V: Have you felt great reverence at least once in your life?

T: I have no idea what great reverence is. Whenever anyone talks about the great emotions and events they have encountered, I think with regret and even a hint of jealousy that I’ve never had anything like that. Those never happen to me! Only others have them, if they can be believed. Though I don’t always believe them, either. That is, I believe such things have happened, but I don’t believe the truth is told about them. People lie and conceal. Oftentimes, their stories must be flipped the opposite way around – then, you have the truth. In short, I don’t know whether it’s been great, but I suppose I understand what you mean. Yes, I have. And the reverence, if I can try to recall now, has been more towards little things than big ones. Or when little things suddenly become big. They converge, form a pattern, and I can suddenly see that everything truly is connected – I can even seem to sense how, although that “how” is like a water ripple that instantly disappears. Then, it’s back to not knowing. I can remember that I almost seemed to know, and that’s what matters. It helps you keep on living, that memory – let us say that memory of great reverence. Or, rather, the memory of before what, or in regard to what, that reverence occurred. Even the words “before” and “in regard to” are wrong, because it forms both within and without you simultaneously, and you yourself are always within the thing, not outside of it. Perhaps there are people who are always like that; who know it perpetually. The moments I know are only fleeting and I am grateful for them as well, though they naturally can’t be summoned. They come out of the blue and often happen in entirely everyday situations. They do occasionally occur in holy moments as well, such as in that tiny Syrian church on the Street of the Carmelites (Rue des Carmes) in Paris, listening to Bach cello sonatas that I’ve heard hundreds of times before, the sweltering evening and the fact that my time in that city was coming to an end – in short, I don’t know what happened there, but something happened to me. Even so, my ability to remember it so vividly is solely and purely due to the fact that I wrote about it in a book (Paris: Twenty-Five Years Later). And yet, I’m unsure of whether I really do remember the “thing” itself (it nearly seems so!) or merely what I wrote.

V: Are trees friends?

T: Trees aren’t friends, but they are my comrades. Trees are too different a species living in too different a world to be friends to us, or we to them. Trees’ blood is green, ours is red. Trees do not die like humans or animals do. What I mean by that is a tree will one day no longer exist – there will be a stump, and then not even that – but even so, it’s something different. Often, several new trees sprout from that stump, which is, in essence, still the very same tree. Trees are older than we are. And more important. And more patient. True, human lives primarily unfold at a distance from trees these days, because most people live in cities. But actually, in cities, especially during a hot summer, man has no comrade more loyal than the poor trees that are planted in the asphalt and spread their leaves regardless, providing shade. Not to mention the trees in parks. People flee to their refuge; people can breathe there. We would not exist without trees, whereas we make no great difference to the trees themselves. I had a dream once that I could remember later (well, I wrote it down again, of course). I was dying and didn’t really care – it was neither a good nor bad thing – but suddenly, I remembered that meant I wouldn’t see the trees grow anymore. That knowledge disappointed me. So, I didn’t die. Everywhere you go, there’s that familiar tree you can visit. You can’t say “that” anymore, even though I’m not particularly fond of the new trend of using “whom” and humanizing plants. I do understand the good intentions behind it, but in my opinion, it is a forceful invasion into a world to which I do not belong. Yet, it is a world at the mercy of which we exist. By that, I mean the world of plants in general, of which trees are merely the largest and the truest to us.

V: Are Europe’s current problems tied to the denial of Christ?

T: Ah! The sneakiest, yet seemingly simpleminded and most obtuse question of all! As if I could know the answer. Or anyone, for that matter. I don’t know, but I reckon that yes, definitely. European history as a whole, and by that I mean Europe as Europe, which can be recognized from about the time when Europe was already Christian, is not only tied to the denial of Christ, but is a direct outcome of it. History! Europe. Jesus said to Pilate: My kingdom is not of this world. However, Europe, states, politics, journalism, universities, the internet, books – all are of this world. History is of this world. The sacred itself has no history; it is always the same. But there does exist the history of how people have understood the sacred, which is to say how they have misunderstood it in one way or another. The denial of Christ began on the very same day (as we all know!) that Jesus was judged by Pilate; or more precisely, it began shortly before – during the previous night. For then, as we’ve read, the cock crowed, Peter stepped aside, and he wept bitter tears. The history of Christ is the history of the denial of Christ from the very moment it occurred. After that, Peter went to Rome seeking repentance and death. He found the latter, in any case. You, Viivi, have shown me the Appian Way and other old beautiful and frightful sites within that old beautiful and frightful city.

Tõnu Õnnepalu. Photo by Piia Ruber

V: Does every individual possess their own exclusive way of living that shows anything is always possible, even in impossible circumstances? Or that nothing is possible, even in the most advantageous conditions?

