Monday, October 31, 2016

Estonia: The Ropewalker, by Jaan Kross

I read a book earlier in the year which I posted under the heading Estonia - but I decided to revisit the country for two reasons. Firstly, the author of the first book, Sofi Oksanen, is actually Finnish, though the book was set in Estonia and the author has Estonian ancestry.

Secondly, I spotted Jaan Kross's newly translated book in the library, and it looked too inviting to pass by. It is the first volume of a major historical trilogy with the overall title "Between Three Plagues". Parts 2 and 3 are apparently due to appear in English in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

Jaan Kross was born in Tallinn, Estonia in 1920. At the time he was writing his historical fiction, Estonia was part of the USSR and writers were severely restricted in what they could publish. Kross withdrew into writing historical fiction, in order to become less visible to the authorities. At the time in the mid 1500s when this story is set, Estonia was part of Old Livonia, a territory which was squabbled over by several major powers, jostling for control - Russia, Sweden, Poland, Denmark, and Poland-Lithuania. The series concerns the life of Balthasar Russow, the author of the "Chronicle of the Province of Livonia" which recounts the history of Livonia from 1156- 1583. Balthasar was a remarkable man, of peasant stock but very intelligent, with the knack of being in the right place, and saying the right thing, at the right time. The first volume ends when he is still a young man in his mid twenties, returning to Livonia after a period studying theology in Germany.

The book is quite lengthy and is packed with description. Apparently Kross was often seen walking around old Tallinn, peering at the details of buildings in order to better describe them, as many were just as they had been in Russow's day. Description can be tedious and often the reader tends to skip it. That wasn't the case for me with "The Ropewalker". Without the language standing out and drawing attention to itself, the description seemed to be an integral part of the story, easy to read and blending seamlessly with the narrative. Only occasionally did I stop over a particular phrase which seemed particularly vivid
eg "a reddish brown beard so sparse that each hair had to shout to its neighbour to be heard".

I will be looking forward to the next volume in the series, as eagerly as I am awaiting the final part of Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell trilogy.

The Ropewalker, by Jaan Kross, translated by Merike Lepasaar Beecher, published by MacLehose Press 2016

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