laupäev, aprill 28, 2012

eat your heart out, truman capote

Which one of you will be the next one of us?
Once upon a time, Estonia's writers inhabited a world in which they created works of art deemed culturally significant and also managed to sell these products to the masses. Or so it is thought. I personally do not know how hungry the workers of Tallinn were for Friedebert Tuglas' epic poem about the 1905 revolution "Meri," but we are taught that the author and the work were held in high regard, and for these reasons Mr. Tuglas has streets named after him all over Estonia.

Tuglas is important in another way. He founded the Estonian Writers' Union in 1922, helping to enshrine his own significance in perpetuity. He's the granddaddy of the literary scene, the cool cat in the corner with the cigarette holder and the first edition of Voyage au bout de la nuit. In case you are interested, Tuglas is the smart-looking chap at left above. And the thing about Tuglas, is that he has become the model for Estonian writers who fancy themselves as being culturally significant. Each one is like a mini-Tuglas, primping and affecting the posture of a 1920s man of letters.

The main problem for these neo-Tuglases, though, is money. Epic poems are not selling as well as they used to sell. Instead, the Estonian top tens are thick with cookbooks by sexy celebrity witches like Nastja, translations of hits from abroad that have since become a major motion picture (see The Girl with/who ...), and, worst of all, Petrone Print's Minu series books, many of them written by people who are neither writers nor have expressed nor will express a desire to join the Estonian Writers' Union, ever.

To join this union requires consent from the majority of members of the union's steering commitee. I know this because Epp applied and was rejected. Somebody in the Estonian Writers' Union really doesn't like her. For one, she's written several bestsellers of dubious literary merit (a recent Sirp review of Minu Ameerika III mostly centered on the question of whether she had produced journalism, literature, or some peculiar mix of the two, and did not manage to answer that question). Two, she managed to peddle her own literary success into a career in publishing. The number one and number two books in the Apollo chain of bookstores right now are Minu Supilinn and Minu Sitsiilia, respectively.

Here I am reminded of Truman Capote's famous quote about the success of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, which Kerouac claimed he wrote during three caffeine-infused weeks. "That's not writing," said Capote, "that's typing." And that's probably how Estonia's neo-Tuglases feel about Minu authors. They are not real writers. These books are not literature. What are they then? Well, we just can't say right now, but it warrants further study ...

Forgive me, but I don't care who the damn author is, be it a woman who works on a cruise ship in Oman or an activist who likes to take his dogs to Mongolia, so long as the book is good. One of the reasons I like Kerouac is because he was from a working class Catholic family and because his first language wasn't even English -- it was Joual.  And the literary establishment had its knives out for him too. He was called a "slob running a temperature" and an "imposter" and his book was dismissed as a "sideshow full of freaks."

Most of my favorite writers have run similar gauntlets. Some might argue that it is this irreverance that makes them truly great. And yet there is that sting, the pain of being cast out, excommunicated, not deemed worthy of belonging. When Epp inquired from a union member (and best-selling author) about how one gains access to the Estonian Writers' Union, she was informed that gaining acceptance to the union depends on "who you drink and sleep with." So, apparently I'm to blame for all of this.

I actually did come across some neo-Tuglases on a spree last summer. It was like something out of A Clockwork Orange. There were strange gentlemen dressed like Zorro alternately falling down and trying to stand up outside a liquor store. One writer passed out across from me, snoring on the table. The other passed on my wife in my presence and ordered another bottle of wine. But they are members of the union. They have what it takes, and therefore access to its perks, like the keys to the writer's retreat at Käsmu where Estonia's finest can channel the ghost of Tuglas surrounded by lush forests and pristine bays.

These local squabbles intrigue me because I am not an Estonian. I relish it the same way Northerners enjoy tales about Southern family feuds. Those silly country people! Look at how they all hate each other! Isn't it adorable? I have the luxury of having another homeland. And, truth be told, I fear trying to crack into the American literary scene for the same reasons that one might be intimidated by the Estonian Writers' Union. Just take the Estonian situation and multiply it by 300.

I've thought of joining the Estonian Writers' Union, sure, but I doubt they'll accept me. For one, I am not an Estonian. And for two, I've been sleeping and drinking with the wrong person. That's all fine with me though. I don't want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.

reede, aprill 13, 2012

barbarians at the gate

They call this cuisine.

