Having started his literary career with self-published experimental avant-garde poetry books, Paavo Matsin has moved on to very tense and naturalistic prose writing. Loosely mixing history, fiction, fact and fantasy, alchemy and the esoteric with ironic but warm humour, his sharp, concise and exact use of words put more substance into his work than one might judge by volume alone. Matsin has received a number of prizes and acknowledgements, including the Criticism Prize of the cultural weekly Sirp in 2011, Siugjas Sulepea/The Serpent Pen Prize in 2012, as well as nominations for the State Cultural Award in 2012 and the Prose Book of the Year in 2014.
Cutlets for Gogol
Katerina had been crying over Grigory’s disappearance the entire day, alone downstairs. She finally calmed down, went back to work around midnight in spite of Opiatovich having forbidden her to do so, discovered that the bar door was open, and found Gogol sleeping in the moonlight in a park at the intersection of Koidu and Tartu streets. She returned to the bar for a short while to clean up, then borrowed a wheelbarrow from the yard of the courthouse opposite – the rare ethnically-Estonian caretaker mostly used it to collect fallen shards of red shingle. Then, she purposefully wheeled the unusually and conspicuously dressed Gogol back to her home. Late-night smokers loitering outside the nightclub catcalled at her and the wheelbarrow, but Katerina was accustomed to troublesome customers and paid them no attention. Gogol had to be brought to a safe place. The horrendous cobblestones that the new tsardom had pounded into place during its very first days jiggled the wheelbarrow, so Katerina removed her soft rose-patterned shawl and positioned it under the moaning Gogol’s back.
At home, she started making cutlets, more to soothe her nerves than out of hunger in the early-morning gloaming. Katerina had placed high hopes in Grigory – he had promised her the Sun and the Moon, had even moved his bags into her place, but had now disappeared all the same, and in such a hurry that he hadn’t even flushed the downstairs toilet! Grigory had spent an oddly large amount of time in the bathroom in general, and even brought a mug with him, as if he wanted to drink the flush-water! Good Lord! Maybe he’d actually had some strange disease? Or bloody pee? It was too bad that everything went the way it did, of course… but positive that at least some kind of male soul had entered the house again! Furthermore, Katerina felt an inexplicable fondness for the taciturn prophet – Gogol had eaten his meals at the Romaan Book-Bar ravenously and had uttered words that pierced straight to her heart; long-awaited answers to her great questions. And he never spoke in those awful threefold idioms! Katerina felt an inexplicable thrill and dignity. For some reason, a pop song kept coming to mind, one about a beautiful woman who lived in a riverside house, beneath which a crystal-clear stream started flowing one fine day. She was also reminded of the gospels – in the end, only women were left at the foot of the Redeemer’s cross, because all the men fled!
The cutlets turned out fantastically. The great Gogol ate sedately and in silence – like an old engraving come to life that all of a sudden, seen by a late-night bathroom-goer in the wrong light, appears to be moving. When the woman offered him wine, the stranger pointed to the kettle and had her top off the glass with warm water. Katerina remarked that the man had the strange habit of moulding his bread into little balls. What’s more, all the windows and mirrors in the apartment had to be covered. When they arrived and the woman gave the shivering Gogol a dress shirt that Grigory had left behind, the prophet stared out into the darkness of night for a long while and muttered something about his last dwelling, which vehicles turned around in front of, so the windows of the room were always covered in mud. Gogol tugged at the window shade and Katerina granted his strange wish, closing all of them. Thus, when the bloodied and clearly deranged Grigory came, it was a neighbour who called the psych ward on him, and all Katerina could do was watch from the balcony above as the man, from whom she had hoped so much, was taken away in a blue van. The woman started to feel cold, so she went back inside to sit and doze off next to Gogol, who was fast asleep, having not the slightest clue of how to move on with her shattered life. After a while, Katerina awoke and felt Gogol – his hands were as cold as ice and his face was covered in small scratches probably caused by the making of his death mask; tiny wounds, which the woman hoped to disinfect in the morning with a good Yugoslavian spikenard. Her visitor woke up once that night, too, and – in a kind of somnambulant state – wanted to clamber upstairs, where he claimed the home chapel was! Gogol howled in his sleep a couple of times, calling out for his servant, but apparently exhausted himself and fell back into a deep sleep. After breakfast, Gogol wanted to spend the day in the toilet, as he was used to doing, and Katerina did not deny him that small oddity – where else was the dead man supposed to be, anyway? She even brought him a few ballpoint pens and some scraps of notebook paper. A couple of Estonian-language literary works – Rise and Shine by some older author named Jaan Kaus and a thick book titled Tartu Title Track by the Estonian-Nigerian Nobel Prize winner Berk Vakri – were also perched on a birch wood shelf there, but not for reading. As the imperial decree prescribed for literature written by Estonians, at least two works from the list were always to be kept in areas meant for hygiene maintenance. Luckily, Gogol said they were too difficult for him… Katerina didn’t want any problems. She lived a quiet life and always abided by all state laws – they were so instilled into her that she even mentally weighed her homemade cutlets using the state gram-measure and, it goes without saying, adhered to the 'blue decrees', which regulated one’s relationships with remnants and representatives of the former statehood.
