This is the story of a man looking for his way. New York did not satisfy his soul, so he moved to Estonia, with his crazy wife, a kid, and six suitcases. Within 24 hours he found a home and had to learn how to make a fire. It did not satisfy his soul for long. Soon he had a house with four furnaces, and was making fires around the clock.
His crazy Estonian wife started a publishing house that turned out well. Too well. He decided to become an academic. It did not satisfy him for long, but at least he met a real elf who inspired him. Then he decided to dabble in diplomacy. It did not feel right either.
And he got depressed. There were too many drunks and neo-Nazis in this country, not to mention all the mice, lice, and ice. Writing books – bestsellers! – about those problems seemed to satisfy his soul. He thought he had found his niche, as a writer in a small town teeming with cafes and characters.
Then, overnight, it all collapsed.
The action in Justin Petrone ́s new book takes place mostly in two Estonian towns, folksy Viljandi and teacherly Tartu. It takes place from the year 2007 (the Bronze Soldier riots) until 2013 (when Petrone left Estonia amid a national scandal).
There were other curious finds on our street. Some coins, a horse shoe, a stone pendant. And plenty of animal bones.
Even I had my little discovery. I had been raking out a plot of dirt when I turned up a very human-looking jawbone. This led me to all kinds of uncomfortable hypotheses about my neighbors, until Andres came and calmed me and said that it had probably belonged to a sheep.
But the day after brought something truly sinister to the surface – an unexploded mine that had been dug up right next to our barn!
"Don't you go out of your mind with boredom in this hole, man?"
Poor Diego. He was like me. He had come to Tallinn on a whim and met his future wife by chance. Any rational man would have gone back to Santiago and married a local girl named Violeta or Veronica. But Diego was different. He was a romantic. It had been the night before he had to leave and yet he couldn't forget that Estonian maiden, even in Chile. So he had to marry her and move to Estonia after that.
And so here he was, staring down into some crypt, grateful that he lived up in Tallinn and not down on Sepa Street.
When an old Estonian died and the relatives gathered around in the countryside, they served up pork andpotatoes and, to top it off, a chocolate-covered raisin strudel. There were a few bottles of vodka, too, and one man would be charged with refilling the glasses. For the introductory shot, there would be a solemn toast, and after three or so mouthfuls of the hard stuff had gone down, and the guests loosened up, there would be some light conversation. Then they would drink coffee and go home.
This was how average Estonians celebrated a person's whole life. But at the Lennart Meri Conference in Tallinn, they celebrated the end of the session "Nordic-Baltic Security Co-operation: Supplementing or Supplanting NATO?" with much more fanfare.
It was inspiring. Here I was, 27 years old, out of college five years, married for four, a husband, a father, and a guy in Tartu who spent much of his time lighting fires in furnaces and not getting anywhere. And yet here I was, the same exact person except in a shirt and tie, elbowing General Wesley Clark out of the way to get another helping of tiramisu in Tallinn...
But Mart Laar. If there was one person at that conference who did not intimidate me, it was him. He was just too disarming and kid-like. A round head garnished by sandy reddish hair and a fuzzy beard on an oval body, with two slits enclosing light blue eyes, he was well deserving of his nickname Mõmmibeebi, which translated as "teddy bear." Laar sat through the sessions with his laptop open, as if he was surfing the net or chatting with fellow party members while half-listening to questions about EU Neighborhood Policy.
And then, just when you thought he wasn't listening at all, he would join the conversation and ask something that woke everyone up.
Vello Vikerkaar was already a writer and he knew it since he was born. It was in the way the Canadian Estonian ran his hands through his mop of gray hair, the way he stood with a cup of spicy tea, pondering something big, or the way he studied you as you spoke, as if he was taking notes for a story. Vello was so writerly that he didn’t even need to write a page. You just had to look at the magazines stacked on his desk and that beautiful old typewriter of his to know he was for real.
"Here, read this," he might say, thrusting a fresh copy of The New Yorker into your hands.
You would read a paragraph. "Looks like an excerpt from a novel about an Indian prostitute."
"It sucks. My husky writes better than that. Can you believe that arrogant prick won an award? Some idiots think that’s some fine writing. I think it’s all a bunch of bullshit."
"But it’s the top story in The New Yorker."
"Bullshit." He pronounced every sound in the word. "But, eh, you know what they say. Garbage in, garbage out."
"Garbage in, garbage out?"
This intrigue had brought him into contact with some of the more influential politicians in the region, including Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Mart Laar, Lennart Meri, and Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus.
