IT SEEMS awful to say so, but Jaan Kross has lived what to Western eyes might seem an exemplary novelist's life: born in Tallinn in 1920, he graduated from university and became a teacher. He was arrested and sent to the Siberian gulag for eight years, where he applied himself, among other things, to foreign languages. On his release in 1954 he translated classic Western literature - Shakespeare, Balzac, Stefan Zweig - into Estonian, and wrote several historical novels. The Czar's Madman, which won France's Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger, is the first of these to be translated into English.
It is set in the period just after War and Peace: the empire has fought off Napoleon and is slapping itself on the back. Its particular concern is the life and death of an unusually noble noble: Timo von Bock, a social Utopian whose egalitarian principles urge him to buy, educate and marry a peasant girl. It sounds like the birth of a tragedy - we can easily imagine the misery that might flow from such a well-intentioned step. But the union turns out to be serene and beautiful.
It is in his public life that Timo stumbles. He has sworn an oath to Czar Alexander that he will always tell the truth, but in discharging this obligation he makes a mistake: he writes a long letter to the Czar detailing the slovenly failures of leadership that threaten to undermine and destroy the fatherland. This isn't at all the sort of truth Alexander had in mind: he denounces Timo and locks him up for eight years.
We can hardly help noticing that the term of Timo's internal exile is the same as that suffered by the author himself, but Kross hardly elaborates on the material sufferings of his hero, restricting himself to a couple of poignant suggestions involving broken teeth and a sky so low it was hard to stand up straight.
Instead, he follows a philosophical path. What, his main characters wonder, does all this mean? Anyone wishing to find fault with the novel might point out that the central irony has been severely diluted by the journey into English. Is Timo really mad, or is he a truth-telling genius whose fearless candour illuminates the madness of the world in which he lives? Kross returns to this question many times, as if it were a genuine riddle. Yet anyone reading The Czar's Madman today will realise after a couple of chapters that Timo is recognisably a saint - his story belongs almost to a genre: the unjustly imprisoned hero.
This leaves the novel feeling weighty yet muffled. We need to recall, perhaps, that it was first published in Estonia in 1978, when a serious form of lip-service had to be paid to the idea that Timo's reckless and solitary rebellion might indeed be a sign of fat-headedness. Even this presumes that the book is an allegory about Stalin's Soviet Union, though it could equally well have seemed, back then, a politically correct analysis of an absolutist nightmare.
Anyway, recent events in Britain mean that we can hardly afford to be too sanguine about plots that turn on wrongful arrests. And The Czar's Madman proves to be something more that a mere sad story about unenlightened times. The story is embedded in a complicated mosaic of journals, letters, memorandums and other writings. Presiding over all of these is the brother of Timo's bride, a man called Jakob Mattik who has made the same social journey, from serfdom to aristocratic uncertainty, as his sister.
His own social difficulties - his elevation has estranged him from almost everyone - are one of the most prominent virtues of the book. In one acute and dismaying moment, he loftily refuses to let his mother clean his muddy boots, partly out of embarrassment, but partly out of pride: 'I'm worried she'll start spreading pig lard on them, instead of the Schreiber's Wax I've been using for a long time now . . .'
The novel is well stocked with poignant confessions such as these, and they all make us wince. After Jakob sleeps with the young girl whom he has been teaching, he notices that she is crying: 'It took me only a moment to realise that it was my duty to console her; and also that this was a boring and unnecessary task.'
Jakob is a prig, but his priggishness is of an interesting and sorrowful sort.
Perhaps because the novel is so thoroughly studded with such scenes of human dislocation, it looks for solace not so much in its philosophical gestures to do with 'truth' - these are always ambiguous - but in the wide, consoling outdoors. When Jakob retires to a green bower with his wife-to-be he does not bother to disguise his wistful fondness for green thoughts in green shades:
'We are surrounded by the quiet waters of the creek and the green curtain of reeds. Now and again a perch jumps, or a mallard takes off, slapping the water. The reeds rustle. Some stalks bend in curious ways. As you get closer, a single reed among millions becomes astoundingly unique: with its long narrow leaves, its dome-like top of hairy, brownish-violet spikelets it is like a building, a flowering world of its own.'
This sentimental affinity with nature (Jakob calls it his 'swaying, separate world') seems at times a hallmark of novels from the Soviet Union: an unchanging fact of life and a sombre metaphor for the sad fate of Russia and so on. Whereas in American fiction the great spaces are there to be crossed and explored, in Russia (and Estonia, too) they are a barrier. Even the sky, which for Americans is simply a small town on the way to outer space, is a 'ceiling'.
Thus Timo's decision, right at the end, to serve his sentence at home rather than seeking solace in flight, is provoked by the tart flavour of some rowanberries - a flavour he realises he will emphatically miss if he departs. In Kross's carefully composed scheme of things, such rural inspirations propose a Utopia both more profound and more mysterious than Timo's doomed sense of honour.
Yesterday's review failed to credit the translator, Anselm Hollo. Apologies.Reuse content