In 1940, Helsinki received an unexpected visitor: Bertolt Brecht. Eventually to be known as the most famous German playwright after Goethe, Brecht was also a committed communist on the run from the Nazis, believing that Hitler personally wanted him dead. The picture of Brecht’s arrival in Finland is almost comical: He arrived with his wife, his mistress, his children and 26 bags of luggage.
Brecht was not just another traveler, you understand; he was appreciative when someone spoke good German to him -- but was also suspicious that he or she might be a Nazi agent. The protector of Brecht and his family during this time was the very wealthy Estonian playwright Hella Wuolijoki, with whom he would go on to collaborate on a number of plays and who, more important, had a direct link to Stalin and his secret police.
But why Helsinki? Why did he go there in the midst of the aftermath of the Finnish-Soviet Winter War? Brecht was an ardent defender of Stalin and all his murderous acts, glibly arguing that Finland should have given in to him.Helsinki was also a way station on Brecht’s journey to, of all places, Hollywood -- which he intended to reach by way of Moscow and Siberia.
In Mati Unt’s “Brecht at Night,” his fourth novel to be translated into English, the Estonian author and innovative stage director makes Brecht a curiously compelling contradictory character. His portrayal is very appealing as a reflection of the alienating reality of his plays -- those plays, in highlighting their artificiality, give audiences some distance to enable them to think and act for themselves. This may sound tedious, but Unt is simply too good of a writer to allow the reader to come to this conclusion. The connections he draws between Brecht and Wuolijoki, an epitome of irony -- a wealthy patron, committed communist and the owner of a vast estate -- enables Unt to jump-cut to his homeland (it takes two hours, by high-speed ferry, to reach Estonia from Finland across the sea). If I give you one country (Latvia) that borders it, I’m sure you can figure out who borders it on the east. (Here’s a hint: In 1939, Hitler and Stalin agreed to the occupation of Estonia by the Red Army.)
It is in considering this time period that Unt’s novel becomes a witty portrait of Brecht and a model of how to understand the devastating effects of Stalinism. Unt well knows, as did Brecht, that focusing too much on details of human awfulness becomes debilitating to the story, but if you can only find a way . . . and Unt does. He particularizes the murders, by way of quotation from actual historical documents, fragments, poems -- the narrative is organized like bits and pieces of a documentary -- and by way of his own imagining of how the Communist takeover of Estonia was implemented.
The author also includes the character of M. Unt (no relation), a genuine historical figure who was the Communist-appointed minister of the Interior, who suggests the difficulties of that time when he declares, “With good luck, you have the choice between life and death, and it is not sure which is better.” Or else, there is this: “Then I had to dismiss all the elders of the various Estonian provinces. There were no doubt decent people among them, but in times like the present you can’t pay too much attention to individuals.” History records that M. Unt was shot in his turn, but no date was recorded.
McGonigle is the author of “The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov” and “Going to Patchogue.”