Burning Cities is a 2016 Estonian novel by Kai Aareleid that won major critical acclaim upon its release. It is newly translated into English by Adam Cullen as part of Peter Owen’s World Series Baltic Season. Twice a year, Peter Owen publishes three newly-translated contemporary novels themed by a region or country. So far, they have looked at Slovenia, Castilian Spain, Serbia and – now – the Baltic region, with a novel each from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. From the synopses of the other two books (included at the end of Burning Cities), the three texts of Peter Owen’s Baltic Season seem to share more than just a geographic setting, as all three appear to address memory and – more specifically – legacy. Somewhat surprisingly, though, it is the legacy of the annexation of the Baltics by the Soviets, rather than the more recent collapse of the USSR.
I have read quite a bit of recent literature from the Balkans, and I even shot a few episodes of my unsuccessful web series™, Triumph of the Now TV, there. The uniting theme of not just all texts from the region, but most conversations that last more than a few minutes (in my experience), is the shadow of the bloody civil war of the 1990s. Of course, the upheaval that happened in the Baltics in the same period was less brutal, but similarly the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Iron Curtain was a significant cultural shift. However, it is not to this change that Aareleid looks, but further back, towards the repercussions of the Second World War and of the cultural repression undertaken by the Soviets. [i]
Burning Cities is set in Estonia from the 1930s through until the 1960s, though there are a couple of flashforwards to a 2013 present that grounds the theme of memory (or memorialising) that is central to the text. The events of 2013 play only a minor (and mostly symbolic) part in the action of the novel: 2013 is used to tie us to the past through the evidence of continued lives, continued families and continued places, because most of the characters central to the novel are long dead.
The novel is about a family, and moves from a man and a woman meeting unexpectedly and briefly (she (Liisi) is walking through rain in a wedding dress after her fiancé abandoned her at the altar to go and fight the Nazis, he (Peeter) is driving a car and offers her a lift), through to their unexpected reunion years later, then courtship, marriage, birth of a daughter (Tiina) and then all the other, less pleasant, major events that happen in a life. Peeter is a local boy “made good” in the years following the Second World War, and now manages a textiles warehouse and is one of the more affluent residents of Tartu. However, Peeter is also a gambling addict, having achieved his success due to connections in the illegal gambling scene. Unfortunately, though, as he ages and – crucially – has more to lose, he begins losing more, until eventually his debts overwhelm all other aspects of his life: from his work to fatherhood to his marriage.
For Burning Cities is a novel about bad relationships. Liisi’s fiancé dies in the war, and she never finds passion like she had for him again: her interest in Peeter seems both paternalistic and materialistic. There is a big age difference between them, and in her late 30s, Liisi moves out, to seek joy and life with a younger, better looking, more fun man, who turns out to be just as underwhelming in the long term as Peeter. Peeter lives with another woman briefly, too, but this also concludes passionlessly, and he and Liisi end up living together again, both unhappy, both failing to engage with Tiina in the way that she needs.
Tiina, meanwhile, has enough adventures of her own, befriending people all over town (do they treat her well because they respect her father or because they pity her due to his gambling?) and then she has a romance with Vladimir (aka Vovo), a boy from the town’s Russian school, where children of soldiers and other Soviets are educated. There is a lot of tension between her teachers and those of the neighbouring school, and lots of cultural suppression that is hinted at, but never explored. Perhaps to a modern Estonian reader, the allusions to festivals and saints and other cultural practices that are “no longer celebrated” in the ‘50s and ‘60s would be less obtuse, but – to me – Tiina’s ignorance of her country’s culture before annexation mirrored my own, and I felt comfortable and engaged as the child and then teenager discovers what she doesn’t know. Friendship is important for Tiina, and her romantic relationship with Vladimir is rooted in mutual care and cultural interest: she learns from him, and he learns from her. Tiina also learns from the other people who live in her building, and from the staff of the local arts centre and the local library. There is a strong sense of community, which is perhaps in some ways an idealisation of communism, but this is also proven to be a sham: as Tiina’s father sinks into deeper debt, he is not supported by those around him, and theft and violence are the inevitable outcome. The portrayal of gambling as destructive is important, as too is the expectation of cheating, of an internal selfishness within every gambler that destroys their right to receive communal support.
The novel also explores the ubiquity of powerlessness. Vladimir’s parents are moved on by the Russian state, Peeter cannot win back the money he has lost, Liisi cannot find exciting and passionate life no matter how hard she tries… We are all doomed to the lives to which we are doomed. This is both nihilistic, I suppose, and optimistic: unhappiness comes from trying to change things that we cannot change, and in every life there exist that which we can alter, and that which we cannot. Learning which is which, perhaps, is the route to happiness: we may not be able to make ourselves richer and better looking just by willing it, but most of us are able to be a bit more active, a bit kinder, get more vitamins, spend more time sober, etc, if we want to. We can change the things we can change, and sometimes it doesn’t take much to radically improve an existence.
Is this the tragedy inherent within Burning Cities, characters who cannot see when they become powerless?
Is this the tragedy inherent within Burning Cities, characters who cannot see when they become powerless? In a repressive society – regardless of how repressive said society is – there are things that are lost, things that are barred. Peeter sees his one friend, Paul, every February to celebrate all the lost festivals of “the previous era”. When Tiina finally meets Paul, she struggles to believe the reality of a mature friendship in her father’s life, because this part of him was hidden from her: she knew him as a “respected man” who was also a gambler and a womaniser, and she is both pleased and disappointed to discover the presence in his life – though not with her – of empathy and mutual emotional engagement. Tiina spends only one day with her father where she feels she gets to know him, when they together visit the town he grew up in. For most of their shared life he is an absence, more than a presence, and Aareleid evokes this sad situation beautifully.
