Antonomasia's Reviews > The Misadventures of the New Satan

The Misadventures of the New Satan by A.H. Tammsaare
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Dec 20, 2015

really liked it
bookshelves: central-eastern-europe, baltic-states, decade-1930s, 2015
Read from July 05 to 12, 2015

Enjoyed this - a livelier, bucolic, less predictable antecedent of the grim Eastern Bloc satires of two or three decades later - but not sure how logical it was. I can understand why some would downrate it for that; on the other hand, the 'illogic' might refer to sources I don't know, unfamiliar Estonian folktales and literature that presumably form the background to the story.

Info about Tammsaare in English is limited - I'd love to know more about his politics to shed more light on the intentions of this book, set in inter-war independent Estonia. Russia is briefly portrayed as a place one might plausibly flee from, and where churches might have been shut down. The premise of Misadventures, which drew me to it, reads nowadays as something perhaps most fitting with social democracy or the libertarian left: God has realised that most humans and their lives are such that it's unfair to expect them to behave righteously enough to get into heaven; as a test of whether hell should be wound up altogether, Satan is incarnated as Jürka, an ordinary agricultural smallholder, and if he can live well enough to achieve salvation, he can then keep on running hell. The most contemporary (as in 2010s-seeming) aspect of the book is that Jürka's greatest torment is debt: he is forever in hock to bigger local farmer Cunning Ants, and the false promises he makes Jürka about how great his life will be once he has something else Ants will lend him money to obtain. They may live mostly with pre-Industrial Revolution technology (in stark contrast to the towns and authorities, who do seem to be in the 1930s much as the West knew them) but right now it's terribly easy to read Ants as a symbol of consumerist capitalism. The wonderfully neutral and compassionate attitude Tammsaare took towards his all-human characters in Andres & Pearu at times makes this different, partly allegorical novel inscrutable rather than understanding. [Review of A&P not finished, I still feel too fuzzy-headed to write this one - never mind the epic that was becoming - but this doesn't seem too awful on the page]

Different in some respects, anyway. Misadventures is told more like a fable or fairytale, and in that manner, some things and some roles just are, just have to be taken on trust - whereas the earlier, and much longer, Andres & Pearu, likely influenced by Tolstoy (though less condescending), led the reader into the minds of many characters in turn. There are still occasional moments of that in Misadventures, but usually we are watching from the outside, and it lacks the richness of characterisation, especially of the supporting cast.
Elements of the story, though, are alike: in both cases life begins as a childless couple arriving on a farm in the middle of nowhere; the family structure is similar [spoiler for both books] (view spoiler). Jürka and Andres are both big men and the strongest in their neighbourhoods: Andres quite plausibly so (strongman contests were a big tradition in Estonia - they still host them somtimes on Eurosport - and he seems part of that), Jürka, an actual devil incarnate, is preternaturally strong; both work at a rate that can and does drive others into the ground. Both, to varying extents, have a temper which flares at particular events, but a day-to-day stoicism (Andres can be quick-witted, but he nonetheless believes in his thankless work of farming and improving a swamp and reads the book of Job frequently; Jürka can appear simple-minded in his devotion to manual labour, which he believes will earn him salvation).
From plugging a few synopses into Google Translate, it's evident that Tammsaare did write about other scenarios; it just happens these two rather similar ones have ended up in English. Perhaps as his health was failing (Tammsaare died the year after Misadventures was published) he again was drawn to a structure that, like A&P, first of a semi-autobiographical pentalogy - Andres being based on his own father - contained elements of his own beginnings.

Anyone who's read much contemporary fantasy perhaps can't help but think in detail about how such incarnation takes place: principles are not set out, nor are we shown-not-told, like an example I frequently thought of, Kate Atkinson's Life After Life in which the reincarnated Ursula retains elements of implicit memory from her prior existence, which drive some decision making by apparent reflex or instinct. Having to make up my own framework for Jürka, what was established was this: he knows he is Satan (some think him mad for this) so he is more conscious of his other existence than Ursula, but like her he isn't exactly the same; he retains certain elements easily associated with Satan - an interest in fire, his red hair, his unpredictable temper; but that is also grafted on to an ordinary, dogged labourer who distinctly lacks the wily seductive nature many folk tales attribute to devils. Instead that particular type of badness belongs to the world, in particular to Cunning Ants and the legal system that supports his extortions.
Sometimes I wondered if seeing if this Satan could attain salvation was a real and fair test applicable to other humans: he had more of a temper than manys. I loved Tammsaare's neutrality and understanding of people in the other book, but here I wasn't sure if some of Jürka's angry reactions were supposed to be typical in his milieu, outrageous, or somewhere in between. My thoughts often flitted back to the high rates of violent crime recorded in some European medieval communities, e.g. Yorkshire, some Italian city states. He would fit with those; he was provoked by events we'd still consier unfortunate, but we'd be more censorious and less normative about violent responses to them now. Such violence has always been a crime in law, but many communities used to consider retributive violence par for the course. As in medieval texts, Jürka's lashing out sounds fairly commonplace and well understood by locals; he is considered a basically decent and stoic man who's had a lot to put up with. But at what point in history was this acceptance of violence also characteristic in rural Estonia? As late as the 1930s, or not? Perhaps it's more characteristic of the story's timeless, folkloric setting than the real twentieth century.

I've never got as much out of those Communist Era allegorical satires as I'd hoped (typically Czech, things like Havel plays and some Czechoslovak New Wave films), but Misadventures of the New Satan was far more satisfying; I just like rural settings, but also the atmosphere of the writing wasn't so claustrophobic and grey, it seemed more possible actually to laugh, and the ideas about both debt, and human fallibility and blameworthiness seemed extraordinarily current.
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