World Series > An interview with Kai Aareleid
KAI AARELEID (b. 1972, Tartu) is an Estonian writer, whose début novel, Russian Blood, was published in 2011 to wide acclaim. After her second novel, Burning Cities, was published in 2016 she was awarded the accolade Estonian Writer of the Year. She is also a prolific translator into Estonian and has translated works by Bruce Chatwin, Javier Marías, Paulo Coelho and Roberto Bolaño.
When she came to London, we sat down and discussed some of the novel’s themes and mysterious elements.
PO: Burning Cities is the story of a young girl growing up in Soviet-occupied Tartu, Estonia, and her parents’ marriage, which is gradually disintegrating before her eyes. What causes their marriage to fall apart is the effect of the novel’s central theme: the act of keeping secrets. Beneath the novel’s simple story is a world of untold ones, of secrets and difficult pasts – reading the novel, with its short, enigmatic and self-contained chapters, has been likened to looking at a photo album that doesn’t belong to you. What exactly did you set out to write, when you began the novel?
KA: I set out to write a story about a child’s loneliness and her survival – a theme common to any time, I feel.
Above all, Burning Cities is a story about filling the emptiness in our lives. Young Tiina, the main character, experiences emptiness on different levels: she sees the empty lots in the war-scarred city around her; she witnesses her parents’ marriage succumbing to secrets and lies, she hears the silences in what the grown-ups around her say about the present or about the past times …
But a sense of emptiness inevitably sets off strategies of filling this emptiness. That is the main drive of all the characters in this story and what I set out to explore. Tiina finds her own strategy – she falls in love with a young Russian boy. So, Burning Cities is also a love story, and a story about an unlikely friendship.
The unlikely friendship begins after a particularly memorable scene of hostility between Estonian and Russian school children. Can you give us a sense of Estonian and Russian relations during this period?
My great-grandmother was Russian. But I used to hide and deny this fact as an adolescent. It was us, Estonians, and them, the occupiers. The ‘wars’ between Estonian and Russian children like the one in Burning Cities happened in Tiina’s time, in my own childhood.
The antipathy is still there today. It has been interesting to notice, that among all the themes of the novel, Tiina’s friendship with Vova, considered both improbable and improper, has excited my readers the most. It has provoked discussion, but also jogged memories. It is amazing to hear how many readers have their own Vovas.
The words ‘Era’ and ‘before’ or ‘previous times’ act as leitmotifs throughout the novel. How do these words shape Tiina’s understanding of this space and time?
People were still trying to come to terms with their scarred consciousness in 1950s Estonia – the feelings of guilt, shame, pain or bitterness connected with the war (that for many families, turned out to be a war where brother fought against brother, and not even for an Estonian cause), or connected with deportations, or collaborating with the Soviet system, or simply the new polity, the new state of things.
For a child who was born after the war, the time before the Soviet occupation, the so-called “previous” time, was present in whispers, phrases, or old names still in use in private conversations.
But it was also present in physical form. In the novel this is an old lady among her German-language books like a remnant of the past; the ruins of glorious public buildings that stir the imagination; the bits and pieces young Tiina finds among her father’s things.
The times – the “last” or “former” or “previous” era or the time referred to as “back in the Estonian era” – they obviously go over Tiina’s head, even if she knows the basic historical facts. I did not have to invent much here – I have felt the same way, although the echoes of these mystical previous times were much fainter in my own childhood. “Times” seemed like a strange concept. ‘Time’ is a singular word, just like ‘sky’ and ‘friendship’ and ‘love’. Or ‘life’.
The epigraph to the novel is a bit of Aporia from an exasperated lecturer explaining the concept of ante-scriptum – that which comes before the text. Can you elaborate a little on this theme of ante-scriptum? And how does it relate to the novel’s past and present structure?
I cannot help being haunted by beginnings and endings: they interweave, recur, return like a serpent eating its own tail. Memory, for me, is an infinite loop. “I should begin from the beginning. But where is that? The beginnings are many,” states Tiina as an adult looking back at the story of her childhood. In fact, that is what I believe: the beginnings are many. However precisely we define the beginning, there is always something before it, and in a way this is a paradox, just as the concept of ante-scriptum you mentioned.
Young Tiina’s voice is particularly strong; should the reader presume a degree of autobiography?
Perhaps every story is somehow anchored in real life, what matters in fiction is what is built on this autobiographical groundwork.
The story of Burning Cities is fictional, but of course, the stories told by my mother and by my grandmother, are strongly present. In my family, the maternal story-telling tradition has been and is very strong. It’s the women who tell stories to their daughters and thus carry on family traditions. This was one of the leitmotifs already in my first novel Russian Blood (2011).
I set Burning Cities in the neighbourhood and even the house that I know through and through – only from two decades later, the 1970s. But I have supposed that the ways in which human dramas and comedies are enacted hardly changes in time, neither do some scents, sounds or tastes. At least it was something tangible to build on.
Can you tell us a bit about Tartu as it is presented in the novel in the ’50s and ’60s? Why did you choose this for the setting?
Tartu is a town in southern Estonia, often considered the intellectual centre of my country. It is home to our oldest and most renowned university. In my story, the intellectual aura of Tartu it is just a backdrop, but still an important one. The name itself associates with various crucial moments in our history and carries an almost mythical emotional charge.
