I have to admit that all through the past week, I had two urges: to zoom in very close on Google earth to have a close look at the Estonian countryside, and to take a really good course in a couple centuries European diplomatic history. The book that inspired these urges was Professor Martens’ Departure by Jaan Kross. It is another 1001 Books list book, and I definitely agree with the choice that placed this book on the list. Here is my review:
A few chapters into this book, I was scrambling for Google. What I discovered is that this novel’s protagonist, Professor Martens, was a real historical figure, an international law expert in the Russian court of the early 20th Century. He was an important figure in numerous important international treaty negotiations. This novel, set late in his life, takes us with him on a train trip from his small village toward a rendezvous with his wife and official meetings with other diplomats in St. Petersburg. As he travels, we listen to his internal dialogue, anticipating a planned conversation with his wife in which he plans to begin an era of total candor. He reviews his personal and professional past, examining successes and failures and imagines that this new honesty will be insurance against his own death. During the journey, he also temporarily shares his compartment with a young professional journalist with socialist sympathies who knows a bit about him through her professional connections. At times Martens also tells the reader about another Martens, who lived a century earlier, another international law expert, but for Germany.
It is a rare novel that gives insight into what it must feel like to be in contention for, but not win, a Nobel Peace prize, or to be left unsure whether your absence from an official list of participants in a major treaty negotiation was a typist’s error or a sly political maneuver by a competitive colleague.
Through Martens’ self-exploration, Jaan Kross explores the moral challenges faced by highly placed civil servants in autocracies, as well as the complexities of Estonian identity. Martens regrets, as well as some professional compromises, ethical failures in his personal life: infidelity, a lack of generosity to those who sought his support, despite his own success after early humble origins. Martens is a wonderful character, drawn with subtlety and skill. Those with an interest in political history and moral self-reflection will find this book a fascinating trip.