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Challenging expansions

Estonian Viking novels and the politics of memory in the 1930s



While the interwar literatures of the big, established European nation states afforded historical fiction but a marginal position, the genre did not lose its functionality for the new nations. The late 1930s witnessed a new rise of the Estonian historical novel. This article analyses two of the most emblematic examples of this boom, namely, the Estonian Viking novels Urmas ja Merike („Urmas and Merike”, 1935–1936) by Karl August Hindrey and Läänemere isandad („The Lords of the Baltic Sea”, 1936) by August Mälk. Examining the relations between historical fiction and national history, it contextualizes those works on the background of two major trends that characterized the Estonian politics of memory at that period of authoritarianism and state managed nationalism: a replacement of the previous victim perspective with the longing for a victorious, militant past and an emphasis laid on the historical connections with Scandinavia. What both of these strategies seem to hold in common is a quest for substitutes for a colonial history. The narrative representations of the Estonian Vikings, however, reveal significant anxiety concerning this new version of history, suggesting the return of the suppressed colonial humiliation in fiction. The relations between the historical novel and other media of cultural memory form another frame for the current discussion. While the historical novel has a remarkable potential in the shaping and reshaping of national cultural memories, including the Estonian one, in this case the genre seems to reveal the gaps and holes in the postcolonial new national history, doing it significantly better than visual culture, built environment and performances, which had been previously used for representing the ancient Estonians as Vikings, or Scandinavians.