Saturday, 14 March 2009

Standing Trams

From the novel Janu ja igatsus (Thirst and Longing, 2004) by Riina Muljar, translated from Estonian by Tiina Laats and David McDuff.


The building where Guido lived was inhabited solely by Estonians. Tammeorg, Kurvits, Kask. When Helen stepped off the tram, she felt as though she had returned to the Republic of Estonia, a period she had heard talked about so often. This was how she imagined it to have been. Even the streets seemed cleaner. And the houses built at that time possessed a strange capacity to soothe and instil security. They had been built THEN, IN THOSE DAYS. When everything was different. When people were different.

One tram stop further on was the Soviet military base. Whitewashed brick walls, green gates with red pentagrams. Sometimes she had to pass the base on foot. It was when the trams were 'standing'. This meant there was no electricity, or a tram had run off the tracks. People walked to town and back home. Mostly those who lived a few stops away. Men in brown nylon jackets, and grey hats; women in green or brown woollen coats with mink collars. It was like a voluntary October march in front of the military base. Like a march of gratitude. A soldier in greenish uniform at the gate, leaning carelessly against the sentry box, shouted 'devushka, a devushka' to every girl who passed.

To Helen it seemed so humiliating. Stupidity at every step. For her, the meaning of these years was darkness.

It meant a rapid changing of wallpapers when Finnish visitors were due. It meant using all their contacts to obtain enough black caviar to give to the Finns. (Helen ate half of it, by tiny spoonfuls, until almost half of the one litre jar was empty; this caused a huge quarrel in the family - how could she do such a nasty thing, what are they going to give to the Finns now, what will they think of us! The stuff was too expensive to be eaten just like that, they simply did not have the money for it). It meant false pride and shame, saying they did not need anything while prepared to accept everything, eyeing the bulging colourful plastic bags, guessing their contents. It was bewildering to people actually accepting the most awful, the lowest way of life, and even boasting about it. Helen could only ever see self-inflicted cruelty in that, pure blindness. Their complacency, their readiness to shut their eyes to everything surrounding them depressed her. Like racehorses who were supposed to see only what lay ahead of them.

The Finns are coming!

The half jar of black caviar was transferred to another, smaller jar and given as a present.

'Please! Help yourselves!' the visitors were proudly told at the groaning table. Smoked sausages, lamprey, salmon, sprats, brawn, potato salad. Everyone was supposed to realise that this kind of food was quite common here. They might have everything in Finland, but we were not complaining either! In reality, the two sisters could easily have a fight over a cheap plastic raincoat that was meant to be used only once and across the Gulf of Finland was sold for ten marks at every little kiosk to protect a person against an unexpected shower of rain. Helen's sister refused to talk to her for weeks when Helen had once, not finding her umbrella, taken her precious raincoat instead. 'You'll have to pay me for it!' screamed the sister. And when Helen said she was not going to do that for the simple reason that it was worthless, cost nothing and she had got it for nothing as well, the sister stopped talking to her. In her opinion Helen was insolent; and their mother agreed that Helen had to pay. It was all such a charade. Here they were, fighting over a miserable piece of plastic, and at the same time smiling sweetly to the visitors, playing the game 'everything's all right'. 'It's not so bad, really...'

That was true. It was worse.

Freedom was mixed up with tables laden with food, caviar, weak Finnish coffee and a cake of 'Lux' soap. But the reason the foreigners were to be envied was something quite different. Not for their prettier bottles of lemonade, bananas or exclusive clothes. Not for coffee and soap.

They were simultaneously admired and despised. What was admired were their clothes and wealth, the possibilities they had and their indifference towards it all. At the same time it was found worthy of contempt. There are more important things in life than economic well-being!

There were indeed. But why did they have to be reached through misery?

'Oh, no, you shouldn't... we've got enough...' These words were accompanied by hypocritical smiles.

It was actually true. And even if it wasn't, people managed without so many things. They were not what was missing here. There was something missing inside people.

The Finns were free to come any time and receive their jar of caviar, just because they thought it was not worth spending money on themselves. They were free not to exert themselves when receiving visitors. They did not have to prove anything.

Their freedom included the possibility to move to Sweden, the USA, Canada, and nobody would regard them as traitors of their homeland. A person could live anywhere, where he felt good, where he easily assimilated and accepted the language and customs of the other nation. Nobody tormented them afterwards with questions like '...so you left... and who are you now then?' or comments like '...it's obvious why you went away - to have a better life, that's why!'

