The smellscape of Palanumäe


Smell is one of the most powerful human sensations evoking memories. A single whiff may bring back images from decades ago. When reading the novel series Minge üles mägedele („Go Up the Hills”) (prologue + 12 volumes) by Mats Traat one can hardly avoid sensing the importance of smells. Traat’s vivid sense of smell makes him almost unique among the Estonian authors. Thus his novels represent, inter alia, an Estonian history in smells from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century.

In the mid-19th an Estonian may still easily get chastised in the stables of the manor and feel the sickening smell of coagulated blood sticking to the whipping bench. The end of the 19th century witnesses the advent of several household innovations bringing along the smells, for example, of oil lamp or coffee. In the same half-century many farms are bought from landlords for perpetuity and Estonians become masters in their own farms. Proudly discussing matters of local administration they emit a strong stench of smoke from heating their chimneyless homes as well as from tobacco. Flax being a plant of freedom (the first farms were bought for flax money) the sour smell of retting flax is spreading all around the farmhouse.

Each period of history has its own symbolic smell: a pungent smell of dust heralding the war; gunpowder and raw spirits introduce World War I and Bolshevik power; the farmer looking for a new wife smells violets; the smell of fresh earth is associated with the times Estonia becomes a republic and a lot of Estonians become landowners; the economic crisis of the 1930s is accompanied by smells of automobiles, firebrands, burning, and liquid manure. Little Hind of the last volume Õelate lamp („A Lamp of the Evil Ones”) carries the childhood memories, olfactory ones included, of the author himself. According to historian Ernst Bloch people have forgotten how dark a night can be. Yet can we feel, when reading, the smells of the past?


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