A lot of Burning Cities is about mourning: there is mourning for lost people, as well as the lost “era” of the time before the USSR. Liisa mourns her fiancé who died in the war, later she mourns the youth that she gave to Peeter, later still she mourns the false promise of the man she tried to rekindle excitement with, and even later she mourns the fact that she has spent her life mourning. Peeter, too, has a lost former lover, and Tiina loses Vevo, later she loses her parents and, in 2013, she loses a painting of her father during a burglary. When the painting is eventually found, discarded outside, she takes it to be restored, and this is a central metaphor to the text. The painting that returns from the restorer is, yes, how she remembers it in principle, but the colours are slightly different, the frame is altered, there are lines and shadows where before there were not, and though the restored painting looks like the memory she has of the portrait, it is not the same, like all memories.
Burning Cities explores the ways in which we lose our links with the past, not just through death and the erosion of memory, but through changing cultural practices, and through the way hindsight alters our perception of history: sometimes we erase when we claim to record. Is writing about the past in the present an inherently destructive act? Do all memories erode knowledge of the prior event, do we remember remembering rather than remembering events? Time taints the past, for example, a memory of a pleasant moment in a romance that ended badly is always tarnished by that termination, much as it is hard to forget the most recent encounter we have had with a person: for me, for example, my grandmother lives loudest in my head in the bed that she died in, rather than in all the other places we spent time together. This isn’t fair on her, and it isn’t fair on me, but this is what memory does, and this is what Aareleid’s novel makes clear.
This is a complex and nuanced book, about all sorts of things and many parts of life, from love and romance and debt and regret and ageing and individuality and community, and one of its main threads is the “coming of age” of Tiina. Detail related to some parts of this narrative thread varies in its directness (there is, for example, an awkward scene describing Peeter buying Tiina her first bra, but no explicit exploration of teenage sexuality or menstruation), yet the novel loses nothing because of this. In fact, as Tiina is potentially narrating all of Burning Cities (even the parts for which she is absent), a certain restraint on these topics is tonally cohesive.
This, then, is what makes Aareleid’s novel truly engaging, its fractured nature, and the fact that it can be read with questions remaining about the text’s inherent structure. Burning Cities is full of different people’s memories, and is satisfying in the inconsistencies of voice and perspective. We see private moments that centre on characters other than Tiina (ostensibly the narrator) and the execution of these is satisfying. With a weaker writer (or translator) this could have ended up confusing, but here it doesn’t. The novel flips from first to third person, from reminiscing older woman to her youthful, energetic parents lives’ 80 years before. In the present (2013), the text refers to unexplored discord between Tiina and her daughter, it also mentions a husband who never appears in the present (or the past), and friends and locations which are alluded to but left unexplored, unexplained, much as the details of any life that isn’t our own must always remain.
Aareleid’s novel (and Cullen’s translation) evoke tragedy and success, desperation and mistake, regret and excitement. There are, perhaps, some bleak conclusions towards the fallacy of positive change, however I feel this is solely in relation to that need to understand what is alterable and what is not. Liisi says to her daughter on the night she returns home, depressed, “Everything turns to ash”. This message could almost form a depressing mantra, though it is one that Tiina’s life in the present appears to refute: she seems neither alone nor unhappy.
This is a gorgeous novel that opens with a close exploration of the effects of war and the cloying over-involvement in daily life by the Soviet state, but expands into a more nuanced study of memory and family and how we choose to present ourselves to those who the world presumes know us best. Initially, I wasn’t certain of the title’s relevance, however after further consideration I believe it is the offstage burning of cities that leaves the characters in their present unhappiness: wars, revolutions, bombing, suppression and mass killings changed Europe during the first half of the 20th century, and Peeter and Liisi and Tiina (and, to some extent, all of us) continue to live with the consequences of cities burning across the world. This is an impressive book, complex without being tiring, emotional without being overwrought, and full of pleasing explorations of memories and the way humans and places change. “Smells are the very last thing to disappear”, Tiina thinks at one point, but I’m not certain this is true: smells, like everything, get corrupted by rot and neglect, sometimes very quickly. Aareleid knows this; Aareleid knows a lot of things. Burning Cities is a beautiful, intelligent, piece of fiction and I highly recommend it.
[i] For anyone interested in depictions of Communist cultural repression, I highly recommend a beautifully-shot Bulgarian film called Radiogram (2017, dir Rouzie Hassanova), about a Muslim family that loves rock ‘n’ roll who are bullied by the state for both their religion and their Americanised musical tastes. For anyone interested in reading about the economic repercussions of the USSR’s collapse, I’d advise travelling halfway across the world and reading Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s underappreciated Dirty Havana Trilogy (English translation by Natasha Wimmer, published 2001 by Faber & Faber). It appears a crude and priapic piece of work but becomes far more nuanced in its final third, though I fear many readers won’t persist through the wanking and shagging to discover that. The prudes.
Kai Aareleid (b. 1972, Tartu) is an Estonian writer, whose debut novel, Vene veri (Russian Blood), was published in 2011 to wide acclaim. After her second novel, Linnade Põletamine (Burning Cities), was published in 2016 she was awarded the accolade Estonian Writer of the Year. She is also a prolific translator into Estonian and has translated works by Bruce Chatwin, Javier Marías, Paulo Coelho and Roberto Bolaño.
Adam Cullen (1986) is a poet and translator of Estonian literature and poetry into English. He has translated works by a wide range of Estonian authors including Tõnu Õnnepalu, Mihkel Mutt, Kai Aareleid, and Rein Raud, and has twice been nominated for the Cultural Endowment of Estonia’s annual award for translated literature. Originally from Minnesota, Cullen has lived in Estonia for ten years.