For myself, Tartu is the city of my childhood and I believe that an imaginative map of a city is made by the soles of your feet. Some pictures of a place later surface as stories. That is one of the reasons I chose this town as my setting.
As for why I chose that particular time, the 1950s and 1960s – well, sometimes it is easier to address pressing contemporary themes in a setting or in a time that is somewhat remote.
On the other hand, one must use every ally there is. Hence I chose the time I have never lived in, but that has been vividly present in the stories told in our family, which means many of the historical details, for example, could be checked from first-hand sources. Of course, human memory may be deceptive, and that is where the archive materials, old photos or newspapers come in handy. But nothing compares to listening to a person tell a story.
Tiina reads and reads and often it seems a way for her to remain in the shadows. Can you explain a little what books mean to her?
The books Tiina reads are not a random choice, in a way; the titles tell a tiny chapter of the Estonian history of translation. And for Tiina’s contemporaries, and even my own, those books bring back quite a few memories. Unfortunately, these are the untranslatable aspects, but nevertheless, they are there.
Books offer a possibility to live many lives, as opposed to the one we are destined to live. That is why we read, that is why we translate, that is why we write, I suppose.
And particularly for Tiina, books are like cards: they are part of her strategy to fill empty spaces; at certain moments they can become substitutes for friends or family; they are good hiding places, both literally or figuratively, something to hold on to when everything else seems to fall apart.
Tiina’s father seems addicted to card games and gambling, despite prohibition under the new Soviet regime. What do cards and card games represent for the characters in the novel?
The title Burning Cities refers to a simple and somewhat stupid card game, Battle. In Estonian, the game is called Burning Cities. No idea why (I gave my own explanation in the novel), but it is a good name and it is a perfect title in my language.
In this story the cards have a manifold meaning: as an addiction, they drive people apart, but cards and card games also unite, they help the characters feel alive or kill the time – hence, fill the emptiness in more than one sense.
In addition to that, the cards are always somewhat mysterious: the symbols, even the names of card games – they simply invite fantasy, don’t they? You can build all kinds of imaginary or figurative ‘house of cards’. As a child, I often witnessed grown-ups playing cards, and although they were simpler and more harmless games than the illicit gambling Tiina’s father, Peeter, is engaged in, I sensed that there was something dark and veiled in it; kids were usually shooed away, and it is a well-known fact that forbidden fruit is sweetest.
On that note of forbidden fruit: The novel is full of religious imagery; Peeter and Paul, a memorable scene in an abandoned Church, the trinity in mother, father, offspring. What is the significance of religion to the characters in the novel?
We must remember that this era in the novel was supposed to be atheist. However, old habits die hard and in private lives people often continue their old practices. These were the very same puzzling echoes of previous “times” I mentioned earlier.
In a way, religion can be seen as a symbol of normal, uncensored life, which is why I felt it must have an important presence in the novel. The crucial scenes of the novel take place in churches – or in the ruins of churches, or at least in the close presence of such places. I like to think of churches as portals: portals between the past and the present, the finite and the timeless, the impossible and boundless possibilities.
Resurrection is present also in the way Tiina’s father returns as an image, as a painting lost and found and restored. The character Paul, not unlike St Paul spreading the gospel, spreads the truth about his dear friend Peeter.
Another aspect that might be worth mentioning is redemption. Hence one of the epigraphs to the novel is a quote from All Souls by Javier Marías, the idea being that a secret can’t be kept from everybody forever; it has to find a recipient at least once. I believe that when it comes to events of great magnitude and human memory returning to them over and over again, one of the ways out, one of the ways of redemption is the act of telling it and thus getting rid of it, burning it, so to say. The story gets told and we write ‘The end’. But darkness isn’t left behind, light is. If anything, this is redemption.
Your translation credits are impressive and include Javíer Marias, Roberto Bolaño, Borges and other luminaries. Has translation helped you as a novelist in any way? Which writers have had the biggest influence on your work?
Translating is the closest way of reading. I. B. Singer certainly knew what he was talking about, when he stated that his translators are his best critics, because translation undresses a literary work, shows it in its true nakedness, unveils all masks. I can relate to this both as a translator and as a translated author.
As a translator, during the last decade or so, I have been lucky enough to translate only the books that fascinate me. Nothing can teach us how to write better than good examples of writing. So, in a way, I see translating as the time when I strengthen the groundwork of my own writing.
Translating also helps me to take a break from writing and at the same time stay close to it. And to be honest, in my country, it brings bread on the table slightly more steadily than a writer’s job does.
I appreciate linguistic surprises and sensual precision: frequently, the measure for this is whether I feel the urge to read with a pencil, so to speak, to take notes, to learn something, or not. The foreign authors with whom I get that urge, I’ve striven to translate: Javier Marías, Enrique Vila-Matas, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Roberto Bolaño, Jorge Luis Borges… Fluidly written and masterfully woven stories are sometimes a great pleasure to read, too, but for me very good prose is something that persists in your mind a great deal later. It’s usually an emotional charge or an explicitly described atmosphere, some chafing detail or a very well-played-out scene, no matter whether it’s funny or tragic, and best if it is both. All the above mentioned authors have been able to do that, so if anyone, it is they who have been my unwitting teachers.
Burning Cities by Kai Aareleid is part of our Baltic World Series.