Extract > Burning Cities

Secrets and lies in the Estonian City of Tartu. Kai Aareleid’s lyrical novel Burning Cities is about the disintegration of a family, set largely after the Second World War among the ruins of a town under Soviet occupation.



‘There lies a paradox in considering ante scriptum as the opposite of post scriptum. For something to precede what is written, to write something before it is written, the text that is preceded must have been written; ergo it must exist. If, however, it has already been written, then is the ante scriptum not by its very nature no longer the ante but rather the post scriptum . . . ? Are you following me? Have you even been taught basic latin?’


‘Paradox! Paradox!’

– Professor of literature E.V. to his students,
Tartu, Autumn 1962




This story glows somewhere on the fringes of my consciousness, so close I can almost touch it. It glimmers in the dark, chilly corners of memory, a dim echo of more cheerful days, of smiles, of certain voices. It is like the fading black-and-white pictures of my photograph album, glue cracked at the corners; photographs that flutter out like startled butterflies when I open it. Their flight is short-lived, and I have trouble putting them back in order because their significance has often flickered out, scattered like dust.

I promised I would tell you everything eventually; now, as if by chance, you found the box labelled with your grandfather’s name and came to me with questions. I know you opened it by accident. There’s no need to apologize. It was simple human curiosity.

All things considered, I myself handed you the key when I asked you to bring me a few books from the bookshelf at home this summer. So, perhaps some part of me wanted things to take this course without my even knowing it; wanted you to find, to discover, to ask. Wanted this heart to find peace and bygone cities to burn at last.

You were wrong about one thing. I haven’t hidden anything from you; I’ve simply been unable to articulate it.

Today I finally opened the black-leather notebook you once gave me. now, it’s come in handy. You knew just the right kind to choose. You knew it must have ruled pages to guide me, along which I might slowly creep like a vine. It has a violet ribbon as a bookmark, and its pages are held together by a thick piece of elastic – so securely and so falsely.

I should begin from the beginning. But where is that?

The beginnings are many.



The day I walked into the cabin’s garden – which had been dusted with a pristine layer of snow – unlocked the front door, the inner door and finally the kitchen door, everything was how it always is: the lock was a little tricky, as always; the smell of chipboard panelling and old farmhouse, of mice and earth-covered onions left to dry on the stove swept over me, as always; I groped for the light switch in the dusky room, thick winter curtains covering the windows, the snowlight still shimmering in my eyes. Knowing that over the next hour I would need to get a fire going quickly, lay out the sheets and blankets close to the wood-burning kitchen stove, find something to eat, as always. But when the gnat-spattered bulb finally came on, nothing was as it always was.

When the local detective sergeant had left and the forensics expert didn’t appear (because she was attending a training seminar in the capital); when the lists had been drawn up and everything had been remembered and all suspicions had been considered; when the shards of glass had been swept up, the clothes and dishes that had been flung from the ransacked cupboards, chest and sideboard all heaped into bags and boxes in a corner; the couple of unbroken stools utilized as a table and chair in the kitchen; the fire lit and the night somehow slept through – the morning after that.

My irises recall an empty space where there should be . . .

My irises recall something that I myself didn’t register right away.

That whole night I’d cried over the musty cupboards and the old table to which my husband had laid claim after his parents’ deaths – I’d cried over things to which I had no other connection than that I was accustomed to them, and hadn’t noticed that the sole thing that belonged to me and to me alone was missing; something for which I’d carefully chosen a place on the bedroom wall.

Now, there was a darker patch on the faded, patterned wallpaper where the painting had hung, and the empty space looked down forlornly at the bed. Gone was the gaze of the man with a rosette on his lapel: a gaze, emanating from the painting, that had protected me for so long and had witnessed everything, all kinds of days.


It wasn’t just any portrait. It was dad. I close my eyes.

Through the dark patch on the wallpaper a tunnel opens on to a damp, tin-toned November thirty-six years earlier.



Tiina has lit a fire in the living-room stove. The logs crackle, but the feeling doesn’t subside. Something entirely alien has enveloped her and is now controlling her decisions. She has to clean the floors. She can’t help it, she simply must.

Tiina fetches a bucket from the pantry and fills it in the kitchen. She plunges a rag to the bottom and watches the little bubbles wiggle their way to the surface as the cloth absorbs the water. Her fingers appear bloated and bluish under the water in the grey bucket. Tiina lugs it to the living-room and wrings out the rag. Getting down on all fours, she starts scrubbing the floor. She does so slowly and carefully, trying her best not to think. Outside it is a cold, dank, darkening november evening.

The room is chilly. Tiina scrubs and wrings, scrubs, wrings. Her hands are red from the cold water, but she starts to perspire as she works.

Dad has been gone for two days already. The social delegate came knocking again yesterday. mum has been anxious. That morning before she left, mum combed her hair roughly, for a long time, then applied an excessively thick layer of lipstick. She hasn’t returned from work yet either.

Tiina pauses to wipe sweat from her brow. Someone knocks at the window. Mr Osvald from upstairs is standing outside like a ghost. Mr Osvald is just standing, waiting.

Tiina rises, walks across the freshly scrubbed floor to the window and pushes it open. Osvald’s face is moist but not from rain, because it isn’t raining.

‘Darling child . . .’ he sobs.

‘What is it, mr Osvald? What’s happened?’

‘Oh God, God . . .’

‘What’s wrong? Why are you crying?’

‘Oh, you poor child, you don’t . . . you don’t even know yet . . .’

‘Know what, Mr Osvald?’

‘You don’t even know . . .’

‘What don’t I know?’

But instead of answering he clamps his hand over his mouth, turns and walks away. no explanation. Poor child. You don’t even know.

The house is quiet. The fire crackles in the stove. Tiina returns to the bucket, drops to her hands and knees, wrings out the rag and continues scrubbing. She scrubs and scrubs. Slowly. She channels all her sickening dread into the mechanical motion. All her unknowing, all her knowing. She doesn’t know, and yet she knows, as if everything had already finished long before it reached the end.


Burning Cities
Kai Aareleid
Translated from the Estonian by Adam Cullen


Burning Cities by Kai Aareleid is part of our Baltic World Series.

It is available to order now.

Burning Cities


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