I’m half way through João Lopes Marques’ Estonia: Paradise Without Palm Trees. Or maybe I am a third of the way through. Or 55 percent. The Portuguese-born writer has assembled for me a collection of his work, a collection that does not proceed chronologically in terms of when the pieces were written, so I have taken the liberty of starting the book at the end and working backward to the beginning, with some guilty pleasure reading about wife carrying contests and provincial girls along the way.
João is one of Estonia’s resident expatriate writers. There are many of us — how many I do not know. Vello Vikerkaar certainly counts as an expat writer. And Abdul Turay’s got a new book out this week called Väike Valge Riik (“The Little White Country”) about Estonian political culture. I’ll get that one for Christmas maybe and read it too. I jest that it’s market research for the next Minu Eesti book. But based on what I have read from Vello, João, and Abdul, I can see that we are all very different writers, and that our similarlity begins and ends with the fact that we are foreigners living in and writing about Estonia.
Vello is the recluse. Nobody knows who he really is or if that’s even his real name. Plus he’s got a bit of a mean streak.”Life isn’t fair,” seems to be a recurring theme. Yet he’s affable too, he can turn the charm on and off. If he were one of the actors who have played James Bond, he’d easily be Sean Connery.
João is Portuguese, but beyond that, he is a European. I can sense it in his well thought out dissections of everyday life in the capital city. There is a measured cadence to his manner of writing, and yet there is also coolness to it too, a euro reservation that frustrates me at times. I want João to get angry, maybe rob a bank. But he doesn’t. He’s just too cool. If he were a Bond actor, he’d probably be Timothy Dalton, sliding down a hill in a cello case.
Abdul is British, which means he can say pretty much anything and, as long as he’s got his spectacles on, people will revere it as the words of an Oxford professor. Plus he’s got gravitas. It’s like he got off the plane at Tallinn one day, and the next he’s on primetime TV talking about economic policy. Some balls. So he has a way of carrying himself, but he’s no empty suit. If he was, he would have been devoured by tabloid wolves long ago. Because of this bold brashness, I’d have to call him Daniel Craig, whether he likes it or not.
And me? I am unintentionally funny. My wife calls me “Mr. Bean” because I can’t walk across a room without knocking a lamp over. I worked hard on a novel last year called Montreal Demons. It has its humorous parts too, but it is also has some darker themes of sex and religion. It’s gotten positive reviews, and some who have read the English version say it’s better than the Estonian one. one reader even said it was like Gonzo with some Raymond Chandler and a hint of Hemingway, which made me feel really good.
Yet people in Estonia don’t want Hemingway from Giustino. They want comedy. They want oozing floods of meat jelly and exploding blood sausages. It’s like I’m Peter Sellers in Casino Royale. Even if I tried to play the role straight, people would still think I was joking.
Sometimes I wonder if every European country has its local purveyors of English-language literature. I would think it fine and good if they do. And I think it is fine and good that Estonia has Vello, João, Abdul, and even that clown who wrote My Estonia to kick around. Why, it’s like having Sean Connery, Timothy Dalton, Daniel Craig, and Peter Sellers in the same movie.