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Words Without Borders is one of the inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winners!
from the October 2015 issue

At the Manor, or Jump into the Fire

She hoped the pianist would take the other cabanossi for himself. Who knows what Bulgarian horsemeat it was made of—what reason would she have had for trusting Statoil more than anyone else? Actually, she liked horsemeat, and although this cabanossi might not have been horse, and definitely wasn’t quality horse, she was now bolting it down as if she were starving. But the other cabanossi was for the pianist after all. The pianist had to take it himself, in his supple, smart fingers. It was April and the trash had melted out—all that brightly-colored, flying silver from pedestrians and local schoolchildren. The pianist smiled and said that he wasn’t hungry yet. Didn’t the manor house have any badger parfait to offer them?

Manors. Manners. See that you spell “manor” correctly. The ladies of the manor, manor workdays, cabbage-soup-smelling manor schools where the children blew their noses on the curtains.

“What are you talking about?” said the female flautist. “They’re so beautifully fixed up, some of them really tastefully.”

“Listen, in Soviet times they did blow their noses,” said the poet. “On the curtains. I myself was stuck in a manor school for the early years of my life.”

She’d actually blown her nose on her rag—her red scarf that is—but when the rag stuffed in the drawer was already so full of snot that she couldn’t use it any more, she—when on classroom-cleaning duty—did wipe her snotty hands on the curtains. From that window, screened by a curtain on which the poet had wiped her snotty, chalky hands, from that window some love-struck Mathilde must once have stared into the river valley, lost in her lame musings.

Manor tourism. Campers with yellow Dutch license plates in the yard, because no Dutchman is fool enough to shell out for a de luxe suite. Small luxury hotel. Wow, the lawn is velvety smooth, a cute robot mows it, and the kitchen dupes you with fresh plaice, so it thrives.

“Some of these plasterboard-lined rooms at manors out in the sticks recently cost us more than a hotel in central Rome,” said the poet.

“Really,” said the pianist.

“Sixty-four,” said the poet. “Sixty-four euros for a single room and ninety for a twin room, way out in the middle of nowhere.”

Yes, the Baltic Germans left us some architectural gems, no doubt about it. The lady of the manor in a green outfit with puffed sleeves brings your tea to the table, herbal tea, she just now picked some fresh peppermint outside, add some hot water and there you go, but it’s not included in the price, just four euros. Boiled eggs—you don’t always get those for breakfast in Mediterranean countries.  

The poet took a sip from the bottle of mineral water she was offered.

But write up a study of the Baltic Germans and it will be a sensation, nominated for a prize, you might even win the prize. What they all wrote in these places and daubed on canvas and wore and ate and how they behaved on the toilet, just think, they shat here in these very chamber pots. No, of course, I’m not saying anything about where we might have got this camp style from, what else would we put on the candy boxes if the gentlemen hadn’t painted pictures. The Baltic Germans’ yarns, all their yarns, of those with even the slightest connection to Baltic Germanness—they could be translated into Estonian and at least be published in Looming magazine’s library series, couldn’t they? Ah, what we have! We have Bellingshausen, we have Hermann von Keyserling, we have, we have Uexküll, for God’s sake, Uexküll! 

The musicians laughed.

“By the way,” said the violinist, “last year there was a case like that. A whole article came out about how a Baltic German lady was coming to the K Festival. The lady’s husband was playing the flute at the festival. But the article was about the lady and her family, of course, not about the flautist.”

“In other words, a Baltic German crosses the news threshold,” said the pianist.

“What the fuck,” said the poet. The musicians laughed again; she finished the second cabanossi and wrapped the remaining hunk of bread in paper.

