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Jaan Kross: Paigallend (Treading Air)

I happened to read this novel the week that Kross died, which might or might not be apposite, as the hero of this book, who might or might not be based on Kross himself, dies at the end of the book. The story is told by a narrator – Jaan Sirkel (who also might be based on Kross) – about Ullo Paerand (apparently an estonianisation of the German name Behrens). Paerand did not achieve a great deal in his life, primarily because of the political situation in Estonia. Indeed, much of his life was spent working in a factory which made suitcases. But Kross portrays him as a fascinating and interesting character. His family life is difficult, he is involved, if only peripherally, in major changes in Estonian contemporary history and he is a poet.

Jaan meets Ullo at Wikman’s, one of the top boys schools in Tallinn and which will feature more strongly in one of Kross’ untranslated novels. Ullo is older but arrived at the school later, not least because of financial difficulties at home. We gradually learn of Ullo’s family issues. His father starts to have financial difficulties. He also starts an affair with another woman and moves to the Netherlands, abandoning Ullo and his mother. Ullo has to help his mother work – they run a laundry – as money gradually runs out. We follow his early love affairs and marriage. But Ullo is nothing if not resourceful and eventually lands a job in the Prime Minister’s office. And this is where the book really becomes interesting.

In this and his other books, Kross introduces us to various literary, historical and political events of Estonia in a way that helps if you have a knowledge of these events but which you can still appreciate without such a knowledge. We meet various literary personalities but, above all, we learn of the various intrigues as Estonia is taken over first by the Germans and then by the Soviets and see in some detail, from the point of view of a semi-insider, what happens, and why independent Estonia ceased to be till the 1980s. Kross’ skill both in recounting Ullo’s story but also the story of Estonia is, as ever, to the fore, and you cannot help but be fascinated by what happened to this small country, abandoned by the West (Britain and the USA, in particular – FDR comes in for especial criticism). While perhaps not as good as the two previous Kross novels published in the West, this one still makes for interesting reading.

Publishing history

First published 1998 by Virgela
First published in English 1992 by Harvill
Translated by Eric Dickens