BOOK REVIEW / A world ruled by princes: 'Professor Martens Departure' - Jaan Kross, Tr Anselm Hollo: Harvill, 15.99

THE AUTHOR was born in Tallin, Estonia, studied law, taught children, was arrested in 1946 and spent nine hard years in Siberia, with innumerable other exiled Estonians. The two books we have of his, The Czar's Madman, published last year, and this one, were written under Soviet domination.

There is a class of novel we do not have because of our more fortunate history, written to outwit censorship, using past events to inform the present. When in this novel (as in The Czar's Madman) you find whole passages like, 'Where nations in their internal lives do not grant citizens inalienable rights, we shall find neither judicial order nor respect for the law in international affairs', or remarks like, 'I really couldn't afford to sulk in a world ruled by princes', you know that the writer is confronting present oppression and expecting his readers to understand him. Many such books, written plentifully in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe, are of only local interest, but this author's scope and depth make him a world writer, and his work is translated into every major language.

The frame of this tale is a long leisurely train journey from the rural Estonia of his childhood to St Petersburg where he is Your Excellency and a Privy Councillor, and it can be seen as a representation of an ascent from poverty and humble beginnings to his achievements as an internationally acknowledged expert on international affairs. The Professor is assessing his life, his successes, his loves, and is proud of himself, but fretting (though with the dry humour of old age) at the fact that his lowly birth has always made it impossible for him to be accepted as an equal by the aristocrats with whom he has spent his life: he may secretly call the Czar 'Nicky' as much as he likes.

He is evoking not only his personal past, but Russia's, for he has had to think like a Russian - with the aid of imaginary appearances in the compartment of his wife, to whom he mentally proposes an open and candid telling of the truth, dissolving the lies - or the tact - that have sustained a long and successful marriage. This is one source of the irony that infuses the novel, because the lady would not tolerate the truth, as we know - and so does he. She is a Senator's daughter, irreproachably conventional, whom an ambitious young plebeian married to further his career.

Slowly the professor's picture of his Kati, which is affectionate and even loving enough, yields to the reader's understanding that he does not know as much about her as he thinks, just as his telling of the story of a rapturous love affair with a poor student artist, remembered as 'I lost the woman I loved' tells us of his egotism, unrecognised by him in old age, for he still does not seem to see how badly he let her down.

Yet this complex and contradictory man is far from lacking the sympathies you would think out of reach of the Privy Councillor. Because of his origins, a man conservative by nature and made more so by a lifetime spent at the top levels of government, does retain an understanding of the poor people he came from, and attempts sympathy with the revolutionaries of that explosive Russia. His memories present us with a panorama of the times, and not merely a view from the top.

And of former times too, for he is privately convinced he is the reincarnation or at least a repetition of an earlier very high official of the same name, who also spoke six languages, and who wrote a history of the treaties and conventions between Russia and foreign countries, just as he, the present Martens, has done, 20 volumes of it.

The Professor, his memory thus extended, is enabled to brood about Czars Alexander and Nicholas, and an assortment of Bonapartes, about events from the time of the French Revolution by way of a host of international crises, taking in, notably, the Russian-Japanese War and Bloody Sunday, and with a line forward into the just-ahead 1914 War, because Africa and the European scramble for it is on his agenda.

As with The Czar's Madman, where it slowly becomes evident that the narrator is describing people more intelligent, brave and idealistic than he is, so here the Professor's view of himself erodes, for the reader, and for the Professor too, if not quite as much. The journey concludes with a truly comic encounter - if by comic is understood the clash of irreconcilable substances - when to the Professor's compartment comes what was then still described as A New Woman, young, attractive, clever, educated.

He has believed, and believes now, that his long and complex life enables him to put everyone he meets into their social and geographic context, for is he himself not at times and places Estonian, German, Russian, with affinities to all the peoples of the Baltic? Has he not himself been poor and insignificant, and then powerful? Yet he understands nothing about this young woman, his assessments of her are wrong, and as he understands how wrong, all his judgements must bc called into question, and he knows it.

This is a dense and many-layered novel. To borrow Virginia Woolf's remark about Middlemarch, Jaan Kross is a novelist for grownups.

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
music
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?