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B+ : appealing characters and stories, if a bit disjointed
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
The eponymous protagonist of Toomas Nipernaadi is presented as a vagabond, and the novel offers installments of his adventures over the course of nearly a year, beginning with the snow-melts of the spring and proceeding through the seasons until the first snowfalls of late fall.
The seven chapters are more like distinct stories-from-a-life than a connected sequence, as there is barely any carry-over from one to the next; instead, each follows roughly the same pattern -- albeit with considerable variety --, of Nipernaadi appearing in some new place, interfering in the locals' lives (including often wooing a local lass), and then -- for different reasons -- hightailing it onwards.
If not his whole life -- there's a rather more stable lifestyle lurking in the (distant and mostly unacknowledged) background, it turns out -- but this is how Nipernaadi spends his summers (the season a rather extended one for him in this case).
Nipernaadi, such an odd name you've got, but you yourself are even odder.He appears more or less out of nowhere, without tangible past or roots, and adapts quickly to whatever situation he finds himself in, inventing whatever stories of his past, present, and capabilities suit the moment. He repeatedly settles down in new places, for a while, but eventually always moves on -- usually for fairly good reason ..... But he's restless, in any case, and enjoys being on the move. Typically:
Nights he spent in the woods, beside lakes or meanders, but at sunrise he trampled out his fire, scattered the glowing embers around the place and carried on walking. He was not in a hurry and had no purpose, and he was a bit peculiar.Nipernaadi claims expertise in whatever suits the situation, easily insinuating himself wherever he set his sights on. When he's mistaken for a sacristan he embraces the role without missing a beat; if he comes to farm, he brags of his own great holdings and skills -- explaining that he just needed to get away for a while, which is why he's happy to help out wherever he now finds himself --, while elsewhere he claims to be a sailor; hard-working, he also pitches in however best he can (though occasionally good intentions do outweigh actual abilities). There's no area of expertise he's not willing to claim:
'I am a fen drainer !' Nipernaadi said proudly. 'I travel around the country like a castrator of animals does, and wherever I find a swamp, I'll get rid of it.'In that particular case he lives up to his promise, too, sort of -- draining a marsh but with consequences that are not appreciated by the locals. Cue his next exit .....
Occasionally, he realizes he might be taking things too far: "you shouldn't take everything I say too literally", he admits to one girl whom he actually has won over, and who follows him, wide-eyed and eager; "I've told you this and that, and when we get there, you might be disappointed" he warns. (Of course, it doesn't come to that disappointment -- they never get there -- as Nipernaadi manages to cleverly install them elsewhere, in a situation that ultimately leaves his companion far better off, and Nipernaadi once again off by his lonesome .....)
At the end of his trail, Nipernaadi is eventually summed up by the one who knows him best:
Oh God, this is what he does: he fantasises and dreams, and none of his words are true. His racing thoughts know no bounds, his decency no limits. He always puts himself in the most awkward predicaments and is then unhappy and sad.An appealing aspect of Toomas Nipernaadi is that many of the people he encounters and deals with harbor doubts about him and his stories: they're willing to go along with them, mostly, but aren't fully convinced. As one young lady is even willing to say straight to his face: "You really like telling fibs, don't you ?" Indeed, barely anyone is really hoodwinked by him; more generally, they go along with whatever he offers, more and less warily, intrigued and amused by this stranger -- with a few figures on the margins who are more irritated than anything else, often with good reason.
Nipernaadi is not a true con-man; he's not a real fraud -- at least not in the sense of wanting to take advantage of people. He's helpful, even, willing to play a role, and doing his part; he's even simply a paid laborer at several of his stations. His intentions aren't malign -- though for all that he still manages to leave behind a mess here and there.
