.

reviewed by Don Harlow

   It has been said -- and in all seriousness, children! -- that there is no need to learn any language other than English because almost all the important works of world literature are available in English translation.

   Maybe. Personally I have my doubts. These days most translations into English strike me (mostly from a distance) as being of academic rather than literary quality. Most of them seem to be from the "big" languages -- German, French, Russian, Spanish, Italian. And far from being "available," most of them seem to be pretty much restricted to specialty shops on or near major campuses.

   Friedebert Tuglas may have been translated into English -- his works, says the foreword, have appeared in ten languages, and he was an honorary member of the London PEN Club -- but I'd never heard of him before I ran across this marvelous little book. I probably wouldn't have paid much attention to him now if I hadn't started reading the first page just in passing. It went as follows (and forgive my weak rendering into English):

   In the early morning, when the sun's disk had scarcely risen over the horizon, we weighed anchor.

   We rowed out of the bay and at its mouth hoisted the sails. Wind swelled them, the sheets stretched, the masts creaked -- we were traveling to the wide sea.

   What Errol Flynn fan could pass that up? But Tuglas, who wrote these five stories at the time of the Great War, the War To End Wars, had never heard of Errol Flynn. Instead, he wrote beautiful, thoughtful, pessimistic and timeless stories about problems that transcend locality and period. Each one of them is a gem, only one of them seriously flawed. Had he written in English, French or German, he might well be world-famous today. But then, if he had grown up in a country where English, French or German is spoken, he would probably never have written these stories...

   The first story, "En la fino de la mondo" (At the World's End), is the story of an unnamed voyager from an unmentioned land in an indeterminate period of history cast away, after a number of eerie experiences at sea, on an unknown island whose inhabitants are a people physically, mentally and emotionally larger than life. From his giant captress the traveler learns about both the bright and the dark sides of love, and finds them too intense for either his emotional or physical well-being. He takes what he feels is the only way out, only to learn too late that there is only one escape from love. The giantess is pictured on page 11 in a drawing by Ivi Raudsepp; the picture is a caricature, but it's one you could easily fall in love with. It's no accident, I am sure, that the woman's position in the picture -- which follows a description in the story -- is one often assumed by pagan goddesses in old pictures.

   In "La ĉielaj rajdantoj" (The Sky Riders) a young boy, traveling with an aged Turk and his monkey from city to city, country to country, murders his master for a small sack of money, which he then uses for one night of the sort of life and pleasures that he has never known before and never will again. But step by step, as his experiences seem to turn to ashes, he is drawn back to the scene of the murder, and to his ineluctable doom.

   "Popi kaj Huhuu" (Popi and Huhuu) are an aged dog and an ape who live with their master, an old recluse. One day the old man goes out and never comes back -- and dog and monkey must work out between them a new relationship and modus vivendi. The story is told from the point of view of the naturally servile dog, and here Tuglas shows what I consider real brilliance. But the ending is overly abrupt -- two more pages could have made a tremendous difference.

   In "La ora ringo" (The Gold Ring), a man returns to his home town after the death of his aged mother to see to the disposal of her property -- and he accidentally wanders into a frightening half-world reserved for those who have lived only in and for themselves.

   "Miraĝo" (Mirage), the last story, is also, with "World's End," one of the two best in the book. The people of a quiet, rather idyllic island ruled over by a semi-benevolent master see in the sky a Cecil B. DeMille production of a bloody revolution, and are inspired by the mirage to free themselves. Even though the master shows the iron fist under the velvet glove, he is expelled -- but the people discover, to their chagrin, that the world does not like revolutions. The story, written in 1917, was apparently inspired by the contemporary events in nearby St. Petersburg, Russia.

   The stories all have two points in common: a strong element of fantasy; and a preoccupation with death as the only solution to a problem. But we must remember that Tuglas wrote these stories in a time and place where death was an everyday occurrence.

   Strongly, strongly recommended.

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