When my parents were traveling to Tallinn, Estonia last spring, I made sure to ask them to bring me back an Estonian book. (At the time I didn’t even know how prolific the Estonians are as book publishers.) My parents happily agreed and while in Tallinn went to visit a bookstore near their hotel. The woman in the shop was intrigued by my project and very helpful in picking out a book to represent Estonia. Unfortunately her very favorite Estonian novel was not available in English, but she suggested instead Petty God by Kaur Kender. (In Estonian the title is Yuppiejumal, which I really hope means Yuppie God, because honestly that would be an even better title.)
Petty God turns out to be a retelling of the biblical creation story, set in an Estonian advertising agency after the end of communism. It’s about as odd as it it sounds.
“And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God thought: ‘Just do it.’ And God said: ‘Let there be light’.”
The book was frequently very funny and I found myself laughing out loud. It moves back and forth through the perspectives of four characters. The perspective of the character playing the role of god was definitely my favorite. I also really enjoyed the commentary on the puzzling nature of advertising, especially for a country which had only recently made the switch from communism to capitalism. I couldn’t quite make sense of the book as a whole though. Whether that’s because of me, the author, the translator or just cultural differences, I don’t really know. Possibly a little bit of each.
In trying to look up some information about the book, I learned a little bit of the story of how it came to be translated into English. The translator, Edith Epler, was an Estonian college student studying in Scotland and it seems she decided to translate the book because she just loved it so much and wanted more of the world to be able to read it. She seems to have also played a role in publishing the book. I really admire her enthusiasm. I do think the translation would have benefited from some more English language editing as there are a fair number of errors and other places where things could just have been written a bit more clearly. It was probably a very difficult book to translate though, and it is impressive how much of the humor the translation was able to convey.
At several points in Petty God, both Jaffa (Yaweh) and Siffer (Lucifer/snake) run around placing hidden microphones to keep an eye on each other and on Eva and Mada. I don’t know if this is just a coincidence, but the part of their trip that my parents talked about most was a visit an old hotel that during the Communist era was the only hotel where westerners were allowed to stay. There is now a museum in the hotel that displays how the whole place was completely bugged and everything the westerners said was monitored. The (possibly apocryphal) story is that someone sitting on the toilet discovered that he had run out of toilet paper. After he cursed aloud about the situation, a hotel employee was at his door with a new roll almost immediately.
You can still stay at the hotel today. The question is, would you want to?