Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Alexander Theroux's "Estonia": Book Review

"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% 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" [all reviewed by me on Amazon US & this blog]) 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 U.S. 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 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 naive, 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 copy-edited 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 "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. (Featured at PopMatters 11-23-11 & Amazon US.)


Maelstrom said...

Not having read the book, I can only speak on the basis of what is offered in this review. Having however had experience of the adjoining Baltic States of Lithuania and Latvia, I have to say that this book strikes me as the cranky rant of a self-satisfied American that is extremely disrespectful, if not insulting, toward a land and people that many others have found praiseworthy. I regret most of all that Theroux entitled his bitter screed "Estonia," which ensures that many people seeking balanced information about the country may first come across Theroux's book at the top of internet search results. If Theroux found Estonia so uninteresting and unpleasant, he should have stayed home. It also raises the question of what he thinks about his wife, who apparently found the country worthwhile enough to apply for a Fulbright grant to spend a year there.

Fionnchú said...

Maelstrom, your thoughtful comment is appreciated. I tried to stress Theroux's temperament, which propels every one of his eclectic and idiosyncratic books. He is cranky, certainly. He fully admits, as I indicate, how he struggled to accommodate himself (as much as a cranky man of his notable temper might, granted) to Estonian culture, its language, its history, its people. His work is full of endnotes and he appears to have read as much as he could about the nation during (or before or after?) his stay, to try to understand why and how it became so chilly for him in its interpersonal, impersonal climate. Halfway in, he gives up, and the book becomes more intriguing, as he now attempts to explain how Estonia evolved as he finds it--tautological maybe, but it's the best he can do while his wife's grant keeps her painting.

As a longtime reader of Theroux, I attempted to introduce this travelogue within the framework of his fiction and essays, where he adopts, and sustains, a similarly grousing, erudite, impatient, and skeptical character. It remains his "peripheral" journey--he fails to penetrate its strong, icy shell. It's not meant as a typical survey of the land, but his encounter with what he can't comprehend about its refusal to capitulate to his whims, and those of the Fulbright grantees.

Yet, late on as my review reminds readers, he admits a kind of grace amidst such despair, and he comes to terms with the impossibility of separating his personal reactions from his intellectual account. He and his wife appear to get along fine, fueled by many bottles of vodka against the chill. Surely, she must be admirably tolerant of him!

Ieva said...

I am a Latvian journalist just beginning to read the book and am already outraged. This "pre-eminently erudite" writer claims that typical Latvian names are Strbrzny and Zdenek (both identifiably Czech), that the Latvian parliament is called "sejm" (it is in fact "saeima") etc. Yet such errors (unforgivable, really, in the age of the Internet)pale in comparison with his veiled implications that Estonians have Nazi sympathies or his perplexed queries how come Estonians did not rise against their Soviet oppressors. This man clearly has no idea what totalitarianism is all about and so far his gaze at Estonia seems to be through a rather opaque shard of glass.

Fionnchú said...

Ieva, thanks for your response from an informed Latvian perspective. I know my review has gotten some flak on Amazon from those in the Baltic know, but as I commented there, I confess I am limited to what I know of Theroux's previous books, and that was my context and my own "expertise." I write as one who has studied Theroux's works and not as an expert in the land he visits. Others like yourself have added their cultural and linguistic critiques of AT, and these are welcome.

The fact-checking, as you note, for an author of his reputation as a formidable intellect is certainly noteworthy in its depth or shallowness, given the ease in our linked medium of consulting those like yourself who know better. I note that Theroux in his book addresses both his lack of insider knowledge and his own research in an attempt to rectify his shortcomings. Naturally, the language barrier remains for him, despite his giving it a try before giving up. He is a stubborn man, and while he did not learn Estonian, he determines to soldier on and explain then why he could not--a typical outcome in his vexed sojourn there. It's easy to see how such a character as he portrays himself on the page can, as with his earlier fiction and essays, exasperate a trusting reader. He's playing a game with us, surely.

He does admit to having read all there was (in English at least) about Estonia, but as for its neighbor to the south...? Again, you offer the p-o-v that helps readers such as myself understand where this book failed as well as succeeded. I appreciate your post and its closing phrase is "sharply" rendered.

Cook My Goose said...

Mister Murphy, I put it to you that you know nothing about Estonia, or else you would be as incensed by this book as I am. I also put it to you that you have no cultural sensitivity at all. In your school days you were likely the otherwise 'nice' boy who looked on and said nothing while another boy was bullied in the playground. You call this a handsome volume and regret that it does not have a map. Where is your emotional intelligence, your ethical map? Do you not see that this book is full of hate? He devotes 4 or 5 pages to 'what I hate about Estonia', which is complete nonsense.

It is the drivel of a pretentious, egomaniacal, myopic chauvinist. He spent less than a year in Estonia and claims to know so much about it. It appears, however, that he did not meet many people there and made no friendships. I am a Canadian who has lived in Estonia for 19 years, and can say that the people are truly friendly and kind, the very best, even though it may take a while to get to know them, but the same applies to many Scandinavian nations. Mr Theroux's book is also full of factual errors - for instance he claims that Estonian Air has only ancient Aeroflot planes. It has been many many years since they had any of those - they are all either Boeing 737s or Canadian Bombardier propeller planes for shorter flights. None are of Russian origin. The Estonian word for market is TURG not TORG, etc etc.

Long story short, this book is chauvinistic and xenophobic, and you should be ashamed of yourself for being so ignorant as to praise it.

Cook My Goose said...

I don't believe for a moment that Mr Theroux read 'all there was to read about Estonia', in English or any other language, he clearly knows virtually zilch about the country. Anything he might have read was distilled through his hateful xenophobia. Great author my ass! You've been wasting your time being a fan of his, my man. You've been duped by his pretentious 'erudition'.

I suppose it's pretty telling that he has to have his books published by a company that prints comic books, eh?

Fionnchú said...

CMG, if you study my earlier reviews of Theroux's past fiction and essays on this site, you will find in every one of them criticisms of his style, his assertions, or his aims--as well as praise, never unqualified. I take the time to explain his approach in each of these reviews, and I put considerable time into them. As I emphasized in this review, AT's modus operandi is one of amplification, inflation, and exaggeration. Apropos, presuming I was the nice boy who looked on at another's bullying: you don't know me, nor do I know you. Leave ad hominem attacks to the trolls. I face enough of them on the Amazon equivalent to a review I spent a lot of time working on, and a more careful reading of it shows nuance, and not blind adoration of a difficult, annoying, misunderstood, and easily mocked author who merits more, even if you disagree with him. I have read his books, and I set this one in the context of his previous works, in a way that other reviewers often do not or cannot do.

For the record, I happen to disagree with AT as much as I agree with him, but he makes me think while he excoriates, although he often rankles me. I don't take offense even when my opinions diverge wildly from his--it's part of his rhetorical pose; we differ in our evaluations of its efficacy. This by no means makes me ignorant.

Estonians have taken offense at his xenophobic stance, but a careful examination of what can admittedly be a wearying book at times (as are all of his due to his calculated and deliberate persona in print) shows he's cutting down American culture as well, which attentive critics have discerned. He takes on a provocative pose, as an curmudgeon who means to educate. Like a stand-up comedian or satirist, his intentions may or may not be lost in the assault he gives as a performance on the page.