Tõnu Õnnepalu (pseudonyms Emil Tode and Anton Nigov, b. 13. XI 1962) is an Estonian prose writer, poet, translator and essayist.
Born in Tallinn, he attended Tallinn primary school number 29 and secondary school number 3, and from 1980 to 1985 the faculty of biology at the University of Tartu, from which he graduated cum laude in botany and ecology. From 1985 to 1987 he worked as a primary school teacher at Lauka on Hiiumaa island, from 1989 to 1990 as an editor of original and translated literature on the journal Vikerkaar, in 1993 as an editor at the Tuum publishing house, from 1993 to 1994 in the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in 2001 as the director of the Estonian Institute in Paris, introducing Estonian culture to the world, and in 2009 as major domo at Esna manor house. Besides these positions, he has chiefly worked freelance. In 2003 he was professor of liberal arts at the University of Tartu, and in 2014 the curator of the Draama theatre festival.
He came to literature as a poet. Starting with his first collections, Jõeäärne maja ('The House by the River', 1985) Ithaka ('Ithaca', 1988) and Sel maal ('In this Land', 1990), Õnnepalu has published free verse of a philosophical bent, heavily interspersed with reflections on nature. Of his earlier poetry, what has found special recognition in criticism and literary history is the long poem Mõõt ('The Measure', 1996). For his later poetry, Õnnepalu received the Juhan Liiv Poetry Prize in 2007 and the Estonian National Cultural Award and the Eduard Vilde Prize for Literature in 2010 for his collection Kevad ja suvi ja ('And Spring and Summer').
Õnnepalu came to wider attention with the novel Piiririik (1993, published in English as 'Border State' in 2000) which appeared under the pseudonym Emil Tode. Its main protagonist is an Estonian literary figure living and working in Paris immediately after the Iron Curtain fell. The themes of the novel are the humiliating position of an Eastern European in the newly opened West, the wish to escape from his shabby and grey homeland, which clashes paradoxically with his hostility to the glossy image of the West as a clean, efficient and flawlessly functioning society. The protagonist feels himself to be placed in a weightless, uncertain no-man’s-land at the boundary of two worlds. It was new for Estonian literature to deal with homosexuality, ambivalence and a sense of boundaries even in the sexual sense. Piiririik, written in a modernist structure, in lyrical and metaphorical language, became rapidly known all over Europe soon after its publication, through translations. It has remained one of the best-known works of Estonian literature internationally, even being translated into Hebrew (2005) and Chinese (2011).
Tõnu Õnnepalu went on to publish other works of fiction under the name of Emil Tode, such as Printsess ('The Princess', 1997) and Raadio ('Radio', 2002), but in more recent times, especially since Harjutused ('Exercises', 2002), which appeared under the name Anton Nigov, he has striven toward literary authenticity and autobiography. At the same time the author manifests his awareness of every kind of textual construction and the impossibility of perfect literary honesty and purity. As a result of this Õnnepalu plays in his works with his own identity, which does not enable his prose to take on the form of pure diary or essay writing. Nevertheless his prose works have won prizes in the essay category from the Cultural Endowment of Estonia, such as Flandria päevik ('Flanders Diary', 2007) and Inglise aed ('The English Garden', 2017).
Õnnepalu’s prose works (but also his poetry) are distinguished by a strong association with a fixed geographical area – Piiririik with Paris, Hind with Portugal, Printsess with Germany, Raadio with the USA, Flandria päevik with Belgium, Mandala with central Estonia, Paradiis with western Hiiumaa, and so on. Running through Õnnepalu’s prose from work to work is a refined, poetic style, and his main themes and motifs: a search for love that is hard to objectify, a sense of despondency and restlessness, everyday living conditions, boredom with institutional culture and literature, a longing for a simple life close to nature, pessimistic meditations on European culture and civilization and the future of the natural environment.
Tõnu Õnnepalu has been a prolific translator. He has translated mainly from French, works by Albert Camus, Marcel Proust, Charles Baudelaire, François Mauriac, Sébastien Japrisot, Antoine Chalvin, Romain Gary, E.M. Cioran and Marie Catherine d’Aulnoy, as well as Fernando Pessoa from Portuguese, and the poetry of Allen Ginsberg from English. As a critic Tõnu Õnnepalu has not been particularly productive, but his essays, mainly on Estonian poetry, are highly regarded. His collection of essays and criticism, Ainus armastus. Valik esseid ('The Only Love. Selected Essays', 2011) won the Literature Endowment Annual Award in the Essay category.
S. V. (Translated by C. M.)
Books in Estonian
Jõeäärne maja. Tallinn: Eesti Raamat, 1985, 47 lk.
Ithaka. Tallinn: Eesti Raamat, 1988, 81 lk.
Sel maal. Tallinn: Eesti Raamat, 1990, 54 lk.
Emil Tode, Mõõt. Tallinn: Tuum, 1996, 64 lk.
Enne heinaaega ja hiljem. Luulet ja luuletõlkeid 1983-2005. Tallinn: Eesti Keele Sihtasutus, 2005, 310 lk.
Kevad ja suvi ja. Tallinn: Varrak, 2009, 189 lk. [2. trükk: 2013. E-raamat: 2013.]
Kuidas on elada. Tallinn: Varrak, 2012, 98 lk.
Klaasveranda. Tallinn: Varrak, 2016, 107 lk + 1 CD. [E-raamat: 2016.]
Emil Tode, Piiririik. Romaan. Tallinn: Tuum, 1993, 186 lk. [Järgnevad trükid: 1998, 2003, 2009, 2015.]
Hind. Tallinn: Tuum, 1995, 206 lk.
Emil Tode, Printsess. Tallinn: Täht, 1997, 137 lk.
Anton Nigov, Harjutused. Tallinn: Eesti Keele Sihtasutus, 2002, 310 lk. [E-raamat: 2011.]
Emil Tode, Raadio. Tallinn: Eesti Keele Sihtasutus, 2002, 446 lk. [E-raamat: 2011.]
Flandria päevik. Tallinn: Varrak, 2007, 338 lk. [2. trükk: 2015. E-raamat: 2010.]
Paradiis. Tallinn: Varrak, 2009, 192 lk. [2. trükk: 2015. E-raamat: 2010.]
Mandala. Tallinn: Varrak, 2012, 243 lk. [2. trükk: 2013.]
Lõpetuse ingel. Märkmeid sügissaarelt. Tallinn: Kultuurileht, 2015, 86 lk.
Valede kataloog. Inglise aed. Tallinn: EKSA, 2017, 385 lk.
Pariis. (Kakskümmend viis aastat hiljem). Tallinn: EKSA, 2019, 172 lk.
Vennas. Näidend kahes vaatuses. Tallinn: Eesti Draamateater, 2014, 136 lk.
Mäed. Ballett. Tallinn: Eesti Draamateater, 2016, 72 lk.
Essays, articles, reviews
Ainus armastus. Valik esseid. Tallinn: Varrak, 2011, 355 lk. [E-raamat: 2012.]