Anton Tammsaare: Tõde ja õigus I (Truth and Justice: Andres and Pearu ; later: Vargamäe)
If there were such a thing as the Great Estonian Novel, it would probably be Tammsaare’s five-volume Tõde ja õigus [Truth and Justice], of which this is the first volume. It appeared in Germany at the beginning of World War II (later republished). I have copies of some of the volumes but not all. It appeared in French just after the war and in a new edition around 2009-2010. It has also appeared, in whole or in part, in Czech, Dutch, Finnish, Hungarian, Italian, Latvian, Russian and Swedish. English, inevitably, lagged far behind.
This first volume was first published in 2016 by a small New York publisher called Haute Couture, which seems to have disappeared. The Library of Congress does not seem to have a copy and a well-known online US-based book store says of the book only that it was independently published but has no copies for sale. If you go to Haute Couture’s website, you get a site in Japanese on breast augmentation surgery and its Facebook page has gone. It seems to have been a project of Portuguese writer Luis de Miranda (see this article and this one).
It was subsequently published in 2019 by Glasgow-based Vagabond Voices and this is the version I read.
The original Estonian version uses as its title only Tõde ja õigus [Truth and Justice] I, as do some other languages. The English, French, German and some other languages give each volume a separate name. Vargamäe (it means Thief’s Hill) is the farm where much of the novel is set. It is where Tammsaare grew up and is now a museum devoted to him.
Andres and Krõõt are newly-weds. Andres had bought the farm of Vargamäe, though it was not ideal. Vargamäe is actually two farms – Andres’ called Hill Farm and his neighbour Pearu’s called Valley Farm. The land is very marshy and this will cause him problems later. We meet them as they are arriving. Krõõt is somewhat horrified. She has come from an area of fields and forests and the marshy land is not inviting. Indeed, as soon as they arrive, they face problems. As part of the dowry, Andres had received the mare that is pulling their cart and a cow, who is pregnant. The cow had arrived before and has wandered off and is stuck in a boggy field. Andres, in his Sunday best, has to pull her out with the help of others.
He learns that the previous owners had given up, not helped by the decidedly aggressive and unpleasant neighbour Pearu, who considers himself Lord of the Manor. Pearu is a bully, constantly beating his wife and staff, but is comparatively well-off. He tries bullying Andres but Andres is made of sterner stuff and even manages to persuade him to undertake a joint drainage project. The antagonism between Pearu and Andres will continue throughout the book and will result in frequent appearances in court, as each man, often using underhand tactics, will try to outdo his rival. There are times when they get on relatively well but then something happens to set it all off again.
Andres’ key issue is not whether the farm was good value for money but what he can make of it. He examines it carefully and has ideas which will take a lot of work over a long period of time. Part of his goal is to develop it and then pass it on to his future children.
We follow the story of the family as they struggle with all the hard work and with Pearu. Krõõt perhaps suffers the most, as she has to bear children and feels guilty about only having daughters. Indeed, Taamsaare clearly shows that the women bear much of the burden, as the men can run off to the tavern, while the women have to bear children, look after them, run the household and still have to contribute to the heavy farm work.
Both Andres and Krõõt find it much harder work than they thought it was going to be but they have to struggle on. There is always something to do and there is no time to do it.
Eventually, Krõõt does give birth to a boy but she dies shortly after. Andres has two tenants in a cottage – Juss and Mari. They have two daughters and Mari acts as a wet nurse for Andres, the newly born son. She soon starts spending all her time in Andres’ house, looking after his four children and Juss gets jealous. Tongues start wagging in the village, with Pearu at the forefront.
After Juss dies, Andres finally marries Mari but the tongue-wagging does not stop. The couple have a son, Indrek, who is clearly different and, indeed, in the German and French, the next volume is named after him.
The children have played a fairly small role at the beginning – we don’t even learn their names till about half way in the book – but, as they grow up, they become more important. The two boys – Andres (Krõõt’s son) and Indrek (Mari’s son) are very different, with Andres being tough like his father and Indrek far more sensitive. They fight continually. The girls get along better but, as there are more girls in Andres’ family and more boys in Pearu’s, they get together, unbeknown to their respective fathers.
The 1889–1890 flu pandemic hits the area and it is mainly the children who die – Andres and Mari lose three. Several families, including Andres and Mari, feel that it is God’s judgement for their sins, and quite a few people change their behaviour accordingly.
Pearu and Andres continue to fight, both in the courts and for real, with both behaving badly. It seems to take it out of both them. Andres starts feeling weaker. At the same time, he becomes more difficult towards his own family, strict with the children and Mari, whom he hits more than once. But the work is never over. For Andres and Mari every corner of Vargamäe was filled with work, drudgery, worry, sadness and resentment.
This book is essentially about Andres’ struggles. They can be divided into three. Firstly, there is his struggle with nature, taming the marsh and making the land suitable for farming is a huge undertaking and seemingly never-ending. The weather, the problem of every farmer, is also an issue.
Secondly there is his continual struggle with Pearu. Their fight, to us, often seems childish. While Pearu may be mainly to blame, Andres makes no attempt to defuse the situation but takes the fight to Pearu at every opportunity. Both men spend an inordinate amount of time (and, presumably, money) in the courts and both men feel badly done by the courts decisions. When Andres gets too tired, his son Andres takes over the mantle.
Finally there is Andres’ struggle for his soul. He is not a very religious man but still feels considerable guilt over Juss’ death and the death of Krõõt casts a shadow over his soul. Like others he feels the epidemic and the death of the of his children were, at least in apt, because of his sins.
The book more or less ends with the younger generation coming to the fore and they are very different from their parents, as regards their aims and ambitions. Running a farm is not something they look forward to. Indeed, both Pearu’s and Andres’ children do not see their future at Vargamäe, something their parents are not happy about as, for set of parents had, they said, suffered all the hard work to leave something worthwhile to their children. How they go forward, we will see in the next volume which, in French and German would indicate that Indrek will play a greater role.
It is a wonderful book as, while Tammsaare is clearly sympathetic towards Andres, he does not hesitate to point out Andres’ faults. Andres is far from a saint. Indeed, if there are saints in this book, they are certainly not to be found among the men. Tammsaare creates a whole host of characters, all with their own aims and and ambitions, their own foibles and their own characters, so while Andres senior is to the fore he is by no means the only character. Tammassare, as good writers do, creates a separate world, with its own rules, its own culture, its own problems and is own individuals and that is what makes this the foremost candidate for the Great Estonian Novel.
First published by Kultuuri Kirjastus in 1926
First published in English by Haute Couture (as Truth and Justice: Andres and Pearu ) in 2016
Translated by Inna Feldbach and Alan Peter Trei