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Eventful life stories

Erich Arak’s manuscript

Keywords: life stories, memory, autobiography, narrativity, World War II in ­Estonia


This paper focuses on a contextual analysis of a 250-page manuscript life story written by an Estonian man born in 1921, who survived mobilization into both World War II occupation armies, subsequent imprisonment in the Siberian Gulag, and later, after a failed escape attempt, several years of imprisonment and re­settlement in the Kolyma mining district in the Far East. The text was submitted posthumously to an Estonian life story collection competition in 2004. In this paper, Erich Arak’s manuscript is used as an example to develop the concept of an “eventful” life narrative, both as the kaleidoscopic cumulation of narrated experiences and the resultant epic dimension of the story’s poetics. Vieda Skultans and James Wertsch’s terms “cultural” and “textual resources,” and Leona Toker’s concepts of “mixed metaphors” and “co-lamination” (as seen in Gulag literature) enable the discussion of the paradoxical relationship of Arak’s life story’s ethical substrate and aesthetic effects. The proposed analysis is complementary  – perhaps even cautionary – with regard to methodological approaches that (skeptically, even suspiciously) diagnose and classify life stories according to discourses of nationalism, resistance, rupture, and nostalgia.


Tiina Kirss (b. 1957), PhD, Estonian Literary Museum, University of Tartu, Senior Researcher,



EKM EKLA – Eesti Kirjandusmuuseumi Eesti Kultuurilooline Arhiiv

F 350, nr 1787. Arak, Erich

F 350, nr 1741. Raag, Boris



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