“And when we have foreign visitors, then where do we take them? Farmhouse or manor tourism, if you please. A little farmhouse, jellied herring with poisonous Chinese cabbage brought straight from Spain, nine euros. Or how about a trophy room with roast wild boar and local wild berry preserve, thirty-three euros, with seasonal salad for four-fifty, perhaps that same Chinese cabbage, that would be nice, and under the pigskins and stags’ heads is a bunch of jabbering middle-aged Finns. Meanwhile let’s take a look at the graveyard. There they all were, sitting on their little terraces drinking tea, and now they are lying under their heavy tombstones. How were they any worse than us in their hearts? Would we be able to do anything against our own social formation, huh?

“But then, when we’d had enough of looking at those trophy rooms and rose gardens and duck ponds, and the foreign visitors had shrugged, because their own oppressors’ luxury was on a far greater order of magnitude, and in one hall I had found, on the flanks of an exhibited uniform worn by the lord of the manor, a plastic button stamped Made in Uruguay, I told my good colleague H that I would be leaving now, I’d skip the Manorisms and the Baltic Germanisms, and H said he would come too, and yeah, he was starting to feel like a manor arsonist. That was a beautiful moment of spring: feeling like a manor arsonist.”

The violinist smiled. “You have a kind of Estonian genetic hatred,” he said.

“Genetic,” repeated the poet. “I don’t know. And what’s this ‘Estonian’—c’mon. That kind of thing gets on my nerves anywhere in the world. The oh-my-goodness-me-gentry. What shall I do with this hunk of bread?”

“Look, there’s a Rademar bag over there,” said the violinist.

“When I was little,” said the poet, “when I was little I had this dream sometimes that I was a Teutonic knight. I was tied to the ground with a stake, and I understood that this was right.”

“How old were you then?” asked the pianist.

“Oh, about ten or so. I suppose I’d been reading stories about the history of my country and seen ‘masterpieces’ like The Time of the Wolf’s Law.”  

“Poor child,” said the pianist.

“Oh,” said the poet, “you’ve seen that, have you? I didn’t think many people knew that camp stuff.”

“Was Meleleiv in it?” asked the pianist.

Yeah, right,” said the poet, “yeah, Meleleiv! Men in coarse dresses, with long hair, with synth music. That’s the image of Estonians I have from childhood.”

The female flautist, who was too young to remember Meleleiv, said: “They’ve given us a lot though, I mean the Baltic Germans. Where would we be without them—melded into the Slavic peoples?”

“But isn’t our culture a Baltic German invention?” said the violinist. “Didn’t Herder make it up?”

The poet yawned.

“I know some very nice Baltic Germans,” said the flautist. “True nobility doesn’t advertise itself.”

“That’d be all we need!” said the poet. “Damn! It ought to be officially banned. At least the Austrians got that right, when they banned noble titles.”

“And how has that helped?” said the pianist.

“Well,” said the poet, “no one has confiscated the bastards’ property. And you’ll always hear about it when some Schwarzenberg turns up. And Titelsucht still flourishes in academic claptrap.”

“God, yes,” said the violinist.

“But us,” said the poet, “we should at least ban titles. It could be done so that anyone who crosses the Estonian border automatically loses all the vons and zus and dis and des.”

“But aren’t there some titles that we can’t trace?” said the pianist. “You might get some Swahili princess.”

“OK, Swahili,” said the poet. “You’d have to make a register of all the noble titles in the world. Although one probably already exists somewhere. When they’re issuing their visas or documents or when somewhere—well, when they’re announced somewhere, for instance —whoosh, off with them!” She flashed the fig sign at no one in particular. “So much for your titles!”

It was warm in the minibus, cold outside. The pianist laughed and said: “Let them die, the dogs!”

How odd. The poet knew the pianist from before; they’d drunk wine together in the same company a couple of times. And until now she’d acknowledged him with friendly lack of attention. Now the poet noticed that the pianist was verbally skilled. She had already heard at the petrol station how sensitively the man used onomatopoeic words. Trickle, murmur, dither, dangle.

