I was hooked right from the first page of this travelogue when the author recounts an amusing anecdote about a receptionist and ‘chicken’ at the hostel in Tallinn where he is residing at the start of a two month backpacking odyssey around Estonia searching for answers to the title of his book.
‘The indrawn heart’ is taken from an English version of a Juhan Liiv poem ‘Sa oled väikene, väike. (You are so little, little) – translation by E. Howard Harris (Estonian Poetry I 1950). Boyle seeks to discover during the course of his journey whether Estonians really do have ‘an indrawn heart’ but the outcome is inconclusive as so many of his interviewees have differing views about the poem and indeed the translation of this particular line of the poem.
I identified very closely with Boyle’s journey having travelled extensively in Estonia myself (not as a backpacker I hasten to add!) and many of his observations about lesser known sleepy backwaters such as Valga, Häädemeeste, Tõrva and Kunda certainly ring very true.
Boyle, whose mother was Estonian and who hails from Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, writes from the heart about a country with which he obviously feels a close affinity whilst at the same time maintaining the distance and perspective of an outsider. His prose style is descriptive, entertaining and emotional – more akin to an autobiographical novel rather than a travelogue. At times, the narrative gives away slightly too much personal information about the author and one is left wanting to know less rather than more about his lost Estonian love in Tallinn, Riina, and his middle-aged struggles with his rising blood pressure.
The question of ‘the indrawn heart’ remains unclear in my own mind as I do not agree with the E. Howard Harris translation of the line ‘su süda tõmbaks ühes’ which to me means more ‘your heart would beat in unison’. As an expatriate Estonian brought up in the UK I can, however, strongly identify with Boyle’s general picture of the introverted Estonian of few words who is neither outgoing nor gregarious although he does meet several Estonians who do not conform to this generalised picture of the national character.
This is highly recommended reading both for those with intimate knowledge of Estonia and Estonians as well as those who wish to acquaint themselves more closely with this small but beautiful and fascinating Baltic outpost.
‘The Indrawn Heart’ is published by Lakeshore Press in the USA and can be ordered from their website: http://lakeshorepressbooks.com/store/estonian-books. The price is $14 plus postage.