Ilmar Jaks (4. IV 1923 - IX 2019) was one of the most renowned expatriate short prose writers of Estonia. Jaks’ works are characterized by a natural sense of the classic values of the short story, linguistic sensitivity, stylistic activity, irony, a search for ideological paradoxes and a frequent sense of the unexpected and the strange.
Jaks was born in Asuküla parish, Lääne County in 1923, a son to a primary school teacher and farmer. From 1930-1934, he studied at Haapsalu 2nd primary school and from 1934-1941 at Haapsalu Gymnasium. Jaks has had an adventurous life. From 1941, he worked as a journalist in Tallinn, in 1943, he migrated to Finland and fought in the war in the Estonian regimen no 200 of the Finnish army. In 1944, he returned to Estonia and was sent to Red Army’s labor battalions in Estonia and Leningrad. In 1945, he managed to swim from Leningrad harbor to a Finnish ship and escape to Sweden. In Sweden, he studied law from 1949 to 1953, from 1954, he worked in the Swedish public office, while also working at his private law practice. In 1978, he left Sweden and briefly resided in Denmark, Austria and West Germany, after which he settled in Bretagne, France for longer. After France, he returned to Sweden and settled near the Norwegian border. Jaks was married to Astrid Kruus, who died in 1976, and later to the poetess Ariane Kveld Jaks, who is of French and Vietnamese descent. Jaks was awarded the Friedebert Tuglas short story prize (1992 and 2004) and the Order of the National Coat of Arms, 4th Class (1998). He died in Stockholm.
Ilmar Jaks started writing as a chronicler of war memories and wrote the memoir Saaremaalt Leningradi. Tööpataljonlase päevik 1944–45 ('From Saaremaa to Leningrad. The Diary of a Labor Battalion Worker 1944-45', 1949) that stands out with its analytical approach and feels like a forerunner to the lyrical epic war prose of later years. After having started his creative career by observing war and its consequences as a refugee, he gradually turned to more universal motifs, for example the fate of man. In journalism, his tendency of making sense of the world by depicting it as a series of punch-lines made him turn to the short story form in his fiction writing as well.
In his short story collections Aruanne ('Report', 1958), Mapp ('Folder', 1970), Keldrist pööningule ('From the Basement to the Attic', 1971) and Augeiase tallid ('The Stables of Augeas', 1977), Jaks thoroughly explores the possibilities of short prose. An everyday event is oftentimes the starting point of his short stories, which takes on a humorous, ironic, grotesque or tragic quality in the hands of the author. Thematically, his stories first focused on war and included many character portraits; later, they became increasingly fast-paced and abstract, include plant and animal allegories, and contrast the microscopic and the cosmic, which results in the grotesque. A recurring theme is the loss of homeland as a source of guilt and injustice and the juxtapositioning of the individual temperament of the creator and the moral of the collective. The short story collection Pimedus ('Darkness', 2003) was the first to be published in Estonia. It is characterized by attention to fateful situations, coincidences, clashes of different perspectives or understandings, which reveal the relativity of truths. The short story collection as an independent whole is very important in Jaks’ works.
Jaks has also written three novels. Eikellegi maal. Ülestähendusi Siimonist ('In Nobody’s Land. Notes from Siimon', 1963) creates a powerful image of the ’refugee prototype’. The novel unfurls as an activity of associative memory and toys with semantic contrasts (oxymoron, collage). It uses the methods of linguistic compression generously (word experiments and word play, the occasional initial and end rhyme, stylized rhythm). The novel Talu ('Farm', 1980) is critical of idealizing farm work by contrasting the man’s drudgery, sense of property and obeying the law of the land with the primal and wild love of the woman. The novel Neptun. Õiguse telgitagustest ('Neptun. Behind the Scenes of Law', 1981) is a lawyer’s tale of the clash between the legal system and humanity, and the controversial relationship of the law and the individual, which leads to the lawyer giving up his practice. The novel is remarkable by presenting the point of view of the law and not that of the subdued subject.
J. T. (Translated by A. S.)
Books in Estonian
Talu. Lund: Eesti Kirjanike Kooperatiiv, 1980, 194 lk. [2. trükk: Tallinn: Õllu, 1993, 140 lk.]
Neptun: õiguse telgitagustest. Stockholm: Välis-Eesti & EMP, 1981, 136 lk. [2. trükk: Tallinn: Õllu, 1992, 136 lk.]
Eikellegi maal. Ülestähendusi Siimonist. Lund: Eesti Kirjanike Kooperatiiv, 1963, 294 lk. [2. trükk: Tallinn: Õllu, 1991, 172 lk.]
Aruanne. Lund: Eesti Kirjanike Kooperatiiv, 1958, 287 lk.
Mapp: novelle ja katkendeid. Lund: Eesti Kirjanike Kooperatiiv, 1970, 263 lk.
Keldrist pööningule. Lund: Eesti Kirjanike Kooperatiiv, 1971, 247 lk.
Augeiase tallid. Lund: Eesti Kirjanike Kooperatiiv, 1977, 211 lk.
Augeiase tallid; Keldrist pööningule. Tallinn: Perioodika, 1991, 176 lk. [Sari 'Europeia', valikkogu.]
Pimedus. Tartu: Ilmamaa, 2003, 152 lk.
Pleenum Heaolu Keskasutuses. Tallinn: Perioodika, 2004, 79 lk. [Loomingu Raamatukogu, jutustus.]
Saaremaalt Leningraadi: Tööpataljonlase päevik 1944-1945. Stockholm: Eesti Raamat, 1949, 199 lk.