Chaos theory

Ben Ehrenreich's first novel, "The Suitors," will be published in April.

WITHIN a year of the 1990 Estonian publication of “Things in the Night,” the novel already risked becoming an artifact of that nation’s quickly crumbling past. In 1991, Russian President Boris Yeltsin recognized the independence of what had been for five decades the Soviet Socialist Republic of Estonia. Fortunately for the novelist Mati Unt, his literary ambitions had not been merely reportorial; the constraints of realism had pinched too hard. His imagination had rebelled at the banally historical -- at this world as it is -- and his creations were too strange and lovely to become dated by something as trivial as an empire’s collapse.

“Why don’t I go into detail about the shops where people buy potatoes and beets, why don’t I make them up before your eyes as they really are?” Unt asks in “Things in the Night,” the second of his novels to be translated into English. (The first, “The Autumn Ball,” is out of print.) Because he can’t, he answers: “Because at an everyday level, life in this country is simply appalling, and if you start trying to describe the horror of it, you really have to devote yourself to the task.” You’d have to transcribe all the drudgery and shoddiness of life under Soviet occupation, the “billions of obstacles that are put in the way of people here every minute, but I don’t want to write about it all, and nobody would want to read it anyway.”

Instead, Unt -- who published his first novel when he was 19, gained fame as a theater director as well as a novelist and died last year at 61 -- writes of electricity and cactuses, pigs and cannibals. He abandons plot for montage, and montage for unfettered digression. He includes letters, poems, chapters of unattributed dialogue. He intersperses pages of scientific arcana (“Pigs are unusually sensitive to electro-magnetic fields, especially when pregnant.... During a magnetic storm the number of small insects on the wind increases by some 50%.”) with discourses on folklore, Greek tragedy, existentialist philosophy and the odd moment of startling lyricism. The text folds in on itself. The first chapter of the novel is called “The First Chapter of the Novel.” Characters appearing later are praised by the narrator for having paid attention to events described in the beginning.


That narrator is a writer who bears certain inescapable similarities to Mati Unt, as well as a heavy load of masochistic misanthropy. “I loathe the world,” he writes. “I want to rot in prison. I want people to take my rights away from me.” He plans to blow up a rural power station, dreams of incinerating heaven -- “To blow everything open with a big bang, everything, with a bang, the disgusting inevitability, with a bang, because it could no longer hold together “ -- and can’t help but nod to Dostoevsky. He’d reread “Notes From Underground,” he says, but “could find no point of contact with the work. However hard I tried, I still found the protagonist unlikable.”

This is a joke, of course, but like most of Unt’s jokes, it points to a truth. Unt’s protagonist is a lot funnier than the tormented wraiths that haunt Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg. He’s more playful and filled with wonder at the world. Even in the depths of the most agonized self-pity, Unt can squeeze out a laugh: “Melancholy had crept inside me. Small children made me cry, I got depressed eating meat, old book bindings awakened tenderness in me. Everything was disintegrating. Nothing stood the test of time, including me. Somewhere on the other shore were madness and God, sometimes both wearing a beard.”

Plotlines are picked up, then thrown away. Some reappear 100 pages later, undisturbed; others do not. Electricity is the purported subject of the book, a symbol that comes to encompass all the evils of technological society and is ultimately seen as the very ground of existence itself. The narrator marches through the woods en route to the aforementioned power station, which he plans to destroy in a suicidal “act of terrorism ... aimed at the imperialist nature of electricity, a sign that our relationship with technology would no longer be a peaceful one.” He doesn’t go through with it.

The scene shifts to a party: The narrator is feeling antisocial, and when he phones for a taxi, a “tallish woman” named Susie sinks her teeth into his leg. “What can you say in such situations?” She goes home with him, of course. But she is apparently not the narrator’s primary love interest, the one addressed in the first line of the book -- “My dear, I feel I owe you an explanation” (need I add that the explanation never comes?) -- and throughout as “You” with an upper-case Y, as in “Are You still listening to what I’m saying?”

No matter, shift again to “a beautiful autumn day,” the only one in the book on which it neither rains nor snows. The sky is bright with “an alluring grayness.” The narrator takes a taxi to the edge of town and walks through the woods, planning to pick mushrooms. But there are no mushrooms and he gets lost, then finds his way eventually to the door of Lennart Meri, the writer, ethnographer and filmmaker who in 1992 would become president of an independent Estonia. They speak of mushrooms and thunderstorms. “Console yourself,” Meri advises, “with the fact that the heart of the world, its core, speaks straight to us, not via wires.” The narrator hails another cab, drives past a cannibal being hauled off by police and feels for him. The cannibal gives a speech. (“ ‘I simply wanted to develop,’ said the cannibal, ‘wanted to understand more about myself and the world around me.’ ”) Unt discusses spontaneous combustion, the moral beauty of Soviet apartment blocks, the metabolism of pigs. Events transpire, and fail to transpire. Autumn becomes winter -- then, without pause, autumn again.

What’s it all about? That’s the question, the very one Unt is trying to ask and to answer -- which isn’t an easy thing if, as a matter of principle, you abjure narrative coherence not only in literature but in the world. In Joycean tribute, Unt speaks of history only to disown it. “History makes me sick,” he writes. “Where do I come from, don’t ask, all that was yesterday. Today the sun is shining, shining only on us.”


A few pages later, with equal vitriol, he rejects any possibility of political significance. He doesn’t even want to hear the word “generation,” he says, but he goes on to reminisce with a melancholy resignation entirely characteristic of his generation, the Baltic equivalent of France’s generation of ’68. “I remember [Daniel] Cohn-Bendit, whom I’ve never met,” he says of the French student leader. “I remember his speeches, which I’ve never heard.... I remember Paris, where I’ve never been, I remember my ideals, which I have never had, and I remember that four years ago, I bought a plastic pisspot at the shop round the corner.... These memories throb in my heart, and there’s simply nothing I can do with them.”

But there are varieties of meaning that cannot be bent into use, that serve no easy political purpose and fit into no ordered scheme. It is these that interest Unt, and with them he concludes the book: “We were doomed to die and we were no longer linked to life by any kind of responsibility. We could be as free as the pigs who ran in the fields. Those were beautiful years, beautiful autumn days.”