I have lived in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, where Treading Air by Jaan Kross is set. It was nice to walk the streets with the star in the book, Ullo Paerand, during several decades in the twentieth century. These years were filled with changes for both Ullo and Estonia. The well-remembered days living with his parents, and traveling in Europe, are filled with poignant childhood memories, were my favourite part of the book. As a child you do not know about everything that is going on in and around your life, but Ullo has a pretty good perception of those days. Apparently Ullo had an excellent memory.
Estonia went through many changes during the twentieth century, and in many ways Ullo’s life reflects the changes in the society. At first I was a bit annoyed about reading how he and his family members moved from one place to another, then again to yet another place, quite often to a smaller and less attractive new home. Afterwards I realized it reflected the life in Estonia for someone like Ullo. He was doing quite well, despite of everything, but his father leaving the family left a void in his life.
The book does not focus on dwelling in the sad war history or Soviet times, rather tells the history of a nation through the eyes of one boy growing up to become a man. I can almost see what Old Town Tallinn looked like back in the days, and how it changed during the Soviet times. My first trip to Estonia was after the iron curtain had fallen, actually some years after that, when the restoration of Old Town was at its peak, and the new modern buildings downtown started taking over the skyline. Ullo had passed away before this.
Ullo got himself a secondary education at a good school, and even a job at the Prime Minister’s Office. Unfortunately Soviet pretty much put an end to his career, and he starts working for the nationalists. In the end, life had other plans for Ullo, and he ended up working menial jobs for the rest of his life.
If you know Estonia, the rest of the Baltic countries, Finland, Russia, and Germany, then you are in luck, because it really helps you while reading this book. Luckily I do. You might miss out on some parts if you are not familiar with these countries and languages. Let’s not forget about French and Latin either. Clearly the book was not written for a larger international crowd. Although, frankly speaking, there are quite a few books like this out there for us to read, so maybe it doesn’t bother people in the end.
Kross is definitely good at what he is doing – writing. The story itself was not that memorable. Quite frankly this will be one of those books I’ve read and in general liked, but if someone will ask me basically anything about this book in a year, I will have forgotten pretty much everything. The only reason why I in the end might remember something, is that I can see some of the buildings in Tallinn where he lived, if I close my eyes. I don’t think anything else was so well described in the book, and obviously, because I’ve lived there I can imagine pretty much what his homes would have looked like.