black maze

A LONG TIME ago I wrote my first novel, which was published in Estonian as “Montreali deemonid,” and rendered as Montreal Demons in English, which many people noted was the name of a local hockey team. So the title was a bit of a failure. I haven’t thought about this book for a good while, but recently, the worldly inspiration for one of its characters got in touch with me. I thought about sending it out again, after some read through edits and a retitle, and came across this line from the text.

 “Montreal unfolds like a black maze, department store window jollies pass me by, hamburgers and hats framed by buildings with rows of ornate columns, curvy balconies, and pointy roofs that poke up into the moon-lightened sky like witches’ bonnets.’

It was always difficult for me to get the right perspective on this book. But I checked and there is no other novel called Black Maze. Two other titles come to mind, “Black Math,” a song by The White Stripes, and Henry Miller’s “Black Spring.” So it works. I hereby lay claim to it.

peipsi fish

This one’s for you, Herk!

WE STUMBLED ACROSS a little paper the other day somewhere in downtown Tartu. It probably fell out of the purse of a tourist. I’ve seen tour groups with busy cameras around despite the frosty weather. It is beautiful, though, because the frost eliminates the +1 C fog, that murky gray soupy awfulness that just sops you of all your life’s desire when the winter temperatures rise above freezing. But when it goes below O, things right themselves, and so all of the city is illuminated with warm yellow sun that reflects off the crunchy ice, and there are even birds singing cautiously in the trees, like scouts for legions of more birds

The paper contained pictures of different fish found in Peipsi järv, which is known to English speakers as Lake Peipus, which sounds very weird to these ears, so I just call it Peipsi järv. And looking at the sea creatures, I realized that many of the people I know or know of are actually named after fish. There’s Pärnu drummer Herk Haug, whose name means ‘pike,’ or the famous playwright Oskar Luts, whose last name means ‘burbat.’ And what about the Estonian film producer Anneli Ahven, whose name translates as ‘perch’?

Showing the other Peipsi fish to Epp, we realized we knew a person for each one of the marine life depicted.

‘Latikas? (Bream)’

‘Urmas Latikas!’

‘Koger? (Carp)’

‘Urmas Koger!’

‘Linask? (Tench)’

‘Elo Linask!’

‘Angerjas? (Eel)’ I asked.

‘Angerjas? Hmm.’ Epp tapped at her chin. ‘I really don’t know.’

‘Alo Angerjas,’ I offered.

‘Who’s that?’

‘I don’t know. This is Estonia, though. There must be at least one Alo Angerjas out there somewhere.’

õigeusu palveraamat

We have this little blue book here. The title is written in silver. Õigeusu Palveraamat. Orthodox Prayer Book. Whenever I am in need of some added buoyancy, I open the book, always to the same page. Ükskord uputas see kõigekõrgem vägi kõik vaarao sõjaväe mere põhjas ära … .

Something about the idea of navy ships sinking seems to get to the struggle of life, which is to remain positive and faithful until the wet and hopeless end. It reminds me of the wreck of the Circassian, a cargo ship that ran aground off Mecox on Long Island in 1876. While all lives were brought ashore, a crew of Shinnecock Indians was sent out to bring in the cargo in rough weather. They all drowned, leaving behind nine widows and 27 children.

Capt. Charlie Bennett in an interview many years later said that as they stood on the beach they could hear the Indians singing “Nearer My God To Thee.” It was the very religious Shinnecocks meeting death as courageously as they knew how.

The Orthodox Church in Estonia is divided. Half of the churches belong to Constantinople, the other to Moscow, Moscow having styled itself long ago as the “Third Rome.” It’s a very long complicated story. But it’s also a fine book to turn to now and then, that little blue book with the silver writing on the cover. Õigeusu Palveraamat. Arsti mu hinge haavad …

a sorcerer of wide repute

IN EARLY TIMES, say the Icelandic chronicles, men from the Western Islands came to live in this country, and when they departed, left behind them crosses, bells, and other objects used in the practice of sorcery. From Latin sources may be learned the names of those who sailed here from the Western Islands in the early days of the Papacy. Their leader was Kolumkilli the Irish, a sorcerer of wide repute. In those days there was great fertility of the soil in Iceland. But when the Norsemen came to settle here, the Western sorcerers were forced to flee the land, and old writings say that Kolumkilli, determined on revenge, laid a curse on the invaders, swearing that they would never prosper here, and more in the same spirit, much of which has since, to all appearances, been fulfilled. 

