the naplinski paradox

It took the famous Estonian writer Jaak Naplinski an hour and a half to leave Tallinn after the Robbie Williams concert. The concert had pleased him, especially the moment when the British song and dance man had appeared on stage, draped in the blue, black, and white national flag. It was strong evidence for him that Estonia indeed did exist, and that he was not dreaming. Or perhaps the spectacle was even greater proof that this was all a dream. Such thoughts clouded his mind as his drove his vehicle into the wilds of Kükita, Estonia. He was also exhausted from a day of translating Sartre’s No Exit into the Võru language, but he dared not to mention the French existentialist’s name to the Estonian police.

When the police apprehended Naplinski for driving at an unusual speed — he was actually doing under the speed limit while the video game-like flow of traffic dictated a speed of 10 to 20 km above the lawful limit — he was asked to blow into a device that measured the amount of alcohol in his system. He was afraid that some drop of alcohol might have been in the šašlokk he had consumed at the Robbie Williams concert, and was grateful that his grandchildren were oblivious to the situation, sleeping beneath the tiny Estonian flags they had waved in fervent patriotism while Robbie, ever the historian, likened a woman’s comings and goings to the War of the Roses. He puzzled over that line, “thinks she’s made of candy.” What was Robbie trying to say there?

For some reason, it took the police a long time to return with Naplinski’s license and registration. He sat and sat, and thought about Robbie, and about the long-haul trucks zooming by him in the mist. Any one of them could plow right into his standing vehicle. He asked the police if they could remove to the Kükita Cafe. They said no, and that he should have a seat in the back of their vehicle. Naplinski’s license was expired, they showed him, and said that he would not be allowed to proceed. What was he to do? “Don’t you have a friend who can come and drive your car home for you?”

Now, Naplinski was a recluse. He spent most of his days writing at his farm in Võrumaa, and most of the people he still considered his friends were not only other writers, but functional alcoholics who could not be counted upon to pick him up in Kükita at 3 am. Also, while Robbie’s showmanship had lifted his spirits, after the police had had their way with him, his clinical depression set on in one of the darkest broods he had ever experienced. He questioned the very meaning of his stupid life. Expired license! Why not just expire altogether? It had all been a dream. He was sure of it. Robbie Williams draped in the Estonian flag! Never happened. Those police eating potatoes in the cafe. Mirage, shadows of early morning central Estonian mist. In a word, Naplinski was fucked. Utterly fucked. Not fucked by himself or the police or by the law or his own willful ignorance. He was just fucked, period.

The weather in Kükita was cold for anywhere in August, but normal for Estonia. The oil-slicked puddles, soggy cigarette butts, indifferent and large pilots of other vehicles who had stopped into the cafe for a mayonnaise and pork sandwich, the frosty temperaments of the police officers — it reminded him of that rhyming poem he had been writing about Estonia, Sügis Juulis, “Autumn in July.”

The next morning, after he had somehow made his way home to the farm in Võrumaa, wrestling with that feeling of utter-fuckedness that wrapped around his appendages and choked him like smoke, he did the only thing he knew how to do. He sat down to his laptop and wrote about his feelings on his sometimes-read blog, Itching for Inanity. He even was so bold as to make a suggestion — that there could be a stronger effort made to alert aloof, existentialist writers to the peculiarities of the law.

Later that day, when the media had gotten wind that Jaak Naplinski had been relieved of his driving abilities on account of an expired document, and stuck in a parking lot with a car full of Estonian flags and Estonian children in a place called Kükita, all hell — as they once said and continue to say — broke loose. It was top news for the bottom-feeding fish of the nation’s media businesses. Forget bigger than Jesus. This was bigger than Robbie Williams!

The stone-throwing knaves of one particular online site, some known far and wide for their failure to pass the Nazism IQ Test {If you’re still defending it in any way, you’ve failed}, particularly tore into Naplinski for even daring to write down his story, as if he, as a writer who had been considered for a Nobel Prize in Literature, expected special treatment from the Estonian police. Shut your mouth, Naplinski. Don’t say a word. Others questioned the actions of the Kükita police, who had left a man stranded in a parking lot in the middle of Estonia after a Robbie Williams concert {if it had indeed occurred} without any real legal means to get out of it. There were two camps, and you had to choose one: Fuck the Police or Fuck Naplinski.

