There probably isn’t a single topic that has not, at some point, crossed the mind of Mihkel Mutt’s recurring short-story character Fabian. Chronically indecisive, worrying, apathetic, self-conscious and sceptical, Fabian long served as the author’s voice for delivering ironic observations of the world and its absurdities late in the period of Soviet occupation and as Estonia rode the choppy waves of newly restored independence. Even a cursory glimpse into Fabian’s cynical mind reassures readers there is no social challenge that cannot be overcome with a smirk on one’s lips.
In those moments of leisure, away from work and friends, blissfully lounging in the half-empty carriages of long-distance trains, wandering around dilapidated neighbourhoods, in the hours saved by not attending class reunions – during those times, Fabian would read other writers’ books, watch films, and go to see plays, interspersed with attending artist-acquaintances’ exhibition openings. At the same time, he would also ponder the nature of life; would compare the art with what he had experienced personally. The thoughts led him to a dead end. They worried him. For quite some time, Fabian had been bothered by the fact that everything in life had changed. He didn’t blame art for the discord, since art was more beautiful, and it’s hard to blame what is more beautiful. Life itself had to take responsibility – there was something wrong with it.
One subject that always captivated and stimulated Fabian at such times of musing was that of paramours. Books, both historical and contemporary, were seething with them, as were other art forms, giving the impression that paramours had always been held in high esteem. All it took was a glance into the past. The list of ‘women of love’ might be thousands of times longer than the endless old series of romance novels that bore the same name. And not only have rulers, artists, and admirals added the sinful jewel of forbidden love to their lives, but every cooper or guild master had his own matted-haired maid, seamstress, or cook. Fabian had heard rumours that men kept paramours even now. But where? In America? For oddly enough, when he scrutinised his friends’ and acquaintances’ relationships, he couldn’t find a single paramour. True, you could find men who hadn’t registered their partnership and practised an open marriage. But that wasn’t the same! ‘Open marriage’ was just a nice title. In some ways, it was extremely similar to an ordinary marriage. And so, the participants themselves forgot their official status. A couple of Fabian’s acquaintances in a similar situation had only noticed it when they travelled somewhere and were denied a shared hotel room. Fabian was also aware that from time to time, men would simply chase skirts at parties and bars, but this was pure horniness, nothing spiritual or exceptional. One time, Fabian himself had even observed a young woman standing in a doorway. It had happened in Tallinn’s Old Town, on Niguliste Street. Fabian was just returning from buying pesticide at the chemicals store across the way. Afterward, he couldn’t even explain to himself why his mind had started taking that a path when he spotted the woman. Maybe she was sheltering from the rain? Had it been raining at all? He couldn’t remember. And even so, whenever he thought back to her, he always strayed into daydreaming for several minutes.
Fabian had methodically familiarised himself with the different kinds of relationships practised between the genders in Estonia, from late-night visits to group sex; however, none corresponded to the classic understanding of a relationship with a paramour that Fabian had envisioned. He could be roused from a deep sleep and asked about paramours, and would know what to say right off the bat, the same way a trained spy remembers the details listed in his false passport.
Everything about a paramour starts with secrecy. One might say that a paramour is, in essence, secrecy plus collusion. One can’t just show up anywhere with a paramour. You didn’t attend your office Christmas party or a cabaret with her. You would, however, certainly take a paramour to a quiet corner of a café on the ground floor of a tenement house or to a private sauna party in the company of intimate friends. You would miss out on walking together in a Song Festival parade, but the two of you could watch the same parade on television together that night. Fabian imagined how you might feel at the parade knowing that your paramour was marching somewhere nearby, her feet slapping the concrete. He imagined the frisson of tension it would give you; how it would add a spark to the holiday! You didn’t promenade with your paramour on a city square, but rather wandered the side streets in a garden suburb. And not at rush hour, but at dusk, when all women look grey. This especially on September nights, when the tepid sunset transitions to twilight in half tones – slowly, like the way the lights dim and go out in a classy cinema at show time. A paramour belongs to fall in general: she is like a migratory bird who has been left behind by the flock of women that has flown off to warm family-lands. And if someone scoops her up in the fall, then no doubt he’ll keep her around for the winter. What will come in spring, no one knows.
Paramours lack ties: they have no relatives, no past or future. They have no obligations, and nor will they have children. A paramour belongs to the world of cars with shades drawn in the back windows, veils, telephone booths, flower shops, secret slips of paper, passwords, and conspiratorial apartments. To Fabian, it seemed that out of all spheres of society, this type of setting could only be found in two places: black-market retail and espionage. Mostly in the latter. Fabian had had no personal encounters with espionage. But he respected it. He knew a thing or two about it. Primarily through art: at home, he would often press his ear up against the radio on nights when thrilling serial dramas were broadcast. Fabian reckoned that whereas only pretty women’s names could be given to tropical typhoons a few years ago, now one could start classifying paramours themselves according to distinguishing features and work methods, using the more familiar espionage services as a basis. You’d get a whole array of types by doing so: the Sureté, the SAVAK, the Mossad, the Gestapo, the Okhranka, and other types of paramours.
But there were no more paramours. They were a dying breed, the way dinosaurs once became extinct. A cold climate was the cause. Was the warmth of heart now in short supply? Apparently, that hadn’t been the case just recently. Fabian knew of one mid-level office at a ministry he visited frequently that was occupied by four fifty-year-old women who still bore the traces of their former beauty. They’d been the sunshine girls of once-eminent men, worthy of promotion to that office. And how many such offices might exist! There they sit, that iron reserve of ours!
By Mihkel Mutt
Translated by Adam Cullen
Mihkel Mutt is one of the most popular living Estonian writers and the long-time editor-in-chief of publications such as the weekly newspaper Sirp and the literary magazine Looming. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, Mutt was busy publishing his memoirs, but in 2013 he made a successful return to literary fiction with his novel The Cavemen Chronicle, which he has followed with The Estonian Circumciser. Occidental Estonia and The Inner Immigrant have recently been published in English.
Adam Cullen is a poet and translator of Estonian literature and poetry into English. He has translated works by a wide range of Estonian authors including Tõnu Õnnepalu, Mihkel Mutt, Kai Aareleid and Rein Raud, and has twice been nominated for the Cultural Endowment of Estonia’s annual award for translated literature. Originally from Minnesota, Cullen has lived in Estonia for ten years.