The Bell and The Hammer
Shortlisted for the Cultural Endowment Annual Award for Literature (Best Book of Fiction)
Shortlisted for the Virumaa Book Prize
"And here, a few passages turn this book into the Great Novel our critics have been constantly waiting for." - Aarne Ruben, Postimees
"“The Bell and The Hammer” is an extremely multi-layered work. It is at the same time an historical novel, a mystical thriller, a piece of speculative fiction as well as a philosophical meditation on the topics of time, destiny and divine balance. The author does not seem to prefer one way to read the book to any other, all the layers of the novel are equal in importance, and more or less in volume as well." - Janika Läänemets, Estonian Public Broadcasting, culture news
"It seems that the four periods from the 19th to the 21st century [in which the events of the book unfold] play together into a novel as if they were a band of musicians. What we find is a harmonious whole, but there are also solos, characteristic scenes from separate periods. Time is linear, the time of the novel mystical. In every period, in turn, there are several layers at work, expressed by the thrilling story line, the descriptions of art, history and social problems." - Valner Valme, Edasi
Published in Estonian by Mustvalge in October 2017, no translation is available to date.
I started to write this book in 1987, but historical events soon took over and it became evident that the turbulent crash of communism is not a time suitable for such an endeavour. I returned to the book once in a while, always only to realise that I still could not write it. This was both because it was difficult to grasp the quickly changing life with stable literary images, and because I wasn’t ready myself, as a writer and as a person. When I finally took the text up again a few years ago, I understood that most of my early material had to go or be completely re-written, but I still kept the main story line. Nonetheless some characters who were meant to make a brief appearance evolved almost into the ranks of protagonists, others for whom I had meant a more central role had to recede to the background. What surprised me most was how the book itself started to tell me, what belongs where and which loose end links to which other one - sometimes it was not as if I was inventing, but discovering the story, as if the Undivere manour in which the ghosts of this story live was indeed a real place.
The symbols are the same: a woman with children signifies patience and hope, trees signify the continuity of life. A die is chance, the lowest number on its faces is one, the highest is six. The sea signifies infinity. The clocks here are old and have hearts, and therefore time itself flows somewhat differently, gliding across the dials together with the hands instead of leaping with the numbers constantly swapping places on a dark screen. Yes, the clocks here have hearts, which is why they must be wound every morning, and why wakeful souls can hear their tireless ticking at night, even through the walls. They say that focusing on a constant monotonous noise helps one fall back to sleep. The sleepers number many and their sleep is sound; only seldom do some tend to toss and turn, or even murmur a couple incoherent words without waking. Mostly it goes unnoticed, and by morning, even they themselves have forgotten their nighttime terrors. Doors signify change. At dawn, the sun rises, and everything left off the previous evening continues again. So it has always been, so it is now.
This story begins in the cellar, in the rats’ haven, and ends in the attic, which looks out over the sea.
The central focus of the multiple storylines of this novel is Undivere, a fictional manour house on the Northern coast of Estonia, which was rebuilt into its present shape in the 19th century by Otto von Dodecker, a world-travelling Baltic German nobleman, collector of art and scholar of ways to be human. In one of the intertwining narratives, we get to follow him on his long journey from St.Petersburg to Odessa, to Constantinople, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, and also watch his efforts to bring the light of the world to his home. His house welcomes us again on three further occasions: in 1950, when it is an orphanage, in 1980, when it is restored to be a cultural centre of the local kolkhoz, and in 2016, when it opens as a museum dedicated to Otto’s life and collections. Thus we get to see Undivere also through the eyes of Ester Sillaots, an enthusiastic young woman whom the Communist Party has trusted with leading the orphanage after the war and the re-occupation of Estonia by the Soviet Union. Another perspective is offered by Arno Vaarik, the chairman of the kolkhoz who strives to preserve as much as possible from the traditional lifestyle of the area and has to fend off the powers that be. And finally, at present, we see the house through the eyes of Jasper, a student of art history who comes to Undivere as an intern, but has actually been hired by some unscrupulous businessmen to find dirt on the museum’s sponsor Jürgen Vaarik, Arno’s son, in order to undercut his efforts to drag his home village out of the past and into a prosperous future as an exquisite seaside resort. Jürgen does indeed have problems that fear light, even though he is not yet aware of these: there are some secrets in the past of his young and beautiful wife that she has managed to hide for the time being...but truth will out.
And this is not all: incomprehensibly we run into some weird people in all the periods the books talks about. A young woman with red hair and green eyes tends to appear out of the blue when things get sour, while two identical men, travelling around in a red carriage or car, offer rides to people who are never heard of afterwards. Somehow all of this seems to be connected to an ancient and powerful game of cards and dice called "bell-and-hammer"* that has been played in Undivere since time immemorial…
*I am, of course, aware that the game is an invention by the Viennese art dealer Heinrich Friedrich Müller (1779-1848), but, for fictional purposes, the novel endorses the mystification that Müller created: that the game is an ancient Nordic pastime, the card called "The Guesthouse" is a symbol of Valhalla, where dead heroes gather, the hammer card signifies Thor's hammer and the horse card Odin's eight-legged war horse, while the bell as a Christian symbol is a later addition.