While still a very young and rather touchy equal-rights activist, the fresh owner of a Soviet passport for foreign travel, still far from being a poet, she had gone on her first trip to Western Europe, and in Germany the concerts were invariably at some Schloss, and it was there that she realized for the first time, to her dismay, that without violence and injustice these baroque decorations would clearly never have become so convoluted nor the ceilings grown so high. Pomposity and ornament were embarrassing even in art books and they were cool—without them it would have been somber and bleak. Likewise, in her youthful atheism she had suspected that if there was no imagining of God or memory of it, then the architecture of cities would lack a certain buzz. Now we are here, we have large palaces, which house museums, we analyze vocal expressions of the clergy, it’s as if we have woken from a bad dream, but that dream, a violent dream, in which others have died—must we be thankful for it? 

At one castle reception she had bitten into a decorative banana that tasted distinctly of sawdust.

Huns, she thought. Huns, yet in their hands are pieces of this world, some have larger pieces, some smaller. And then those who try to ape the Huns. Yes, people earning a measly thousand euros a month are now pulling black silk stockings onto their stocky legs and going off to manors, and if they scrimp and save they can even visit the gilded high-ceilinged museums of the world, and afterward they imagine that they practically have pig faces too, they’re practically Huns. We want people to think we’re doing well, woo-hoo, we’re doing well, we’re doing well!

“The master-and-servant dialectic doesn’t work anymore, unfortunately,” said the poet. “Poor Hegel missed that point completely.”

“We just did Hegel in a seminar, and we were talking about that very idea,” said the flautist. She wanted to be and was on the way to becoming a doctor of the flute, so what if she didn’t know who Meleleiv was.

Not at all, said the poet. That dialectic was a beautiful idea. The slave, who has to do the work, gets more and more skilled and wise, while the lords, who only enjoy others’ achievements, gradually sink into impotent sluggishness, and lose their understanding and grasp of things. Beautiful, beautiful. Actually the one who’s subordinate doesn’t learn anything, he doesn’t have time to think about anything but getting by, he’s already like that body in The Matrix that just gives out its energy, he doesn’t have time to wake up because he has no money.

No, said the poet, no dialectical element comes from down there, they eat frankfurters and ketchup there.

And those up above don’t give their power away. They don’t even stuff themselves any more, they eat pure vegetarian food, boiled pike-perch, but by no means do they eat red meat—even if it’s organic—every day. No one knows how to cultivate the customs of ancient Rome any more, only a few people in the arts, and as a rule it tends to be those born before the eighties. They’ve even given up smoking.

“Is that bad?” asked the violinist. “Eating vegetarian food?”

 “No,” said the poet. “No. Or yes, it’s bad that the dialectic doesn’t apply here, that the Huns don’t stuff themselves.”

She looked out of the bus window. It was drizzling a bit; the air was brownish-gray.

The pianist handed her a bottle of mineral water, straight from his own lips, and the poet smiled.

There you are. Our own Laocoön duds—that’s still something.

 

It was an ordinary Neo-Classical manor house with six columns, and quite recently painted a whitish-gray. A large circular lawn spread out in front of the house, still brownish at the moment. On both sides of the lawn paved paths led to the outbuildings and on into the park.

“This one is Aili B.’s—Erato Real Estate,” said the violinist to the flautist.

Nature in April, a pre-presentiment: this pleased the poet. Maybe April was one of the most beautiful months of the year. The cruellest and so on.

“The family will be a while yet. The wife, I mean. The husband and the son are in Greenland right now.”

The estate manager, or managing director of N. Manor, smiled. He had slightly thinning hair, and for that reason American facial features, a broad smile.

“Perhaps we’ll take a little tour—would you like that?”

He started explaining the history of the local manor house, and the poet watched her companions with a wry smile. The coach house had now become an art gallery—or half of it had, for there was at least one actual coach still there. 

“I see,” said the violinist.

“The lady’s Lamborghini,” said the estate manager. “Haha! How many Lamborghinis are there in Estonia altogether, how many?”