T: Yes, yes, and yes! You may have known that since childhood, Viivi, because it seems like you were very conscious of yourself and your path. Though come to think of it, I did as well. I only strayed into doubt in the interim, as it all seemed too strange. People were living so differently and appreciated such different things than I did. Now, I’ve come to understand that none of it matters in the very least. Firstly, as I’ve already said, it’s not worth believing what others say about their own lives. They secretly live in other ways and for other things. However, they’re not in the habit of discussing these things, and thus, I believe, many are confused. If books and literature are capable of doing anything, then it’s encouraging people to live the life that is theirs – that one exclusive, unusual life. Of telling them not to worry. Everything is strange, everyone is strange. I certainly believe that if people seek anything from books, then it is that courage. As well as from art more broadly. Music, however, perhaps speaks of it in such an abstract language that it’s hard to translate into everyday life – music seems to occupy too central a place among the sacred. The written word has one foot in the earthly kingdom and the other in the kingdom of heaven; of dreams; of oddity. But I don’t know – people don’t read books anymore. I mean they do, of course, but it’s a perceptibly declining phenomenon. Perhaps Europe’s troubles are tied to that? Not only Europe, of course, because there are no solely European troubles. Today, all troubles are global and it’s been long since Europe has been the center of any world. You can only still think of it that way here in Europe. While in Canada writing Acre last fall, I suddenly realized how distant and unimportant Europe is. There, in North America. And yet, America is still somehow European in our fantasies. It’s not, though. Which is to say it is somehow, of course, but observed from that vantage point, Europe is a tiny place somewhere far away. A place where people go to see old buildings and churches. Where and in what country those things are located, exactly – who can later even remember?… But I was talking about books.

V: Is everyone who inhabits their own era an accessory to whatever occurs?

T: It certainly seems more and more so to me. Or it always has, rather. We cannot escape our era. We ourselves are that era. We and nothing else. Which, of course, doesn’t mean one must remain silent. You can remain silent, naturally, which is certainly more fitting than speaking out on occasion, especially if you don’t know what you’re talking about. People talk an awful lot. Everyone is talking, but who knows anymore? Everyone is divided into camps: you have to either be for or against something, there’s no third option. And then, you compete. The other side inherently seems foolish, blinded, duped. You simply have to make it clear to them! Then, they’ll understand. But they never do. You can’t make anything clear to someone by arguing with them. They can only realize. One must be endlessly patient with others. You must go along with them and try to understand the individual, not encouraging their follies but instructing them – it’s a delicate art. Patience and love. Fools are right sometimes, too… In short, I believe that one must first of all acknowledge the basic fact: I myself am also an accessory to all of this. To everything. To the forests being cut down, for instance. It’s so nice to oppose it. But how will that help if we carry on living the way we live, even if we believe our own lifestyle is frugal and ecologically friendly? Oh, how hypocritical it all is! We would, of course, like it if everything we consumed (although we consume ever more as a society, a city, and a state without noticing it and not so much as individuals – what do I really consume, right? A little food and some second-hand clothes…) came from somewhere else. From the Moon. But it won’t. We’re destroying this world and there’s no way out of it, unfortunately. Even so, this doesn’t mean that truth and justice should be denied; that they shouldn’t be discussed, shouldn’t be written about. But you can’t do so directly. Things only go wrong if you do. That’s why we have literature, as much as there remains. Literature is an opportunity to speak out about the most crucial issues in a way that the reader doesn’t immediately figure out someone is trying to make something clear to them again…

* * *

Viivi Luik. Photo by Piia Ruber.

T: You titled one of your essay collections Ma olen raamat (I Am a Book). I can surmise what you meant by it, but perhaps I’m wrong. I’d very much like to hear it from you. Is it that a writer’s life ultimately turns into a book and in the end, they somehow become one, too? At the same time, a writer doesn’t. The person stays the same, do they not?

V: Let’s put it this way: if a person happens to be a writer, then their flesh is solely in service of a book. No matter what that writer does, sees, hears, thinks, or feels, it inevitably turns into a book. So, metaphorically: hands and feet, eyes and ears, bones and limbs, blood and marrow, liver and lung – all the tools without which a human could not physically exist are simultaneously their tools for transforming into a book, no matter how antithetical it may seem. That, which seems “lowbrow” is a part of what is “lofty”, and vice-versa. I always keep one thought I once had handy: where there are roses, there must have been manure once. Where there is a book, there must have been a person. Manure and people are, in and of themselves, soil from which something entirely different can sprout. It is the transformation of the impossible into the possible; it is a miracle. It is what constantly transpires in full view of everyone, but without anyone ever marveling at it.

You, yourself, have stated that an artist is “an agent of that world in this one, and of this world when in that.” I’ve commented on the same idea with a certain sense of mockery by saying an artist is a kind of front-line correspondent who goes from the Eastern Front to the Western Front and back again. That is why I’ve also been thrilled by Curzio Malaparte’s war stories and his “Cricket in Poland”, which is like a graphic illustration of the nature of espionage and being an agent. Writers (or artists overall) have one more quality that you’ve summed up nicely in the following words: 

“An artist should have friends among communists and bankers alike. Of course, it’s not very good if the communist knows you’re leaving him to visit the banker, or vice versa. Better they not know.”

