As this post goes live, I shall be speeding south, making my way to the London Book Fair (LBF), hopefully arriving in time for the opening ceremony. This year, the market focus is on the Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. And I’m planning one post each day to coincide with the nationality of the Baltic author of the day.
On day one of the fair, the Baltic author of the day, Mikhel Mutt is from Estonia. I, therefore, decided it was high time to read the Estonian novel that has been waiting patiently in my TBR for the last 8 years.
Mati Unt’s uses the platform of his novel, published in 1997, when freedom of speech had been restored to Estonia, to provide an excoriating analysis of totalitarianism – both left and right wing. Because as Unt said, Brecht at Night, translated from Estonian by Eric Dickens, isn’t really about Brecht.
But it starts there.
It’s 1940 and Brecht is sailing from Sweden to Finland. As a communist and a Jew, he has been fleeing his Nazi persecutors for the last 3 years. Finland is only a temporary haven. He will wait there until he obtains a visa enabling entry into the USA. Hold that thought. Why is he not looking for refuge in the USSR? Because in one of many ironies that will become apparent the course of this book, the USSR is not safe for German left-wingers, Following the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact , Hitler’s enemies are the USSR’s enemies, and left-wing Germans in the USSR faced either deportation back to the Third Reich or the hospitality of a Russian gulag.
While waiting for his visa, therefore, Brecht spends his time with his wife, Helene, their children, his consumptive secretary/lover, Grete, and a second lover, the beautiful Ruth Berlau. His stay is financed by the wealthy Hella Wuolijoki, an Estonian-born Finnish writer. Quite a harem, wouldn’t you say? Not quite the aesthetic existence you’d expect from the dialectic playwright.
The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact – in particular, the secret protocol, the existence of which was denied by both parties – had greater ramifications for the Estonian nation. It led directly to the Soviet occupation, even though the Russians manipulated events to make it look as though they were invited. (Using the same tricks Hitler used with regard to the Sudetenland.) Unt retells (I won’t say fictionalises, because it doesn’t read that way) these events in sections that run parallel to the story of Brecht. Using words such as fandango to describe the political shenanigans (my word), Unt’s irony nevertheless gives testimony to the breathtaking political duplicity and betrayal involved.
Meanwhile, what are the concerns of the famous playwright? His over-active sex life, of course. But also how best to achieve dialectic and alienation effects in his other works in progress, Mr Puntila and His Man Matti and The Good Person of Szechwan. Also how best to convey the evils if a right-wing dictatorship, The irony (and I promise this is the last time I will use the word) is that Brecht can’t see that left-wing totalitarianism is just as evil. (It is a lesson, I think, that life will eventually teach him, but not at this time.)
The result is that Unt’s portrait of Brecht is less than flattering. Within his immediate circle, he is spoilt and pedagogic. Helene and Grete accept the ménage à trois, although the arrival of Ruth does cause feathers to be ruffled. Brecht is also able to ignore external realities when it suits him. But perhaps that is what artists must do. Transcend the everyday. To create art (and a reputation) that is immortal.
In Part VI, Documents, Unt makes this point, without the need for commentary. He juxtaposes historical documents with a selection of Brecht’s poems. The former are more shocking than Unt’s retelling; the most shocking being a report entitled Where Did They Vanish To? Written by Vladimir Pool, former head of the KGB in the ESSR, and published in 1991 (tellingly, once the Soviet Occupation had ended), it details the awful reality of the fates that awaited Estonian politicians – some of whom, did not oppose Soviet objectives. Brecht’s poems, selected to reflect resulting semtiments/truths prove the point. Art is greater than the man.
To summarise: What do you call this? Part fiction, part fact. part faction. I’ve never read anything like it. Whatever the label, we have a candidate for my book of the year. Why did I take so long to read it?