With Mihkel Mutt’s (1953) first novel since his hefty work The Cavemen Chronicle (2012), the unparalleled master of Estonian irony has emerged from the haze of the past, shrugged off the burden of memory, and committed himself to making sense of the present. There is a glint in the author’s eye and a noticeable spring to his step as, speaking through a well-balanced array of voices, he questions the concepts of nationality, identity, and pride from within, without, and on multiple levels: personal, regional, national, and continental. Mutt asks what has become of the notion(s) of Europe, observes the trajectories of its central cities and small, provincial nations, and draws parallels to and contrasts with the popular, often mistakenly interpreted historical understanding of Rome and the barbarians. Addressing a highly topical issue – migration (not only originating from outside of Europe’s conceptual borders, but also to and from within) – his sarcastic wit is as acerbic as ever. Mutt has put the past to rest, and his writing clearly thrives here and now with a renewed zeal.


Prologue in Bruxelles

Two gentlemen discussing Eastern Europe

The older man spoke, for the most part. He had a hairline streak of mustache, paper-thin earlobes that let the light pass through, and was entirely of gentlemanly stature otherwise, so it took only one glance at him to remark: “A diplomat, I presume!” There was an element of truth to this, as Ograc van der Velde had indeed started out as a career diplomat. Furthermore, his superiors had noticed his conceptual aptitude and promoted him to the “inner circle”. Lately, he had been responsible for the former socialist countries and was considered to be the leading ideologist of several corresponding doctrines. He had just been appointed to lead the newest division, and the younger man was made his assistant. Therefore, he believed it necessary to acquaint the latter with a few fundamental truths.

Within the Eastern European Division (but also in the Curatorium, and even in the ECDU more broadly), there existed a concept of “Eastern-Europeanness”. This term was not in the official parlance, but was used colloquially, and even then, it was employed humorously or with mitigating disclaimers to leave open the possibility that the speaker actually meant something different, and that things were “the exact opposite”.

Only occasionally, furiously and with the loss of self-control, could someone lambaste that phenomenon and snap, for instance, that Eastern Europe is a pain in the ass (PITA).

There were definite (albeit unofficial) regulations at the Curatorium concerning how far one could go when making jokes at another’s expense. For example, the rules on African countries were strict: under no circumstances was one allowed to say that they were a “pain in the ass”, even if that was what they were. The remark was forbidden in the address of Muslims, Kosovans, Palestinian Arabs, Inuit, Australian Aboriginals, and a few others. In their cases one was to nod, smile broadly, and imply that behind it all lay the legacies of former colonizers, which are long like plutonium’s half-life. Eastern Europeans had been counted among the almost-untouchables until just recently. Although there had been a shift in that domain as of late, it left its stamp on the two gentlemen’s conversation.

“You do understand what I’m trying to say?” Ograc asked, grinding his teeth. Again! it flashed through his mind. I just don’t know how to talk like a proper human being anymore. All I do is make admissions, indications… Yuck! The man’s new subordinate was Janosz Securitate y Gasset, who had formerly been the Vice Secretary of Foreign Trade at the Balkan Economic Aid Group. When the legendary Van der Velde offered him the position as his personal aide, it meant a giant leap on the career ladder. Therefore, Janosz was brimming with eagerness to learn and remained deferentially quiet, waiting for the esteemed civil servant to continue. Van der Velde was, however, busy reflecting his anxieties.

“We are professionals, needless to say, and shouldn’t turn every little thing over and over like a hot potato in our mouth,” Ograc gushed in a stream of consciousness. True, that tendency was already old and ordinary. But the rifts were especially great with some topics. And all things considered, he had once, at the very start of his career at the Curatorium, highly enjoyed that paraphrastic style. It had seemed like a secret tongue of the committed: intellectually rich and aristocratic. Later, he had simply gotten used to it. Recently, though, the manner of speaking had become increasingly disagreeable. I’m getting old, Ograc reflected. Man’s tolerance for stupidity, intrigue, beauty, and everything else weakens year by year. Hah—I should really just pack it in for a while and fly off to Saint-Tropez… Nevertheless, Ograc was a professional who was familiar with several meditation techniques, and had devised contra-methods for overcoming these moments of weakness. He simply needed to focus his mind on something lofty and ideal, to consider mankind’s higher merit, and his sense of responsibility would swiftly triumph over reluctance—his body would be flooded with fresh energy, as if a back-up mechanism had been triggered. Usually in such instances, Ograc would concentrate his thoughts on Cardinal Metternich.

