The Ropewalker

Written by Jaan Kross Merike Lepasaar Beecher (trans.)
Review by Lucinda Byatt

Jaan Kross died in 2007 and, although not known to this particular reader, was Estonia’s most widely translated author and won countless awards for his writing. His trilogy, Between Three Plagues, of which this is the first volume, documents the life of Balthasar Russow, a historical figure who left a chronicle of Livonia (modern-day Estonia and Latvia) during the tumultuous late 16th century. The book is a sweeping epic, peopled by colourful historical and fictional figures, that follows Bal, a figure with whom the author clearly identifies to the point of calling him “my Balthasar” in a historical note at the end: both were born in the same little village and, like Bal, the author’s world collapsed when he was in his 20s and the Second World War broke out.

Tallinn forms the focus of Bal’s young life: its port, its churches, and the school where Bal is a promising if unorthodox scholar. But we follow Bal on his sledge journey across the frozen Gulf of Finland on a memorable journey as far as Helsinki, and later to Stettin, then in German-speaking Pomerania. Bal’s humble birth and lively intelligence bring him into contact with different parts of Livonian society, from the rural communities where pagan practices (and incantations against wolves) are not uncommon, to the members of the Livonian Order and the town councillors and mysterious Doctor Friesner. The whole population is Protestant, but there are interesting references to the fact that post-Augsburg (1555) not all churches had suffered at the hands of the iconoclasts, and the people of Tallinn are still proud of their painted wooden saints, the altar triptych and a magnificent monstrance by Ryssenberch. Kross writes with profound knowledge and love of his homeland, allowing us to become immersed in a world that is foreign in so many ways.