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When the late Estonian writer Mati Unt told his friends that he was writing a book on electricity, his announcement was greeted "with sympathetic stares." This is according to Things in the Night, which is, occasionally, that novel. As often, it's a discussion of frozen cacti, a late-Soviet farce, and a chronicle of its readers' boredom—the stories that popped up while Unt was fashioning his saga, becoming its occupiers.

While the conceit of self-aware, part-time fiction wasn't much newer in 1990, when Things was first published in Estonian, it has a clear purpose here. In a political context of proscribed histories, the clean arc of linear narrative would read as eerily similar to propaganda. Even Unt's radical heritage is oppressively pat, a collective score masquerading as personal memory. "I remember Cohn-Bendit, whom I've never met," he laments. "I remember his speeches, which I've never heard, I remember the hall, where I've never been." By contrast, "Cyclical time is less dangerous. There, the dangerous baggage of memories is small."

Unt: Estonian rhapsody
photo: PM/Scanpix
Unt: Estonian rhapsody

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Things in the Night
By Mati Unt
Dalkey Archive, 316 pp., $13.95

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Thus refusing the straight tale, Things flips the roles of subject and storyline, with electricity itself filling in for plot. Cultural sketches take shape within freak lightning storms, Ripley's-worthy ampere legends, and misty odes to current. Thingsculminates in a tidy postmodern tautology: When a power outage threatens Estonia's capital, the State symbolically threatens narrative—but if we know that, the scribe comes out on top.

 
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