Meie saarelt Mnemosyne juurde. Saar kui omaelulooline kujund Bernard Kangro loomingus. From Our Island to Mnemosyne. The Island as an Autobiographical Figure in Bernard Kangro’s work

Maarja Hollo


The aim of this article is to explore how a sense of place informs the autobiographical in the work of Bernard Kangro. In order to establish a wider context for the relationship between the writer in exile, writing, and a sense of place there is a reference to the work and literary views of the German-speaking Jewish poet Paul Celan. The common basis for the comparison of the work of the two writers is their exile status, but they also share an understanding of the interrelationship between language and reality, a distinctive relationship with places and a sense of place as well as religiousness in their work. The current article focuses on the depiction of places and a sense of place, and its associations with exile as a state of mind that heightens the sensitivity to the real places experienced in the past as well as the imaginary places experienced in the present. In the description of places and a sense of place the autobiographical element occurs on two levels. Firstly, an autobiographical reading is made possible by the proper names in the text that signify real geographical places, which allow for a positivist interpretation with regard to the author’s biography. Secondly, the autobiographical may be revealed through certain figures in Kangro’s work, which are repeated from work to work but whose meaning might be diametrically opposite. Such recurrent figures are, for example, those of the island, the sea, the land, the tree, fog, snow, the wind, the bog, the sky, and the star. The present article addresses the figure of the island and the shifting scale of meanings it creates in Kangro’s work. An approach to the autobiographical via textual tropes is based on Paul de Man’s consideration of autobiography, who was against defining autobiography as a genre or a mode but viewed it instead as “a figure of reading or of understanding that can occur in all texts”. In Kangro’s texts three kinds of islands are found: islands identified by their proper names, such as Ivösjö and Patmos, and islands having fictitious proper names, such as Midday Island, the Island of Dreams, the Island of Freedom, the Island of Miracles or the Island of Winds, and islands without name. The textual analysis of Kangro’s poems, poem cycles, the drama The Sunken Island (Merre vajunud saar) and the novels The Tree on the Island Still Stands (Puu saarel on alles) and Six Days (Kuus päeva) written in exile shows that these islands and the “I” of these texts form a kind of imaginary whole: the former exist in the textual space only through an “I” who goes into exile, is in exile or returns from exile, whereas the existence of this “I” depends on the possibility of the existence of the islands. On the basis of the analysis of the above-mentioned texts we can conclude that the symbol and the allegory are not opposites in Kangro’s texts. Several poems, for example “On the Midday Island” (“Keskpäevasaarel”), “Oh, Patmos!” (“Oo, Patmos!”), “Evil Visions” (“Kurinägemused”), a longer poem “Kihvakaania”, and the essay “At the Black Mnemosyne’s” (“Musta Mnemosyne juures”) can be read as allegories where the island is part of the allegorical image. The island figure also allows for yet another conclusion. The description of the relationship between the “I” and place in Kangro’s work seems to illustrate de Man’s analysis of Coleridge’s concept of the literary symbol, according to which cognition and the symbolic imagination are continuous, interrelated processes. In Kangro’s work the imagining, dreaming or remembering “I” often turns into a perceiving “I” who moves from reality into meta-reality. This “I” is an exile, similar to the subject position described by Paul Celan in his acceptance speech for Georg Büchner prize published as “Der Meridian” – a tireless traveller, who does not travel in reality but in the infiniteness of his imaginary worlds in order to create a reality necessary for survival and creative work.

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