It all came out over dinner. I agreed to make something quick, put the penne to boil in one pot, the broccoli and garlic and olive oil to simmer in another. When the meal was ready my children lined up like youths in a 19th century British orphanage. I ladled a serving on to each one's plate. Then the eldest made for the refrigerator

"What do you need?" I said. "I'll get it for you."

"Ketchup," she answered.

"Ketchup? For what?"

"For the pasta."

"Are you joking?"

"No." And she proceeded to grab the handle on the refrigerator door, so I stepped in front of it.

"No child of mine puts ketchup on her pasta."

"But I want to!" she cried, and then she pushed at me. I held the refrigerator door tight but she had her hands on it and wouldn't let go.

"Who does that anyway? Who puts ketchup on their pasta?" I asked while we struggled.

"Our babysitter does! She does it all the time."

I let out a sigh. "But the babysitter is an Estonian," I said. Both children looked up at me with inquisitive Finno-Ugric eyes. "Estonians are ..." I wanted to say barbarians, but I stopped myself … "Estonians don't know how to cook pasta so they boil it until it turns to glue. They don't know how to eat it, so they cut up with forks and knives. And they think that ketchup and tomato sauce are the same things because they are both red." I made a sad face and shook my head. "But, look, it's not the Estonians' fault," I said. "They just don't know any better."

"Are you done now?" the eldest one asked.

I nodded.

"Good, so now can get the ketchup, please?"

"Fine, you can eat your pasta with ketchup," I said. "But not in front of me because I want to be able to eat my meal without throwing up."

Neither child seemed fazed as I left the room to eat alone. A minute later, the eldest called out to me. "Daddy, there's something wrong with this ketchup! It's too spicy." I returned to inspect the scene. "Oh, well, look at that. That's just too bad," I said, holding up the bottle. "This is curry ketchup. Looks like we don't have any real ketchup left." The child had pounded a large circle of the reddish slop onto one side of her plate, I saw. Fortunately, most of the pasta had been spared.

I used to kid my Irish friends growing up about putting ketchup on their pasta, but the truth was that the local Italian communities had a civilizing effect on the other ethnic groups, so by that time they were at least putting some kind of bottled sauce on it with a name like Prego or Ragu. I am not even sure when the idea even crossed my mind that one could put ketchup on pasta. Maybe I thought it up one day, the way a child tries to conjure monsters or aliens. Imagine that. Imagine if someone would be so gross as to eat pasta with ketchup. Could you imagine?

I first saw it done with my own eyes in Denmark. The young man in the dormitory sat across from me in the communal kitchen. When I saw that he was eating spaghetti I thought him refined. But when he reached for the dreaded red condiment, and then pounded it all over the luscious steaming noodles, my heart plummeted like a pigeon egg off the Empire State Building. It was an act of desecration, like trying to fix a Mac Book with a chainsaw. It just wasn't done. But at least that barbarian wasn't my own kid!

I learned all these things as a child. I remember my mother teaching me how to twirl the pasta. It would take her hours if not all day to make sauce. Which is why I find the idea of just pounding some preservative-filled crap onto imported pasta to be so shameful. My internal sense of culinary superiority has gotten me in trouble elsewhere in this land. When asked by a tabloid about what I didn't like about Estonia, I said the obligatory consumption on all holidays of pork by products and beer. I was trying to be original! Everybody bitches about the weather. For this I was labeled a "health fascist" and accused of spitting in the eyes of the Estonian people by insulting their cuisine.

Cuisine? I thought. These poor lost Estonian souls actually think that their sausages and beer are cuisine? But I didn't say anything else. I laid low. I still want to be able to walk down the street and avoid eye contact with my neighbors in peace, like everybody else, you know. And I guess I should be less judgmental. Let the kids have their ketchup. Lead by example. Deeds, not words.  This is my lot in life. Had I married a German, I'd be up to my neck in sauerkraut and bratwurst. An English and I would be sneezing tea and farting crumpets. A Greek and I would be stomping grapes and slaughtering goats. And it could be worse, right? They could be eating their pasta with mayonnaise!