They had that freedom. It was not a freedom given to them, this freedom was inside them, in their very souls.

Their indifference towards the wealth in their country was taken as showing off. One had to protect oneself against it, compete with it, prove it worthless. They, on the other hand, showed not the slightest pride or arrogance. They were free to do so.

It wasn't their fault. The fault lay with people here. They were as if compelled to explain, to prove something that did not exist. They had to demonstrate that they were not inferior. But had anyone bothered to wonder if the Finns really were better, with all their coffee and bananas? It would have been easy to reach the conclusion that actually they weren't - they were overtaxed and building monuments in honour of the great friendship between the Russian and Finnish peoples. Despite that, the Finns were so natural, so simple amidst the abundance, and people here - tense, frightened, timid, defensive, forever ready to prove themselves. Any sign that they were considered inferior in some way was expected like a court sentence. But nobody considered them inferior, and they were not. They simply could not believe this, could not see it.

It is only natural that people often try to seem cleverer than they really are. But here, people also tried to show that they were better. Soviet power reigned here, but it wasn't so bad after all! 'We can offer you caviar and lamprey. We can take you to a restaurant. In fact, we can afford just as much as you over there, with all your bananas and pretty clothes. We can afford more!' This was the attitude. The same attitude as saying with contempt: 'Abba? No, I never listen to THAT.' Arrogant superiority. They were infinitely better, cleverer, more cultured. Despite everything. There was nothing left for them but their pride and bitterness. Their bitter pride.

The Finnish education system was no good. 'We have nothing to learn from them, our school system is much better,' boasted the director of an elite school.

A clever man can learn from a stupid one.

A stupid man can never learn from a clever one.

Coffee in gold-rimmed cups 'made in USSR'. Coffee services made of thick porcelain, the kind that was obtained from under the shop counter in order to give to newly-weds, to one's brother-in-law on his fortieth birthday, to one's sister's silver wedding anniversary. Helen hated those cups, she would gladly have given them to somebody, the whole set, or else smashed them against a wall. They looked awful, tasteless, completely lacking the fragility of proper china. Nothing like 'Royal Albert' or 'Royal Doulton'.

Potato salad on huge plates hand-painted in 'Ars'. Czech wine glasses, with tiny flowers painted on them, for which the parents had to pay extra, to get them at all. Lifting a Czech crystal salad bowl, we passed it politely on: 'Ole hyvä'. This was not what Helen wanted to see. But it was what she wanted to demonstrate: 'We are not any worse than you! Not in the least. We have something too! We have 'Ars'! We have Czech wine glasses, Czech crystal. We have gold-rimmed robust coffee cups, with dirty colours, floral ornaments printed on them'. Amid cigarette butts and stinking entrance halls and things bought with bribery, we really had something to show.

But not even Helen could deny that it was better this way. The posing, the ostentation; of course the new wallpaper was better than the old, faded, worn out and torn at the corners. Helen had to face the dilemma - would she have preferred a freshly wallpapered room in a dirty apartment house, full of cigarette butts and stinking of urine, or a room in the same house with greasy, stained wallpaper? The latter would perhaps still have had some kind of style, in spite of everything. To be quite honest - however much she hated all the preparations and fuss before the arrival of visitors, she nevertheless preferred to receive them in a room with fresh wallpaper, still slightly moist and smelling of paste. Nevertheless. She preferred that, it was true, but she would never have made such a fuss, or stayed up all night. She wouldn't have bothered.

The light yellow wallpaper with tiny flowers was replaced by large-patterned violet paper. The fifteen square metre room was suddenly reduced to nine square metres. But they were lucky to get any wallpaper.

The new wallpaper was by no means the worst ostentation. Theatre and opera tickets were bought, friends were dragged to performances where they could hardly understand a word - they had to be educated!

'Oh, no, you shouldn't, we have more than enough,' they said with false modesty, only to slip the 'Lux' cake of soap minutes later into their linen cupboard.

