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.