From KATKUHAUD (‘Plague Grave’) by Ene Mihkelson, introduced by the Estonian Literature Centre and translated by Christopher Moseley

In Plague Grave, a story of betrayal, the first-person narrator has grown up in strange ignorance of her origin. Her parents had gone into the forest in 1949, afraid of being deported to Siberia; the little girl stays with relatives and finally with her aunt, Kaata. While trying, years later, to find out what happened to her parents and to her home village, she visits her aunt again and finds her ready to confess. The novel is a complicated inner monologue, the speaker  often changing.


In the beginning there were just two feelings: pity and hatred for Kaata’s wholesome misery and the surrounding corruption, which made you consider it a human dwelling or home only with effort – later, when my mind had become very miserable, I called myself to account, asking whether it was cosier to lie with your head poking into the trampled slush than to still be able to perceive your own situation; and hatred because Kaata had got herself into such a situation in the first place. The sense of awareness of playing a game was shamefully strong in me, just as was the complete inability to tell anyone else about it.

In order to regard the path to her present situation as describable at all, you had to know Kaata thoroughly. If a person is eighty years old, looks like a bundle of different-coloured rags, is starving to the marrow, in a cold house, it is senseless, even cruel, to talk of her descent into wretchedness as if it were a play.

At any moment Kaata might lose her reason. But that knowledge, that her appearance and condition had the effect of an accusation, still existed in her.

I don’t take my clothes off in the evening anymore, the house is cold, there’s no hot water, I throw myself down with all my clothes on, I wrap myself up in newspapers, and so I go on, I’ve always told the young ones: don’t throw out the newspapers once you’ve read them. In the daytime I read them, some of them I read every line from start to finish, I was once given a radio for my birthday, but the Boy took it up to the second floor, I can’t get up there any more. And I don’t want a radio anyway, Kaata excuses herself, people’s voices sound strange, the talking sounds as if it comes from some other world, brisk and clear and somehow a bit too solemn. I don’t care for the radio.

When I wrap myself in newspapers in the evening and pull the blanket over me, I try to lie quite straight, so that if death steals a march on sleep and the Boy finds me, I won’t have to be laid out straight. I will have frozen straight.

Kaata was standing with her back to the window, I couldn’t see her expression – I myself had good sight, I tried not to react, I tried now to be as neutral and numb as possible. When I told this to Sonny, Kaata continued, I saw that her eyes were glistening slightly, he’s a sensitive boy, but you can’t see his heart.

I didn’t know anything more, when I saw with my eyes, I’d kept myself away from this house for twenty years, five years ago I visited a few times, carrying out a survey, carrying it out, really carrying it out, because then Kaata was very forceful, so forceful that sometimes she forgot the pretence of being hard of hearing – but then, as she saw me off at the bus stop, she would ask: Is this a dream? I wasn’t dreaming that you’ve visited me?

By Ene Mihkelson

Translated by Christopher Moseley

Ene Mihkelson was born in central Estonia, the daughter of a farmer. She made her debut in 1967 as a poet, her complicated style rooted in layers of family myths and history. Her novel The Dream of Ahasuerus was regarded as the greatest Estonian novel of the end of the twentieth century, and her next, Plague Grave, has already been described as one of greatest Estonian novels of the twenty-first.

Christopher Moseley is the Teaching Fellow in Estonian at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, and wrote his Masters’ thesis on the Livonian language for the same institution.

Category: TranslationsApril 2018 - Baltic Countries


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