They didn’t know.

“The shingle roof?” asked the violinist. “Who put that in?”

“That would be the Egert Katus Group. All of our outbuildings here have beautiful shingle roofs, the whole complex. The sports center, the summerhouse, the garage gallery. But it’s plenty of trouble too, you know what our people are like.”

Just behind the garage gallery the path led to Mr. K.’s house, and this character was constantly giving them trouble. Mr. K. was a drunk. They hadn’t managed to buy his land off him. He just kept hanging round the gallery, drunk, and then of course there’d be trouble. Last spring he claimed that some ice had fallen off the shingle roof onto his head, clumps of it had fallen onto his land. He’d come to the manor with his injured head, drunk as a lord and dripping blood.

The flautist shook her head.

“He probably fell down drunk somewhere,” said the estate manager. “Then he started imagining things. He came staggering in with clumps of bloodied ice to show us. It melted all over the parquet floor, the blood and the ice.”

He smiled and continued: “Anyway you can’t hack ice off a shingle roof; that would break the roof. Of course I suppose some does fall off in spring, but not enough to bloody your head. Now the man is threatening to set fire to the manor. Well, there are sad cases like that in the country. In the Russian time too, I expect.”

But as they were walking down a corridor in the manor-house, the poet saw metal name-plates on the doors of the rooms. Amalie, Emilie, Charlotte, Elisabeth, Marie-Antoinette. What the, wondered the poet.

It was a cold April day, so the pianist was wearing black leather gloves. He didn’t bother to take them off to try out the piano, but made a deadly serious face and let fly with an impromptu rendering of Chopin’s Fantaisie in C-sharp Minor. The piano was mediocre and gradually he started to smirk. Oh yeah, like bright unhappy little rows of pearls the notes poured from under the strong black gloves, and the pianist just kept on grinning and the poet noticed that he also had beautifully shaped ears. It was common knowledge that true irony presupposes artistry.

At some time the poet too had been trained, gone to a school where through the windows came the sound of a reassuring mix of études and scales, of parts being constantly repeated. Even today the sound of music practice aroused a delicious feeling of guilt in her.

The pianist got up, took off his gloves and his coat; now he was in a black shirt, so his figure could be seen perfectly, and he had no love handles at all. The poet wondered what it would be like if she grabbed the man by the sides, just under the ribs, above the hips, where there is only flesh. Pressed her fingers into that flesh. Moved her hand down below the man’s belly, the shirt-buttons, the cloth, the warmth of the skin. The trouser belt. It was touching the way men pull their trouser belts tight. Covering the body was a crazy, crazy business.

Academic musical training—doesn’t it put people somewhere up at the top of the erotic rankings of the professions—alongside doctors? Bowing on stage in black versus a white coat—which one would win?

They looked at the ceiling. There were Art Nouveau plants painted on it.

“Well, they’ve got money,” said the poet.

“Mmm-hmm, yeah. To do whatever their hearts desire,” said the pianist.

“Minimalism would have been better here,” said the violinist.

“Yeah,” said the pianist. “Just bare walls, take down what comes down. Down to the skeleton, as it were.”

“Who was it that said that the more developed a culture is, the less ornamentation it has? Or was it about the environment?” asked the poet. “Was it Adolf Loos?”

“In that case, minimalism is always a sure way to go,” said the violinist.

“Yes, but, I’ve been wondering whether it always would,” said the poet. “Or can minimalism be presented as a kind of kitsch?”

“Some plywood boxes on the wall?” ventured the violinist.

And the poet agreed that no, it’s really hard to think of those as kitsch, really formalist minimalism. But if there has to be some telling message in this reduction, this taciturnity, then there could be a hint of it here, she said, and the pianist said yes, Deep and Minimalism do mix.

That’s it, said the poet eagerly—Deep! But Deep and kitsch are related. And those pure minimalists, well, I don’t know, I feel physically queasy when I have to listen to something of Tavener’s, as if someone were filling me with sugar water.