Naplinski, privately, remained in the passive use of the word. He was still fucked, and his fuckedness ticked up with every bitter online comment. When he went to the store to buy some Kalev chocolates, he noticed the eyes on his back. They were looking at him. Thinking. Judging. Dismissing. Rebuking. Naplinski was someone who had done something about which some opinion was merited. But what were these somethings? That was left up to The Others to fill in the blanks, a sort of real-life Mad Libs.

At home, he returned to his translation of No Exit. How to translate that often misinterpreted line, “Hell is other people”? He thought back to when his mother used to speak to him in Võru language in the countryside when he was a child after the war. Her resigned look often seemed to contain that very sentiment. At the same time, he had never heard her say such a thing.


27 thoughts on “the naplinski paradox”

  1. That is true that Estonians often lack of humanity. But I don't think it shapes them into Nordics as you Justin told. The thing is that true Nordics certainly doesn't lack of humanity. Quite the contrary- the Sweden, Denmark< Norway are considered to the most soft-valued and one of most human countries of the world!Estonian are not Nordic but Uralic, Finno-Ugric, distanly originating from the Asian. That explains the inhuminaity! East Asian uncharitability...
    ps, the writer is Kaplinski not Naplinski.


  2. Oh my bad, sorry then. However with all due respect don't you think it can be a tad disputable Naplinski to be called a very famous writer? As well his name seems to be captiously similar to Kaplinski's.


  3. That explains a lot.

    However, don't you think this story reflects not Nordic side of Estonians but rather a communistic soviet buerocracy? Or is that really a Scandinavian way to act?


  4. I've gotta provocative question, let's imagine that there is written in Estonian law that all drivers driving without licences detained by police will be excecuted on the premises. Knowing of Estonians what do you Justin think, how they would act?


  5. haha, I'm afraid I have to agree with Giustino. Law is the law and Estonians obey the law, right. Whatever sort of law it could be, communistic, Estonian “in accordance with the Constitution” one, Nazi one. Always.
    Humanity and clemency are not written in our laws says a random Estonian lawyer.


  6. In Estonia you cannot drink alcohol on the street, but in Tartu people still do it (I am also guilty) and I have never noticed that people got a fine for it. I heard that in Tallinn the police is more strict.


  7. Once there were drunk people fighting in front of our flat, my girlfriend called the police, they came and reprimanded the drunks and then drove away. That was it. In that situation I would have expected a more though response.


  8. Temesta,
    banal explanation can be that 2-3 policeman patrolling on the strrets by night are afraid of those drunken masses on the streets of Tartu, Tallinn downtowns. But a single car driver in night, without licences- it is comfortable subject and one can easily demonstrate his steadfastness.


  9. I wouldn't take the comments on Delfi too seriously. In fact i wouldn't even take Delfi too seriously. It's in the league of Daily Mail and the fact that people read it,does not mean they live by it.

    Lugya,you racist much?


  10. You reckon you're ready for it? Exploration in to depression and anxiety, hmm, that's a bold journey. I couldn't do it.

    My bottom line on all the things negative you have encountered would be – do avoid situations where your confidence is likely to be compromised. If you move to a foreign country, no matter how butch you think you are, you will automatically become vulnerable. There will be people out there willing to exploit it and some will try and out of these some will succeed. Do not give them further ammunition.


  11. #I wouldn't take the comments on Delfi too seriously. In fact i wouldn't even take Delfi too seriously. It's in the league of Daily Mail and the fact that people read it,does not mean they live by it.#

    Commentars in Delfi are written by real Estonian people who express there their Estonian thoughts. 9 OUT OF 10 commentars were justifying policeman, saying that Petrone is a stupid, arrogant American, we have here our Estonian laws and country and Petrone may come back to America if he doesn't like our Estonian things here. Of course that all was written in malefic and sarcastic Estonian style what Estonians mostly have if they write something anonymously.

    #Lugya,you racist much?#

    I wonder why poor me has been accused.I didn't insult here anybody. But about racism- 99 per cent of Delfi commentars are clearly racist.

    #Eks paneb kratsima jah….
    On siin mõni mees või ei ole?:D#
    My Estonian is fine, yet I don't understand it. Estonian culture is soo contextual…What is “paneb kratsima”.


  12. Who cares, read the comments on the websites of yellow newspapers from other countries and you will find the same comments. It does not teach you anything specifically about Estonia.


