There’s A Disco Elysium Novel, But You Probably Can’t Read It

Before Disco Elysium, Robert Kurvitz was a regular writer. You know, books and that. It may not come as much of a surprise given Disco Elysium’s text-heavy narrative style and clear literary influences, but few people know of Kurvitz’ former vocation. Few people know he was the singer in a rock band called Ultramelanhool either, but that’s less relevant to his hit video game.

Kurvitz’ first and only novel, Sacred And Terrible Air, is set in Elysium, the world ZA/UM’s video game is set in. By all accounts, it was pretty good. But I don’t know for sure, because I can’t read Estonian. A rough Google Translate tells me that the Eesti Ekspress (Estonian Express) named it their book of the week back in 2013, but I wouldn’t trust the tool to accurately translate the full review. Or the book for that matter.

Despite critical success in Kurvitz’ native Estonia, the book panned commercially. Kurvitz has gone on record to say that it sold just 1,000 copies, and he “succumbed to deep alcoholism” as a result. His friends and creative partners picked him up from that slump and suggested he make a video game set in that world instead. It was novelist Kaur Kender, or more specifically his children, who came up with the idea, and their collaborator and Disco Elysium’s eventual art director Aleksander Rostov who said, “My friend, we failed at so many things. Let us also fail at making a video game.” The rest, as they say, is history.

But I can’t get past the idea of this novel. It feels like a slice of Elysium lost to the vast majority of the world’s population. An English translation was due to be released in 2020, but evidently never appeared. You can read the barebones plot on Wikipedia (by barebones I mean one 29-word sentence), but that’s about it.

The most galling thing for me, personally, is that I used to speak a little Estonian. My dad had friends who lived in Narva, a town in the north of the country, and we visited them when I was a child. They taught me the basics of Estonian and Russian, the latter of which I studied for a decade. The languages have surprising similarities despite their opposite alphabets, and I like to believe that I would have been able to read some of Kurvitz’ novel, or at least learn to read it, had I kept up my language skills after finishing university. I was reading Pushkin and Dostoevsky in my prime!

There’s something special knowing that there are more stories set in Elysium out there, waiting to be translated into a language I can read. I recently noticed ZA/UM is hiring for a bunch of developer positions, which is exciting in itself. But the possibilities that Kurvtiz would dip back into Elysium again are more exciting still. I don’t want a sequel, not a direct one at least. But another game set before the revolution? Or 30 years after Disco? Or in the same time period but somewhere else, away from Revachol? The opportunities are endless.

I’ll play anything that ZA/UM makes – such was the strength of its debut title – but deep down I want to spend more time in Elysium. Whether by novel translation or ZA/UM sequel, I don’t care, just let me go back for more.

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