He’s not exactly kitsch, said the violinist, “New Age” and not to be taken too seriously, but definitely not kitsch.

Quite hard to take though, said the pianist, and the poet thought that the pianist’s attitude was spot on.

Isn’t the lack of conflict in art a dubious sign—nowadays, I mean? Palestrina was beautiful, but now—doesn’t it frighten you a bit?

What? asked the violinist.

Well, why is conflict smoothed out or denied in creativity? Why? And anyway, isn’t it arrogance toward your fellow humans to aim for sainthood, to claim holiness, in your creative work?

Minimalist kitsch—it sounds somehow familiar. Isn’t there a book with that name? Or an exhibition by someone? The Kitsch of Silence—ha!

But the conversation had started with these walls here. The violinist smirked.

“Well, hello, hello.”

The poet now became aware that this slight woman, with a shrill and self-assured voice, had been following them for some time from the hall door.

“Oh, hi,” said the violinist, going over to give the woman his hand.

“I’ve been listening to the way you keep on and on chatting, and wondering if anyone’s going to bother to play as well,” said the woman. Now she stepped over to the whole group and stretched out her hand. “Aili B. Let’s have a good concert, shall we?”

The poet looked at the diminutive woman’s red suede high-heeled shoes. They were Peter Kaiser shoes; she had a blue pair just like them at home. The woman might have been fifty, but she obviously preferred to be thought of as thirty-five. She can’t be—fifty! Yes, indeed she can.  

“If it’s a good enough audience, then of course we will,” said the poet.

The woman gave her a brief appraising glance. “The audience is top-class. And the instrument’s good, isn’t it?” The woman tapped the piano.

The pianist smirked. “We’ll be fine,” he said. “We’ve seen everything.”

The tables were covered with white cloths and the chairs too; they were completely white, as pretty as corpses. The napkins were attractively folded into fans; the waiters were carrying platters to the table. The Huns were sitting at the white tables and talking, some were staring at the stage.

They were sitting on the stage, looking into the hall.

—We are the elite.

—We are the elite.

—We are.

—We are.

—We are.

This was no dialogue or dispute. It was the inner voices, perhaps unconscious, of both parties now. One businesswoman was evidently so well-off that she allowed her nose to peel. Her outfit, too, was beige, not flag-blue or snow-white. Humorlessly, intently, she stared at the stage. The others were talking among themselves, casually perhaps, helping themselves to the duck.

But some of the more aspiring businesspeople or their daughters and wives had arranged themselves in black and red lace, the arms of their noteworthy—occasionally deceived—spouses already hanging limply at their sides. The corset and the fishtail are favorites with Estonian women, one fashion designer had told the poet. The corset and the fishtail. What good, good, enterprising Estonian women, three-quarters of the world already traveled. The industrious men, having found some time away from business to go in for Tibetan Buddhism and Thai boxing, to collect works by progressive young artists who cite not only Deleuze but also Laclau. The poet wondered if she might have food poisoning after all.

Fuck it, she was already seated on stage.

They had agreed that they would all sit in front of the audience the whole time and that she would read her own texts in between the musical pieces. And only now did she come to realize what a mistake she had made in not coming in her own car, because now she couldn’t leave promptly. There she sat in a silly pinkish pseudo-baroque armchair, which probably had a name of its own, such as Amaliensessel or Theresiensessel. If she had got up now and left the stage, that would be taking a stand, and that stand would have been utterly appropriate, if afterward she could just start the car and disappear forever from the sight of the huns. But the red minibus that had brought them there didn’t belong to the poet. Where would she have gone—into the cover of the forest on a cold April evening, for three hours? 

 

“Mõisas ehk Hüppa tulle” © Maarja Kangro. By arrangement with the author. English translation © 2015 by Christopher Moseley. All rights reserved.  

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