Like the number 10 tram, you wait years for a good book on Estonia to come along, then two come at once.
Eestiphones and Eestiphiles can already enjoy Justin Petrone’s Minu Eesti (the rest of us will have to wait for the promised English language version). I’m confident I can say that it’s great without actually having read it as Justin is the most consistently entertaining Baltic blogger and, more importantly but not coincidentally, a very good writer.
Now we also have Vello Vikerkaar’s Inherit The Family – Marrying Into Eastern Europe. I’ll get the one negative thing out of the way first – the cover’s a bit nondescript and the title it bears is a bit misleading, if only because it might cause those unfamiliar with Vello’s oeuvre (this is a book review – when else will I get the chance to use such words?) to expect one of those godawful “aren’t-they-amusing-and-rather-Ruritanian” travelogues written by people from the Sunday supplements who think patronising sarcasm extended for long enough eventually forms a kind of insight.
In fact Vello’s tome (there’s another review-only word) is the exact opposite of such flimsy offerings from writers who define themselves as outside observers. He hasn’t swanned into Estonia for a couple of weeks, he has committed to the place 24/7. He’s an outsider trying to be an insider but only making small, slow, advances. The painful rate of progress periodically leads to massive frustration which explodes in a sort of impotent, absurd exasperation that is painfully familiar to those of us treading a similar path.
Luckily it generally only takes a few minutes to calm down and revel in the sort of comic situations that only real life could possibly throw up, including a memorable life or death struggle over a rabbit hutch and musings on the geo-economic factors that result in a covertly homosexual companion for Barbie being foisted on Eastern Europe.
Vello also debunks a few myths that I would rather have stayed bunked. If this book actually gets into the hands of locals they may finally realise that foreigners are generally much less interesting and intelligent than they give them credit for, and that foreign journalists in particular are more likely to be hopeless hacks than secret service men. Apart from me. And Vello. Not sure about Justin.
But best of all Vello exhibits the brevity and discpline in his writing that is a direct result of being a newspaper columnist rather than a mere blogger. Blogs are almost invariably self-indulgent and over-written (witness those earlier asides about words you only use in book reviews and indeed this self-indulgent aside you are reading right now) thanks to the absence of a sub-editor and formative encounters with intolerant editors. Vello’s columns are lean, funny and quick, so he must have had such encounters.
The brevity of each self-contained chapter makes them perfect bathroom reading material. Saying they are the ideal accompaniment to a bowel movement may not be something Vello will appreciate overly, but honestly there is no greater endorsement I can give them as a large part of my literary education takes place on porcelain.
Ultimately I think Vello protests a little too much about his inability to fit in with a varied set of dramatis personae which includes a whores’ choir, numerous semi-comatose tradesmen and the genuinely surreal unexplained acts of assorted relatives. He’s much more of a genuine Estonian than he likes to let on.
Estonians are sometimes portrayed as humourless and unimaginative, not least by themselves, and certainly by Latvians and Lithuanians. But I think they have the most attractive sense of humour of the three nationalities. Whereas Lithuanians go for slapstick and Latvians laugh at broad farce, the Estonians seem to have a dry irony that frequently manifests itself in self-deprecation and is actually rather sophisticated. And that’s the attitude Vello captures so well.
Inherit The Family also has one of the best opening lines I’ve read for a long time, so buy it for someone you know and make them laugh on the toilet. That way it doesn’t even matter if they wet themselves.
Inherit The Family by Vello Vikerkaar is available from Amazon.com.