“A collapsing tiny box-set of a republic that is dark as a cave in winter, shit-cold for most of the year, a strange ignored dorp with no ice-free ports, a queer language, curious laws, rummy food, eccentric people, funny money, and a veritable forest of unreadable signs.” This formidably erudite, incorrigibly vexed novelist follows his wife, Sarah, to this Baltic nation in 2008, where she paints on her Fulbright grant scenes of its stolid towns.
Brother of the equally waspish travel writer Paul, Alexander Theroux, meanwhile, skulks, fulminates, studies, and walks wherever he can, soaking up the frigid atmosphere of its people, who totter about “round, turnip-nosed, bulbous”. Their hair may resemble a cock’s crow, or a potato’s shade of brown. Estonians may garden naked in summer, but they remain sour-faced when meeting his gaze.
They represent an evolutionary oddity, for in a place where 54 percent of the population is female, its young women whisk about in tight jeans, Goth-accentuated makeup, and impassive hauteur while their middle-aged counterparts appear “concave” and dumpy. This remains a mystery to me, this mid-life transformation from leggy goddess to hunched crone, but as one of Estonia’s many misogynistic proverbs puts it: “Young maidens and white bread age rapidly.”
Theroux wanders—once on a bus whose engine sounds like an opened potato-chip bag’s rustle—its blue-bleached, white-bright landscapes. They, in this half-forested realm, dominate a flat and chilly niche for a population less than that of the Gaza Strip. The citizens of this land, ranked first worldwide in accident-prone mishaps and second in alcohol consumption, endure as they have within their little outpost for thousands of years. They share linguistic roots more with their Finnish cousins than their Latvian and Lithuanian neighbors to the south. Estonia squirms between two ancient antagonists, Germany and Russia.
“The Nazis visited, but the Soviets stayed.” Occupied and brutalized for most of the past century, the only post-Communist Nordic nation, this newly independent country, in this eclectically arranged and intentionally diffused account, represents for Theroux an object lesson in cultural nationalism. It’s a third alternative more genial than Benjamin Barber’s global clash between “Jihad vs. McWorld”. Reasoning that such small lands survive more on their own terms than those of multinational capital and ideological capitulation, Estonia for Theroux turns more intriguing the less genial it becomes.
Tellingly, the place is absent from 1001 Places To See Before You Die. Stranded as he is for Sarah’s academic year, he must navigate “a ramble through the periphery” with little guidance from books or guides. “I bucked up, although I was never warm. I had heard Estonia got milder, that many are cold, but few are frozen.”
Such levity is welcome in what can be (as with his themed essays The Primary Colors and The Secondary Colors, or his daunting if rewarding novels Darconville’s Cat, An Adultery, and Laura Warholic, or the Sexual Intellectual) a challenging encounter with a cranky autodidact. He appears to remember everything he has read, and he shows this frequently with citations from an unpredictable shelf.
Theroux intersperses, in the style of such forebears as W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice’s Letters from Iceland, a diverse array of digressions. In a chapter ostensibly given over to “Antiques”, six pages castigating the Israeli occupation of Palestine enter the contents. Newer fulminations against such outrages as waterboarding and the trial of former Nazi guard John (or Ivan) Demjanjuk join habitual rants about American illiteracy and laziness, part of the vast jeremiad that expanded the satire of Laura Warholic.
The author takes comfort doggedly if bitterly in a nation with little luxury despite its high levels of technology. (Skype was invented here, and nearly everyone reads and uses cellphones for every function that can be digitized). He rallies against the Estonian determination not to play his welcoming host. He knows that to the Estonians he looks as if another Ugly American. Oddly, the stoicism of the people and the difficulty of the language drive Theroux, an already contrary character, into a stubborn effort to account for the glum mood of his dour hosts. (Estonia’s acclaim for Depeche Mode may or may not explain so many long faces.)
This is where the book turns intriguing, if more in glimpses than sustained analysis. How long can a people sustain surliness? “Grimly you begin to see good manners take effort, attention, style, but rudeness takes none.” In bewildering Estonian, “smile” and “turnip”, at least to Theroux, appear as if near-cognates.
Not that he seems cheerful. Theroux delights in putting down his hosts along with his fellow Americans. He despises Bush and praises Obama. He hates US foreign policy and suspects Zionism. He remains a New England type, flinty and sharp. He deploys bombast, overkill, and ridicule to pepper his perennial pop-up targets of greed, lassitude, and stupidity.