“I’d like to direct your attention to one particular,” he continued after taking a small sip of his White Russian. “Allow me to begin metaphorically. As psychiatrists are aware, some young women display an obsession with the fantasy that somewhere, there is a gentleman or even a prince, who has vowed to take her hand in marriage. They see themselves as Cinderellas, enchanted beauties, or who the hell knows what. They are dead-set on this idea and behave accordingly. This breeds astonishment, ridicule, scorn, and anger in those around them. For example, a girl like that will reject, so to say, “normal” marriage proposals from on high, citing the superior prospects she has imagined for herself. Ah, yes—there’s something similar in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, if you happen to be familiar.” Gasset shook his head sheepishly and asked him to repeat the name, tapping it into his smart phone. “What causes an aberration of this type is not important right now. What does matter is the fact that some Eastern Europeans also possess the strange ability to identify with those, who they are actually not. We come across a particular kind of wishful thinking in their case; an altered sense of reality. Living in relative material poverty (compared with us, naturally) and having relatively little to offer in terms of an historical past or cultural riches (compared with us, once again, although there does exist a certain hierarchy among Eastern Europeans themselves, which is inarguably more prominent, and occasionally even equivalent in regard to, say, the former members of the dual monarchy), they love to speak out about Europe’s “civilizing mission” and “the white man’s burden”. Oh, yes—they’ve even exhumed that corpse of an expression from apparently not the deepest of ideological graves.”

Janosz Securitate y Gasset listened to Ograc in wonder. What cognitive range!

“Let us recall that they, again in a spectrum of stages and variations, were occupied for eight hundred years by Romance peoples, Eurasian nomads, Germanic tribes, and who all else. We observe how yesterday’s subject,” here, he cleared his throat, “I won’t use the word “slave”, might, figuratively, make a mess of it all. It seems that now, at a time when they should be bonded to civilized Europe by common values, they appear to support an outdated imperialistic desire to oppress the Third World. It’s outlandish déjà vu! Their zeal is made comical by the fact that if you leave the wrongdoings of colonialism aside for a moment, then the Brits and the French, the Dutch and the Spanish truly have been capable of projecting their power. They were peoples of accomplishment, all the same. Yet, these nations are not: first of all because the social climate has changed, of course, and secondly (and this is crucial right now), because they lack the resources and the prerequisites. And still, they come here and instruct us, the old cultural nations, how we should behave; they come to remind us of our own rules and inherited ideas. They rub it in that we must stay European!” Ograc drummed his fingers dramatically on his notebook computer.

“True, they don’t do so bluntly or obtrusively, at least they haven’t thus far, but there are signs that the situation is changing in tandem with the refugee crisis. Some have already occasionally remarked that the way this is going shows they lack a nursery. The comparison to children is entirely relevant. Those Eastern Europeans are a little ungrateful, and they will be until they grow up and realize all the good their parents have done for them. Alas, a pedagogical diagnostic of this kind is of no use at the present, for once again, according to the rules we ourselves have enforced, those big Eastern European children have the right to their own opinion.”

A pigeon appeared next to the table, its head bobbing back and forth like a sewing shuttle, pecked at something on the ground, surveyed the area peppily, and doddered onward. An Eastern European! Janosz thought, and he blurted:

“Their likes should be put in reform school!”

His companion delicately ignored the outburst, and continued.

“They say they are back in Europe. What do they mean, “back”? Of course, a few of them—such as the Czechs and the Hungarians, even the Poles and some others, to a certain extent—were indeed a part of Europe. But not quite, all the same, especially if you account for logistics in earlier centuries. Back then, a few hundred kilometers was a tremendous distance. The Balts? How can you claim on the basis of twenty or so years (because that was how long they had their own countries between the two wars, all by the grace of the Brits), not to mention that these were years spent far on the periphery, that you’re already a part of Europe! I realize that this rhetoric was necessary at the time to prop up the Balts’ spirits. There’s a teensy difference between breaking in somewhere and restoring a place that once belonged to you. Knowing that you used to be worth something helps you to make something of yourself again faster. But a sober observation makes it clear that they have never been in Europe, and are knocking on its door for the first time now.”

“Yeah, where’d they get that idea?!” the younger man marveled. “By that logic, anyone can regard themselves as anyone!”

Watchers Across the Water

Old Mr. Woodpecker’s grandson, his firstborn Lauri’s son Aigur, left his parents’ house in the small German town of N. at a young age. Not after a falling-out, but to see the world and for self-development. First, he studied for a semester and a half at a college in Dessau, then traveled to Portugal and Brazil, from which he returned to Europe a year and a half later—to Italy, more precisely. Everywhere he spent some time, he expanded his education at any universities he was awarded scholarships to attend. He was also a poet, but earned money by translating travel guides for Estonian companies, since he was fluent in his father’s native language (as he was in his mother’s Lithuanian). He met Rehana at a Goa poetry festival where they were both performing. They developed a liking for each other, which evolved into a relationship. Rehana had studied culturology in France. She wanted to become a social scientist. They met twice more: in Bucharest and in Vienna.


