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Things in the Night A Novel Mati Unt, translated from the Estonian by Eric Dickens Dalkey Archive: 316 pp., $13.95 paper

January 29, 2006|Ben Ehrenreich | 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?"

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