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An Unending Landscape
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B : appealingly involuted if a bit drawn-out
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
An Unending Landscape is a tale that repeats and folds in on itself three times and is, in part, about its own writing -- to the extent that there are observations such as:
The composition of the novel hovered there in his thoughts with inexplicable clarity -- a complex, multi-layered and ambiguous work that was to consist of three separate novels, where the characters appear in changed circumstances and quality.The main character is the Estonian writer So-and-So (yes, that's how he refers to himself, and is referred to, throughout); in the first two iterations he writes in the first person, in the final one he writes from a more neutral third-person perspective (but with himself still in the central role). The basic story is relatively straightforward: a former schoolmate, now a Minister in the Estonian government, makes him an offer he can't refuse: to spend some time at the 'Full-Blooded Recreation' retreat and spy on those running it, as the government believes them to be involved in 'Green' (eco-)terrorism and believes them (or wants to see them ...) to be a threat to the nation. It's an opportunity for So-and-So to write -- and, indeed, write about the eco-terrorists, as the various parties involved hope that regardless of how government and eco-terrorists are depicted, they will benefit from the publicity surrounding the book. (Those he is to inform on are eager for him to write a book that will further their cause, but So-and-So can't be sure they're not aware that he's a government informer and so he remains unsure whether their ambitions are truly subversive or whether he is merely being used by them in a feint, a misleading counter-tactic.)
So-and-So has some difficulty getting started, but his first account ends with him beginning his novel, 'Informer to the Estonian Republic', which is, in turn, a variation on the story he has just told, going full-circle but having events unfold just slightly differently. This 'novel' then, in turn, concludes with So-and-So beginning a novel, too, 'A Novel for the End of the Century', which takes a wider turn in repeating the material but again covers the same ground (of an ambivalent writer coming as a spy to 'Full-Blooded Recreation' and trying to write a novel). (But, yes, there is at the end a brief Epilogue which ultimately breaks the loop.)
As So-and-So explains:
I know (as a writer) that the best way to reach clarity is by way of a text. A text is not a result, it is a process -- an aimless wander, whose aim becomes clear during the wandering itself.Treading over the same ground, Vint both reinforces and undermines his narrative. Built on the echoes of other authors as well -- "he resorted to other authors, their writings, but transformed them; he wished the reader to stop now and again and listen to something else than what was before his eyes" --, An Unending Landscape is, indeed, that multi-layered structure, but a diaphanous one, the layers beneath partially obscured and refracted, but on the whole reinforcing one another (through repetition and familiarity). So also the third iteration is not only much like the story that has been told twice before but adds a subtext, as it were, of Chekhov (specifically, 'The Lady with the Lapdog'). Similarly, Vint's suggestive names -- from Teeriida, where So-and-So stays, echoing 'Derrida' (though: "this word teeriida could mean various things in Estonian", as So-and-So (and/or presumably translator Eric Dickens) remind the readers) to Maria Laakan, whose name is, of course meant to invoke Lacan to Vint himself who appears as the painter Vennet (Vint is also a painter, and in the book the character Vennet of course has painted 'An Unending Landscape') -- suggests how close to (and twisted from) reality much of the content is. (In his Introduction, Dickens helpfully explains many of Vint's intertextual games.)
Set less than a decade after the breakup of the Soviet Union, An Unending Landscape provocatively again puts the author/artist in the compromising position of being a state pawn and informer. The positive that So-and-So can, or tries to, draw out of it is to see it as an opportunity: "to turn the situation into something useful for myself, write a story, develop the unpleasant situation in which I have landed into a novella or novel". But his participation is marked by a deep ambivalence -- reinforced also by the lack of clarity of how exactly this will play out, and who stands to benefit (as he also spins it as it being an opportunity for the 'Green' forces to get their message across); all this is, of course, reflected in the ambivalence of the narrative(s) themselves, So-and-So's uncertainness (and/or unwillingness) to present a definitive version, and instead offer alternative spins on the story, one within the other.
While the smaller and larger shifts across the three-tiered narrative don't exactly pull the rug out from under the reader they certainly effectively change the story. From small events, such as how room is freed up at 'Full-Blooded Recreation' (the government making sure there's a place for him), to variations on 'An Unending Landscape' (as painting, four-man art show, and novel) Vint changes small details and much of the flow of the story, but the fundamentals remain similar enough that the triptych isn't truly three variations on a theme but rather three layers, with a variety of overlap.
'Full-Blooded Recreation' itself appears as both pastoral get-away camp cum writers' retreat, without even electricity, and survival training camp where people: "sign away their freedom for a week" (and the place where So-and-So stays is, in fact, both -- if not quite literally so -- as well as something in between). As he approaches the city office for the first (but second) time, So-and-So lets his imagination get carried away -- which then allows him, in this second telling, to carry the story further away as well:
With each step I take toward the shop's protruding sign, my idea of the future grows grimmer -- the name "Full-Blooded Recreation" takes on a new meaning: a vacation filled with blood; the text I should begin to write will turn into a horror novel, in which a trail of blood leads to the House of Evil, decorated with blood-spattered wallpaper.From cats (including the dead one left behind in his refrigerator), to a wife currently in the United States (and probably lost for good), to him catching his eyes lusting over girls and women, to various forms of art (including of the performance and installation variety), An Unending Landscape has many recurring characters, incidents, and motifs in what is ultimately a very large and quite complicated structure. Typical is the treatment of homosexuality, a minor motif that, however, crops up several times; it, and how it is treated is representative for much in the novel -- so also (but not just) the ecological concerns; as one character suggests:
We must take local problems into a global context and vice versa, this is one of the advantages of entering the world from the periphery these days. Nobody's talking here about ass-fucking, the game is kept at a theoretical level and homosexuality is examined as one possibility for human existence, which must have equal opportunities with other models for existenceJust as Estonia is a marginalized, almost trivial country, lost in a corner of the world ("a European cultural province"), so too So-and-So is a small, marginalized writer and man in his corner of the world. Vint's alter ego Vennet imagined: "a non-existent culture for a non-existent state" -- and So-and-So admits: "Some decent hoax would be most welcome" (the authentic of course being far out of reach by now). There are efforts at various forms of trickery to attract attention or the illusion of significance -- but how much is authentic, or at least authentic enough to be seen as 'real' ? So-and-So isn't entirely resigned, but finds himself largely at best a pawn, with others -- his wife, the government, the Greens -- allowing him enough room to let him believe he has some free will, but still determining much of his life. Even for all the autonomy writing would seem to offer, he finds himself a captive in a loop (admittedly partially of his own making).
An Unending Landscape is a solid novel, but perhaps a bit more intriguing in theory than practice, process trumping result. Vint does well with his material, and it's a success on its own (explicit) terms -- it is, indeed, that "complex, multi-layered and ambiguous work" he aimed for --, and it is fairly entertaining -- but perhaps not quite entertaining enough for a thrice-told tale over so many pages.
- M.A.Orthofer, 15 July 2012
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Estonian author Toomas Vint was born in 1944.
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