Thursday, June 28, 2012


I have read some reports from Estonia that detest this book, its author, the ground he stomps around on. You just have to get used to Alexander Theroux. He isn't out, necessarily, to make new friends; he's living, a moving target, carousing, thinking steadily, deadly opinionated and probably already hates the semicolon I've used in this sentence. He goes nuts if a percentage point has a comma typo instead of the appropriate period. Or, better, decimal point. He's fussy, flinty, and while he does write about the visit with his artist~wife (Sarah Son-Theroux) to Estonia, and it is one of her paintings on the book jacket, this beast Theroux can't help himself but to storm off-message and attack or support almost any other subject you could possibly think of. He's not of this time, he's of his own time. It doesn't matter what I think. I want to know what his travel writing scholar brother Paul Theroux would think of the book, and would he include it in his pantheon of travel writing classics The Tao of Travel? I don't believe Paul Theroux is capable of writing a book like this one. Maybe Celine would have, if he wanted to bother. I'd like to see a sequence from this Estonia, maybe the chapter "Rumble Strips on the Road", embedded in the Tao.


Poking Around the Periphery

Although Estonia is presently considered a high-technology country, computer-wired and all — citizens were given permission in 2007 to cast ballots by way of the Internet in parliamentary elections, and by parliamentary approval it will become the very first country to allow its citizens to cast their votes by mobile telephone in the next parliamentary election in 2011 — I began slowly to suspect that too much of the country was still local and pretty much a boat-axe culture of potato-sellers and loggers, apiculturists and cabbage-hoers. I took for granted that it was all there in the Kalevipoeg, the national epic, which in its legends depicts a rude and rustic world. So was I correct in my smug and self-assured estimate? Not at all. The incontrovertible fact is that Estonia has the third-highest literacy rate in the entire world (99.8), following — yes — Georgia and Cuba, higher than the United States. Its almost unresponsive smallness is what gives it, sadly, the rustification tag. Sparse as Norway, which has the lowest population density in Europe—only 4,3000,000 people — Estonia has fewer residents than the present-day Gaza Strip, only a few more people than Mauritania. Estonia's dwindling population-rate which has not quite reached the lower reproductive potential of the California condor poses something of a scandal even to them, and to know that it ranks somewhere near the bottom of the world in terms of world-population is a source of no small awkwardness and, to a large degree, even sorry to them. With only 1.3 million inhabitants, Estonia is one of the least populous countries in the European Union. The current fertility rate there is 1.41 children per mother. (Benefits for pregnancy in Estonia include a more-than-generous 16-month paid leave for the mother-to-be, so eagerly are births welcomed there.) I was often reminded of this in the way that Estonias almost superstitiously love children — to see, to pamper them — even though in a weird paradox they seem to rarely hold them. During the Soviet occupation, the country of Estonia also had the highest rate of emigration than any of the other Soviet republics, with people looking to emigrate at every possibility.

I walked everywhere. I tried, by walking, to observe the people and places. Walking in the electric blue cold always helped me proceed much faster and perhaps more purposefully. Harry Truman on his post-presidential constitutionals — for exercise — always saw to it that the fast pace he kept was precisely 120 steps per minute! I will bet that on a windy Baltic winter day if I did not match him, I came close. I walked past beet fields, through green mists and spoiling fog, walked out at night to outlying highways where it was eerie and soundless until roaring trucks would go past like a herd of Triceratops.

A sense of depletion in the outlying sections of Estonia still sadly maintains. There is a vastness of long woods outside all main cities. Nearly 40% of the country is forested, mainly with pine and birches along the coasts. Cutting down trees and selling lumber is probably the major small industry there, for its forests are vast, its countryside a flat, ongoing sameness.

Food, construction and newly-burgeoning electronic industries are Estonia's most important. The country exports mainly machinery and equipment, wood and paper, textiles, food products, furniture, metals, and chemicals products. It also exports 1,562 billion kilowatt hours of electricity annually. The country had a frighteningly high unemployment rate — 14.3% — in 2010. It has a fairly high tax burden, with its VAT (value added tax) of 20% to make the comparison, even higher than it presently is in the UK. Its border with Russia is the fourth highest in Europe, but, from what I managed to see, little of significance is happening along that eastern march. A visitor looks around to try to find a figure in the carpet. What exactly is there in the country's profile that can be drawn as a way to know them? I felt confounded in the main, for there is in the national personality a guard that is rarely dropped, a methodical indifference that with an almost fatally easy sense of disobligation steadily refuses to invite one in. A want of identity is invariably a topic raised but rarely pursued in essential Estonian conversation. I have always considered it depressingly apposite to this situation, a sort of objective correlative, that in Theodore H. White's
Fire in the Ashes, a book that specifically addressed the subject of "Europe in mid-century," an astute, thoroughgoing report documenting the Soviet bloc and the merciless stranglehold that it held on so much of Europe for so long, he mentions the country of Estonia not at all. The country is not named, not referenced, never alluded to, not once. Neither is Latvia or Lithuania, and that includes the index. So much for postwar value.

I mention technology. Skype, the Internet telephone service, was once strictly as Estonian company. It was the pride of Estonia. It was bought in 2006 by eBay for more than two billion dollars. In May of 2011, however, Microsoft went on to purchase Skype for $8.5 billion in cash, the largest acquisition that Microsoft has ever made, but chump change for the Seattle giant. As I say, Estonia is more than just technologically hip; it is mobile-phone addicted and completely Internet-literate. (In 2010, Estonia got rid of every one of its street telephone booths and canceled the use of telephone cards intended for them. The number of calls made from them had decreased by 30 times over the past 10 years, and they were no longer in demand.) In this small country, Wi-Fi is everywhere. Voting can be done on-line by way of a national identity card. I believe that they have more cell phones in the country, percentage-wise, than does the United States, and there they are used for everything from buying newspapers from a vending machine to selecting numbers in the lottery to ascertaining when the next bus is coming. It is amazing how geekishly "connected" the country is in regard to technology. Identity cards in general are popular entry tools. As a visitor to that country, I had to buy a card in the University of Tartu library just to walk around. I may mention here, however, that Estonia is a highly dependent country in terms of energy and energy production. In recent years many companies have been investing in renewable energy sources. Wind power and interest in it has been increasing steadily in Estonia, and many projects in wind, to capture the robust east wind coming across from Russia, or sinewy west wind relentlessly driving in from the oceans, are being thoroughly developed even as I write. The country, which has no nuclear plant, however, is presently investigating nuclear power and looking to increase its oil shale production.

While technological growth is hugely important for the country, one also hopes that coming out of a long night of relative obscurity Estonia will not become a slave to science at the expense of free-ranging imagination. H.G. Wells' verdict on Lenin was that he was "a dreamer in technology." Lenin's gnomic remark, "Communism is Electrification plus Soviets" surely indicates a blind faith in the machine as savior and agent of socialism. As Andre Malaraux told Bruce Chatwin,

As the young have discovered, the secret divinity of the twentieth-century is science. But Science is incapable of forming character. The more people talk of human sciences, the less effect human sciences have on man. You know as well as I do that psychoanalysis has never made a man. And the formation of man is his most pressing problem facing humanity.

Estonia by Alexander Theroux
Fantagraphics Books, 7563 Lake City Way NE, Seattle WA 98115