Titles are important. For me, a good artwork title is more than a label, it is integral to the text – chosen and worked on by the author and sensitively treated by the translator.
‘The death of the perfect sentence’ and its natural variant – ‘the perfect death sentence’ – therefore intrigued me. And my curiosity only increased as I worked my way deeper into this intricately plotted spy novel set in an Estonia that is still part of a tottering Soviet Union, with the forces of independence, perestroika and old-guard conservatism vying for supremacy. What perfect sentence was Rein Raud (and his translator Matthew Hyde) referring to? Did he mean the end of the project whose intended goal was a communist utopia? Or was it the opposite – the ideal of a free and independent Estonia, seemingly just out of reach to Indrek, Raim, Anton and their gang of idealistic activists?
Death seemed to suggest an ending – obviously; but also a crossing-over from one world to another. Throughout this short novel the characters are forever crossing borders: from Estonia to Finland and Sweden and back again; from Russia to Estonia, and also from Russian to Estonian – the ethnicities and their languages still sharply defined, despite half a century of Soviet rule.
There is also the journey over the border between the present moment – the independent, twenty-first-century, capitalist Estonia of the time Raud is telling his story – and the Estonian Soviet Republic of the past, when the events of his tale take place.
Then there are the borders between individuals – the distances that must be traversed if love is to flourish. And this, is turns out, is the locus of the book’s title; the moment that makes sense of what, until you reach it, feels a rather nebulous, overcomplicated and fragmentary plot.
Alex and Maarja – initially two secondary characters – are drawn individually, and not particularly willingly, into the chain of amateur and professional agents and double-agents who are smuggling files out of Estonia. Without knowing about their clandestine connection, they meet. And they fall in love.
A romance ensues and at the moment of consummation, Alex whispers into Maarja’s ear ‘the perfect sentence’ – what is ‘I love you’ in Estonia, I wonder? – and the whole convoluted web the book has been until this point rearranges itself into a neat, sharply focused line of cause and effect.
The epiphany is delicious, and is followed almost instantly by the horribly moving realisation of the inevitable outcome – the destination the novel’s disparate elements have been pointing to all along.
It takes a brave and experienced writer to trust his own skills and test those of his reader as much as Raud does in this sneaky genius of a novel. It is inspired to then give it a title that on opening the book is so enigmatic, and on closing it is so crystal clear.
Reviewed by West Camel
The Death of the Perfect Sentence
Written by Rein Raud
Translated by Matthew Hyde
Published by Vagabond Voices (2017)
West Camel is a writer, reviewer and editor. He edited Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2015, and is currently working for new press Orenda Books. www.westcamel.net.
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