'Really, we've got coffee here too...' they mumbled, taking the pack of coffee and putting it on display on a kitchen shelf, for showing off to friends and relatives on birthdays, October holidays and Women's Days - here, have some good coffee, the Finns brought it! The gold foil of the coffee pack was later carefully washed on both sides, left dripping over the washbasin, dried with a towel, to be used for some other purpose. This was what life was like here. Did people want it? Had they chosen it themselves? Hardly. It had descended on them like an unexpected natural disaster, and they had learned to make the best of it. As if there was another way out.

Helen did not want to give in. She wanted out. In a tram, passing the Soviet military base, she was overwhelmed by contradictory feelings. There were times when she felt nothing but blind hatred, revenge, urge for justice. At other times she was completely indifferent, as if having finally accepted their inevitable presence. But more than anything else she felt powerless to change the smallest thing, her weakness to do anything but escape. Go away. She would dream about waking up one morning and discovering that it had all been a nightmare, there never were any military bases, or soldiers walking aimlessly around, questions and answers in a foreign tongue.

'Standing trams' were not the concern of their 'domesticated' northern neighbours. They were never compelled to walk for miles, in rain and snow. The ambiguous comments of Russian soldiers never reached their ears.

One more tram stop from the military base, and you came to hostels and ugly apartment houses built in the 1960s. The neighbourhood was dismal and threatening. This was a place best avoided at a late hour. It was rather creepy even in daytime. But what places were really any better? Four or five stops further from where Helen lived? There were hostels and military bases there, too. They were everywhere.

These buildings still haunted Helen in her dreams. Like evil monsters they appeared in her heavy dreams. Dark, cold and bleak. Silently threatening with their faceless grey walls.


She had everything. Good looks, a good life. She lived in a comfortable apartment in a stone-built house - didn't have to stoke stoves or use a freezing communal toilet in winter. Finns visited them and brought all sorts of goodies. Sometimes Helen let me use her deodorants. In my opinion she simply wasted them, squirting the liquid straight on to her skin. They should only be used on your clothes, I thought to myself. It will wash off. Once I overheard one girl teaching another: 'You don't use the deodorant on your skin, but on your clothes, the smell will stick longer.' I thought at the time, that she was right, that girl. I never had the chance to taste Finnish coffee, Helen's mother kept an eagle eye on it, for holidays and relatives. Actually, once I did smell it. Mmm... In my home we only had cheap, low-quality coffee. Another time she gave me some liquorice candy. Helen was truly lucky. What did I have? Only myself - a large-boned woman, with fair hair and big feet, and my brother who was clever, kind and good, and whom everybody adored. I had to look up to him, take him as a model. And I did just that, many years, all these years. I'm still obliged do it. 'Mart is much kinder than you,' says my mother. 'You ask Mart, he knows what's best for you.'

'Hey, everyone, let's hear what Mart has to say about that!' my mother cried at every single birthday party of every single relative. She made everyone look at him and listen to his opinions. Or, when she doubted someone's story, she tilted her head and stared at Mart, expectantly, and asked: 'Well, Mart, and what do you think of it?' My role was to keep my mouth shut. If someone happened to ask how I was doing, why I didn't say anything, mother snapped: 'Oh, Katre... she's the silent one!' I blushed, embarrassed, and stared at the floor. Like a mentally retarded person. I'm sure many people thought that I was one. I enjoyed the moments spent with Helen. It felt like escaping to the Black Sea with her, I could be myself, I didn't have to adore her or look up to her (although I still couldn't help doing that, in secret). We were two young women, ready for adventures, but sensible enough not to get ourselves into trouble. I admired Helen's confidence, her ability to emerge from every situation a winner. I had much to learn from her. And I did. Sometimes I imitated her, unwillingly, often without being aware of doing it. At times I adopted her opinions and presented them later as my own. I sometimes felt that she considered herself wiser than me. Maybe she was. Like when the Russian army marched into Afghanistan. I remember Helen's face when I said what I thought about it. But I was certain I was right: would it have been better if Afghanistan had been conquered by the American troops? I was later forced to admit that Helen had been right, but I never told her that.

5 comments:

  1. This excerpt is important because it highlights huge differences in mentality during the Cold War. Scandinavia and the Baltics are neighbours, but the mentality gulf was deep and wide - unlike the Gulf of Finland!

    On the one hand, there were the rich Western countries of Finland and Sweden, whose citizens had everything materially and could travel where and when they pleased. On the other, you had vassal nations in the Baltics, keeping up appearances, pretending to Western guests that they were living in the lap of luxury, when in fact they often had to skimp, save, and do deals behind the scenes to put on the impressive displays of food and drink for their foreign guests.

