Sunday 2 September 2018


Brecht at Night by Mati Unt   {Reviewed by THOMAS}
“We all know that famous people do not have the right to an authentic biography,” states Unt in one of the ironic asides that make up much of this playful account of the time Bertolt Brecht spent in Finland in 1940, awaiting a visa for America, certain he was pursued by ‘What’s-His-Name’. Playful, that is, as playing with barbed wire can be playful. The asides, largely concerning the Finnish ‘Winter War’ with the USSR and the Soviet subsumption of Unt’s native Estonia, increasingly overwhelm Unt’s affectionately irreverent portrayal of Brecht, his entourage, and the dialectical thinking with which he attempts to grasp the realities that lie between omnipresent contradictions: his socialist ideals and his bourgeois tendencies; nationalism and internationalism; the pulls (on Brecht as on this book) of fact and fiction; and the polarising influences of Stalin and Hitler, whose 1939 non-aggression pact decided the fate of the Baltic states. Brecht is pushed into the background by a new narrator, M. Unt [no relation - an actual historical figure!], who describes the disintegration of independent Estonia ("With good luck, you have the choice between life and death, and it is not sure which is better.") and who is in turn silenced and replaced by a series of documents concerning banal yet chilling details such as lists of deposed officials and their fates, books to be destroyed, and phrase-book extracts from 1940 (“Yesli budesh shumet’, ubyu! = If you don’t shut up, I’ll kill you!”); interspersed with poems written by Brecht during this period. The author briefly intrudes, and then Brecht himself reappears from between the depersonalising and dehumanising facts of history like something from Baltic folklore: a creative force, a figure of hope.


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