minu joala

A monument to the singer Jaak Joala (1950-2014) in Viljandi, Estonia.

IN THE SUMMER, there were two men living in the park at the corner of Posti and Koidu Streets. One of the men would keep watch while the other slept. I noticed one of the sleeping men one day and presumed him to be dead. The police were summoned to rouse the sleeping man, but he refused to budge from his bed of dirt and grass beside the hedge. At some point though, the two men disappeared from the park. I don’t know if they moved to another park in Viljandi. Possibly they left town. They were quickly replaced by two or three fellow alcoholics, who commandeered the wood bench like Serengeti vultures overtaking the branch of a dead tree. 

On occasion, I would see the trio on my way home from visiting a local drinking establishment called Romaan. On one evening, they stood beside one another urinating in the bushes. I didn’t know what to say to them, so I cried out, “Jõudu tööle,” (‘strength to work’) which is the Estonian custom for greeting strangers engaged in activities, to which they replied merrily back, “Tarvis, tarvis” (‘needed, needed’). This is what life was like in the park at the corner of Posti and Koidu Streets. Then Joala showed up.

Jaak Joala, by all accounts a handsome and beloved fellow, known for his Estonian-language covers of American and British pop songs. He was born in Viljandi 70 years ago, and some felt he deserved his own monument in town. The resulting design, which shows his head and hands protruding from a metal column, crowned by blinking, multicolor lights, infuriated locals to levels of fire and passion that were unknown to me. The Estonians are a tolerant race if there ever was one, and not one of them had ever passed judgment on the drinking men who occupied their park, a rather prime patch of real estate in the center of town, no less. Yet when presented with this monument, petitions were circulated, opinions published, fists and voices were raised. 

The people were angry.

Once again, it had taken something as innocent as a monument to lure the Estonians out of their homes and into the public arena to do combat. Famously indifferent to their own suffering and the suffering of others, they burst into a rage when a commemorative statue is not done right. I do not believe these are my prejudices in saying so. It wasn’t so long ago that a statue erected in Pärnu to those who fought the Red Army was removed to Lihula in West Estonia, remember. 

Then when the government decided to move the statue to a war museum in Lagedi, riot police had to be sent into Lihula, a small town. They were met by angry protestors throwing bottles at them. Two years later, the removal of another statue, the Bronze Soldier in Tallinn, resulted in several nights of looting and rioting, more than a thousand arrests, more than 170 injuries, and one death. Walking through the now lush and fragrant park at Tõnismägi still gives me chills.

These have been my experiences with Estonians and monuments. 

Fortunately, the installation of the Jaak Joala monument has gone a little more peacefully in Viljandi. No riot police have been called in yet, and the monument has been visited by droves of sober visitors since its unveiling. They stand and take photos, while the monument plays Joala classics like “Suvi,” (‘Summer’), which is a remake of the 1969 hit “Sugar, Sugar,” by the Archies.  It also plays “Enne ööd sõida linna,” (‘Head to town before nightfall’) which is a version of the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville.” They take photos, light a candle, and then go to their homes, where they don’t hear his music.

I live right next to the statue and it is therefore always close to me. It is a strange and surreal sight. At night it glows like a UFO and one gets the sense that aliens have just landed in the park. Whenever I go to bring in firewood or to clean the ice off my car now, I am serenaded by Joala. He is singing “Besame Mucho” or “Suvi.”  I keep wondering when the practical joke will stop and they will turn the music off. It seems difficult to imagine that this will never go away. Even when I no longer live in this house, Jaak Joala will still be there in the park, singing and singing. 

I’m not sure how my neighbors feel. It is hard to imagine them opening their windows in the summer, perhaps wishing to hear the songs of the birds as they lie dreamily in their lovers’ arms, only to be constantly regaled by Jaak Joala’s ghost. Imagine every day of your life henceforth having to listen to Jaak Joala’s music, whether you like it or not? It almost seems like torture.

In fact, this is exactly how the Americans torture Islamist prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Play it once and it’s enjoyable. Play it three times, and it’s tolerable. Play it a thousand times, and you will have a mental breakdown. One might suggest that those who live adjacent to the monument find out where its makers live. Then they can pull up to their homes and loudly play old Joala hits at all hours. Just think, at 9 pm, it’s “Suvi.” At 9 am, “Suvi.” Give them a taste of their own medicine. Which is rather a sad outcome for a statue meant to commemorate someone almost universally adored, including by me. Now I almost never want to hear Joala’s music again. 

I have to remind myself that this is not really happening. It’s just something I made up. Just another surrealistic vignette in wild Viljandi. There is no glowing alien monument to the singer Joala at the corner of Koidu and Posti Streets. There are no old retro songs playing at all hours of the day. It was all just a dream, I tell you. Just a weird dream! The two men are still there living in the park as they always have. The park is vacant and silent now. All is very calm and silent.

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