ANTON HANSEN WAS A PALE, mouse-like man, with enough hair to part on the side, and a thin mustache that gave one the sense that Mr. Anton Hansen even in maturity was never able to grow a full beard. An iconic writer, he died in March 1940, three months short of the Soviet takeover.
It was as if God had spared him his nation’s tragic fate.
Mr. Hansen wore a great coat, and at times a stylish hat, and he worked himself hard. Hansen, who published under the name AH Tammsaare, was the most disciplined producer of prose. Perhaps only old Charles Dickens rivaled him in output. In seven years, between 1926 and 1933, he wrote the five-volume series, Truth and Justice, which endeared him to Estonians for all time.
They are still in love with it, and when the film came out, I was assailed from all sides to see it. “You have to go see Truth and Justice,” they told me in all the cafes. “This is a film about us.”
I had seen a few theatrical productions of Truth and Justice in the past, and found them unsettling. I tend to sympathize with marginal characters, the neurotic outcasts. Whenever poor Juss strung himself up from a tree branch in a stage production of Truth and Justice, it bothered me. I had been bullied too, and to see him humiliated in public, as he was, was too much for me.
“If this was an Italian movie,” I told people, “Juss would have assassinated Andres in church.”
Estonians were often shocked by this comment and they would excuse Andres’ worst behavior by noting that he was quite industrious and was trying to run a farm. This last part was the most important. These personal grievances that have fueled centuries of mafia turf wars across the mezzogiorno didn’t matter in the sloping cold hills of Vargamäe. Andres was a hard worker. Everything was forgiven.
What Truth and Justice had taught me, was that I was not an Estonian. I would never understand their peculiar work fetish, their tolerance of some behaviors, which they deemed normal or normaalne, and their strange contempt for others. I was, by virtue of not being born into their culture, not normal. Ebanormaalne. Did I need to go watch a long movie to be reminded of that?
The film though disarmed me of my old feelings. Even in mid-March, many weeks after its release, the showings in Viljandi sell out. The 2 pm showing was sold out. The 5 pm was full. I sat there in the dark waiting, dreading the moment when I would have to see Juss take his life, unhappy about having to sit through nearly three hours of watching some workaholic saw wood.
Instead, something strange happened. I didn’t identify at all with Juss, the softhearted suicidal neurotic. I didn’t identify with Andres and his Bible. As far as I was concerned, he could have just gone to the city and got a proper job. I’m sure the factories were hiring, and the houses in Kalamaja were new back then. As for Pearu, well, we have all had our asshole neighbors. It comes with the territory. To hell with swamp draining, stone removing, that workaholic pastoral life of shitting dogs and mud-stuck cows, all for the sake of some great harvest that never comes.
I don’t even like potatoes.
No, I didn’t identify with any of the men of Vargamäe, or if any, maybe the bartender who from time to time quips, “Litsid mehed need Vargamäe omad” (“What a bunch of bitchy men, these Värgamäe guys”) from behind the counter with a shrug. At least someone was smart enough to make some money off them. If there had been one Petrone at Vargamäe, he would have been that bartender.
Actually, I found myself sympathizing with Mari the most. This poor overstretched woman. She only has two breasts and yet suddenly there are half a dozen kids to feed. She works all day and it’s never enough. She gives herself over to a new God, Andres, yet she still clings to the memory of her deceased first husband, Juss, keeping the note that had driven him to suicide and the rope he had used to do it in a chest. She loved him, despite his weakness, because he still had a soul.
So the next time you are in a country pub and the bartender pours you a glass of vodka, lift it not for Andres, Juss, Pearu, or any of the bitchy men of Vargamäe. Lift it for poor Mari, who life fucked this way and that, and who in the end was somehow still able to sleep another night.
THIS IS NOT MEANT to be a cynical rejection of popular ideas concerning romance and the eternal bonds between two people. When I sat down to write this morning, I could only think of how recently, my desire has increased to be alone, to sense the world and all its beauty in solitude.
