A poetic depiction of a post-Soviet experience: “Border State” by Emil Tode6 min read

 In Baltics, Review, Reviews

Emil Tode’s Border State provides a poetic insight into the transformative time of the 1990s in Europe. In an intriguing tale centred around questions of identity, a young Eastern European man ambles the streets of Paris and contemplates past and present. 

Border State (Piiririik) is a roughly 150 page-long confessional letter to a person named Angelo, whose identity is never really revealed. The writer of the letters — also somewhat lacking an identity but who the reader might gauge is a young Eastern European (most likely Estonian) man — has come to Paris in the 1990s to collect an anthology of French post-war poetry and translate it. However, the author admits that this is an impossible task, due to the complexity of his native language. The main character wanders the streets of Paris, studies people in the metro, tries (and often fails) to work, spends time with his older lover, and reflects on the past. As the novel progresses, the reader can sense that something major has happened in the past involving the narrator, and thus the confession, but it is not clear exactly what until near the end. 

The novel is written by Emil Tode, the pen name of Tõnu Õnnepalu, who also writes under the pseudonym Anton Nigov. Tode has a long writing career behind him; after studying biology at Tartu University, he began writing poetry in 1985 and soon moved into prose. He also has worked as a translator of French works into Estonian, and this part of Õnnepalu’s identity makes its way into the novel. 

Border State is Tode’s first novel, published in 1993; he did not start publishing under his own name until 2009. With Border State, Tode gained international recognition. The book has been translated into several languages and was awarded the Baltic Assembly Prize for Literature in 1994. 

While the origin of the main character is never made clear, it can be assumed that it is Estonia, partly due to the author’s identity, but also through various clues dropped throughout the book. For example, the novel’s narrator hails from a country of which two sides border an ocean, a third side where the way out is cut by a lake, and a fourth side which borders a number of poor countries mourning their past; a description that fits with Estonia’s geographical location. 

In the novel, the existence of nation-states is questioned, and compared to money in bank accounts, numbers on a screen, and a figure on a map. Nation-states, like these other things, were simply a human creation, and only exist because people give it value. The main character contemplates the fact that people are willing to shed blood over these maps, blood being the final stamp to prove that everything exists. The question of nation-states and how they are constructed by people is a topic that might have seemed especially relevant in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union had recently dissolved and 15 new countries appeared on the world map. Of course, these areas of land had always been there, but their existence changed when suddenly the border lines between Soviet republics were filled in with a thicker line.

In the book, the past is reflected through the memories of the main character. A recurring figure is the grandmother, who had been deported to Siberia in the Stalinist era before later raising the narrator. The two would read together from Soviet newspapers and would pretend to believe what was written in them, with the hopes that this would prevent the state from sending her to Siberia again. Allusions to the Soviet time are present throughout the novel, such as when the narrator remembers queuing for bread and other groceries after spotting a queue outside a Parisian library. The main character seems unable to escape the past, as it follows him even through the streets of a different country. As the book is written and takes place in the 1990s, it is depicting a changing world, one where Eastern Europe is adapting to expectations of the capitalist West. Poverty is juxtaposed with new consumer products that carry messages of a prosperous future. At one point, the narrator comments on the existence of bananas — now available at any street corner in his home country — which were seen as a symbol of the future prosperity in Eastern Europe. In the early 1990s, censorship had just been removed, and it was a time to test limits and explore topics previously prohibited.

Another recurring theme of the book is identity, particularly Eastern European identity. The main character tries to disassociate himself from other Eastern Europeans — at one point telling a waiter in Paris that he is Swedish — in order to avoid pitying looks and having to explain what country Estonia is. Eastern Europeans are looked down on by the narrator, seen as obsessed with money, and a sentiment of self-hatred permeates the lines. While the narrator’s identity is never really made clear, there are hints that he is a homosexual man. He seems incapable of love and feels disgusted by the idea of being loved by someone. Perhaps this is a reflection of the sentiments towards homosexuality in Estonia at the time, which legalised same-sex sexual activity between men only in 1992, after it was criminalised during the Soviet period

With its metaphorical language and vivid imagery, the book betrays Õnnepalu’s background as a poet. The 1990s and the Soviet era are depicted with a lyrical tone, and the Swedish translation (note that the book is available in English too) it was read in worked well, and did not result in any clunky or confusing phrases which can be the case with translated works.

However, there are parts of the book that may feel out of touch with the modern reader. In particular, the use of the n-word numerous times, and an overall othering of black people, feels out of date when reading the book 30 years after publication, and leaves a bad aftertaste. The racial stereotyping and the casual use of racial slurs is something that is difficult to support from a contemporary perspective, in the end marring the novel’s message. 

Border State is a brief but poetic description of post-Soviet life and the societal changes that took place in the 1990s. It deals with questions of identity, nationalism, and language which also are recurring themes in Estonian culture, social, and political life today. Language is important throughout, both as a tool to tell the story, but also key to the story itself. Thirty years after publication, the book still provides a fascinating read of a changing Europe, and of questions which are still relevant today.

Book details: Õnnepalu, Tõnu, Border State, translated by Madli Puhvel, 2000, Northwestern University Press. Buy it here.

Feature Image: Northwestern University Press
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