Estonian writer Mihkel Mutt is among the three Baltic authors being honored as the Author of the Day at the London Book Fair. The prolific novelist's career has spanned several generations of writers, from the Soviet era to contemporary times. Mutt is known for his insightful, if somewhat acerbic, commentaries on Estonian life in fiction and nonfiction essays. "Estonia is a Lutheran Country, so we adore not images but the written word," Mutt says. He points out that during the Soviet era, dissident writers were the closest thing Estonians had to freedom fighters. "Their job was to keep Estonian culture alive, both the psychological and nationalist aspects, and to not be ‘Russified.'"
Of course, he notes, many writers, including himself, participated actively in the Soviet system, and it had its rewards. Things are, he says, very different now, and many of his colleagues had a difficult time adapting to the changes that came after independence. "Back in the Soviet era everyone knew who you were, they knew your face," Mutt says. "It was an age with no mass media and to be a writer was to be a celebrity in an age of no celebrity." This celebrity translated directly into sales. "The numbers for some of the books I published in the 1980s were astonishing—40,000 copies sold, a million people or more reading my work. But I'm still suspicious of these numbers, which seemed unlikely then and, frankly, impossible to conceive of today."
He points out that the average print run now in Estonia is less than 1,000 copies. "The golden aura around reading in Estonia has faded," says the man who has served multiple roles in Estonian cultural life, from communications director for the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to editor of the main Estonian literary journal, Looming.
Mutt notes that the changes are a reflection of the true market. "Printing costs are higher because we have a small population, and 1,000 copies sold is considered good," Mutt says. "Also, the introduction of self-publishing means that anyone can publish a book, so while the number of copies sold may be going down, the number of books being published is going up."
Mutt has published more than 40 books, including six memoirs. Among his most recent works translated into English is The Inner Immigrant, a collection of stories featuring Fabian, Mutt's alter ego (think of Philip Roth's Nathan Zuckerman), as he travels around postindependent Estonia commenting on the best and worst qualities of the Estonian intelligentsia. Another recently translated novel, The Cavemen Chronicle, documents the lives of the same intelligentsia—writers, artists, activists—in the years before and after independence as they gather at a popular bunker-like Tallinn café known as "the Cave." Both books are published in English by Dalkey Archive.
Mutt says that over time his writing has adjusted to the social changes. "One change that affects me personally in this society is that people don't understand irony any more. Throughout the whole Soviet system, people had to write between the lines, so to speak. And the result was that people were very gifted in how they dissembled things, how they understood things. The writing was allusive, people were writing fables. Today, the border between journalism and literature is eroding and literary style is more like… foam."
He smiles and says, "Okay, I admit it, I am hard to please. But I'm also 100% authentic."