I took a drive out to the coast, I passed the homes of friends along the way, but I felt no need to talk to them, and I didn’t dream of having a new partner by my side. I wanted to fade away into the forests and estuaries by myself, breathe my own breath, think my own thoughts, unworried.
This is supposed to be a very bad sign, these days in particular, where we are supposed to remain connected at every moment. People send me all kinds of photos at every hour of the day. Most often these are images of pets or images of the food they are eating. I am not sure why people like to send photos of cats, but they do. I am not sure why they send photos of lunch but they do. I accept these advances, I try to take them to heart, but actually I would prefer to turn it all off.
I want to be by myself.
This flies in the face of popular culture. Most popular songs are about the very desire to not be alone. “Yes, I’m lonely,” sang the Beatles’ John Lennon in his song, “Yer Blues. “Want to die.” The anthems to loneliness weave a somber tapestry through the ages, from Ricky Nelson’s 1959 hit “Lonesome Town” through Dua Lipa’s “Scared to be Lonely.” Loneliness is unwanted. Loneliness is bad. According to some studies, loneliness is lethal. You should be with someone. You shouldn’t be alone.
Popular concepts about relationships between men and women similarly leave me grasping for my coat and running for the coasts. Relationships are seen as a kind of emotional employment. You are either in one (employed), actively looking for one (seeking work), or without a job. People in our lives are like employers. Relationships stack up like our LinkedIn profiles. “From this date to that date, I was with this person. Then I moved on, but it was just a short-term gig.”
Such short-term relationships following a longer relationship are called “rebounds” in popular parlance. Some people are even afraid to get involved with someone, maybe someone they like a great deal, only because that person had just gotten out of a long-term relationship and they don’t want to be that person’s “rebound.” I’ve had some arguments about this one, not involving me. People are convinced that such “rebound relationships” do exist. “They’ve done studies on them. It’s a scientific fact.”
My favorite concept from relationship land though is the “work in progress.” This is when a person gets into a relationship with someone they are unsure of, but believes they can change over time. “I see so much potential for growth,” I have heard too many times. “You’ll see. He’ll change.” This is how people — women in particular — wind up dating men who are gamblers, womanizers, or just emotionally absent. They wait forever for their partner to change, but nothing changes. They stay the same.
The dating scene reminds one of the hunt for a used car or a new apartment. People are divided up not just by their looks or their personalities, but by their specifications. Divorced, not divorced. Children or no children (and do they want more children?) Location, location, location! Boxes are checked in the search for the perfect fit.
Whenever I raise these absurdities with friends, I am accused of being embittered, cynical, still going through some healing process, or whatever. “Don’t worry,” they say, “you’ll find someone.” More recently, it’s become, “Why haven’t you found someone yet?” As if I am just holding back. It’s time to dive back in, to get back into the game, because to avoid the game is to be alone and to be alone is to be lonely.
The truth is that I am not interested in finding someone else today. I’m interested in heading out to the beach, breathing, and looking at the sea. No worries, only peace. Solitude can be so satisfying.
An Estonian-language version of this column appears in the spring 2019 issue of the magazine Hingele Pai.
WHEN I FIRST SET FOOT on Estonian soil 10 years ago, the prime minister of this land was a man by the name of Siim Kallas.
I first saw him on the night of the parliamentary elections, where a new party called Res Publica had won big. But Siim didn’t look upset at all. Instead he was swinging his hands back and forth and sort of half smiling/half grimacing to the TV cameramen, in an “Oh, gosh, isn’t it embarrassing that you are filming me, but that’s your job and this is my job, so, let’s just pretend that I don’t see you…”
I liked him immediately because, well, Siim Kallas is a peculiarly likable fellow. He is one of the chosen few who never age. Go back to those photos of Kallas from the IME project in 1987 and he looks exactly the same. He’s even got the same dapper mustache, which would look odd on any other fellow, but seems to suit him. In fact, I am afraid to know what he looks like without it.
I caught Siim Kallas once at a Lennart Meri Conference where the moderator butchered his name, referring to the gentleman with the two i’s as “Sim”. “Sim this” and “Sim that”. “What do you think about authoritarian capitalism, Sim?” I cringed every time he said it, but Siim (rhymes with scheme) didn’t wince once. Instead he went on and on about something that I cannot remember but sounding very intelligent and using hand gestures that signaled his self-confidence to the audience.