He includes here his caustic if characteristic habit of lists, ruminations, and rants. For all his predilection for careful observation of how people look, sound, and move, he inflates, if maybe in sly self-deprecation, the impact others have on him—rather than vice versa. In a chapter on Sarah’s fellow Fulbrighters, “The Whole Squalid Lot”, he returns to what has captivated him since his debut 1972 trio of short stories Three Wogs, and which dominates long stretches of Darconville and Laura: the admiration of amplification.
He claims to name Sarah’s fellow Fulbright grantees: “Katerina the Crank, Benny Profane, Currants and Queel. The noxious Butterheads. Sairey ‘Is That Your Nose or Are You Eating a Banana’ Golomb who in a discussion we recently had actually thought the Ottoman Empire was a chain of furniture stores. The notoriously cheese-paring Belk, the miser. And how about Capybara?”
Theroux habitually gives such quaint, oddball names to those he excoriates or, far less often, encourages. This metaphrastic register—heaping up recondite vocabulary, obscure obsessions, and highbrow observations—may strain Theroux’s voice on the page. Even in the comparatively compact (for him) Estonia: A Ramble Through the Periphery, a few pages for those new to this maximalist practitioner may suffice until one becomes acclimated to the wintry blasts of his prose.
His frostiness blends form into content. Not much snow, but a lot of bluster mixed with icy gusts typifies a land where March may be its sunniest month. Its people, Theroux finds, meet his lowered expectations. Try as he may to accommodate himself to their glares and guffs, Theroux struggles vainly to make sense of his inclement exile in this strangely dispassionate setting. “The advantage of consciousness can prove a disadvantage when the society you meet, the culture you confront, is almost imperious in its strangeness and the fealty it exacts of you in merely coming for a visit.”
Perhaps, Estonia can be seen “figuratively as a tiny, self-sacrificing, hard-working wife to her husband, Russia, slaving away always to appease him, doomed to spend years appeasing her demanding spouse but asking meekly for nothing.” The tart, sour, and tangy flavors of its pork, its predilection for dullness fueled by vodka, and its obsession with communal singing make Estonia a tiresome residence. In a chapter “What Did I Hate About Estonia?” such jagged gems prickle as this: “I hated their idea of their naïve, simpleminded singing like the Whos in Whoville as a sole defense against the guile of black-hearted totalitarianism.”
Yet, another chapter, “Carmen Secularae”, finds Theroux moving from a predictable diatribe against televangelists into a thoughtful consideration of the impact unbelief may wreak upon a nation so beaten down as modern Estonia. This analysis segues into an elegant defense of Pauline Christianity, one of many unexpected connections this ramble makes along its many peripheries. Theroux later adds (in an aside illustrating his command of a short remark amid so many long grumbles): “In the Bible there is no mention that the sky is blue—we yet locate heaven there.”
Full of endnotes, translating many phrases he quotes in their original languages, and graced by a few of the couple’s photos and Sarah’s plein air oil paintings, this provides a suitably quirky introduction to Theroux as an essayist and critic. Far better copyedited for Fantagraphics Books than was Laura, its publication by this press fits into this press’s emphasis upon graphic novels and comic illustrators, too. As the author of two Fantagraphics short studies on Al Capp and Edward Gorey, Theroux’s elliptical style and elongated perspective delineates an American tradition of satire that connects him to Thomas Nast’s political and cultural caricatures of a century and a half ago.
I wish this handsome volume had a map, but then, Tallinn and the other major city of Tartu appear about it, in terms of notable Estonian locations. Instead, we rely on his onrush of big words and biting phrases to tell us about this forlorn entity. These chapters compile much that most may relegate to byways, detours, fumbles, and trivia, but he explains in a “Valedictory” his guiding principle.
“I daresay my Estonia is as much about me and my crotchets as it is about anything else, but as Thoreau pointed out in Walden, ‘I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.’” He notes, “paranomasiacally, I left no Estonian unturned. Those who are less charitable may even insist that I left no turn unstoned.” Catch the wit and the venom, the depth and the breadth, of this honest account of “a strange, unlooked-for place at the back of beyond” where “the fascination of its strangeness” renders it a fitting subject for a curious report by a memorably talented, ever off-kilter, chronicler of oddity.