ESTONIA (**)

Jaan Kross — The Conspiracy & Other Stories

Setting: Tallinn during WWII

What it’s about: Engrossing, breathless tragi-comic tales of young Estonians on the run from Nazi and Soviet occupiers alternatively as the Baltic state changes hands — based on Kross’s own life.

A young man meets an old friend from a German-Estonian family about to be repatriated to the Reich as the Soviets arrive and remembers his romantic tryst with his sister. In another story, he meets a former architecture student who has joined the lower ranks of the SS, and he helps him abscond, smuggling him across the sea to Finland:

We fumbled a handshake.
“What have you been doing with yourself?”
I hadn’t seen him since the beginning of the war.
“I’m studying.”
“What? Doric architecture?”
“No, how to use a spade in hand-to-hand combat.”
It turned out…that he would be sent to the front the following week.

Dark endings abound. Twists of face decide survival; such as which name is engraved in a textbook in the suitcase containing dangerous writing thrown overboard just before a boat is raided.

War slowly but surely engulfs everyone. In a cafe listening to a lunchtime concert:

Most people smile because this boy’s violin playing with one of those heartening threads of normality in the ripping canvas of the epoch.”

They are separate stories but with the same protagonist and a natural progression — the first stories see a carefree student drawn into the resistance, the last two see a hardened cynic in jail as a result.

It begins with a calm soon replaced by “feverish and sinister haste” as people have to decide whether they’re German or Estonian.

In the first story he is with a former flame on her last night before leaving. They stand on the docks looking at the boats that will repatriate the German Estonians. She pulls him away for the last tryst

My right hand still retains the memory of that pull: the sudden weight of Flora at the first jerk and the unexpected lightness of the second. I have spent much time since, analysing what lay in that pull.”

But the moment is broken when she falls and cuts her knee. A wound that will have dire consequences.

Why you should read it: To see normal life struggling to go on in a time of war, as society is pulled apart by totalitarian regimes. It’s 1939 and German families in Estonia are moving back to Germany, then the German army is coming and the hero is preparing to go into hiding.

You will like this if you liked: John le Carre — stories read like tense Cold War thrillers. Or any romantic ‘love in war/youth’ novel, though I am thinking of Jan Neruda’s Prague Tales.

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