After EU accession happened, I saw less of Siim. They said he’d flown away to Brussels to become a commissioner of something important and Tartu Mayor Andrus Ansip became the new face of the Reform Party and has been for many years, leading Kallas’ political baby through two successful elections.
Yet Ansip’s approval ratings are at an all time low these days. People are looking for alternatives. But Kallas, fortunately, has another baby, a biological one. And these days in Estonia her face is everywhere. Kallas’ baby is not really a baby anymore. Her name is Kaja and she is 35 years old and she is very pretty. Of course, she has a sterling CV with accomplishments as a lawyer and businesswoman, ambition, intelligence, but she also happens to look really good, which is why magazines just can’t help but make Kaja Kallas their cover girl. For weeks (months?) it seems that she has appeared on the cover of all printed material in the nation. The stories about her feed an intense public interest.
“Could she be Estonia’s first female prime minister?” one tabloid even ventured to ask. Hmm. Could she? Even people who despise the current leader have confessed to me. “If she ran, I would vote for her because she’s just so pretty.”
And the problem is, recovering leftist that I am, if given the chance to vote for Kaja Kallas, I might vote for her too, for the same pathetic reason.
It’s not the first time an Estonian female politician has tugged on my heart strings.
First there was Urve Palo, whose short skirt made me an ardent Social Democrat. Then, after the Center Party triumphed in municipal elections, and a very flattering photo of Kadri Simson and her big misty eyes appeared online, I suddenly found myself feeling sympathetic toward the Green Monster. “Maybe that Savisaar guy really does care about the poor and unfortunate people in Estonia,” I caught myself thinking after seeing Kadri’s picture. It was about that time that Marju Lauristin sprinted into my life. Yet it wasn’t her eyes that did it for me. It was her brain. After spending an afternoon in one of her lectures, all I could think about was Lauristin. Lauristin, Lauristin. Lauristin, Lauristin. The way she rattled off statistics! And her passion for knowledge! Why, it was like a feverish dream. In fact, I was so impressed by Marju Lauristin’s dynamic presence and intelligence that I became a Social Democrat again. Until I read another article about Kaja Kallas.
Fortunately for Estonians, I cannot vote. But my ability to be swayed by charismatic females sparked a new and interesting thought. Perhaps women voters are just as easily swayed by male politicians. So that’s the reason my mother keeps on buying all of Bill Clinton’s books? The thought that women might vote for male politicians because they like them in that way astonished me and led me into various unpleasant places. Were any of Estonia’s male politicians attractive? Had it ever led them to electoral victory in the past? I wanted to know more.
I am not the best judge of male attractiveness, but I can basically understand that Brad Pitt is better looking than, say, Elton John. When it comes to Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, George Clooney though, they are all a bunch of dudes to me. And so are Estonia’s male politicians. Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Siim Kallas, Edgar Savisaar, Andrus Ansip, Jürgen Ligi, Rein Lang, Juhan Parts, Jaak Aaviksoo, Ken-Marti Vaher, Urmas Paet. They all look slightly different from one another, but their appearances provoke an equal amount of disinterest in me.
Maybe for the women of Estonia it has been another story altogether. Maybe they voted for Siim Kallas because of his fabulous mustache. Or Mart Laar because he was so round and cuddly. Or Andrus Ansip because the ladies of the land like to watch him cross-country ski.
Once when I asked a friend why she voted for Isamaa in 1992, despite having a pretty leftward social outlook, she blushed and told me, “But Isamaa had the handsomest candidates.”
Isamaa was the party that set much of what has become modern Estonia in motion, selected, in part, on looks. Here, I have to ask — how much of history has been decided this way? Is that why Kennedy defeated Nixon? Or Obama defeated Romney? The ladies simply fancied the men who won more?