    Now that Russia has retreated from the Baltics, and the Balts are free to run their own lives and make their own mistakes, there is a hidden presence of Scandinavian capital. For instance, the Estonian press and the Estonian banks are, to all intents and purposes, Scandinavian owned. The neo-colonialism involved, if we should call it that, is milder, but can still be worrying for Estonians. Though such ownership may prove a godsend in these difficult economic times.

    At any rate, 1991 was a sea change regarding the constant fear, held secretly by Estonians and other Balts, that you could be literally sent to Siberia for the most trivial misdemeanour.

    I have translated an Estonian story on the same theme of consumer goods and misunderstandings which is being considered for a yearbook or similar in the USA. This story is written by Elo Viiding and entitled "Välismaa naised", or "Foreign Women" in my translation. The genre was also touched on in a story by Jaan Kross called "Eesti loodus", i.e. "The Estonian Mentality", which describes how Estonians living abroad were not necessarily generous when dealing with their compatriots back home.

    This sort of literature focusses not on the dramatic injustices perpetrated in the Baltics, neighbours of course to Scandinavia, such as the GULag, but on how everyday existence was deeply affected by Soviet colonialism.

    One surprising recent and successful Nordic novel also touching on Estonia during Soviet times is the novel "Puhdistus" (Purge) by the half-Estonian Finnish novelist, Sofi Oksanen, about whose work I will open another thread. This novel is being translated into English in the United States.

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  2. Excellent excerpt, David, and I welcome this chance to (re)establish contact. We met briefly in 1983 at Lillehammer. If I were still running Fjord Press I'd publish this, no problem. With my limited knowledge of Finland through my wife Tiina Nunnally, this struck a chord of familiarity. I'd love to read the rest of it. Are you submitting anywhere and do you have a handle on the rights situation?

    Congratulations, all, on this extremely interesting blog!

    Steve Murray (aka Reg Keeland)

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  3. As the perfect coda to the way the Soviet Bloc related to consumer goods, I've just watched, on BBC2, the rather moving German blackish comedy called "Goodbye Lenin!", set when the Berlin Wall fell. Where the consumer goods come in is when a mother, who was in a coma during the period the Wall fell, is of such fragile health when she does come to that she has to be tricked by her family into thinking she is still living in the GDR. Finding old jars of pickled gherkins and surrogate coffee becomes crucial to this quest of fakery.

    Welcome, Steve / Reg. It is nice to see that people are taking an interest in this blog.

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  4. Thanks for your comments, Eric and Steve.

    Welcome to Nordic Voices in Translation, Steve. I think that what we are trying to do here, in the aftermath of what has turned out to be a particularly difficult period in SELTA's existence, is to take stock of the current Nordic literary translation scene on both sides of the pond. It's time that SELTA and STiNA developed closer ties, as we are all engaged in essentially the same activity, and it's also high time, we feel, that the emphasis on Sweden and Swedish literature was exchanged for a wider embrace of Nordic literature in general. In some of the posts here you can see the results of this debate, and our blog will continue to publish updates on the ongoing discussion, and on new developments. Please help to spread the word about NVIT among your contacts.

    Re Thirst and Longing: I believe that the foreign rights rest with the author herself. The typescript of the novel and initial rough English translation by Tiina Laats were originally sent to me by Riina Muljar's (ex-?)husband, Roman, in 2003. But I haven't heard from Roman in a long while. Riina is also known as Riina Kangur, and there is information about her at several websites, including this one. Tiina Laats also has a different surname now, and it's possible that Eric may know what it is.

    I certainly think that the novel deserves to be published in English. Arcadia Books (Gary Pulsifer) had the ts. for a while, but that was during their funding crisis last year, and the correspondence didn't come to anything. It's probably time to try another publisher - if you have any suggestions I'd be glad to get them, of course.

    Re Lillehammer: it's such a long time ago, but I still have vivid memories of that translation seminar, which was one of the better ones I've attended. And I do remember our meeting.

    Best wishes,

    David

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  5. Tiina Laats is now called Tiina Randviir, and is the editor of Estonian Literary Magazine. She works at the Estonian institute in Tallinn, and is always helpful with information about Estonian literature.

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