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Hand in Hand. With Kross

One of Jaan Kross’ most elegant works, perhaps even the kernel of his oeuvre, The Immatriculation of Michelson (1971), represents ascending the social ladder and arriving at its zenith: General Michelson, of humble peasant origins, is being inducted into the nobility. The event is crowned by Michelson’s shameless decision – flying mockingly in the face of convention – to bring his aged parents, wearing their peasant shoes, to the festive ceremony. Michelson climbs the grand staircase of the Ritterschaft Building holding ‘his father’s left hand in his right, his mother’s right hand in his left’. This is an ideal portrait of a person who has reached the highest level of society without forfeiting anything valuable to his nature in the process. At the culmination of Kross’ only love story, Rock from the Sky (1975), the poet Kristjan Jaak takes the hands of the old pastor’s young wife, Cara, ‘that refined lady, that magical woman’ into his own. This is followed by the climax of their platonic relationship: blood spurts from the mouth of the tubercular youth. On his way to the execution, Jüri Vilms, the Deputy Prime Minister of the newly independent Republic of Estonia, holds hands with three of his like-minded fellows, and in the novel Elusiveness (1993), Kross describes these five to ten-second-long holdings of hands as ‘history’s invisible flashes of lightning’, that will be ‘endless’ in their duration. In the title episode of the novel Mesmer’s Circle (1995), Estonian society joins hands in Tartu during the Second World War, uniting intellectual forces in the name of the future of the Estonian Republic and of those who have been repressed.

In such a way, the motif of joining and holding hands comes to signify the human being who has overcome social and political barriers as well as ordinary fear and shame. Yet there are also tragical holdings of hands in Kross’ oeuvre. In the opening scene of the first volume of his major work Between Three Plagues (1970), two young Italian tightrope walkers ‘hold each other’s hand’ before stepping out to perform life-threatening tricks at the height of one hundred metres. This is the only human bond left to them because in their brilliant skill and fearlessness – in order to stay on the tightrope – they are condemned to an autistic existence. Bernhard Schmidt, the hero of the gloomiest but perhaps the most psychologically profound novel of Kross, Sailing against the Wind (1987), is a one-handed virtuoso of glass lens polishing who sacrifices his personal life for the success of his brilliant, oversensitive single hand. The novel begins with Schmidt holding hands with his fiancée at length in a symbolic moment, which remains the only one in the man’s triumphant but unhappy life drama. These are the sad examples of people at the heights who lose their human empathy.

With the exception of situations involving little children and scenes of simple play (dancing, social games), as well as handshakes of a merely formal nature, taking another person’s hand is a highly intimate gesture. It marks the transition from biological and social determinacy to personal responsibility. This happens only very rarely.

On 23 August 1989, the people of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were joined together by a chain of hands 700 kilometres long: the ‘Baltic Chain’ was an extraordinary event in the story of these three nations. On that day – having prepared for it, and continuing to do so in his literary works – Jaan Kross stood joining hands with his compatriots just beneath the tower of Pikk Hermann. The author of this essay happened to be next to him. At this long-lasting moment of our history, we were on the tightrope, taking everybody’s hand, without fear of looking or falling down.