Reviewer Tony D’Souza’s first novel, Whiteman, received the Peace Corps Writers Maria Thomas Prize for Fiction, and is loosely based on his Peace Corps service in an Ivory Coast headed for civil war. His second novel, The Konkans, is loosely based on his mother’s Peace Corps service in India from 1969 to 1970 where she met and married his father. Tony has contributed fiction and essays to The New Yorker, Playboy, Esquire, Outside, Granta, McSweeney’s, the O. Henry Awards, and Best American Fantasy, and is the recipient of two NEA Awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and gold and silver medals from the Florida Book Awards. He lives in Sarasota, FL, with his wife Jessyka and two young children, Gwen, 15 months, and Rohan, 5 months. The D’Souzas will be spending the next few months traveling in India.
Here, Tony reviews Vello Vikerkaar’s Inherit the Family: Marrying Into Eastern Europe. The author “Vello Vikerkaar” is the pseudonym of an RPCV who served in Eastern Europe.
Inherit the Family: Marrying Into Eastern Europe
by Vello Vikerkaar
Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000-02, Madagascar 2003-03)
If life had called on Vello Vikerkaar to be an executioner rather than the writer that he is, one could imagine him whispering funny observations from behind his hood into the ear of the condemned even as they mount the gallows: ‘Do you see that mole on the nose of that otherwise pretty girl who is here to watch you swing? What a shame about that, don’t you think? Oh well, put your head in the noose. Nothing else to do.” Because what pervades Vikerkaar’s collection of essays Inherit the Family: Marrying into Eastern Europe — a Dave Barry meets Art Buchwald chatty hatchet job on the author’s adopted Estonia — is black humor. That Vikerkaar’s collection exudes excellence of the highest order is never in dispute, indeed if the author had settled himself someplace less provincial, say China for example, we would easily be reading these essays in The New Yorker. But Estonia is not China, as the author knows and is happy to point out repeatedly, Estonia is one of those newly “Western” nations that define our idea of a “backwater,” the Togo or Suriname of Europe, a place so small and so politically inconsequential and surrounded by similar countries so small and inconsequential, that even State Department officials are hard pressed to properly locate it on a map. And in a sense, that’s the point of Vikerkaar’s collection, a wry and running commentary that continuously tells us, “Look at this ridiculous place that I live, look at all its foibles.” But what Vikerkaar also cannot help from saying, between the lines, and sometimes even in them, is, “How I love this place.”
Written over a number of years as contributions to various Estonian periodicals, as well as to The Iconoclast and The Huffington Post, the essays of Inherit the Family revolve around Canadian Vikerkaar’s life as an often uncomfortably settled and poorly remunerated journalist ex-pat in Tallinn, married to a much more settled and economically stable Estonian woman named Liina. This set-up provides endless marital humor as the couple struggle with issues focusing on money, cultural norms, housekeeping, and dealing with the neighbors, some of whom are prostitutes in the clandestine brothel that operates next door. Downstairs, Vikerkaar’s aging and “mired-in-the Soviet-era” aunt-in-law often accuses him of “trying to kill her” as her pet rabbit chews through electrical cords, and his interactions with bureaucrats and acquaintances in the city give us stark glimpses of the growing pains Estonia is going through as it attempts to catch up and modernize in the thoroughly capitalistic Western Europe that has surrounded it since the fall of the USSR.
That Vikerkaar is of Estonia descent himself, has lived in the country since 1992, and has learned the language, often seem of no help to him at all. In “When English Trumps Estonian,” he writes, “[As] my Estonian improved, I discovered the quality of service decreased in direct proportion. The better I spoke, the worse Estonians treated me.” So he dumps his hard won language skills, begins to speak English in the supermarket to the ever grumpy checkout girl.
“Good afternoon!” I exclaimed to the checker, giving her my best American smile . . . She replied “good afternoon” in serviceable English and was not angry at all when I wanted to add a plastic bag after she’d already rung up my other items. “But may I have my free Postimees?” I asked. She shot me a strange look . . . what would a foreigner want with Postimees? Her expression begged if I’d been putting her on? Could I have been making fun of her? I recovered. “It’s for my Estonian wife.” The checker exhaled, relieved. She smiled and handed me the paper. “Have a nice day,” she said. And she meant it. Since then, I’ve made English my service language . . . and I get far better service that the Estonians before and after me in the queue.
When dealing with petty officials, such as in “Portrait of an Immigration Office,” Vikerkaar is at his best. Take this exchange he suffers nearly a decade into Estonia’s modern era:
Until recently, residency permit applicants were required to provide . . . a certificate from a state clinic providing they were HIV negative.
“Do you have the additional documents required?” the official asked.
“I do.” I presented him an envelope.
“I see here that you’re HIV negative.”
“Yes, I went to the state clinic and they administered the test.”
“But how do I know you don’t have AIDS?”
“I don’t understand.”
“The Estonian state needs to be certain you do not have AIDS. How do we know you don’t have AIDS?”
“Because I’m HIV negative.”
“Yes but how do I know you don’t have AIDS?”
“If I’m HIV negative, then I don’t have AIDS. Scientists tell us that to contract AIDS you must first have the HIV virus.”
“Well, I’m not a scientist.”
Essays such as “My Customer, My Enemy,” “‘Watching the Neighbor’s House Burn,” “Under a Bridge with Mr. Ansip,” and “A Pocket Guide to Expats,” mine this vein, offer a portrait of an Estonia trying to ride the modern bicycle of the West with Soviet era training wheels. “I’ve been traveling lately and doing my best to live within the bounds set by the Estonian government: about 40 dollars per day and an average hotel cost of 170 dollars per night,” Vikerkaar writes halfway through the book. “If you travel to major cities that’s not an easy task. To live on that amount often requires a night or two in youth hostels or sleeping under a bridge and looking for your food in dumpsters.” Liina, a vegetarian, often struggles to pay for a meal in restaurants, such as in “Veggie Quest” in which the following exchange occurs:
“Do you have anything for vegetarians?” We were in a café on Estonia’s rural north coast and Liina was hungry. “No!” shouted the woman behind the counter. Shouted, I kid you not. But Liina could see the carrots and beets . . . “Couldn’t you just put those on a plate for me? Just replace the meat dish with another vegetable? You can even charge me the same price.” I thought that was a pretty good deal for the café, but the worker obviously disagreed. She crossed her arms and turned her back. The international sign for Get out of my restaurant.
A young “striver” friend of Vikerkaar’s serves as the fulcrum on which the frustration of the Estonian youth in the face of increasingly limited careers opportunities and governmental inability to address the situation are balanced and explored. Exchanges with alcoholic plumbers chronicle the old adage that the more things change in Estonia, the more they stay the same in Estonia. The death of the aunt-in-law brings a pause to the comedy as Vikerkaar and his wife deal with the loss, a final trip through the countryside with the family dog allows the author to explore in a frank way his love for his beautiful, adopted home, and the often kind people who live in it.
There is too much humor in this book to begin to do it justice, too many biting insights to hope to begin to detail. Inherit the Family is a quick read for Vikerkaar’s writing style is open yet satisfying for the intelligence behind it. Much of it will feel familiar to anyone who has lived as an ex-pat, all of it will feel like a window onto a little known corner of our expanding West. Yes, as Vikerkaar explains through his obvious love for his wife Liina, when we marry someone, we also inherit their family. But sometimes a whole country is included in the bargain as well.