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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Estonia’

- - Friday, February 24, 2012

ESTONIA: A RAMBLE THROUGH THE PERIPHERY
By Alexander Theroux
Fantagraphics Books, $29.95,351 pages, illustrated

Some of the most interesting travel books happen by accident. If Alexander Theroux's wife had not gone to Estonia on a Fulbright Scholarship, it is unlikely that he would have spent an extended period in the tiny Baltic republic, an experience that impelled him to write this book. Its subtitle, "A Ramble through the Periphery," doesn't quite convey what it's all about. Estonia is its goad, its inspiration, the grit in the oyster of his imagination desperately trying to create a pearl. But the eponymous periphery refers to something more akin to Sir Willoughby Patterne, the hero of George Meredith's Victorian novel "The Egoist," - "dragging us through the labyrinths of his penetralia."

Mr. Theroux brings to the table experience as a traveler and a genuine interest in cultures all over the world, plus the fruits of a lifetime engagement with literature. This leads him to discover and consider the rather limited contribution to this sphere by Estonia(population even now 1.3 million), but one of the ancillary delights of his book are countless references to his own favorite writers.

He also has an understanding of the country's difficult history, its unique identity and national characteristics. He is profoundly sympathetic to its sufferings under the Soviet yoke, but pulls no punches in condemning its treatment of its small Jewish population and its generally less admirable record under Nazi occupation, although he notes what was behind its more accommodating stance.

Given his own passionate interest in language, it is not surprising that Mr. Theroux is fascinated by Estonia's and the part it has played both in its isolation and its nationalism. As he usefully informs us, "The Estonian language is a non-Indo-European language, in the Finno-Ugric chain." He is intrigued by the odd grammatical and syntactic features it shares with its only siblings, Finnish and Hungarian, by its peculiar sounds and word formations. His joy is infectious when he announces baldly "I love Estonian names."

Despite all this genuine delight in the quaint, not merely linguistic but extending also to Estonian architecture, what Mr. Theroux mostly shows us about the country and its people is exasperation, irritation, furious rage. To say that it - and they - get on his nerves is the mildest of understatements. He takes endless potshots at their food, admittedly an easy target, but by the time you get near the end of the book and find a section titled "What did I hate about Estonia," it's no surprise.

However tiresome these endless deploring litanies become, they are at least germane. Mr. Theroux has put in his time in the gloom of an Estonian winter, and sharing his reactions is, after all, the point of his book. Unfortunately, though, other topics rear their heads. Because his stay coincided with the 2008 primary season, and he was a strong supporter of Barack Obama, he treats us to a vicious ad hominem - or perhaps one should say ad feminem - attack on Hilary Rodham Clinton.

When he compares Dick Cheney to Stalin's brutal henchman Lavrenti Beria, we may be closer to Estonia geographically, but again it's in the context of Mr. Theroux's diatribes on U.S. terrorist policy, the Iraq war, the Bush administration etc. And as for Israel, the Palestinians and U.S. policy in the Middle East, he fulminates so angrily, complete with loaded phrases like "the brutalizing, unfairly stacked Jewish agenda in the Middle East" so frequently - and even given the sweep of his narrative, so intrusively and inappropriately - as to reveal it as his own King Charles Head obsession worthy of Dickens' original.

You cannot expect a writer with Mr. Theroux's temperament and mordant style to produce anything along the lines of "Estonia, the gem of the Baltic," although the odd thing is that in some ways he does regard it thus. But unfortunately for the reader, he has failed to restrain himself from leaping onto innumerable hobby horses that carry him from merely opinionated to outright tendentious and just plain offensive. So a book that should have been a fun ride ends up resembling being trapped in a cramped airline seat for the longest flight on the planet, subjected to a champion talker's endless obsessions and prejudices.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.