Writings of Dr. Lennart Meri

Lennart Meri the Explorer, once – in his "Winds of the Milky Way" period – visited the Folklore Department of Helsinki University. It was just when Europe's rebellious youth were having a discussion about the underground movement and its relation to folklore. Someone asked the visitor if there was any underground literature in the Soviet Union. Lennart Meri thought for a moment before he answered: "Hardly is there any underground in the sense you are talking about. But we have a highly developed art of writing between the lines, reading between the lines."
I think this remark provides a key for understanding a lot of enigmas in L. Meri's earlier writing. Unfortunately, a number of them still remain behind a thousand locks, just like the enigma of Sampo. I once asked why it was necessary to indicate in a travel book that a Siberian native he had met was as tall as a certain Estonian, whose name was also given. Lennart explained that the named person, an Estonian poet, had recently been released from a re-educating camp and it was forbidden to mention even the name of that "non-person." The censor, however, failed to spot the name hidden in this exotic environment, and when the competent organs finally discovered the fact the book had already been sold out. Seeing his name in a book was a remedy for the soul of the depressed poet, so it was worth the risk.

The Finns have regarded the works by Lennart Meri – similarly to those by Tuglas, Kross or Kaplinski – in many respects to be a window on Estonia, evidence that the Republic is still there: the people and the culture only some dozens of miles closer to Europe than us survive. Cultural historians of the 21st century, should there be any, will surely be intrigued to find out who is the man behind Lennart Meri's books and films, clad in a dozen different magician's cloaks.

MERI, Lennart Georg, author of travel books and translator. Born 29 Mar 1929 to a civil servant's family. Started school abroad, where his father Georg M. resided while in diplomatic service of the bourgeois Estonia. Studied at 164th Elementary School of Berlin 1935-38, Lycée Janson de Sailly in Paris 1938-39, then at several schools in Tallinn, and 1944-46 at Yaransk Secondary School [Russia]. Tallinn 10th Secondary School 1946-48. 1948-53 M. read history at Fac. of History and Languages of Tartu State University and at the same time began his career as a publicist. 1953-55 worked as literary director at Vanemuine Theatre and as teacher at Tartu Art School. 1955-61 he was literary contributor and editor of radio plays at Estonian Radio. 1964-70 member of editorial college, subsequently film director at Tallinnfilm studios. Member of Writers' Union since 1963. M. has taken part in a walking tour of Central Asia and organized expeditions to Yakutia and Kamchatka. On the basis of expedition observations M. has written the travel books "Following the Trails of Cobras and Black Widows" (1959), "Shipmates on the Green Ocean" (1961), and "To the Land of Fiery Mountains" (1964), which stand out due to sharp perception of nature, apt descriptions of circumstances and people, and erudition of a historian. M.'s travel books are characterised by proportionate harmony between the stylistic elements of popular science and those of fiction. The books on Siberian expeditions have been translated into Russian and have also appeared in Hungarian, German, French, Spanish, Lithuanian and Polish. M. has made an ethnographic film about Finno-Ugric peoples, "The Waterfowl People" (1970). M. has written filmscripts and translated fiction from English, French and Russian (G. Greene's "Our Man in Havana", M. Aymé's "La T?te des autres", Vercors' "Les Animaux dénaturés", P. Boulle's "La Plan?te des singes"). - H.P. (Eesti kirjanduse biograafiline leksikon. Tallinn, 1975, pp. 228-229.)

"At the Gate of Northern Lights" is the book that – skilfully translated and abridged by Eva Lille ("Revontulten porteilla", 1977) – has established Lennart Meri's legendary image in Finland. "Meri is moving about in a hundred time planes as well as in the present time, he is a travelling companion for all the Columbuses who have ever searched for the North-Eastern Passage. Meri himself is a shaman, a time machine," Aku-Kimmo Ripatti writes in Kaleva of 6 December 1977. One can observe that the otherwise most critical reviewers were inspired by Lennart Meri's book to unqualified eulogy. Pekka Tarkka, in Helsingin Sanomat of 30 September 1977, underscores Lennart Meri's cosmic nostalgia and the way the Estonian writer discloses the new civilization's barbarous abuses which have been destroying the millennial high culture of Eurasia. He regards L. Meri as an artist who "makes dead facts alive, close and exciting. He is able to create a polyphonous whole from the plane of contact between human thought and its history.

From the viewpoint of science history, Lennart Meri's collected works should be published as a scientific edition: supplied with a lot of references, a subject index and a personal index, since a conventional bibliography will not rescue a 21st century cultural tourist lost in the jungle of cryptograms. Moreover, many references would require the writer's own comment.

One of the widest playgrounds for creative fantasy is utopia. Lennart Meri, as I recall, has mentioned that his earliest article dealt with Robert Owen, the English social utopian. In his travel books L. Meri talks about utopias of the past, such as Nils Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld's vision of the North-Eastern Passage. When Lennart Meri voices for the world the inaudible protest of a Chukchi chief or a Nganasan shaman, the question arises of the utopia of a citizen of the world, of the to-be-or-not-to-be situation of every unique local culture. The first time when the utopian of Nõmme associated himself with the apprehensions of contemporary Estonia was in 1987, when he – along with many others and backed by the world's ecologists – halted the launch of North-East Estonian phosphorite mines: the future of the Baltic Sea proved more important than the short-sighted economic calculations, bureaucracy was routed by democracy, the caution of a Soviet citizen by the courage of popular leaders.

Professor Matti Kuusi

Professor Kuusi's "Lennart Meri Personaalnimestik", the translation of which is above, is a bibliography of President Lennart Meri's writings. While his writings have been translated into more than 15 languages, there is only one English translation available: "Why Not Discover Estonia?" Others are undoubtedly forthcoming, and will be posted here when available.


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