Look at that – you phrased something I’d always thought but had been unable to put into words. So, a writer is someone who translates into the human tongue what other people similarly think and feel but are unable to linguistically express. For the most part, everyone can see but is unaware that they do. Only when someone puts it into words is that which was seen revealed.

All writing, all books that touch or move us in any way, only touch and move us once we encounter our own thoughts, gaze, and secrets within them. We recognize our communion with others through this, as what we deem to be our own secret is actually humankind’s secret in general. Our communion with others encourages us to be ourselves and to live in the way that we alone can live – only through this are we capable of imparting the courage of living to others as well. So long as people need and know that communion, the human world will persevere. When that communion is neither known nor needed, then humans will no longer have a place in the world. It’s possible that a new world and a new human will then emerge, completely different from how we envision the future now. It’s possible that the new has indeed forgotten the old. It’s possible that ancient man will spiral back around to us again!

T: Please speak about your trees. You’ve certainly had them before and have them now.

V: I’d love to have a big linden, but it’s not counted among my trees at the moment. I haven’t a single familiar linden of my very own. But I do truly adore them – their scent and the way they stand so quietly, and the way they’re constructed. Their architecture. You can see it in winter when they are bare.

I had a young, impenetrable fir in my childhood. It was a little taller than ten-year-old me and grew in the middle of a clearing. Beneath it, I buried a candy tin containing three words written in blood: “I’ll get away!” The magic was supposed to have a greater effect if it was in blood. I had to prick the tip of my index finger, dip the pencil in the blood, and then write quickly (or else the blood would run out). That rusted tin is certainly there beneath the fir’s roots to this very day.

I have another fir. It’s bigger than you’d ever believe a fir could grow. It’s in an alpine forest outside Luzern, Switzerland. I spent three months on a grant in the little town of Willisau and would take long walks through the wintery pine forests. That fir gave me courage. I would go to visit it on dark winter evenings, and through its branches I could see a starry sky more majestic than I’d ever seen before. Every now and then, I think about that tree and hope it’s doing well.

There is a scraggly, slanting pine in the woods along the shoreline in Rälby, on the island of Vormsi. For years, I’d always lean my bike against it while I read and swam at the beach. I often think of it, too.

And then there is the tall red beech growing in the courtyard outside the Literaturhaus-Café in Berlin. Between glances up at that tree, I’ve read through several books that have moved me and have heard strange stories told to me by a woman named Getrlinde. That beech is standing there to this day. I go to see it whenever I’m in Berlin, and it’s as if Gerlinde’s stories have been written into it.

Then, there are all the beech woods when their leaves have just unfurled and the sunlight shines through those young leaves. It resembles a hand held up to the light. Blood-glow, just in green.

T: I know that even as a child, Rome was a place you knew you would one day visit. What did you find out there? About yourself, I mean, or about mankind. Is there any other place on Earth you know you’d still like to visit one day?

V: Oddly enough, it was in Rome that I realized this world that we think is changing at an incredible rate of speed actually changes differently than we think. And when it does change, it’s in a way we’d never believe right now. While people in urban centers are going back and forth about artificial intelligence, an ancient poet or Jesus Christ himself might show up in some previously unknown backwater town outside the metropolises and change the world. And what will happen then! Rome implanted the idea. The thought might not have come from anywhere else. If anywhere, then perhaps in New York.

I found out something about myself that I’d never have believed before: that Rome, in all its awfulness and all its beauty, is my home city. Knowing that has some connection to the human secret overall.

I’ve been to all of the places I knew I would get to someday – to Berlin and Paris and Zurich and Rome. Zurich was even on my mind as a child, somehow, and it later turned out this wasn’t without reason, as my faithful friend Heinz Stadler resides in Switzerland. I haven’t traveled to the Middle East or North Africa yet, nor to Jerusalem, Damascus or Cairo, though I’ve constantly looked them up on a map with eyes aflame my whole life. You can’t get to such places without life taking you there, just as it’s taken me elsewhere. If it won’t, then it won’t.

T: What are your thoughts on the future of books? Books have been something incredibly important in both your life and mine. They have shaped us, and I can certainly say that your works are among the ones that have shaped me. Are we in the twilight of the Book Age?

V: The demise of books has been proclaimed many times, but they haven’t disappeared yet. They even survived the furor around e-books – even in Estonia, not to mention Germany. Books won’t disappear as a result of the onslaught of technological gadgets, but only with the disappearance of humans, whose own souls and secrets intrigue and torment. Whether the format is paper or e-book makes no difference if it lacks the human secret or knowledge passed from one person to another. When we speak of the demise of books, then we’re actually speaking of the demise of spirit. If we do live in the twilight, then there is hope that the dawn will soon come.

T: What is the reason you write?

V: Because I can say in words that which is impossible to speak. I’ve spoken before about how, at the age of ten, I longed to express the utter loneliness of a little brown reed – a little brown reed that everyone has seen in every dusky winter twilight, but that no one notices and is of no use. I was unable to express it and have brimmed with it so fully that everything I’ve ever written since is solely for that one little reed.