The Birdcage Archives

Thursday 3 April 2014

Border State

Hello Gentle Reader

Confessions, they are a act of trust. It’s divulgence. It is something we dare not do even with ourselves. We cannot admit our failings our shortcomings, our crimes to our own reflections. However in the end each of us finds someone in who we can deposit our crimes with. Someone who will place them in a box, or a case. That very person will then take them away. We dream of them burying that box in the backyard. Though each of us know that is unlikely. We suspect that these boxes are placed in attics. In the hollowed skulls of homes. There they age and yellow; amongst family photographs and unpolished silverware. When they are rediscovered the contents have all but dissolved to ash. Such is the Estonian authors Tõnu Õnnepalu’s novel, “Border State.” A book of confessions and observations.

Tõnu Õnnepalu has one of the greatest, distinctions as a writer. His novel “Border State,” is a small and short, but poetically intense narrative; and is one (if not the most) translated title from Estonia. Upon its original publication “Border State,” garnered the author, international recognition, and received the Baltic Assembly Prize for Literature in nineteen-ninety four. In two thousand six Tõnu Õnnepalu was voted the best author of Estonia, since the restoration of the Estonian Republic.

“Border State,” is interesting that it was not originally published under Tõnu Õnnepalu’s own name. It was written under the pseudonym Emil Tode. This is not Õnnepalu only, other name. He has also written under the name: Anton Nigov. It is only recently with his novels “Paradise,” in two-thousand and nine that he has started to publish under his own name. Õnnepalu first came to attention in the Estonia literary scene with his poetry, in nineteen-eighty five. After three collections of poems, he wrote “Border State,” his debut work in prose. One can clearly see Õnnepalu poetic flare for language and unique sing song desire in verbosity. This is what makes the novel so interesting. The intensity of its scope is microcosm, and introspective search for what is fleeting.

“You’re nobody special, no one in particular. That’s the only reason I dare turn to you.”

So would begin Tõnu Õnnepalu’s novel in a sense. In a series of one sided letters, by an unnamed Baltic man, to his acquaintance, who we only know by the name of Angelo. In these letters we, learn of our unnamed narrators uncertain past; from a place that appears to be not only countries away, but metaphorically centuries away, lost in an era of stagnant seconds and minced minutes, in forgotten hours, in a neglected country. This very place our narrator despises, and yet does not deny that it is his home. The small apartment where the windows remained shut, by order of his grandmother. This homeland, forgotten and without a name in this novel – though one could presume Estonia; at times comes off in a fairy-tale like fashion. A place that is so forgotten and bizarre that its existence is brought into question.

“When a person senses death nearing, he gathers his last strength and drags himself into the woods to lie down on the hardened roots of spruce trees, where even lichen doesn’t grow. Pounced needles cover the ground and keep the iciness of winter alive through the summer. Decomposing slowly, they exude a bitter cold smell of death. It’s said that out here human souls turn into tiny birds called tomthumbs. They are always chirping away, faintly, in the spruce trees. But no one has seen them. What happens to the physical remains is never mentioned. Does it matter? Animals probably drag them away.”

As details become clearer about our unreliable narrator, we learn that he is living in Paris, but is well aware of his outsider status. This narrator translates works of French literature into his own native language. Something that Õnnepalu has done. From there our narrator takes on an introspective journey through museums, café’s, streets, and rooms – to offer his own commentary on the world around him. A world surrounded in excess. A world that shines with light and glass. But glass can never be perfectly cleaned. Our cynical narrator observes early on:

“All Eastern Europe has become a prostitute. From governments and university professors on, to the last paper boy, they are all ready to listen to wonderful speeches about democracy, equality, whatever you please, whatever the customer wishes! As long as he pays.”

