A People without a Past

Written by Jaan Kross Merike Beecher (trans.)
Review by Nancy Henshaw

Northern Europe, 1563. In Livonia, the coastal town of Tallinn is under siege, while inside the walls, plague takes its toll. Balthasar Russow has been appointed Pastor of the Church of The Holy Ghost. Hardworking and compassionate, surely at this time of crisis he must be welcomed by his fellow citizens? Not so: there are many who cannot overlook that he is what he always has been, a peasant. He is cleverer than most of them, which adds to their well-founded suspicions: Balthasar has been keeping a written record of events in the town, and this startlingly revealing document needs a second copy. The Pastor delegates the work to his most trusted protégé. A mistake for which he pays dearly.

If the author is a magician in creating and presenting readers with this magnificent story, then his translator is a worthy sorcerer’s apprentice. Lucid, absorbing and frequently astounding, the narrative forges along like one of the valiant little ships that sail these dangerous waters. There are wonderful set pieces – how does royalty react when in imminent danger of death by drowning? Anyone about to start reading has a treat in store, including a protagonist blessed with a wry, humorous view of humanity’s absurdities.