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Unt: Estonian rhapsody
photo: PM/Scanpix

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."

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. Things culminates 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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