Teet Kallas – works and adventures of younger years
I am visiting Teet Kallas at his home in Laulasmaa, where he has planted no less than 652 different varieties of tulips in his garden.
“I dare say I have killed off a few,” says Teet squinting in the smoke of a Camel cigarette and staring at the tulips.
“Do you go hunting for new bulbs at tulip markets?”
“Never. I get them by post. I used to order them from Holland. Now I prefer Latvia. Their bulbs are more used to our weather.”
At first we sit inside, slurping the coffee made by Alla Kallas, and for a long time I am at a loss, as I clearly see that Teet is itching to go somewhere. He had mentioned the shooting of another soap series where he is the scriptwriter but that was on Sunday. Then I notice his restless hands and finally it dawns on me.
“You are dying to have a smoke, shall we go to the balcony?”
“Yes, let’s go.” Strange that he did not say so himself before. He is now lighting one Camel after another: “The doctors suggested I not quit. I’ve been smoking for ages. My health is not that good. If I suddenly quit, who knows what might happen.”
Teet Kallas’s acclaimed novel Jingle was recently reprinted.
“Teet, Jingle came out again. Has there been any reaction yet?”
“It seems the publishers’ hopes for large sales were all in vain; the books are gathering dust.”
“The Writers’ Union chairman, and some critics said it was one of the best books in the Estonian language ever. A cult novel, no less.”
“The joy of rediscovery for some, perhaps. I was in Pärnu last autumn, at a show-off conference of our capitalist fat cats. They invite one writer or another to glamorize the atmosphere. My books sold like hot cakes. Somebody bought one, and the others had no choice but to follow suit. True, half the men said: “This is for my wife.”
“So they wouldn’t have to read it …”
Kallas laughs: “My poor hand was worn out from all those autographs. I usually do not attend that kind of shit, but Pärnu was actually great fun.”
“What was your paper about, what did you tell them?”
“What’s there to tell? I talked about the times at the end of the sixties, seventies. Well, you know, the KGB and the rest of it. I think they listened pretty keenly. Successful gentlemen or those pretending to be successful. I saw their cars parked in front of the house. The crisis was about to hit and everybody was talking about saving and economising, but I had never seen so many Ferraris before.”
“People in wealthy countries like Norway often drive round in total wrecks, but not here. I just met an Australian girl who was really amazed at what she saw – in Australia you drive a car until it falls to pieces, but in Estonia everybody stuffs his arse into a brand new model.”
“We just have to go through this phase, I suppose. Some drivers shouldn’t be allowed to drive at all. I, for example, do not drive. There's a man who comes here every year, a Ukrainian builder. He seems to have a problem with me not having a car. Six months before he had asked about it, but he forgot. I explained that I take trams and trolley buses, where I can listen to what people talk about. He was fine with that – indeed, he once used public transport himself, and it was interesting to him. I’d say that about half of the writers do not own a car.
During the Soviet era, I did have a vague plan, thought that perhaps I should get one. The Writers’ Union distributed permits to buy cars, and I even had the money. But I kept postponing it – ha-ha – and gave my permit to others. I was then the secretary at the Writers’ Union. I got driven around in the cars I gave away. Once to Viljandi, when they staged my only play there. In winter. We threw a party for the actors. It was a trivial play, Four Conversations About Love, actually suitable for a TV programme.”
“Why haven’t you written more plays? Your dialogue flows beautifully.”
“No idea really; I just don’t want to. I actually almost went there, you know, an amateur actor, was even invited to join a professional theatre. So I’ve seen this stuff from the inside. At first everything seemed big and holy and exciting. I got small bits in television and films. Still at school then. But then there was military service, and problems at school. I was not allowed to sit the final exams. I was drunk and there was some political misunderstanding as well. Had to repeat a class because of Lenin. Allegedly I had misbehaved at a meeting dedicated to Lenin. I fell out totally with the class teacher. I was dragged from class to class, because I edited the school almanac, and it had to appear. I wanted to be transferred to evening school. Got badgered for smoking all the time, dreadful nuisance, got fed up. Besides, I was earning my own living, through journalism and other such stuff.”
“The famous Tale of the Tall was published when you were in school?”
“Yes, it was written in secondary school. And was supposed to be published as my first book. However, because of my pranks and hooliganism the plan was scrapped. It appeared in the magazine Noorus (Youth) in autumn 1962. I read the first instalments in Estonia, but the second part was sent to me to the Russian army, where I had been packed off to. A book would, of course, have been more effective, but it did not do that badly in the mag either. At some later point I went through it again and threw out the most naïve bits. I retained the feeling but the insufferably silly I cut out.”
“What about Horses under the Rainbow?”
“That was written in the army. I called them short stories, but some thought it was a novel. I didn’t think I would ever bother with novels. And now it turns out I have written the thickest of them.”
“You were quite a literary Wunderkind. Did this perhaps cause some psychological effects which led to rebellious acts, drinking and mischief?”