Nipernaadi does have a soft spot for the ladies - or the lasses -- and he woos and wins a few. In this regard, too, however, any sense of victory is limited: there's no happily everafter for him, not with the would-be chosen ones. Occasionally, he's the gentleman, deferring to the obviously better situation he can leave the girls in -- engaged to more suitable and stable men. Other times, he avoids, at the last second, the possibility of being tied down (as in 'Pearl Diver' when, awkwardly, not one but both the girls he's been wooing separately agree to go wherever he might lead them -- this unlikeliest of his adventures also, unsurprisingly, the shortest chapter). But already in the opening story he's the one that's disappointed -- even though, when he's setting off on his raft the girl on it throws herself at him, pleading: "take me with you, Nipernaadi, for a year, a week or a single night"; there's a touch of the romantic to Nipernaadi too, and he won't simply take advantage of a girl or situation (though the fate of the young lady in question after he parts from her is left open-ended in other directions, and suggests some very casual indifference to what becomes of the likes of her on his part as well).
Nipernaadi carries no possessions with him other than his zither, and by the end of his travels is looking rather ragged and threadbare. For the most part, however, he's happy enough wherever he finds himself, on the road (which generally means, someplace deep in nature) or in whatever room folks have to spare. He claims: "I've lived through forty years", and while he's very free with the truth that seems plausible enough. By the end, with harsher weather approaching, his gadabouting is rather more of a struggle. As it then turns out, there's more to Nipernaadi then he had let on, and at least readers don't have to worry too much about his fate: he may not continue to enjoy flighty, carefree freedom -- or flirting with the girls -- but at least he won't be suffering undue hardships either, it seems (and, in any case: there's always next year).
These episodes from a-year-in-the-life are good fun. Despite similar basic arcs -- a new place, a new lie, a new girl (or two), all leading to Nipernaadi eventually leaving this too behind (usually with some ... urgency) -- there are some neat variations here. The love-interests are an appealing variety -- and include some strong-willed, independent-minded ones, such as Maret ("she's wild and unapproachable, and she loves to run alone through forests and across the beaches"). At one point Nipernaadi does gain a companion, who accompanies him from one chapter to the next, but even that is a short-lived partnership: sooner or later, Nipernaadi always moves along alone.
One of the chapters, 'A Day in Terikeste', begins and long continues with a different story entirely, a whole bizarre family- and community- story told, of heiress Kadri Parvi and the many lovers she took, children she bore, and land she gave away to the fathers of her children; Nipernaadi only enters the scene far along into that tale. The following chapter, 'Two Bluebirds of Happiness', is ultimately also as much the tale of another family, with Nipernaadi and Kati, the girl who has joined him, won over by his promises of a better life, settling in among them -- Nipernaadi able to convince everyone (more or less -- sufficiently, in any case) that he's a relative who belongs there -- only to see Kati settle in rather more permanently.
There's the occasional touch of melancholy, and Nipernaadi does leave the occasional mess and several broken hearts behind, but generally, and especially as his journey progresses, his continued moving on is the right thing to do, and what he leaves behind is more or less as it should be. His own longing remains a bit too unclear, his journeying amounting to little more than for journey's sake, as he doesn't seem to really be seeking anything specific and he steps back from anything that could tie him down more permanently (though admittedly sometimes that choice to push on isn't left to him); by the conclusion, his restless seeking -- without urgency, without care -- comes to feel a little thin. But on the whole, he's an enjoyable companion for this literary wide-ranging roaming through the Estonian countryside.
The chapters in Toomas Nipernaadi aren't neatly connected: there's a seasonal progression, and the occasional slight carry-over, but for the most part these are almost entirely discrete episodes, which gives a bit of an odd feel to the novel and its not quite flow. But then that also reflects its title-character: as one person observes:
You are just like your talks and stories -- they are reckless and they thrash around, now here, now there.The pieces, and the sum of it, are still good fun, a leisurely warm-hearted but also sly entertainment. One might wish to get to know Nipernaadi somewhat better -- but then he is meant to be an elusive character --; in any case, he's an entertaining one throughout, and his gambols in the backwoods are enjoyable, unusual small-time adventures.
- M.A.Orthofer, 27 January 2019
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Estonian author August Gailit lived 1891 to 1960.
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