On reaching the age of reason I learned two things. Firstly, that there was no such thing as Father Christmas; and secondly, that there was such a thing as Estonia. An entry in my dictionary proved its existence: it was “a free state on the Baltic”. Nothing to do with fairy tales of the Father Christmas variety. A dictionary meant something solid. Particularly my own dictionary, for this one was of pre-war quality.

In 1949-50, Europe featured in my third-year geography curriculum. I scanned the map for Estonia – to no avail. Estonia just wasn’t there. Perhaps it had gone to join Father Christmas. We were, however, to hear plenty about the USSR, a land where they spoke two hundred languages – which I understood to be Slavonic.

1953, and I was a sixth-former, with German as my strongest subject. I was learning Latin and English as well. I tried to break myself in to Russian too, but couldn’t manage it alone. At the grammar school, a German assistant coached us in conversation. He was quite young, and walked with a limp. He had one leg, having lost the other one in Russia. One day, he told me there was news of great importance. Stalin was dead. I little understood his excitement: I was more interested in girls than in Stalin.

On attaining my baccalaureat the following year, I applied to the Sorbonne to read German; but the School of Oriental Languages also bade me welcome. Russian was the principal course offered. A notice encouraged me to pick a second Slavonic language as an extra option, and even a third language (non- Slavonic) from Eastern Europe. For the first I chose Polish. Then I ruled out Greek, Rumanian and Albanian to leave myself with the outlandish trio of Estonian – wait a moment! – Finnish and Hungarian. This Magyar thing sounded most exotic: I’d been told it had 25 cases. Besides, it was the only one which fitted into my timetable. Hungarian it must be.

1957 saw the Soviet Union, thus far sealed like an oyster, begin to open a fraction. What pearls might this oyster disclose? There was talk of a “thaw” – exchanges – scholarships for Moscow. While I waited, I obtained a grant for a month in Poland, then went to Finland too and picked up the rudiments of the language.

September ’58 found me in Moscow. My Russian was soon down to a tee, but what of the 199 other languages I was keen to explore? I chanced upon a Lithuanian course, but the lecturer – a friend of Pasternak – was promptly “promoted” to Central Asia. It happened that a friend of a friend was able to come to the rescue. A student from Vilnius, his name was “Virgil”: Vergilius Č.

In June 1959, Virgil was going home to Lithuania. Shortly before he left, he proposed I might go with him. Of course, I had no right to do so. Like tethered goats, western scholars were not to stray more than 40 km from Moscow. Wider movement necessitated OVIR authorisation – which, for Lithuania, I had no hope of obtaining. As the notice read: “Lithuania: Forbidden Zone”.

The following week I was in Vilnius. Virgil introduced me to one of his friends, Juozas. Barred from the university on 1956, he was eking out a living as a journalist. One morning he addressed me apologetically:
“I’m being sent on a mission to the far end of the Republic. If you’d care to… What I mean to say is, the Minister of Culture has put a car at my disposal. There’ll be just myself and a driver. We could tell him you’re… not Russian, of course – too risky – but Estonian, perhaps?”
“But – I don’t speak a word of Estonian!”
“That doesn’t matter. Neither do Lithuanians as a rule. And as for Estonians speaking Russian – well, if you go wrong, don’t worry: no-one will be surprised.”

At Telšiai we reported to the hotel. Juozas advised me to say I’d left my papers in Vilnius. The receptionist didn’t seem particularly bothered. “No matter. What’s your name?” We’d thought it all out, except for a name. I hesitated long enough to recall that Poles were numerous in Vilnius, and promptly became one: “Jan Lukasz.” Not bad for an Estonian, as one day, much later, Jaan Kaplinski was to assure me.

Next morning we got back in the car. I took my place but Juozas had to get his mission orders stamped. Left alone with the driver, he turned to me: “So, you’re an Estonian then?” “Uh-huh.” He knew my country. He’d had to drive VIPs there several times.  “It’s a very musical language, is yours.” He was worrying me. Had he any suspicions? He seemed straight enough, but how could one tell? “Go on, say something in Estonian”, he challenged. Oops! What could I say in a language I didn’t know a word of? I saw he was waiting. I swallowed, with some difficulty, and began:

Kuin meren raskaat mainingit mun aatokseni lyö,
Mua kaamoittaapi elämä ja kuolon pitkä yö,
Tule armaani ja kätes anna mulle!