The term ‘border state,’ perfectly describes the situation of the narrator. That peculiar person lost into a wider world; and who in the process lost his own home.The narrator is a homosexual man, and leads too many thoughts on such discussions as loneliness, for it seems gay men are to be forever alone. Other discussions are the homoeroticism of the relationships, the power of the relationships, as well as their exploitive nature. Yet from this small shred and shard of our narrators identity; it brings to mind questions and thoughts on what identity is, and how it is conceived. The homeland of our narrator is discussed in the briefest of passages, in the quickest passing glances. Õnnepalu reveals by ways of a mysterious priest, the thoughts of nations and our inability to escape them.

“Nations are born and destroyed, and there are many world, and you pass through them all, for is no escape anywhere.”

What is revealed about this old and lost country is that, it was under communism. That the young narrator; read a magazine of communist propaganda out loud, to his domineering grandmother. As the narrator explains to Angelo, he was expected to believe what was written – and his grandmother had him read it out loud so she could pretend to believe what was written, in order to avoid another stint in Siberia. This is as political as the work gets in regards to its reference to the purges or Stalin or to former communist states of Eastern Europe. However, our narrator has a lot to say and contemplate in regards to the new world that has been opened up to him, and which he explores; no longer with delight, but with tedium. Our narrator is a self-interested creature. Easily bored, and quickly amused, only to be bored once again – he finds ways to amuse himself. From a flirtatious exploit, to daydreaming, to even these letters, that one questions whether or not they are sent to the designated receiver; who may or may not exist. In the end these letters form a dairy. A mismatched, diary of fantasy and reality. Of existential boredom, and philistine commentary. This narrator remarks on daydreams. He recounts journeys of no importance, and reveals his own emotional crippled condition. This emotional strain is what awaits all Eastern Europeans, who eagerly go out to taste the fruits denied to them. This escape from a Soviet paradise, in turn becomes plagued by nostalgia, and yet a bitter desire not to return.

The novel in its initial publication asked a lot of existential questions in regards to the former Soviet bloc states. The novel asks questions that many at the time of the political upheaval, asked themselves. One of the most important questions of the time was that of identity. Who was one from the former communist east, and their own place in the world; but also how the wider world saw you.

“When they hear you’re from Eastern Europe they look on you with pity and speak with hollow words, as if you were a dead relative.”

Õnnepalu’s novel is a collage of fictional letters that may never have been sent. They pave a narrative that is abstract, and formless. Yet all the same, this novel is appears to be written by a poetic madman, or a prose genius. It’s lyrical and strange. The novel does not move with action or with a traditional narrative plot. It moves with language, ideas and imagery. This in many ways is why it is thankful that the novel clocks into just one hundred pages; and why it is successful. Õnnepalu knew the limitations to his narrator. No one would tolerate a self-centered aimless, wanderer of a narrator for six hundred pages. Nor would the general reader, tolerate the languages – however beautiful; for six hundred pages either. Õnnepalu was wise enough to ensure that he was able to call it quits with this book without making it feel rushed. The book is full of questions, lush imagery, beautiful lyricism, and acute observations of a political climate, that was changing, and a world that was moving to a newer world; whose future seemed bright; like a retail display case – with its finger print smeared glass. Sill what is challenging about “Border State,” is that it defies conventional descriptions. It’s not an epistolary novel. It’s not a monologue. It’s not a fragmented prose poem either. It’s a novel that works, based on its own ideas. It’s lyrical and profound. But there is no plot in which to speak of. It borders fantasy and reality. It borders madness and genius. In a sense the entire novel is one mans, testimony. The story that the testimony involves may or may not be true. Angelo may never receive the confession or the observations. It’s a beautiful testament of one man striving to realize his own existence, despite himself being invisible, because he exists in two worlds – neither being full heartedly in one or the other; and in the process becoming lost in the space between.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
*And Remember: Downloading Books Illegally is Thievery and Wrong.*

M. Mary


  1. I really enjoyed your discussion. Thank you.

    1. Hello,

      Thank-you for the reading the review! "Border State," is a truly wonderful book!

      M. Mary