The Ropewalker

Jaan Kross probably remains Estonia’s most famous writer, his availability in English largely down to a period in the mid- 1990s which saw The Czar’s Madman, Professor Marten’s Departure, and the short story collection The Conspiracy published. Two more novels have followed but his first major work, the four-volume Between the Plagues, has remained out of reach until last year when the first two volumes appeared under the title The Ropewalker, translated by Merike Lepasaar Beecher. For those who fear approaching any series in translation until there is some certainty that it can be read in full, the third volume, A People Without a Past, was published last month, and the final part is scheduled to appear next year.

The Ropewalker is a historical novel which begins in the 1550s, a period which English writers never tire of writing about, ending as it does with the coronation of Elizabeth I in 1559. Its setting, however, (in European terms) could hardly be further away, lying as it does at the other edge of Europe in Livonia. Livonia, a land which does not even have the advantage of still existing, was to be found where much of present-day Estonia is but also included part of Latvia, including Riga. As the novel opens, Livonia is under the rule of the Order which, though it may sound a little science fiction, is, in fact, a group of knights supported by the German nobility. (‘Rule’ is perhaps an exaggeration as large parts of the country are owned by the Catholic Church, and large towns have their own political structures). The language of the ruling class was therefore German, excluding most of the inhabitants of Livonia who were peasants. In The Ropewalker we see the power of the Order wane, creating a vacuum which surrounding states – Russia, Sweden, Poland, Denmark – attempt to fill.

The attraction of this period to Kross is obvious: he lived through Estonia’s occupation during World War Two by, first, the Soviet Union, then Germany, and then the Soviets again. He also chooses as his protagonist a historical figure, Balthasar Russow (or Bal), author of the Chronicle of the Province of Livonia which charts the area’s history from 1156 to 1583, suggesting that in his own chronicling of Livonia’s history he is picking up Russow’s mantle. (All historical writing is political, but the very act of recording the history of a small nation, particularly one other states wish to absorb, is political in itself). We first meet Bal as he attempts to get a closer look at a group of (tight)ropewalkers who have suspended a rope above the town “like a silver strand of hair, stretching from the steeple to somewhere far beyond the town walls.” The dangerous manoeuvres of the rope dancers foreshadow Bal’s later adventures and the metaphorical tightrope he must walk between the different powers in the land and their representatives, but we also see here his lively curiosity and determination to discover things for himself.

Bal’s father is a wagoner and therefore a step above the peasantry; he is able to pay for Bal’s education and, unusually, has also had his daughter, Annika, educated. The story of Bal’s impressive sounding name is telling:

“His mother expressed some doubt over a name so exalted, for might it not seem as if they were prodding Our Lord to take notice of this child born to simple folk…? But his father replied, ‘Every name is a kind of prod…Since it’s a prod in any case, better that He raise our boy up a bit than push his nose down into the dirt.”

It is Bal’s aptitude for languages which first gets him noticed when a merchant asks him to write a letter in German. This is also his first introduction to ‘diplomacy’ as the letter is a fake – supposedly written by a (dead) German merchant in order to dissuade other German merchants from coming to Livonia and taking business away from the locals. Later, when Bal arrives in Stettin to further his education, the rector immediately tests his Latin:

“…as if out of spite, the rector continues in Latin and asks now about Balthasar’s studies. And he proceeds ever more quickly and aggressively, barely giving Balthasar a chance to answer before posing the next question.”

He survives the inquisition, but on another occasion, when he is sent with a letter for Duke Johan, he fears that admitting his knowledge of Latin may be a disadvantage:

“He tried at lightning speed to weigh the consequences of a ‘yes’ and the dangers of a false ‘no’ which might later be discovered.”

With quick wits he answers, “Verba quidem, sed non sentiam.” (I understand the words, but not the meaning). Towards the novel’s end, when he finds himself embroiled in the Peasants’ Revolt ( a sign he cannot leave his background behind), he is asked to accompany a delegation of peasants into Tallinn and listen to what the council members say amongst themselves (believing the peasants will not understand). Language is political in a way we might only understand with reference to the Norman Conquest or the Highland Clearances in our own country.

Throughout the novel there is, of course, a great deal of ‘right time, right place’ as far as Bal is concerned, but so credibly is his character developed that this never seems forced. This allows Kross to present the history of the period without having to pan back into explanatory prose. It also means that what seems complicated in summary does not feel so in reading as the narrative carries the reader along. The Ropewalker is a classic historical novel, and also an important landmark in the subgenre of writer’s in totalitarian states using the past to write about the present (see also Ismail Kadare). Above all, it is a wonderful, immersive read.

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9 Responses to “The Ropewalker”

  1. Kat Says:

    Sounds fascinating! I haven’t heard of him, but Estonia is a different world, one I’d like to explore. And I am a Latinist, so always enjoy reading bits of Latin.

    I chortled at your description of the 1500s as “a period which English writers never tire of writing about.” True. Hilary Mantel could never have chosen a better subject!

    • 1streading Says:

      It just struck me that people might think this is an obscure period of history but it’s actually one we hear a lot about (though not of Eastern Europe). As you can probably tell, language is very important in the novel.

  2. banff1972 Says:

    Sold! I really enjoyed The Czar’s Madman, back in the day. I don’t think anything else was ever published in North America, though. You make this sound really appealing and I will track it down.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    One of the things I love about your blog is the diversity of books you cover here. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of any Estonian writers never mind read any! Bravo for seeking this out. Like Kat, I couldn’t help but smile at your line about the attraction of this period for English writers. Were would Philippa Gregory be without the Tudors…

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, my blog’s weakness is also its strength! (Its variety is largely caused by my inability to focus!!!) It does mean that you encounter things you otherwise wouldn’t come across however.

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I do get a bit tired sometimes of “right time, right place” in historical fiction, but I give most books one gimmee and in historical fiction it’s often that.

    Four volumes. Gosh. Will you read the rest do you think?

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, I think so – I’ve already got the next book (which is just out). Historical fiction often relies on characters being near important events – especially when the writer is self-consciously writing a novel about his nation’s past. This doesn’t seem so artificial because Bal’s presence is always credible in terms of his character. (Sometimes, for example, he does things because he needs the money!)

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