With Pobeda 1946: A Car Called Victory – a novel named for the emblematic Soviet saloon car produced from 1946 by the Molotov Works – Estonian author Ilmar Taska demonstrates that he is not just a successful film director and producer, but also a nuanced narrator, skilled at evoking the spirit and suffering of a bygone era. And in Christopher Moseley’s sensitive translation and with his in-text explanations and key endnotes, readers otherwise unfamiliar with Estonian language, culture and recent history are able to gain an understanding of the context and setting of this work.
Against the backdrop of an occupied post-WWII Estonia, in the process of being assimilated by the Stalinist regime, Taska develops a multiple-viewpoint narrative showcasing a range of experiences and personal histories. The author names his three main protagonists simply as ‘the man’, ‘the woman’ and ‘the boy’, suggesting, perhaps, that these perspectives represent the more generalised experiences of the oppressor and the oppressed, and, further, that this triangular dynamic symbolises the Soviet Union (‘the man’), invaded Estonia (‘the woman’), and the subsequent repercussions on the development of the nation (‘the boy’).
Writing through the child’s eyes, Taska adeptly repositions the sources of fear and suspicion pervading the adult world, for instance by reflecting ‘the boy’s’ positive interactions with ‘the man’ – the Soviet official who drives the eponymous, gleaming Pobeda. In a similar way, the ethnic tensions created by the post-war displacement of peoples across Europe are redrawn using the filter of the boy’s experience: he sees being sent off to a school in Moscow as a personal adventure. Echoing Taska’s own childhood experiences, we see how ‘the boy’ quickly learns to adapt, often remaining oblivious to how decisions others take will dictate his future.
In contrast to the ravages of war and occupation, there is also a love story here – between Alan, the BBC radio broadcaster living in recovering late 1940s London, and Johanna, an Estonian opera singer experiencing the deprivation of her post-war homeland. This romance provides an engaging and optimistic narrative strand about how love and hope can endure despite separation and difference. The lengths Johanna goes to to hear Alan’s broadcasts from London hint at how some Estonians longed for British salvation from Soviet rule; but this thread also explores a key theme of the novel – the role of the media in post-war Europe, and how it was used both to control the flow of information to the general populace, and to send veiled personal messages.
Developed from a prize-winning short story, in its longer form this complex and nuanced book explores a number of other tensions: the ever-present – and apparently for some, necessary – threat of conflict between nations; how the state’s attitude and actions are not necessarily reflected in the values of individuals; loss of trust – both in institutions and fellow citizens; and the moral dilemma posed by following one’s own convictions, or capitulating simply to survive. All of which make for a beautifully composed but painful examination of the power state politics exert over the individual.
Reviewed by Jacky Collins
Pobeda 1946: A Car Called Victory
Written by Ilmar Taska
Translated by Christopher Moseley
Published by Norvik Press (2018)
Jacky Collins has worked in the Division of Languages at Northumbria University since 1993. She is currently focusing her research on Icelandic Crime Fiction, Film & TV. In 2014, in conjunction with the Lit & Phil Society, she set up Newcastle Noir, Newcastle’s annual crime fiction event.