“Well, I was spinning pretty fast, and the army was the obvious solution.”
“Spinning? You mean you felt almighty, life was jolly, and the girls…”
“No. That ended rather quickly. I have been very lucky. Sometimes you do get too big for your boots, but then something always happens. I was relieved when I went into the army and left all that behind.”
“Let’s look at the work of your younger years, chronologically. Tell me what you like or what you don’t, and what you feel about them now.”
“How many books are there actually? 25?”
“I found 23 on the Internet, but it does not list everything. The first, So Much Sunshine, was published in 1964.”
“The first book was obviously quite important to me. It had a story called Toivo Võrk, a Young Communist, and Alla chucked it out when she translated the book. Said it was too red. The story had a real prototype in the midst of his Komsomol career. It is the only story of that type I have written. We all have had a few, if you look around. Even Jaan Kross. The first book together with the communist Alma Vaarmann – a history of the Estonian workers’ theatre. Laaban wrote an ode to Stalin when he was young. He claimed he had meant it as a parody, although nobody noticed that. I was fascinated with the events of 1918, but I have never written about them. Won’t either.”
“Still, you have now written the first part of your novel trilogy about life in 1969, a complicated period in your life, and you had to do some research for that, right?”
“No. I had notes, written since 1968.“
“The next book is The Strange Light of Avenues.”
“My first collection of short stories. Uneven. Showed possibilities, trends. The first science fiction stories. A few adequate stories, and some in fact rather good that I am not ashamed of even today.”
“I have the feeling that your short prose is sounder than your novels, more compact. I really enjoyed Arvi’s Fireplace, and that story about an August hurricane.”
“For a while I had the same feeling. Some stories travel around the world quite successfully. I once found on the Internet – someone in America put together a PhD thesis on Yearning for the Storm, a story written in the third person singular. He put me in excellent company, Kafka and the like. The most travelled story is Back to the Rocks. I prefer The Meeting, that strange story; eight attempts have been made to turn it into a film, but something always goes wrong.”
“Exactly. I was recently supposed to produce the script, but I got greedy and in the end they could not afford to pay me.”
“The Ukrainians were keen on it too. A studio in Kiev.”
“The next was A Bloody Pillow in 1971?”
“Well, that was a jolly one to do. Two stories were immediately chucked out, and one I removed myself. It is still unpublished. I had quite forgotten about it. Descriptions of a lunatic asylum. When it came out, shrinks who knew nothing about me wanted to meet me – apparently I had been spot-on in my description.”
“The fourth book – Shadows on a Rainbow. Three stories for young adults.”
“What to say? I was young when I wrote that, part schoolboy, part soldier.”
“I read them when I was young too. Powerful stuff. Can’t produce that kind of thing in old age; youth is an asset.”
“Naïve stories, but with a certain feeling, hopeful.”
“The next was Jingle, which we've already mentioned, and then The Last Murder.”
“I bumped into a friend after the latter came out, and he said: 'I expected something much better after Jingle.'” (Laughs.) You shouldn’t actually write similar things one after the other, and Murder has several decent stories. I didn't want to get stuck in one type of writing.”
“Stories of Evening Light?”
“I remember there was some kind of hullabaloo around it.”
“The Case of Engineer Paberit?”
Kallas chuckles at length: “Yes, well. It was Paberit that had the loony-bin tales, and not the Bloody Pillow. Paberit had a most vital prototype all right. I wrote another story about him as well, and may write a third before I die. The other story was The President’s Visit, where a man turns up and offers his services as president. He has done thorough research on it, all recorded in a thick notebook – decides he would make the best president. This hasn’t been published in a book. I haven’t bothered with short story collections for some time. The prototype is mostly a perfectly normal man, but occasionally sinks into a manic state. His name, by the way, is Enn. His wife is sensible. Before the last presidential elections, Enn produced a homepage, with a list of events and Enn’s fantasy is that he will celebrate his 65th birthday in his own garden, with a male choir, and then he indeed becomes president. He is a bit vain too. From time to time, he tells me what he has done, hoping I will write another story about him.”
“Corrida was written purely for money. Just like Balzac did. I had borrowed heavily to buy a summer cottage. Had to pay it back the following year. It was ten thousand roubles and I had paid only one. I wrote for the novel competition, hoping to get some sort of an award, and then it would be published too.”
“Did you manage to pay off your summer cottage?”
“More or less. The award wasn’t that much – three thousand. But the book in those days fetched over ten grand.”
“Was Oskar Kruus Rass’s prototype?”
“No, he wasn’t. Kruus decided he was, all by himself. I could not care less. He made a big thing out of this non-existent prototype business and said he had to put up with it, as the character was positive. I had no prototypes whatsoever. Except the bulls.