Koskenniemi hardly lent himself to the occasion, but these three lines (which I knew by heart) were the only coherent phrase I could pronounce in Finnish. I expected the worst. He looked at me admiringly and exclaimed: “How beautiful!” I looked down in modesty. “Your women too are beautiful”; he moved the conversation on. “As, indeed, are ours…”

I might have thought that my trials were over, but the hardest test was yet to come. At the last moment a well-dressed gentlemen joined our party. I’d been introduced to him the night before but could only recall that he was something like the Republic’s curator-in-chief of museums. As soon as he had taken his seat he too turned to me and asked: “So, you’re an Estonian then?” I had no time to reply before he launched in: “I adore Estonia. I go there whenever I can. Just two months ago I went to see…” and he pronounced a name I failed to catch and could not memorise, something of a jaw-breaker, though doubtless a famous name since he seemed to assume I must know it. I mugged approvingly. “Where are you from, exactly?” he went on. “From Tallinn,” I parried without hesitation, for I could name no other Estonian town, not even Tartu or Dorpat whose name I must have read in the excellent dictionary mentioned, but had now forgotten. “Which part of the city?” I fired back: “Near the castle.” “An outstanding area,” he opined, and proceeded to go on and on. He lectured us on painting, architecture, literature, and then said to me: “You too have great poets, as we do: and as for that magnificent epic…” – here he pronounced a name akin to the Finnish Kalevala but it must have been something else – I only hoped that he wouldn’t ask me to recite from it.

To cap it all, the car broke down. Not once. Not twice. Approximately every ten kilometres. Five hours passed and we hadn’t come half-way. While the driver delved into the engine, the curator-in-chief led me by the arm to visit an old chapel here and a simple cross there, ancient Christian crosses inscribed within a circle – the old pagan sun-symbol. How kind he was, how enthusiastic; and how much he loved his land. And to think I was abusing his trust.

The car started off once more. Far off in the meadows he pointed out storks. “Do you too have these birds?” “Indeed we do, in great numbers. They nest on the rooftops. Many tales are told of them: they are said to bring babies.” Shamelessly I attributed to their Estonian cousins everything I knew about the storks of Alsace. My audience listened intently. Gradually my heart stopped pounding in my chest and I was soon in my element, presently beginning to feel a feverish excitement akin to inspiration. Lying like a scoundrel, I felt myself slipping into acting the part, as if I had a vocation for the role of impostor. Juozas said nothing. Was he worried? Lips pursed, eyes narrowed, with the self-mastery of an eastern sage, he appeared to be savouring the situation.

Breakdown followed further breakdown. The sun was now low in the sky. We should have arrived hours earlier and we still had had nothing to eat. Famished as I was, the smell of petrol inside the car made me feel most unwell. My nausea was increased by my fear of expressing it. Would I be able to hold out? This fellow had an impressive knowledge of Estonia. Perhaps he even knew a little of the language. If he was to speak to me in ‘my’ own language, I was done for. What was he going to do?

This chap didn’t ask me to speak Estonian. Oh, no. He invited me to sing. “You have such lovely songs,” he said. I explained however, with my heart in my mouth, that I was a musical failure: tone deaf in fact. He wouldn’t have it: “Come now, all Estonians are singers. Before the war, I remember us students taking the boat to Tallinn and singing with our friends over there. Hold on a moment – you must remember this one…” From his expression I could tell he was proposing a duet. He then began to sing a song which, being in Estonian, was entirely beyond me. This time, helped by the nausea, I was overcome by gut fear. I went green. He broke off suddenly, looked at me worriedly, and went green himself.

(Russian sentence: “Of course,” he excused himself, “it’s  a song of the bourgeois time.”)

From then on, he said nothing. Who did he think I was? Had he said too much?