I sat on the shore of the Bosporus and stared across the water towards Europe. There, there is peace, and it seems like the sun shines eternal. People are polite, and everyone has enough to eat and drink. I’d like to raise my kids there. There, crazy people won’t gain power anymore. There, leaders don’t stick you in jail if you say something about them that they don’t like. You’re not beaten to a pulp or raped for it.

A female friend of mine, a newspaper reporter, was flogged. I managed to run away. I don’t desire a life like that. I get the sense that Europeans themselves don’t always realize how lucky they are. They’ve gotten so used to peace and balance over the seventy years it’s existed in most parts of Europe that they take it for granted. They’re unable to imagine what it means to stand in line for bread for hours at a time; to fear for your life every day; to be afraid of the bombs enraged religious fanatics set off, one after another. Aren’t peace and balance the utmost human necessity? Some complain that it makes a person too comfortable, and spoils them. But are fear and worry then better companions? Do they spoil one any less? In Europe, people live their sole, unrepeatable life more or less the only way it’s possible to live one on this Earth. The majority of us who live here, on the other hand, have to be perpetually ready for this one and only life to go unusually and unnaturally—there’s nothing we can be sure of. That’s why I and many people I know want to go to Europe. Would I ever like to return? I don’t know… No, of course I would, if life here was different. But isn’t it possible, then, that one day a peaceful life will arise in this region of the world, too? That people will start to prefer democracy and everything will go the same way it did in Europe after the World War, once people had learned their horrible lessons? My intuition tells me that although peace will come, life will still never become similar. The people here are very different, in some ways; their enmities are different, and those will last for hundreds of years to come. I won’t live long enough to see the end to them, in any case. And right now, I’m unable to change it. I want to live my sole, unrepeatable life in a normal world. I’m a person, too.

Aigur and I will meet soon, and we’ll live happily ever after in Europe.



I sat in Lisbon and stared across the water. I thought about how I don’t want to stay in Europe; I thought about how there is too little room and too little air here, and I’ll suffocate. I thought about how it isn’t quite the world my mother and father had dreamed about behind the Iron Curtain. People have turned lazy and idle, living solely for the present, or they’ve become armchair revolutionaries who search for a watch that’s fallen into water not in the spot where it actually sank, but where the water is shallower.

Last week, I was in Venice. I was sitting on the shore—on the Lido—just like now, and staring across the water towards San Marco. That dazzlingly beautiful city, one of the former cradles of New Europe, is physically sinking and fading away in every sense, save one: it’s become a theme park. As such, on the scale of the whole wide world, it is a symbol for all of Europe. Some Europeans are fatalists, who reckon that everything will go however it does. A portion of these comprises masochists in turn, and another portion is the nostalgics. On top of that, there are the utopians, who believe that good words will triumph over foreign forces, and compete in their shows of hospitality. Then, there are also the naïve, who see no difference between Venice and theater decorations. Therefore, they all love the city. There are very few sensible and sober-minded people. They would shut Venice down, would quarantine it and allow no more tourists and witnesses. That city’s atmosphere and mood, its entire ambiance closes people’s eyes and ears and dulls their wits. The people who visit Venice turn into lovers of fate. And thereby Europe’s downfall, which is happening anyway, only gains momentum.

That lovely but tired city, the decadents’ Mecca, which wells with the aura of an old world doomed to disappear!

It sounds crazy, but when I was sitting there on the Lido, I started drawing parallels to my father’s childhood home—to a little town in the Estonian periphery, where as a child I spent many summers with my grandparents. It had been a rather important manufacturing center during the Soviet era; now, everything there’s been downsized, is turning derelict, and life is drying up. Venice has gotten everything over the course of its history; Lower Yokelville hasn’t exactly gotten anything yet, and nor will it ever. One might ask how these two things have anything in common. Yet they do all the same, because both are symbols of Europe fading away.

I want to leave Europe. Nothing’s happening here anymore. It’s a dying continent being drained of its vital sap. But what about those on their way here—won’t they renew Europe? No, you can’t pour new wine into old casks. And that’s the only thing the migrants would do, in the best case. In the best case…

I’ve been considering it for a long time. I know that if I leave here, I won’t come back again. Everything has to be broken off, severed. If I put roots down somewhere out there, then I can start from the beginning; I can keep on living. I decided I’m going to take that step.

How should I explain this to Rehana?

Aigur decided to call Rehana. He saw he’d received a text message:

“O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?”(1)

(1) A reference to Romeo belonging to the feuding Montague family – M. M. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II.