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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Cavemen Chronicle

Mihkel Mutt

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To purchase The Cavemen Chronicle

Title: The Cavemen Chronicle
Author: Mihkel Mutt
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 397 pages
Original in: Estonian
Availability: The Cavemen Chronicle - US
The Cavemen Chronicle - UK
The Cavemen Chronicle - Canada
  • Estonian title: Kooparahvas läheb ajalukku
  • Translated by Adam Cullen

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nice overview of an Estonian era/generation

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The narrator of The Cavemen Chronicle, Juhan 'Juku' Raudtuvi, briefly introduces himself in an opening Foreword, but in the novel itself he largely takes a secondary, incidental role. He is a part of a larger collective of Estonian intellectuals and artists who often meet and mingle, and he rarely positions himself centrally in the narrative, preferring the role of observer and raconteur: "I knew my limits" he says early on -- and while there he's referring specifically to not applying to acting school, it seems equally applicable in his other spheres. Juku also explains that his original ambition here had been to write: "a full-length novel" but he was certain his material would get out of hand -- "I would need to pen dozens of volumes. Who would bother to read such a massive work nowadays ?" he worries (apparently unaware of the nearby success of Karl Ove Knausgaard's struggles). Knowing his limits, he opts instead to present his material in: "a less comprehensive, less perfect way" -- chronicles, as he calls them.
       The focal point of the novel is 'The Cave'

