The Same River, by Jaan Kaplinski
There are some books that are simply awful books that no one would ever want to read, and that are devoid of interest except for the point of mocking them . There are other books that are awful, but the kind of awful that leads them to be chosen for reading in high school literature classes because it is thought that they will be useful and relatable to young people. This book is clearly in the second camp, a book that deals with the concerns of an intellectual young man to find mental and spiritual enlightenment. In many ways this book is particularly Nathanish, and is further evidence of the fact that it is far easier to find people like me in books than in life. I’m not sure what that means, or what it says about me, but it is something that I notice over and over again. As I was reading this book, I kept being asked what it meant, because my commentary on its contents was deeply humorous to the people I happened to be with.
The contents of this book read like some sort of terrible nightmare. A bright young man from a complicated family background, including a father who died in Siberia as an enemy of the state seeks wisdom and knowledge from a bitter and misanthropic teacher. Simultaneously, he falls in infatuation with too many young women and unsurprisingly wonders if the best solution would be to end it all by drowning himself in the “mother river,” but manages to cling to life despite his bouts with despair. To make matters worse, he is denounced to the local Communist authorities for some poetry and is forced into a complicated dance with Estonian leaders about what is best for him and his country. The fact that the novel begins with the death of the teacher and with the narrator married lets the reader know that everything turns out alright in the end, but the novel reads like American Pie or Superbad for the intellectual set given how desperate the main character is to get laid.
To say that the novel has a lot of problems is a massive understatement. The narrator comes off as a bit too angsty, and is not particularly sympathetic given his clumsy attempts at womanizing. His taste in women can at least be commended, and his desire for intellectual and spiritual growth appears to be sincere. The teacher, who has fallen in love with the his young niece, one of the women that the narrator is infatuated with, appears even more creepy and unpleasant. There are many readers who will be able to relate to the novel and the personal and political problems of the narrator, but few will want to admit it. The novel wisely begins with the happy ending, even if the book reads like an Estonian version of a couple of seasons worth of How I Met Your Mother. All of this is to say that this is the sort of book that literature professors love and that students are forced to read. I read it by choice, but that is my own fault. As a final note, this book has quite a few typos and could probably use some polishing in the copyediting process. It is unclear if the book will remain in print long enough to receive such polishing.
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