Another Estonian writer from the older generation who has been very important during the Soviet era (1944-1991) is Arvo Valton (born 1935). His early life was blighted by the now notorious 1949 Deportations, when around 20,000 Estonians were sent Siberia, among them Valton and his mother. So as a teenager and young man he spent a total of six years living in the Novosibirsk oblast, partly working on a sovkhoz. Once back in Estonia, he studied chemistry and agronomy, and in the 1960s ended up writing scenarios for films, but continued working as a factory manager throughout the late 1960s. He finally became a full-time author and has remained so to this day. He has sat on the board of various film and literary organisations.
But it is as an author that Valton is best known. Critic Janika Kronberg has written this for the Estonian Literature Information Centre (ELIC):
*Arvo Valton (born 1935) began his career as a writer in the 1960s. He is still a productive writer today and has been translated into many languages. He has tried his hand at all genres, from voluminous novels to the briefest of aphorisms, and has also written literary criticism, plays, film scenarios, travel books, poetry and non-fiction.
Valton's writings have varied a good deal over the years. In the 1960s, he first made his mark as a writer of short-stories with grotesque and strangeness as leimotifs. Valton criticises absurd aspects of the technological revolution and its deleterious effects on beauty and art. The author is a master at suggesting a link between the bureaucracy of totalitarian r?gimes and examines the borders of existentialist concerns.
One of the best of his short-stories is "Eight Japanese Women" where the delicate dancers whirl between the muddy puddles of a building site, where they are being shown the achievements of human progress. Valton has also written surrealist stories (e.g. the collection "Through Dream Landscapes") which have the oneiric and subconscious traits of surrealism. Valton's absurd story of a man reading a book aloud at a railway station, "The Man With the Green Rucksack" has been translated into Danish, English and other languages.
In the 1970s, Valton continued an interest in the early history of Europe and Asia which he had already exhibited in some of his stories, now in longer prose form in the novel "Road to the Other End of Infinity" (1978) where he describes a meeting between Dhzingis Khan, the Mongolian conqueror and the monk Chan Chun, along with the dialogue there on differences in world view. Oriental motifs and aboriginal peoples, along with myths of the Borealis, dominate Valton's prose in the 1980s which includes his fantasy story cycle "Arved Silber's Trip Round the World" which can be treated as a love story, plus "Lonely People in Time" which contains six novellas in two volumes. The first of these depicts the distortion of time and space as people representing the basic prototypes of man and woman as they wander through the tenth city in the world.
The theme central to these novellas is a growth of mankind out of the rut of routine into individual lives, a Taoist movement on the borderline of eternity and infinite space. In Valton's prose, the difference between East and West becomes ever greater as the author becomes more convinced of the way the West has erred.
For ideological reasons, Valton was not for a long time allowed to publish that portion of his œuvre which was critical of Soviet society. Latterly, the author produced a selection of such banned prose in the book "A Walk With the Tour Guide" (1988) Valton's recent prose includes the autobiographical novel "Depression and Hope" where he describes his childhood in Siberia with his parents who had been deported by the Communist r?gime. He was the first author of his kind to use such a theme for a novel.
Text by Janika Kronberg
2003 ? Estonian Literature Information Centre
*V?ike ilus vangimaja: Novelle aastatest 1990-1995
A Nice Small Prison House (short stories)
Published by Virgela , 1996. pp. 256
Lonely People in Time I-II (novels)
Published by eesti Raamat , 1985. pp. 544
*R?nnak giidi saatel
A Walk with the Tour Guide (short stories)
Published by Eesti Raamat , 1988. pp. 438
*Arvid Silberi maailmareis
Arvid Silber's Trip Round the World (novel)
Published by Eesti Raamat , 1984. pp. 216
*Tee l?pmatuse teise otsa
Road to the Other End of Infinity (novel)
Published by Eesti Raamat , 1978. pp. 383
In an Unfamiliar City (short stories)
Published by Eesti Raamat , 1980. pp. 182
Mustam?e Love (short stories)
Published by Eesti Raamat , 1978. pp. 236
Through Dream Landscapes (short stories)
Published by Eesti Raamat , 1975. pp. 110
Equinox Visit (short stories)
Published by Perioodika , 74. pp. 72
A Courtly Game (short stories)
Published by Perioodika , 1972. pp. 92
The Messenger (short stories)
Published by Eesti Raamat , 1972. pp. 172
Eight Japanese Women (short stories)
Published by Perioodika , 1968. pp. 83
Some years ago, Eric translated and published the story The Man With the Green Rucksack for a literary magazine (and unbeknown to me, so did the translator Chris Moseley, for a Baltic anthology!). This story is one of Valton’s most absurd. It tells of a man who enters an ordinary, rather shabby typically Soviet railway station. Instead of sitting down, he climbs up onto a bench and starts reading aloud with pathos from a novel. The comedy of this story is that the typically bureaucratic railway station officials agonise about what they should do with him. He is not technically disturbing the peace of the station, but the book out of which he is reading might be a banned one. So the KGB (alluded to, not mentioned by name!) is called in, but the KGB officer is as puzzled and helpless as they are. The story is a satire of the conformism of Soviet officials, and was quite daring when it first appeared in 1967. But in that year, the Prague Spring was in the air, before it was crushed the next year.