We talk about politics, we talk about policies and statistics and polls, but the mysterious and paramount ingredient of the heart is ignored in these discussions. The political scientists write their columns and give interviews and provide expert analysis. They act as if the future will be decided on logical decisions and sound governance. Maybe a good chunk of what happens is actually up to a candidate’s sporty physique or pretty blue eyes. In that case, you might as well let me vote in the next election. Don’t worry. I promise I’ll support the most convincing candidate.
This column originally appeared in the collection Mission Estonia in 2013.
I WAS ALREADY a teenager when the first so-called reality TV programs debuted, most notable of which was probably MTV’s The Real World, which had its first season filmed in New York in 1992. Like most youth, I was drawn to it and watched with interest the drama swirling around some young twentysomethings as they survived the usual American themes of gender and race.
It was only later, through interviews with some of the cast, that I realized that the product presented to me as a show was not entirely real. It had been edited down by the producers to create story lines and narratives that were not apparent to the young people who had signed on to take part. In some cases, it made stars of these characters. In other cases, they became villains. The material used to make the show had been genuine, but the show itself was not exactly real.
It was a new kind of fiction.
It occurred to me many years later as I began writing books about Estonia that I had become engaged in the same kind of weird trade. It wasn’t that there were aspects of my books that were false, but rather there had been parts of reality, as I had experienced it, that had been stripped from the final work of art like deleted scenes abandoned on a film studio’s cutting-room floor. The source material had all been nonfiction, but the way it was presented to the world was somehow not real. As an author in the digital age, I was impressed by the whole phenomenon. This was an era of images and applications, yet it somehow had manifested itself in paperbacks.
There was now a such thing as the reality author, editing his true story to titillate the audience.
Of course, I was not the first person to do this. Most of the great novels of the new literary golden age, that halcyon period in the 1920s and 1930s that Estonians so revere, were more or less reality novels. James Joyce’s Ulysses, still regarded as one of the most important books to appear in the English language, was his account of one day in his Dublin life. The real pioneer of this earlier, forgotten reality era though was a Brooklyn drifter named Henry Valentine Miller, who in his 1934 book Tropic of Cancer created a semi-fictional alternate character of the same name, and presented the novel to the world as a genuine account of his years in Paris. Or was it?
Here reality and fiction blurred, creating a rich pastiche of a real reality and an imaginary one. Yet this new reality was somehow more compelling than what had actually occurred. Just like the editors of the reality shows of the future, Miller perfected the art of cut and paste. And so did I, many decades after his death. We were all playing with reality, tinkering with it, cutting it away.
Not only did I embrace this new kind of fiction, I became a fictional person. I came to realize that there was the individual I knew as myself, and then the person others imagined me to be. When newspapers would run a story about me that might not be true, I embraced it, because I enjoyed the exploits of this strange character and wanted to find out what would happen next.
I am hardly alone in this land of the ubiquitous Internet connection these days. In fact, I think we’re all in on the story. All of us have created our own new realities, our own fictional lives. Yet our social media accounts chronicle the riveting adventures of what are probably mostly humdrum existences. If I was to wager, most of us are spending too much time in our pajamas scrolling through our feeds and little more. A heavy glacial ice has set in, locking us into this dishonest digital epoch. Something has to give. Might there be a way to a new sincerity? The ice is melting outside and spring is almost here, they say. Could it show us a way into the sunshine?
THIS IS HOW the film Mary Poppins Returns ends, with its main characters lifted into the pink-blue London skies by colorful balloons, serenading life itself with a sense of euphoria. All of the conflicts have been resolved, all the relationships are balanced, and the nanny’s work is once again done. In the cinema, my youngest daughter climbed into my lap.
“But is it all true, daddy?” she asked.
“Is what true?”
“Is it true that people can fly like that? With balloons?”
I looked at the screen, at the human shapes dangling in the sky, still singing. “Yes, it is true. Actually, it’s all true, everything you saw in the film. It really is.”