From Independent People by Halldór Laxness, originally published as Sjálfstætt fólk in two volumes in 1934 and 1935. It does trouble me that people do not write like this anymore.

alone together

I SHOULD JOT down a few notes here about being back in Estonia and the funny little things I notice now and then. I have long since moved beyond the general observations (“The people are reserved,” “the weather is frightening”) and shifted into more deeply grasping at who the Estonians are and how they see themselves. A line from Jaan Tätte’s new book Vaikuse Hääl (“The Sound of Silence” — not sure if it has anything to do with Simon & Garfunkel) sticks with me.

Tätte’s message was that you are always alone, you were born alone, will die alone, and even if you are living well with your spouse for 50 years in the countryside and waking up to pancakes with jam (or syrup, if you are from the Western Hemisphere) and hot kisses on your cheeks you may be two people who are living together … but you are still alone.

This is not the most unique thought, though it’s interesting to hear it again, and so poetically. Aldous Huxley said the same in The Doors of Perception. I differ not in opinion but in perspective. Jaan Tätte sees an old couple as two individuals who live together but are still alone. I might see an old couple as two individuals who have chosen not to be alone, but to stay together. To narrow in on this lonesomeness is to miss part of the larger picture of togetherness.

Yet I think Tätte’s perspective is quite Estonian. It’s the mentality of independent people who have lived for centuries with plenty of space around them, relying on their own wits. In Estonia, mina (I) comes before sina (you, singular), teie (you, plural), and most of all meie (we). An Estonian might even argue that there is no meie, and that there is only mina ja sina, or even — more coldly — mina ja teie. A family of five may be recognized as a family by society, but a person with this perspective would only seen five highly differentiated individuals who are living together, but are still so very alone.

This is true to some extent. When a family member dies, the others go on with their lives. And yet the family entity is never the same again. Anyone who has lost a family member knows this. That member of the family dies, alone, and yet none of the other members of the family are ever the same. How often have we heard, “If so-and-so had lived, things would have been different”? And yet it’s so true! Maybe Uncle Sven wouldn’t have become a drunk. Maybe Grandma Aune might not be living in poverty. Maybe Aunt Ester would have finished college and not gotten pregnant at age 19. If only Grandfather Jaak had lived!

The direction of all of these people’s lives were changed by the mere removal of one other singular lone particle of a ruggedly individualistic individual. So, yes, Jaan Tätte, Aldous Huxley, we are all alone, even when we are together. But we do impact each others’ lives. And so long as there are other beings on this earth with whom we interact, we never can be truly alone.

the trend in kiwanis

The presses were already rolling and the eight-column headlines said HELL’S ANGELS GANG RAPE. The Masons haven’t had that kind of publicity since the eighteenth century, when Casanova was climbing through windows and giving the brotherhood a bad name. Perhaps the Angels will follow the Freemasons into bourgeois senility, but by then some other group will be making outrage headlines: a Hovercraft gang, or some once-bland fraternal group tooling up even now for what the future might force on them.

What is the trend in Kiwanis? There are rumors in Oakland of a new militancy in that outfit, a radical ferment that could drastically alter the club’s image. In the drift and flux of these times it is easy enough to foresee a Sunday morning ten or twenty years hence when a group of middle-aged men wearing dark blazers with Hell’s Angels crests on the pockets will be pacing their mortgaged living-rooms and muttering sadly at a headline saying: KIWANIS GANG RAPE: FOUR HELD, OTHERS FLEE, RING LEADERS SOUGHT.

From Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson, published by Random House in 1966.