Rights sold: Estonia - VARRAK, Russia - AST
Winner of the 2014 NOS Literature Award
Andrei Ivanov’s ‘Harbin Moths’ is a bewitching novel about Russians living in Estonia in the period between the World Wars, and about their resting point, Tallinn, or Revel as it was known Russian-style. The central character, artist and art photographer Boris Rebrov is a refugee who as a seventeen year old retreated with Yudenich’s North-western Army from Russia to Estonia. On the journey – somewhere in Estonia’s border regions – his parents and little sister die from typhus, the memory of which haunts him. As a photographer Rebrov tries to capture places of former happiness which have been forever lost, he projects his lost hometown of St. Petersburg on to Tallinn, and at the same time catches, as if intentionally, moments which weren’t intended to last - dreams not the truth; spaces and light, not people.
The novel deals in general terms with that period of Estonian history, and the community of Russians who fled there as a result of the October Revolution, who lived in a kind of no-man’s land, in a peculiar parallel reality, which nevertheless overflowed with action, ideas and émigrés; Russian businessmen, speculators, smugglers, actors, artists, politicians, writers, journalists. In the context of the Estonian republic’s fragile independence, this was a time of historical limbo, when people wandered in a strange and still unknown country and physical space. Those two spaces – the Estonian republic and the peculiarly alienated parallel reality – rarely coincided.
Rebrov receives letters from Harbin, Manchuria, from a community of stateless Russians who are members of a Russian fascist party, whose ideas are just as absurd and destructive as the ghostly lilac-coloured moths flying out of the book and leaflet boxes. Rebrov’s companions, with whom he has intermittent contact, could also call themselves moths, searching through suffering for fame or oblivion, flapping in a blaze of ideas or in a cocaine haze.
When war breaks out again the artist leaves Estonia for Sweden with a new identity.
Rebrov is both a refugee and an internal exile who asks the question ‘what is really man’s destiny? A spider’s web woven into a many-layered pattern, and the more relatives and friends a person has, the closer he is bound in and the more surely he stands; I have no one at all; sometimes it seems as if I don’t even exist.’ In the novel this same theme of human fate is woven into history’s remorseless twists and turns.
A sense of what is happening in the surrounding world is given through a view of Rebrov’s inner world, and in places through his diary: in the highly powerful combination of the encounters he has, his reflections, the blaze of creativity, the pain of loss, and the letters he receives and poems he reads. Against the historical background the novel contains a strong allusion to the present day and a wide, universal, generalisation on the refugee, whenever or wherever he may be. A thread which runs through the novel is a particular question about injustice.
In this novel the reader is captivated by a disturbed, despairing, oppressive, grotesquely displaced reality, and the language in turn creates a magical world.