She sat back, content with my answer, and I felt my own sense of euphoria wash across my body. A good, warm feeling it was, a bit of sweat on my temples, heat in my limbs, as if I had just shared my deepest secret. It was a relief to tell her the truth that people really could fly if they were permitted to. Of course, few if any of us can grip a balloon in a park and soar off into the clouds singing like that, but spiritually we are built for transcendence. Humanity is born into the greatest calamity, poverty, conflict, despair. Humanity is born into squalor, failure, countries that war, families that break. Yet from all the ghettos and chaos, its spirit emerges whole and intact. We are engineered to survive, to see the world as beauty. We are wingless but made for flight.
Sometimes though it seems that nothing arouses more negativity than personal fulfillment. In Danish literature, this is immortalized as the janteloven, the Law of Jante, named after a fictional Danish village where the locals look down on individuality and the idea that by transcending one’s realities, the person is somehow betraying the village collective. The second you succeed, the moment your feet leave the ground, there are dozens at your heels, struggling to drag you down back to earth. No one can fly, no one can escape, no one can take off and leave the rest behind in flight.
Estonia, being a northern country, is certainly no exception to this mindset. Estonians have their own Jante village mentality — I call it “Jantevere,” for local flavor. The Estonians’ favorite food is, by their own admission, other Estonians. “I hate all of these people here,” a young man told me at a bar recently. “They just want to keep you down.” “But aren’t you one of them?” I asked him. “Yes, but not in my heart,” he said.
If someone sings well, then they are actually quite terrible, or think they are singing better than they are. If someone writes too well, then his work is derivative or nothing compared to the output of some other. To even call oneself a writer is somehow elitist. The politicians are only in it for themselves. The businessmen are all crooked. There is a trick to everything. On the outside, we are shiny and pretty, but inside we have become as hollow as old-fashioned tin toys.
But, you know, I’m tired of it. I am tired of hearing people say that you can’t do this or that, that your feelings are suspect, your love is misplaced, your ambitions will never be achieved, your plans are futile. I’m tired of hearing that everything would have been better if something else had happened at some random moment in time. If only this had happened, then that would have never happened. I’m tired of hearing that life is hard, or about how miserable everyone else is. I am tired of being told that my soul has no currency in a world where happiness is measured by how long your driveway is.
I’m tired of hearing there’s no hope, there’s no future, or that people can’t fly. It’s junk. Of course we can. Give me the biggest, brightest balloon.
PEOPLE WHO GROW UP by the seaside are a bit different from those who grow up deep in the country. How exactly, I am not yet sure. I have been told by islanders from Hiiumaa and Saaremaa, for instance, that it was hard for them to acclimate to life in Tartu when they went there as teenagers to study. I know this feeling well, because I also used to live in Tartu, a city where the only major body of water is a long river that overflows from time to time. There was something about being nestled among those hills that left a coastal person feeling cooped up, claustrophobic, off balance. You would roam the parks and forests around the city, but still felt you hadn’t really gone anywhere. What you really yearned for was an infinite stretch of unknowable wet silver blue spreading out in every direction, the howl of maritime wind, the sight in winter or in summer of the Christmas-like lights of a distant ship passing along the horizon.
I grew up in such a place, about an hour east from Manhattan, on the Atlantic coast. It used to be a fishing village that bloomed into a summer resort in the early part of the 20th century. Then, at some point after, Italians discovered this sandy paradise and settled there in droves. They held endless parties and forgot all about Mussolini and the cobblestone streets of Europe. As a child, the blue-green shimmer of the bay was visible from my second-floor bedroom window. I developed an intimate relationship with the sea from the earliest age, and came to know the stink of low tide, when the water went out, and the strange artifacts the sea left behind, clumps of fermenting seaweed, the skeletal remains of crabs, and discarded buoys.
In the summers, we would eat bowls of steamed mussels with garlic and butter, or huge red lobsters and even deep-fried soft shell crabs with lemon juice and marinara sauce. My mother or father would buy the lobsters during the day and they would remain in a paper bag — alive — in our refrigerator until the moment they were dropped into the rushing, boiling waters, from which they tried in vain to claw themselves free. I thought nothing of it.
