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Kai Aareleid: Linnade põletamine (Burning Cities)

The book opens in 2013 but is soon delving into the past and we are back in 1941. Liisi had married Valdek Stern in a secular ceremony but she wanted a religious one. We meet her on the road, in the rain, lost but wearing her wedding dress. Peeter Ungar, who is driving to meet his girlfriend. offers her a lift and learns that Valdek had left her to join up with his friends. Peeter takes her to the nearest town, leaving her with his coat while she inadvertently leaves a book of Valdek’s poems in his car.

We jump to 1945. Peeter is director of the Tartu County Consumers’ Cooperative Manufactured Goods Warehouse No. 1. They have just hired a new person. It is, of course, Liise. They remember each other. We learn that Valdek was killed in the war. Liise is shy and afraid of losing her job. Peeter, some twenty years older than her, encourages her and falls for her. He buys her a new coat and then marries her. They have a daughter, Tiina.

Tiina will be the main character in this book, though her growing up is important, so we see a lot about her parents early in the book.

There are three related themes in this book. The first is the often uneasy relationship to the past, both the public and private past. For much of this book Estonia is a part of the Soviet Union, something Estonians are, on the whole, not happy about. We see this particularly with the elderly Mrs Wunderlich, a neighbour of the Ungars who keeps old books and old photos. She points to a photo. That was before, she concludes, in the Estonian era. (Estonia had been independent after World War I but taken over by the Soviet Union in World War II.) As Tiina says visits to Mrs Wunderlich’s room are always like a journey back in time. Indeed it is Mrs Wunderlich who introduces Tiiina to the Bible and refers to the building located behind theirs, which had belonged to Fraternitas Estica, an Estonian Students’ Society an now used for drama. Tiina will retain a fascination for this building.

Of course , this is by no means the only looking towards the past. Early in the book we will see Tiina as an adult in 2013 looking back at her family’s past and, during the book, she will have a fascination with her family’s past. Her father keeps certain documents, photos, etc concealed. Tiina finds the hiding place and is interested in the strange people in the photos She sees a picture of a boy and wonders whether it might be a long lost brother. She will continue this exploration of the past.

The other key issues, related to this exploration of the past, is the idea of keeping secrets. Both parents keep secrets. I have already mentioned her father hiding secrets away. Liise suspects he had a past before he met her (he is twenty years older than her) and that that past has not gone away but that he is still in touch with it. She does discover another secret, which Tiina already knew, that Peeter is a keen card player and wins (and loses) large sums on gambling, something which is forbidden in the Soviet Union. There is one interesting chapter called simply Keeper of Secrets and lists the variolous secrets the family members, primarily Tiina, have and do not reveal to the others. There are quite a few.

The third key issue involves the fact that Tiina is an only child and the only child of a marriage which is far from being a happy one and one in which her parents seem more interested in their own concerns than in their daughter. Her father, in particular, often comes home very late (as we know, at least some of the time he has been gambling). He also seems to drink a lot and fall asleep. I just wanted him to wake up, I just wanted to do something good, I wanted company, I wanted my dad.

However, she is in danger of losing both parents. Liise has had enough and moves out but Peeter insists that Tiina should grow up in the family home and Liise concurs because there is no room in her boyfriend’s flat. In theory that should bring father and daughter closer but when the building is to be renovated, he moves in with a girlfriend and Tiina is sent to stay with a friend.

If Tiina has a female friend, we do not learn about her. Yes, ther are other girls at school but she is not close to them. When young she occasionally plays with a neighbour boy but there is no-one she is close to till she meets Vova. Ats, one of the tough boys, decided they should all attack the pupils at the neighbouring Russian school and a suitable quantity of rotten fruit, vegetables and eggs is amassed and an attack is launched. Tiina strikes a boy with an egg. The school is naturally furious and it is decided to have a reconciliation get-together. Tiina meets the boy she struck, Vova, and they become close friends.

Tiina is a lost and lonely soul. She loses anyone to whom she might be close. Aareleid has said that she and the other characters have an emptiness they are trying to fill which is certainly one way of looking at it. Tiina wants to be close to her father but cannot manage it.

Nothing is going to get better. Nothing will even turn in that direction. They are like two strangers. It doesn’t matter that the girl would like to wrap her arms around her father’s neck and cry or that Dad would like to reach out and stroke his daughter’s head. They don’t do it. They can’t. They’re too far away from one another.

Indeed, no-one in this book seems to be able to hang on to relationships. For various reasons they drift away, lost souls everyone.

Publishing history

First published in 2016 by Varrak
First English translation in 2018 by Peter Owen
Translated by Adam Cullen