Katerina had invited a guest to come over the next evening. Her girlfriends really were her sole joy in this life. The closest of them, Katya, worked as the director of two factories located relatively far from each other, so she called on her soul-sister frequently, if only for the purely practical intention of having somewhere to stay the night. However, Katerina’s ecstatic anticipation of the visit had dissipated with the unexpected development. She hadn’t told Katya anything about Gogol yet and intended to serve the news-bomb on a cart that she could 'wheel in', so to say, but as always, something in the kitchen burned at the busiest moment. Katya had been left alone in the entryway and her shrill scream rang out immediately, since she had discovered the skeletal old man from beyond the grave reading mandatory toilet literature in the bathroom. Toilet books were always stocked everywhere as required by law, but no one ever picked them up! Now, Katya felt like she was going to die a gruesome death today, somewhere on a park bench, beside which a committee of local thieves gathered in the bushes growing on the eerie ruins of Castle Hill! That was how horrible the phantom appeared! The disgusting and illegal act – reading an Estonian book in the toilet – was so unbelievable that the strawberry cake she had just bought from a confectionery store slipped from her grasp and hit the ground with a plop.
But everyone calmed down and life’s unexpectedly hot broth cooled when Katerina later asked the stranger to come out and Gogol, clad in raspberry-red pants, offered the women papirosifrom his squeaky cigarette case with trembling gallantry. Katya knew that Katerina had always possessed a kind of hidden, elusive style; probably as a result of her Baltic heritage. With her girlfriend by her side, the situation seemed even exciting – Katya had never seen such a fascinating man at work; even the IT guy wasn’t on par with Gogol, although he also dressed unusually and spoke gibberish. Katya stared in wide-eyed wonder as Katerina took her most treasured spikenard from the bedroom and rubbed it on the old man’s legs. The whole room smelled pungently like a church. Katya inspected the ointment’s box and was incredulously speechless – it cost almost her yearly salary. Katerina’s hair even brushed across the ointment when she leaned over Gogol, but the woman didn’t care. To Katya, it briefly appeared as if her girlfriend was even wiping the phantom’s brown, rotting feet with her hair. Lastly, Katerina also applied the cream to Gogol’s face, apparently to treat the small cuts made by his death mask.
“Why on Earth are you rubbing him with such expensive ointment?” Katya asked Katerina as soon as they were alone in the kitchen for a moment. “You can’t live with an old man like him, you know – he won’t bring home the bacon... Wouldn’t you like some long-distance trucker? I could arrange it; I’ve told you before…”
Katerina sat down at the kitchen table and started to cry.
“Look, he’s only going to be here a little while, but all those other men are around all the time,” she sighed when she regained her composure. “I just started to feel sorry for him – he is a totally nemodny-parasite-unitaz, of course, but Grisha disappeared and I don’t have it in me to start again with...”
“Yeah, but you really can’t live with somebody like him, Katerinka,” Katya said, her face now fully illuminated by an inner lamp of feminine astonishment. “You could feed an ordinary man for a good 300 days with the money from that ointment! He’s no Christ now is he! And we’re not Jewish women! And on top of that, if the inspectors come and see him reading, then no one will be able to protect you anymore – you’re an Estonka. Do you want to be hauled off to the old metro to die, too?”
“The metro?...” Katerina exclaimed. “I’ve served the tsardom honestly my whole life, I’ve never even read newspapers in the toilet…”
She cried like a prostitute or a train-station pianist. How, oh how she needed a Grigory in her life; a little aranzhirovchik of everyday affairs, who would tell her what is good and what is bad and what the point of life is, give things the right tone and always pull a suitable sum of money out from under the piano cover! Now her entire life was a mess again, like France Boulevard in Pskov after the opening ceremony.
Katya tried to think businesslike for a moment, just like she did at the factory whenever the workmen came to gripe again about not having this or that. She would usually have all of them display their tools to her, and they’d realise there was actually no basis for demanding anything extra and that all the right conditions for drudgery had been established. Katya attempted to formulate her developing viewpoint:
“There has got to be some place that’s safer and better for him. There’s nothing wrong with your place either, of course, but you can’t even compare your apartment to a communal one. But listen, Katerinka – what if we maybe take him to the museum?”
Katerina shot to her feet, her eyes glinting strangely like a house’s last night light tossed into a pond.
“Yes!” she exclaimed after a minute-long silence, her voice cracking.
The women composed themselves and returned to the living room. Gogol had gone into the toilet again, and all the bread that had been on the table was packed into little balls. The two friends began quietly packing what they would need.