  13. 'Estonians originate distantly from Asia, that explains their inhumanity'. If that's not racist, then i don't know what is. I don't care how you racially profile Estonians (I gather you mean ethnic Estonians or did you also include slavic Eatonians, sub Saharan Estonians, Central Asian Estonians?) it's just your intent to offend by racial profiling that bothers me. By the way, i don't find it offensive, it just makes me want to vomit. And your justification that 99% of Delfi commentators are doing it, blimey, that's just childish man.


  14. I understood most of what the cops said. It's just those mumbles that I missed, and when you are in the presence of the police, you want to understand everything they are saying to each other.


  15. You put yourself into a submissive stance from the get-go by trying to talk to them in Estonian.

    Next time – don't be so accomodating. Learn to “tuima panema”.

    You know what that looks like. It's actually quite easy.

    They are gonna screw you anyway, so make them work. 🙂


  16. Justin, I love your sense of humour! Some people just don't get it, which is strange, because Estonians have a very different sense of humour too!
    Anyhow, it really sucks what happened to you and to the writer Naplinski!
    I hope you can get it resolved quickly.
    All the best from one of your Canadian-Estonian fans!


  17. No no no. No need swallow it up. I think that there are some Estonians out there who are just not used to seeing foreign people who have taken their effort and actually learnt the language. What has happened over the last decade or so, is that they have dropped professional Estonian. You can come across with a doctor or a policeman or a chimney sweeper who would talk to you as if you grew up together. Now, if you're a native speaker that's not a problem, actually in some circumstances it's rather sweet, but if you speak Estonian as your second language you're screwed. To get to that level of spoken Estonian will take you decades. Do what i did in England – set the tone by getting rid of familiarities, use proper grammar and full length sentences, whenever you think that you might have misunderstood something or don't quite get what was said, interrupt conversation politely and ask them to say it again or to elaborate. Don't get all pallie with people who are supposed to act professionally as they will talk back in a same manner and you wouldn't be able to understand half of it.


  18. I've also travelled far and wide, I cannot say Estonians are the most inhumane nation. You can just look over the Gulf and you'll see plenty even in Helsinki. What is a fact is that we are less understanding, friendly, chatting etc than your average Swede, Finn or Dane. The reasons for that are purely cultural and historical, add some social reasons (bad weather, insufficient means of income and/or social benefits, social structure etc) and you get a perfect combination for an Estonian.

    I think it is very unfortunate that you were not given instructions upon your arrival to Estonia about the driver's licence, however the willingness to help among bureaucrats is rare, again – it's not an Estonian thing, go and see France, Finland, Germany or Georgia – bureaucracy has the same face everywhere. However, I do not think the police was entirely wrong either. Police has a job, to take down those who either break the law or seem suspicious enough to do so in the near future. They are not a charity organisation (and they get lots of bad rep, doesn't matter whether they do good or bad) and it is not generally their job to transport you home. What I do not agree with is that nobody made any effort to care IF and HOW you would get home with the kids in your car, but again, to entirely blame the police – unfair.


  19. #My Estonian is fine, yet I don't understand it. Estonian culture is soo contextual…What is “paneb kratsima”.#

    Im pretty sure it coms from expression „pead kratsima“ what is often common activity for people who are confused or have to think really hard to understand what is gong on. So basically it means that they are trying to think 🙂


  20. At the same time, I know Americans who have driven the same way in Estonia for close to 20 years. There is a lot of folklore about what you should and should not do. I have friends who have lived here since the early 1990s and continue to drive without Estonian licenses. And the clerk at ARK didn't even know the law, making it seem arbitrary and coincidental.

    It reminds me of something I witnessed in Mexico, K. A young man with a bruised and bloody face. He had said something insulting to the local police, and had received a brutal beating in retaliation. Now, it was pretty much understood that the police could do such things to you if you messed with them. He told me that he had deserved it.

    I think about that guy now and the rules that governed his fate. He insulted the Mexican police, he deserved a beating. I drove with the wrong document, I deserved to be stranded in the middle of nowhere.

    It gets to the heart of ideas of authority, legality, control, and the individual. What it says about these concepts, I cannot yet articulate, but it's in there.


  21. I wanted to add that I did not feed this story to the news media to make a big stink about some kind of mistreatment. I just wrote the story as I have written other stories about Estonia and have been writing here on this blog for eight years. It's a story, an experience, and I do not expect any kind of sympathy or value judgment. Anybody who defends or criticizes me does of their own free will.


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