Still, the dramatic happenings connected with the novel Niguliste, involving the KGB, are perhaps more of interest here. When I was arrested, they took the manuscript too. Of course I only had it in one copy, the way manuscripts were then. It was on my desk and the Russian KGB men took it, just in case. When I got out, I did not get the manuscript back for quite some time. Years later, a KGB officer, also a writer, brought me a sheet of paper from his office, and I put it at the end of the book. It was the certificate issued by the main censor, a former boxer named Adams, written by someone else. Only one sentence – 'Niguliste is not anti-Soviet after all.' I am grateful to Adams to this day. I was arrested in 1969 and got out in 1970, without much fuss. Once I shouted in the Gloria restaurant – Down with the Soviet power! Nothing happened. But they had great plans for me …”
“Wanted to turn you into a KGB stool pigeon?”
“No. I think it was an attempt to set an example. It was a confusing time. The thaw was over, although they did not quite resort to violence either. Threatened politely. I was even offered the services of an interpreter – I refused. I had been watched for a year – I worked then at the Looming magazine.”
“You didn’t realise you were being watched?”
“I was so naive. I even had no idea what the letters KGB stood for. They showed me pictures where I was talking with various people. I’m sure they thought they had found the right guy. Writers’ House was an easy place to keep an eye on someone; there were always lots of suspicious people hanging about. A smart move on the part of the security people – to have non-Estonian speakers follow the cultural people – what on earth can you expect from this sort of thing!
For example, my employment certificate listed both Looming and Loomingu raamatukogu [Library of Looming magazine – a small publisher of good-quality literature, still going strong - Ed], as they were a joint publishing company. And then the same Colonel Podkov asked me whether I was materially responsible for anything. I could not understand this – what material responsibility? 'But what about Loomingu raamatukogu!' he said triumphantly.”
“Oh right – Teet Kallas is responsible for a whole lot of books!”
“Exactly. What a relief when I heard that. I realised the level of that interrogation. My hands were slightly shaking. After all, I hadn’t known how serious this could become. When I shouted the sentence in Gloria restaurant, I was taken to the militia station. The boys there were worried, thought this could have grave consequences. Then they said they would go and find out who was the public prosecutor that day. It turned out the prosecutor was a young woman, actually a friend of my girlfriend long ago. She was terribly flustered, said she would fine me ten roubles and I should pay it at once. I said I would, but wondered whether things would become nasty afterwards. She said they might. About a month later, I read in the paper that the chief prosecutor complained about some punishments being too lenient. The prosecutor, the girl, phoned me thirty years later and said she had been raked over the coals because she had not started criminal proceedings.
On 10 October 1969 I went to work – and strange things happened. I saw a white Volga car moving towards me against the traffic. Next, at a street corner I was suddenly surrounded by three thugs. Very polite, although that was the last time I was addressed as Comrade. Eight men searched my flat, and all spoke Russian only. They got quite excited when they found a collection of short stories by Juri Kazakov, with the author’s dedication to me. I also had some posters by an American artist that revealed the evils of capitalism. Among them there was a picture of a naked woman. The comrades giggled like teenagers!
However, after a while they phoned for a specialist, who immediately found what they were looking for: various letters from ‘unsuitable’ persons, political epigrams I had written at the age of twelve, caricatures of the great Soviet leaders etc.
I was made to understand that if I behaved properly, I might get off lightly. But I did not behave properly; I did what I needed to do.
Paul Kuusberg at the Writers’ Union tried to protect me. He did not sack me from Looming magazine. When I was released after a year or so, from a lunatic asylum, Kuusberg advised me to leave Looming of my own free will, for health reasons or something. So my record was clean.
Then I freelanced for 17 years, didn’t even try to find a job.”
“Did you manage to get by?”
“The first years were pretty difficult. Still, my Russian colleagues said that after their release from prison they could not get anything published for ten years and had to earn their daily bread with translation work, whereas I had a short story published in Estonia almost at once.”
“You had been to the loony bin once before, hadn’t you? Of your own free will.”
“Yes, I had a little rest there after one particularly difficult summer. It was connected with some sort of paranormal phenomena and the world beyond, but I won’t bore you with all that. I was never officially diagnosed.”
“Were the paranormal ideas useful in the novel Jingle?”
“No. It’s an ordinary science-fiction book.”
“Would you say that Jingle is your magnum opus?”
“No way. I don’t have a magnum opus. The most successful seems to be Corrida. I think it has been translated into 5-6 languages.”
“You wrote that in a few months, and it won an award?”
“The first place award was not given; Corrida got the second place award.”
Kallas continues at length with the adventures of his younger years, which I manage to wrench out of him. How he proposed to Alla in a café, the first time he set eyes on her, and how the marriage has survived for decades. And how the tiger in the Tallinn Zoo bit off his finger and how several Russian writers produced short stories based on this incident, although he himself didn’t.
Kallas shows me his little studio house in the garden. Very cosy. Both for churning out the next soap series, as well as for working on his novel trilogy. When I finally take my leave, Kallas stops at the gate. He seems to be contemplating what he has so carelessly told me, and how I might use the material, but then he shrugs, lights the next Camel and says: “Oh well, you do what you want with this. I don’t give a damn.”