Translated from Estonian by Matthew Hyde
Published by Vagabond Voices, 2017, 176 pages. Original version published in 2015.
On 20 August 1991, Estonia formally declared its independence from the Soviet Union, even as Soviet authorities were trying to crush this movement. Set during the last days of the Soviet Union in Estonia, The Death of the Perfect Sentence follows freedom fighters, students, KGB operatives and Russian dissidents.
The plot revolves around the attempt to smuggle out a videotape and photographs of Soviet soldiers attacking peaceful Estonian demonstrators with sharpened sappers’ shovels, resulting in 19 deaths.
The story takes place in Estonia, Finland, Sweden and Russia, and is told from the point of view of the various characters: students (those who resist and those who betray), Russian operatives, Russian dissidents, Estonian interrogators, and older Estonians who are happy with the status quo.
Rein Raud’s use of several perspectives creates a multifaceted picture of the days that led up to Estonia’s independence. But it also means that the reader does not always have the full picture—at least, not until the end (there is a reveal that took me by surprise). Initially, the number of characters is a little confusing, but as Raud fleshes them out by building their back stories, they become more real.
Raim, one of the students in the independence movement seduces Lidia Petrovna, who was his Russian teacher in school, so he can persuade her to photograph files in the archives where she now works.
Särg, the father of one of the students, is an Estonian married to a Russian. Särg works for the Estonian secret service (although this is never made explicit) and is responsible for interrogating those arrested in connection with the country’s independence movement.
One of those being held in prison is his son, Anton, who is willing to go the extra mile to prove his loyalty to the independence movement, in spite of his being half-Russian. Anton hates his father for working for the Soviets and feels he has nothing in common with his parents. “Their world was of no interest to him, nor did he want to share his world with them. … Anyway, what would a true Estonian man have to say to a Russified spook?”
There is also a love story at the centre of this book between Maarja, an Estonian woman, and Alex, a Russian economist, whose relationship is affected by the political events.
Raud captures the feeling of the last days of a repressive regime: the fear, the shifting loyalties, the desperate attempts by the USSR to prevent independence, and the heady feeling that freedom was just around the corner.
The book begins with two Soviet operatives sitting on the terrace of a café, keeping an eye on a students’ demonstration. Indrek, one of the students, walking up to join his friends, spots the two men and understands why they are there. He realizes that the fear that had been something abstract until then, “had begun to spread its poison; that blackest of cats was right in front of him, it had stepped across the threshold and into his life”.
Meanwhile, Raim’s parents do not understand the fuss about Estonia becoming independent. Why is their son fighting for something that is clearly not going to happen? His mother worries and tries to persuade him to come home for dinner: “We’re having cheesecake for pudding and the latest episode of Hercule Poirot is showing on Finnish television”.
As the story builds, the pieces fall into place, and each person gets their moment, even the Soviet operatives in their “dark, poorly fitting, evidently standard issue” suits. Scattered throughout the book are boxes with comments by the author on how he lived through this period, why he wrote this book, as well as snippets about the characters themselves. It is clear from the author’s comments that these events have changed him.
“…I have no reason not to be …happy that…I have been able to experience one world changing into another. So what if this has stirred hungers in me which have damaged me? I am willing to pay that price, if only for the perspective it gave me, which is something I do not encounter in people who have lived under only one political order.”
In this brief novel, Raud brings to light the complex history of Estonia’s independence by telling the story from various sides of the political struggle. Recounting some of his own experiences gives this book an added dimension.
I enjoyed this novel. The Death of the Perfect Sentence taught me much about Estonia’s recent history, of which I knew relatively little.
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