Online Edition: Spring 2006

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Things in the Night

Mati Unt
translated by Eric Dickens

Dalkey Archive Press ($13.95)

by Scott Esposito

In this review of celebrated Estonian author Mati Unt's Things in the Night, I'm not going to attempt anything so foolish as a plot summary--to do so would be contrary to the spirit of Unt's book. But in order to provide some idea of what this book is like, let's just say that it includes the following: a lengthy scene in which a cannibal explains to a street crowd, just before he is dragged off by police, his theories on why eating human brains led to the evolution of humanity; a stream-of-consciousness section that lasts for about 30 pages in which the narrator rants upon getting lost in the woods while searching for mushrooms; and a substantial chapter where the narrator waters (and talks to) his collection of cacti--written from the point of view of the plants.

Or, I could simply let Unt explain his book to us:

There has to be life in a novel. Key scenes writ large and grotesque dreams should alternate with lighter city scenes. This is termed "the atmosphere" of the novel. You soon get bored with too dense a text and begin to read diagonally. You have to give the reader a chance to breathe . . .

And yet:

I can't be bothered doing the description.

Can't be bothered, not because he is above such pedestrian tasks but because the noise of the modern world, the "atmosphere," is not what Unt is interested in. If a book's atmosphere is what lets the reader breathe, then he'll deny us our breath and argue that we're better off without it. "Because at an everyday level, life in this country is simply appalling, and if you start trying to describe the horror of it, you really have to devote yourself to the task, stack up thousands of pages of all kinds of absurdities . . . but I don't want to write about it all, and nobody would want to read it anyway."

Seemingly haphazard movement among a collection of unremarkable yet strange vignettes turns out to be a fitting approach for a novel that takes electricity as a central motif and that attempts to capture the feel--if not the look and sound--of a dying Soviet republic (Things in the Night was originally written just before the fall of Communism). Unt's book does not document absurdities so much as embody them, and always peeking out from behind these absurdities is an ongoing critique of modern society. So even though Things in the Night is intense, episodic, sporadic, and cryptic (good luck figuring out the many references to Estonian society), the book is far from random. Characters emerge, themes develop, and there's even a plot, eventually. It's a testament to this book's nimble inventiveness that although it goes about its business in such an expectation-defying way, it remains, ultimately, engrossing.


To purchase Unt's Things in the Night click here.