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Jaan Kross: Professor Martensi Ärasõit (Professor Martens’ Departure)

While Kross may be best known for Keisri hull (The Czar’s Madman), this book clearly deserves to be considered on the same level, as it is a very fine work. Like other fine novels of our period, it is not really a plot-driven novel but general ruminations by the main character, who is a historical character. Professor Martens is at the end of his life. Indeed he dies at the very end of the book. Much of the novel consists of him talking to his absent wife, Kati – about his life, his diplomacy, his nationality and his affairs.

Martens is, of course, Estonian, though he works for the Russian government. He is often taken for Russian and, naturally, many of the people he deals with professionally have no idea about Estonia. However, the idea of being Estonian, particularly in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century is one that Kross/Martens plays with in his light-hearted but serious manner. Martens compares his life to that of his grandfather, also called Friedrich and, like his grandson, also a lawyer and a diplomat. Grandfather Martens produced an authoritative collection of international treaties as his grandson will do. Their lives run in parallel in both major ways – their careers – but also minor ways. For example, grandfather is in a coach with the British princes, when they see a fire. Someone is injured and begs a ride but Grandfather Martens refuses to give him one. When Grandson Martens is in a similar predicament, after a house has been burned by Polish anarchists, he does offer the coach to the injured, while he and his royal charge walk. The passengers, however, disappear and Martens realises that he has been duped and that the burn victims were probably the anarchists using his coach as a means of escape.

Martens does tell the absent Kati of his affairs (one even parallels that of his grandfather), including one young woman who, he later finds out, has a baby by him and marries someone else. He also talks about his successes and failures. He is clearly proud of his diplomatic skills, particularly where he helped ease the terms for Russia as a result of the Russo-Japanese war, despite the fact that he was almost excluded from the Russian delegation by a combination of Japanese manoeuvring and internal jealousies. He is also proud of the fact that he was nearly awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for his work, though others mock him for this.

However, the real strength of this novel is both the insight we get into a man whom most of us will never have heard of, who played an important role in late nineteenth/early twentieth century diplomatic history, with all his foibles and his strong points as well as his ruminations on history, diplomacy, the Europe of his time, nationality and nationalism, language and, of course, love and life. If you like the sort of book written by W G Sebald or Roberto Calasso, you will definitely appreciate this work.

Publishing history

First published 1984 by Eesti Raamat
First published in English 1994 by Harvill
Translated by Anselm Hollo