I shall be translating the story Eight Japanese Women for a forthcoming British anthology of Estonian stories.
Valton’s collected stories were published back in 1984 in two volumes; the first contained over a hundred of his very short stories (560 pages), the second contained 25 stories and a novel (a further 520 pages). They were published in an edition of 24,000 copies.
Valton has had his brushes with the KGB. In 1980, when 40 Estonian writers and intellectuals signed a petition to Pravda to complain about cultural rights, the KGB interviewed them all. In 1985, the KGB again summoned people, including Valton, for what was termed "a friendly preventative conversation".
One 600-page novel mentioned only briefly by Kronberg above, and does not appear in the bibliography above, is Masendus ja lootus, i.e. Depression and Hope (1989), where Valton describes in autobiographical terms his Siberian childhood.
Arvo Valton has been translated into French. If you Google his name, you will find several articles in that language.
A review of one of Valton’s most recent books, again, thanks to Janika Kronberg in the ELM:
***Arvo Valton. A Foundling (Leidik)
Tallinn, SE & JS, 2000. 236 pp
Arvo Valton (1935) belongs, just like Enn Vetemaa, to the powerful generation that entered the literary scene in the 1960s. For some decades he has even been considered the best Estonian short story writer. His typifying skills led him to creating model situations; his prose was characterised by hyperboles, the grotesque and satire. Later, he was interested in history, analysing the collective unconscious and was keen on myth creation. In 1989 he published a bulky novel ‘Depression And Hope’ (Masendus ja lootus) about the life of people who had been deported to Siberia – one of the first works of fiction written on this subject. Many of his short stories have been translated into other languages.
A Foundling is Valton’s 46th novel. The plot unravels in the years 1987-88, before the beginning of the Singing Revolution. The book depicts the so-called war of phosphorite, when the whole nation fought against the opening of new phosphorite mines in North Estonia, which threatened to cause both an ecological catastrophe and a social disaster, as the Soviet authorities planned to bring in thousands of new workers from Russia to work in these mines. Vetemaa presents the events that happened ten years ago through the eyes of a writer, a scientist, a punk, a dissident, an artist and others. His characters participate in meetings, gatherings and demonstrations, as well as in secret discussions in quiet offices. We can guess at the prototypes of central characters, well-known public figures can be found as episodic characters.
As a ‘must’ in a ‘real’ novel, the work also contains sex and crime scenes besides the political ones. Olter, a writer, finds a young homeless Russian boy, whom he and his wife adopt, because they themselves could not have children. The theme of a Russian foundling allows Valton to focus the action of the novel on the fate of one person, but it also lets him discuss social and national problems. The unfortunate foundling is finally killed by his former friends from the streets, who are jealous of his new good life. Something symbolical could be seen in the fate of the foundling. Some episodes in this otherwise realistic narrative seem to hint at the possibility of adding a symbolic, mythical plane to the novel, but the rather weak generalisations do not allow them to rise to the foreground, and such hints merge into the trivial system of the work. Valton is a fluent narrator and a passionate politician, but as a realistic chronicler of history, he does not appear especially fascinating. This work has an interesting subject, the author relates current affairs with a certain playfulness, but he has failed to produce convincing generalisations.