"And I’ll never forget what Valdas said to me after I had been working in Tallinn for a while and returned to Vilnius and he heard me talking. He said, ‘Oh, no. Mart has brainwashed you, too.'" A light chuckle. "But Lennart, he never liked me. I don’t know why. They sent me to meet him at the airport and he wouldn’t even look me in the eye. Maybe it’s because of the way I look," every line on his Eskimo face curled up into a delighted grin. "But Tom, the new president, and Mart; they liked me. Even though they locked me in the basement of the embassy in Washington one time."
"Locked you in the basement?"
"It's just terrible," Epp told me that day in the kitchen, with a distressed look in her eyes. "A young man has been stabbed to death, hundreds have been arrested."
"They should have been arrested," I said. "That’s what happens when you fight with the police."
"But can't you see? Now they will all go to prison together. This is how terrorist cells are formed!"
She had a point.
"You have to understand how holy the war is for the Russians," Epp continued. "When I was a girl there were only war movies on at this time of year. It’s a major part of their identity. Oh, why did Ansip have to move that soldier?"
Mertelsmann looked up. "And it wasn’t so bad to be in the SS, you know."
You could feel the discomfort in the classroom air. "What do you mean?" asked the student.
The professor shrugged. "They lived well, much better than common German soldiers. Pay was higher. They had little rows of houses where their families could stay with them, and there was always plenty for them to eat and drink. Maybe even a little meat leftover for the family dog."
"What is good about this wind is that while it blows empires in," the old man circled his hands in a wind-like movement, "it also blows them away. While I may have argued in the past that Peter the Great's influence on Estonia was a mostly negative one, I'm not so sure now that this is entirely the case. The reforms of the absolutist Charles XI of Sweden at the end of the 17th Century were aimed at ending serfdom for once and for all and putting the Estonians on the path to full citizenship within the Swedish Empire. But had they ended serfdom at that time, when all education was in German, and all public life was in German, then the Estonians surely within a few generations would have completely Germanized and I would not be standing here speaking to you about any Estonian-speaking people with funny names like Taagepera."
A few more faint laughs. A cough.
"The Estonian wind continued to blow," he circled his hands again, "and it blew in Peter the Great, who reversed the Swedish reforms, allowing serfdom to continue for another century. So this great risk to Estonian identity, of Germanization, was avoided, and Estonian identity was allowed to survive into the Romantic period."
Taagepera stood still and looked directly into my eyes. "It thus could be argued that without Peter the Great, there would be no Estonian State."
I felt every laser eye in that auditorium on the nape of my neck. Taagepera was just too damn good.
She went after that half-rotten fruit like a grain-harvesting combine. Crouched down low, in the dirt, fingers curled, curly white hair bobbing along, she seemed to be able to go through five apples at a time, examining each one for worthiness. When she saw me climbing a ladder to pull some fruit from the tree, she looked up from her perch in the mud and scolded me.
"Young man, get down! You have to pick the apples off the ground before you do the trees."
"But the better quality fruit is up here!"
"No, no. That’s not how it goes."
"That mouse is eating your food, right?" Endel said. He was an older fellow, white hair, mustache, had an answer for everything, always one thumb tucked away in his blue workman's overalls. "And you should be eating your food, right? Tell you what you do. Get yourself some strong mouse traps and grease them up with sausage or cheese. The mouse comes sniffing and them – bammo! – goodbye, mouse!"
I relented and acquired several old-fashioned mouse traps and coated them in sausage grease just like Endel had advised us.
But mouse traps are not as easy as they look, especially when you are a big man with big hands.
The police handed me the yellow sheet of paper that said I couldn’t drive anywhere with a New York State license unless I had an International Driving Permit or an Estonian license. At last, I was permitted to move the car to the parking lot of the cafe.
I remember asking them how I was supposed to get home if I couldn’t drive.
"Don’t you have a friend who can come and drive you home?" the one with the German name said.
"No." I glimpsed at the radio clock in police car. It was 2:30 a.m.
"You can wait until morning and take the bus," the one with the Estonian name offered.
I tried to imagine myself sleeping in the cold car all night, and then taking a local bus into Paide, to catch a connection to Viljandi to get someone to accompany me back to the car in Kükita. Oh, and the first part of this trip would be with sleepy kids.
"Or you could go to Paide?" the one with the Estonian name suggested. "It’s not too far. Just a few kilometers."
"How can we get there?"
The one with the German name motioned at the road. "You can walk."