Some days later I arrived in Riga, this time by train. Apart from a brief alert around the old border, the journey was trouble-free. Virgil had given me a friend’s address: “He’ll put you up,” he told me. Riga put an end to the Estonian act. When I arrived at Knuts’ place, or rather his cousin’s, where he lived, half-a-dozen other young people were there with him. I handed him a letter from Virgil, who had prudently avoided specifying my nationality. I tried to get by on an admission that I was studying in Moscow. Was I a Lithuanian? No, no: I was an Udmurt. Knuts replied that he was hardly surprised, since something told him I was no Russian. It was Ligo day – St. John’s Day in Latvia – and the whole troop were about to go out. “You’ve timed it just right,” they said. “Come along with us.” We took the train. That night, thirty or forty of us found ourselves in a clearing, deep in the woods. Some wore white caps, like students in Finland. Bottles of beer were passed round. Pretty blondes (and no less pretty brunettes) took my hands, as we formed a chain to jump over the midsummer bonfires.

The wisest course would have been to return to Moscow, but I was in no mood for wisdom. “My country” was calling to me. In Riga I was uncontrolled, since I had no authorisation, but at least Latvia constituted one of the zones for which I might have attempted – albeit vainly – to gain a visa. Estonia on the other hand was, like Lithuania, a totally forbidden region. “It’d be least risky by plane,” Knuts advised me. “If you want, I can get you a ticket.”

The only identification I had to show was my Moscow University pass. It didn’t state my nationality. In Russian pronunciation, written in Cyrillic on this pass, my name had become Mapo. “If you shift the accent to the first syllable,” explained Knuts, “You’ll be ‘Maru’. That’s a real Estonian name. It means ‘storm’. So, welcome to town, Mr. Jaan Maru!”

Night had already fallen when the plane landed in Tallinn. Despite my name, it was difficult to remain Estonian. On leaving the airport I resorted to asking the way in Russian. My fortunes were somewhat mixed. As had Virgil, Knuts had given me an address: this time a girl student, a violinist…

Next day Ivi called over three of her friends, also musicians. One of them, Ivalo, spoke passionately about Messiaen’s music. All four showed me the Old Town. Yes, at Toompea, indeed there was a castle. The two towers I’d known were not exactly part of it, but no matter! We went out as far as Pirita… In a park we passed by an old gentleman whom my friends pointed out to me with respect. He was a writer, whose name I had never heard: a certain Tuglas.

On my last day, the four of them handed me a present. It was a book – my first Estonian book. The cover was illustrated with a scenic design. In the foreground a wading bird, perhaps a stork, stood in the water with one foot held high. Further off, on the bank, rose the black shape of an oak, whose topmost branches were but stumps which looked to have been struck by lightning, but whose lower foliage was nonetheless exuberant. Beyond, in the meadows, a little boy could just be seen, tiny and frail, running and running in a splash of light…

Beneath this scene, in red, the book’s title: Väike Illimar. On the fly-leaf I found a dedication:
‘Võimatut tahta – kõiges:
Oma töös, oma püüetes, oma unistuses’
– Fr. Tuglas
Mälestuseks Jan’ile
Tallinnas veedetud päevast
(“To wish for the impossible – in everything:
In your work, your aims, your dreams.”
To Jan, in memory of his day spent in Tallinn.)
There was no signature. Only an inscription, in a hand which I would find again… some day.

The plane took off from Tallinn. Estonia was there beneath my gaze, mysterious, fragile, vulnerable, with her rivers, her lakes, her fields and her forests, her towns and villages, forever forbidden to me. The higher we climbed, the more I felt I could, for the first and last time, embrace all of her with a single glance. But the plane was already among the clouds.

I dreamed of my friends, and tears came to my eyes. Ivi had never met me before but welcomed me without hesitation, and must have hidden my true identity from my own people. My visit could have had the gravest of consequences for her, for her friends and all of them, had it only become known in certain quarters. I myself would be in France in less than a month, free to come and go as I pleased. I was sure I would never see these people again. Would I even dare to write?

Back at home, I would be able to talk about them, tell everyone that they were real, write about them and make known everything I’d just experienced. But I knew too that I couldn’t do these things. I had no right. It would actually put them in danger.

On that Moscow plane, I took a look at the book they’d presented to me; leafed through it. What could it mean? It was like a message to which I hadn’t the key. I knew I’d read that book one day, though. I owed them that much. I was going to learn Estonian.

Jean-Luc Moreau
Paris, February 1999.