Estonia is a tiny patch of land on the edge of ice. We have been raised in the forest, we have fought in the forest, and we still talk to trees. At one point, we grew bored of that and invented Skype. The Estonian population is hovering around the 1.3 million mark but is decreasing. To keep our heads above water, we introduced e-Residency, which enables those not living in Estonia to establish virtual residency in the country. We are introverts by nature; we do not talk much. Instead, for a couple of centuries and counting, we have enjoyed one of the highest literacy rates in the world. More than half of Estonia is still covered by forest. Our only excuse for cutting down a section of it would be to build bookshelves or make books—or to set up Rail Baltica.
The first printed book in the Estonian language appeared in 1535, and the printing business has been important to us ever since (read Meelis Friedenthal's novel The Language of Angels). But our treasure trove of literature has long been hidden, locked up by a language that is alien to Indo-Europeans.
For us, werewolves and ghostly beings are a part not of science fiction but of classical Estonian literature (read August Kitzberg's play The Werewolf or Andrus Kivirähk's November). Encounters with wild bears are not rare in our woods (read Nikolai Baturin's The Heart of the Bear or Andrus Kivirähk's The Man Who Spoke Snakish). We believe in hard work and that toil is the key to love (read Anton Hansen Tammsaare's monumental Truth and Justice).
Historically, Estonia has been subject to the rule of the Danes, Germans, Swedes, and Russians (read any of the works of Jaan Kross, our grand old master of historical novels). You can still stroll the streets of the medieval Hanseatic towns of Tallinn and Tartu, but first, read the Apothecary Melchior murder mysteries by Indrek Hargla, or The Willow King by Meelis Friedenthal. The Soviet occupation brought strange bedfellows (read Rein Raud's Death of the Perfect Sentence, Jaan Kross's Treading Air, or Ilmar Taska's Pobeda 1946).
We boast outstanding local wise men who draw their inspiration from Estonia's stunning landscape and language (read Jaan Kaplinski and Valdur Mikita). We cherish strong women who are not afraid to tear their own body from the inside out (read Maarja Kangro's The Glass Child or Elo Viiding's The Others). The uranium used in the Soviet nuclear industry was enriched on our soil (read Andrei Hvostov's The Passion of Sillamäe), and we have dynamite enough for alchemical madness (read Paavo Matsin's The Gogol Disco). All in all, we are a virgin borderland in many ways—mystical and undiscovered, pristine and partly incomprehensible. One of our most translated books is Border State, by Tõnu Õnnepalu.
Yet, the strongest part of Estonia's literature is its poetry (read Doris Kareva, Jaan Kaplinski, Juhan Viiding, or Kristiina Ehin). The word luuletama, which means to create poetry, has a second connotation: to fib or to fabricate stories. You need not believe all that is written here. Instead, we invite you to read, translate, and publish the wide scope of written word penned on this stony land.
The London Book Fair has chosen to showcase the diversity of our contemporary writing by introducing four outstanding Estonian authors to the British audience. Mihkel Mutt charms with his witty irony; Rein Raud stuns with his knowledge of cultures and languages; Andrei Ivanov is so lovably other, writing in Russian and thinking as a cosmopolitan; and Maarja Kangro proves that women are the stronger sex.
Although digitally the most advanced society in the world, Estonia is still wild by nature with so much to share.
Kerti Tergem is director of foreign affairs with the Estonian Literature Centre.
A slightly different version of this piece was published on the website of the British Council.