Review: Õnnepalu’s Radio

This review first appeared in an issue of Galleon Literary Journal. Galleon is now accepting submissions for its fourth issue.

Reviewed: Radio (a novel), by Tõnu Õnnepalu, 2002. Trans. Adam Cullen. Dalkey Archive Press, 2014. 650 pgs.

There is no literature anymore, there are just single books that arrive in bookstores, just as letters, newspapers, advertising pamphlets arrive in mailboxes. (…) World literature! That sounds just as hollow as ‘peace-keeping force.’ Some kind of world literature may still exist in the brain of some well-intentioned professor in Eastern Europe.

– Tõnu Õnnepalu, Border State, trans. Madli Puhvel, Northwestern UP, 2000, p. 88

Through prose ruminations, a diary of sorts, a middle-aged gay man tries to solve the puzzle of his former wife’s disappearance. The result is an alluring psychological portrait of the narrator, who is, among other things, a documentary film-maker from Estonia. That’s a summary outline of Radio (Raadio, 2002; trans. Adam Cullen, 2014), which follows Õnnepalu’s first novel, Border State (Piiririik, 1993) as the second of Õnnepalu’s books to be translated into English. The two books share a number of characteristics in common, mainly relating to the invention of similar narratorial personae suffering from similar types of emotional pain, romantic and otherwise. Both works were published under the pseudonym Emil Tode, and both are narrated by Estonian expatriates with ties to Paris.

Radio starts, oddly enough, with a discussion of the cost of a bus ticket from Tallinn to Tartu, the city to which the narrator is returning in 2002 after a decade living in Paris. This period roughly coincided, we learn, with his “marriage” to Liz Franz. Of necessity, everything we learn about Franz is colored by the narrator’s conflicted emotional state. Who is Franz really, independent of our only semi-reliable narrator? It’s an issue the text implicitly raises, although we cannot access her, anymore than the narrator can. Objectively, she is an Estonian-Russian singer who had a handful of radio hits in the seventies. To the narrator, she has all the prestige and grand theatricality of Maria Callas; though the peak of her glory has passed, in his eyes she remains a goddess. As a young boy, he fell in love with her voice and image. It’s recognisably a case of gay male diva worship that persists into the present, although it’s become intensely complicated.

Their “marriage,” which is not a legal union, but rather the narrator’s term for their difficult-to-categorize relationship¬, comes about after a series of initial trysts in the 1990s in Paris. The ambiguous romance (they’re both gay) rapidly cools, though with sexual favors exchanged and prolonged cohabitation. But Franz travels often, sometimes living with an international real-estate mogul. Her regular gifts of money to the narrator become a crucial element in the narrator’s psychology; the notion that he is a “housewife,” a kept man or gigolo to Liz Franz, vexes him. He can’t let go of it, it is the very core of his anxiety, and the reason he is so obsessed with Franz, from whom he’s been estranged on and off for years. “I’ve been working on the subject of Liz Franz for eleven years. Am I starting to get the hang of it?” he asks, painfully.

He is starting to get the hang of it, though. Õnnepalu’s uncanny ability to inhabit his first-person narrator is astounding, and the book stands as an excellent fusion of psychological realism and formal artifice. As a fully imagined character, the narrator also has the vague familiarness of a recognizable “type.” More than anything else, perhaps, his namelessness serves to underline this fact (and also to echo the condition of Proust’s narrator). Other traits (political apathy, religious indifference, coldness towards his family) reinforce the sense that the speaker is a representative of the so-called modern condition. The voice is confident, off-the-cuff, unwavering and immediate. But, due to a reluctance to confront the painful central topic outright, the forty-five chapters unfold by and large through a process of avoidance and deferral. From the start, digressions revolving around minor characters and motifs threaten to overwhelm and bury the Liz Franz question; but it inevitably presses into the narrative in a slow and steady time-release. Observations and analogies concerning biology, anthropology, economics, psychoanalysis, immunology and other miscellaneous disciplines forestall development, arising unannounced and passing with an effervescent lightness that makes them very digestible and stimulating, never heavy-handed. For instance, the quest for a sexual and romantic partner is analogized to the logic of economic markets. Or: “In the psychic aspect, the capacity to forget evidently plays the part of the immune system.” There’s also some excellent factual encapsulations of life, land, culture, and history in Estonia which make Radio a great introduction to the north Baltic region—what was once, we learn, Old Livonia, a kingdom partly in Latvia, partly in Estonia.

In fact, these strong historical and geopolitical registers make Radio very contemporary, and also seem to indicate that it was written with an international audience in mind. Like the opening scene that discusses the relative purchasing power of francs, Euros, and kroons, a number of features suggest a desire to go beyond the idea of the nation. A fascination for borders is made explicit in the title of an art film the narrator made about border-crossing points across Europe—it’s called “Les Frontières”—just as Border State also foregrounds political divisions. Given that Border State was widely translated in Europe and elsewhere, Õnnepalu certainly had reason to expect that Radio too would travel abroad to reach non-Estonian readers with the directness of an airborne radio transmission. The narrator’s verbal tic of parenthetically weaving French idioms into his speech similarly calls attention to the in-betweenness of identity and the condition of bilingualism.

The plot development and pacing are slow, but that’s exactly the point; the style and form are capacious, issuing from a monkish patience and discipline. (At the book’s middle chapter, the narrator imagines leading an ideal life as a Cistercian monk in a medieval Estonian monastery, living quietly alongside other reserved gay men.) And by the conclusion, Radio effects a full dramatic reversal and catharsis which validate and redeem the process leading there. If Radio succeeds through its nearly six hundred pages, as I believe it does, it’s in large part due to the delicate balance of self-pity and stoicism, of complaint and resignation, that its singular voice strikes. In its almost architectural organisation of material, Radio is a lucid and beautiful monument to solitude.

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