My father had been a clammer for sometime in his youth. He would take his boat out to a good spot, rake up the clams, and sell them on the side of the road for good money. When I was a child, he acquired a larger vessel, and we would explore the coves and bays around our home. I wore a yellow life vest and kicked happily in the bath-warm salty sea waters. I remember the first time I saw a starfish and I remember how I could still feel the flow of the tides in my veins, even safely back on dry land.
Jacques Cousteau would have approved.
Once when we were out on the boat, we got caught up in bad weather and another captain towed us to a private dock, where we spent some time in the home of his mother. She made us tea and gave me a great chest of old toys to play with that had belonged to her son, the captain, when he was a boy in the 1950s. I remember being fascinated by that treasure chest of old toys. Another time, my grandfather came out on the boat and the wind blew away his old-fashioned white flat cap. My father retrieved it with a net, and Grandpa put the cap back on his head.
I tell these stories because I know that the countryside is deep in the hearts of the Estonian people around me. For them the country — which they simply call maa, as if it was an uncharted ocean itself — is a rejuvenating or regenerative place. There is no greater pleasure than picking mushrooms or harvesting potatoes or swimming in a murky lake. Sometimes I get so lost in this country life though that I forget my own origins on the coast. I forget how well I knew the water, I forget its mysteries, I forget its treasures and its allure of adventure. That’s when I head to somewhere like Pärnu or Haapsalu or Kuressaare, and stare out at the water, and regain my sense of balance.
Just the sight of a coastline and I’m home.
An Estonian-language version of this column appears in the winter 2018 issue of the magazine Hingele Pai.
RETURNING HOME from the cafe, I decided to cut through a patch of buildings in the Old Town. This is a little back parking lot alleyway, the kind of place that sounds more interesting than it actually is. A few derelict laundry lines, some broken down shanty garages with graffiti on them. Outside an Asian restaurant, the familiar sight of the Nepalese chef with his exotic hat taking a drag off a cigarette and staring at his phone. Then I paused at the window of the hairdresser’s.
Inside a blonde woman sat reclining in a chair before a mirror while the color set into her hair. She was sliding her fingers over the surface of her device, while the brunette hairdresser stood behind her with her eyes on her phone too. They were in such close proximity, yet so remote.
The distance between modern people continues to fascinate me during this wind down of the year, when all is kottpime, as the Estonians say, “bag dark,” as if most of them knew what it was like to be tied up in a sack. I awake in blackness and I have come to savor it. I light a few candles and set them by the windows. There is something so satisfying about the flames, how they flicker. Then I make a cup of green tea and put on some old blues records, all still by candlelight. I could put on the lights, but I don’t want to. I want to be in the dark. I want to communicate.
It’s just at this time when people are still halfway between the sleeping and waking worlds that I feel I can best summon and interact with life’s true energies. These slip between me and others ghost-like, I imagine, as white and as spirited as gusts of fresh snow. For a long time, I thought that all communication was verbal and, nowadays, digital. Everything was a message, a response, a daily flurry of instant gratification. All meaningful communication could be scrolled through with a slide of the thumb, all feelings, thoughts, ideas, yearnings, could be committed to print. But what I have learned with my early morning channeling is that the most important things are never said at all. They are kept hidden inside of us where they gather silent potency.
This is what the Estonians call the mõtte jõud, the strength of your thoughts, or, literally, your “mind power.” Without ever lifting up a device, or searching for a phrase that will express your innermost thoughts, you can let all them circulate. You can express everything. You can even love someone in silence. On cold bag dark mornings, your thoughts will keep you warm inside.
You can imagine how difficult it was for me as a writer to arrive at this moment of recognition. For the writer is a person who believes that everything can be put into words. Words are all we are. This is how a beautiful woman can become a poem or a pretty sunset can become a sentence. Even as a boy, I had already amassed a collection of material depicting scenes of my daily life. These are fun to read through now, not for what they say, but for the other memories they arouse.
So the words I left behind were in the end mostly useless to me. Everything I had communicated had vanished into the air like winter’s breath. It’s what was lingering behind them that mattered. Those secret wishes, those dreamy early morning thoughts.
The traces of my mõtte jõud.