It was a semi-exclusive café or restaurant set in the city center and frequented by artists, writers, composers, filmmakers, and other creative individuals. [...] Life down there was different from life at ground level in several senses; you descended into it as if into another world. This was due primarily to the fact that The Cave was frequented by a crowd whose thoughts and aspirations were more or less identical to your own. It seemed like you were situated in a different space-time with them.
       The action frequently returns to the members-only The Cave (which is based on the actual KuKu klubi in Tallinn), the representative meeting place for the crowd he's writing about, but Juku also follows the individuals elsewhere in an account that's meant to provide an overview of bohemian and intellectual(s') life in Estonia from Soviet times through the near-present-day, concentrated on roughly Mutt's generation. These individuals -- many obviously thinly-disguised versions of real-life figures, along with the occasional undisguised one (Brecht at Night-author Mati Unt appears as himself, for example) --, and the anecdotes and episodes Juku recounts 'expressed the era' -- Juku/Mutt's ambition with The Cavemen Chronicle.
       In fact, The Cave is only properly introduced well into the novel -- more than sixty pages in -- as the first section, 'The Old Age', centers on two of the central characters as children and then youths: Teedu Tärn, who comes to more or less toe the Soviet line and works his way up in the system -- already in his youth: "not treated as an outcast, but rather accepted as being an eccentric" -- and the much freer spirit, Mati Tõusumägi. Yet while these dominate the first section, their story too fades in and out in this chronicle, that shifts its focus across many different characters and paths -- so that also, for example, Juku has to occasionally remind himself to get back on (a certain) track:
Now, however, we return for a moment to the main character, who would otherwise slip out of our sight.
       The four parts of The Cavemen Chronicle cover four different eras, from the childhood and youth of the protagonists in 'The Old Age', to the later Soviet period and Perestroika in 'The Middle Age', then to the transitions of the late 1980s and early 1990s of the (short) 'The New Age', and finally 'The Newest Age', about life in the finally again independent Republic of Estonia.
       There are elements of dissidence and opposition in Soviet times -- Mati, in particular, publishes thinly veiled criticism of the regime and suffers some for it, and even a few of Teedu's poems appears in a samizdat publication (but only because there's a girl involved; his heart certainly isn't in it otherwise) -- but on the whole the cavemen (and women) are happy enough being allowed to be relatively free spirits, and none too activist. Typically:
Timmu was also a bit of a freedom fighter: he studied Vepsian loan words in Estonian, using it as a cover to promote the Ingrian-Finnic agenda. He did not stand on the barricades, because it did not fit his nature. (Yet, who of us stood there at all ? Some merely shouted slightly louder than the rest.)
       During Soviet times the artists do look to the West, but also find their own circumstances give them what might arguably be an edge. Westerners, for example:
All of them can only fit one thought in their head at a time. It comes from the fact that they're able to live a natural life. There's no double morality in their society, they don't have to think twice all the time.
       Amusing, too, is their limited understanding of how cushy the state makes life for them ("The Party and the government actually hate us" one person notes, but is also reminded: "Yeah, but they gild us up, too"), as the Finnish student Pekka becomes a regular in their circles, and they can't understand why he has to work as a tour guide when he publishes poetry -- much less that he can't earn any money through his writing. Only a few wonder if they haven't got it wrong in thinking that they would (continue to) flourish under a freer system:
"We wouldn't lower the bar, nor would we start churning out yellow press. We only want to make art. And when there's capitalism, then those who want to can and do make art."
       "Hold on," Endel said, at odds. "We can make art and write about almost everything right now, too, if we're just clever about it. That's not the question."
       "What is the question, then, if you will ?" Sass asked with emphatic politeness.
       "I suppose the question is whether you'd get by as a writer in the Free World. I haven't heard of there being very many freelancers in Finland. Most of them still hold some other kind of jobs."
       Of course, most of the writers still feel sure that they'll enjoy similar print runs even when it isn't the state footing the bill: "Our books would be bought every single time", they're certain .....
       Typically -- and quite amusingly -- they almost miss the revolution itself, or at least its first manifestations, checking out a gathering just in case:
Think about it -- maybe later, it'll turn out that something historic has happened. They'll ask: where were you at the time.
       (And even then one of them suggests: "We can always say we were there. Who'll check ?")
       For all the enthusiasm about independence -- suddenly changed circumstances that largely simply wash over them, without their doing much, one way or another --, life certainly isn't as easy and comfortable for many of those who frequent The Cave. Even translator Juku winds up working as a gossip columnist -- trying also to take advantage of that position to help out some of his artist- (and then also politician-) friends with the media-attention he can offer.
       Teedu worries that his Communist Party affiliation will mean the end of his career as a university lecturer in newly free Estonia, but there's no great purge and he manages to thrive in this new system too -- fully 're-profiling' himself --, eventually being elected first to the city council and then even to parliament. Mati, meanwhile, is the editor of a magazine -- though its declining influence and circulation, symptomatic of the new system and new priorities, is something he has a great deal of trouble accepting.
       In one montage of what was lost Juku even goes so far as to have a dissident lay out some cold, hard truths to the now rather disappointed bohemians, who now no longer have the respect and veneration of the public, nor the comfortable-life-allowing financial support of the state:
Do you understand who you actually were in the Soviet Union for once -- the happiest people there could possibly be. [...] In reality, the Soviet era was not a paradise for Party members, but for artists.
       Juku describes a variety of the career-paths the artists and bohemians eventually found themselves on, some meeting with sorts of success, but few able to continue to devote themselves solely to art or enjoy the same laid-back lifestyle they once had been able to (age of course also factoring into that). There are several premature ends attributable mainly to forms of excess, too.
       Hardly surprisingly, there's a sense of nostalgia about the old days -- some of which, again, is also the inevitable function of time and age. Juku notes that many traces of (especially personal) history have been lost in this Google-age, where only the Internet-archived and -retrievable is real -- meaning also that, for example, his previous identity and work as translator is completely unknown. So also: "no one knows who Teedu Tärn used to be. Or who Mati Tõusumägi was". Only the recent remains -- who they have become -- and The Cavemen Chronicle is, of course, an attempt to reconstruct that bigger picture, to provide the backstory to what became of them and what they became, the intellectuals and artists and their roles in recent Estonian culture and life.
       Even The Cave is, of course, no longer the same kind of meeting place in the post-Communist era. At one point, well into the new millennium Juko describes going there again:
I had not been there for several years, to tell the truth. "The truth" means that I went there occasionally, of course -- that is natural for a gossip journalist. But it was a different kind of "going" -- for work, mostly in order to meet with someone at a predetermined time and for a predetermined aim. Not like in the old days, when going to The Cave meant everything and nothing, because you never knew exactly what might happen there.
       The Cavemen Chronicle, focused on a bohemian-artistic class -- with a few forays into academia, politics, and business -- does nicely chronicle the changes in Estonia over nearly half a century, beginning with Soviet times, when Christmas could only be celebrated furtively or disguised, to the contemporary European Union state. Drifting back and forth across so many life-stories, it does lack some unity -- though Juku's emergence in the final sections as a more central figure/narrator does at least keep the story from fraying too much (given how most everyone else has gone in all sorts of different directions -- or died).
       With its colorful cast of characters, and given the interesting historical events in the changing nation, The Cavemen Chronicle is an entertaining read -- and a good introduction to recent and modern Estonia.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 December 2015

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The Cavemen Chronicle: Reviews: Mihkel Mutt: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Estonian author Mihkel Mutt was born in 1953.

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