never summer in april or may

hemingway and castro
Writer Ernest Hemingway and Fidel Castro chat in Havana, May 15, 1960

IT’S SPRING NOW, a real, genuine spring. Estonians think that if the ice cream is dripping in the sunlight it must be summer, but, no, it’s still spring. This is another one of their peculiar ticks: naming the season based on the weather. “Winter” arrives with the first snows, “summer” with the first warm days. Social media accounts buzz, “It’s summer!” Most trees here still lack leaves.

“It’s not summer yet,” I tell them. “It can never be summer in April or May.” No one listens.

Life continues, everything in the air, in flux. Trains crisscross the country, the ferries depart. Fires smoke in the distance. Men and women stare out windows dreaming. Men hammer roofs, chisel intersections. Women shake carpets. In parks, alcoholics regather. Outside the cafe where I work, someone has put out traps for the ants. Tere, jõudu. Back to work!

For me it should be as well, but I feel restless, listless. The urge to float away, to do nothing at once. All the great books written, everything seen and done, all eternal loves now lost for good. At the Tallinn Coffee Festival the other day, I drank five cappuccinos. It was wonderful, and I achieved for a few moments a state of ecstasy or bliss known only to the Indian tantra cults.

Sometimes I wonder if writing serves any purpose at all. Then there’s politics.

As a writer I have come to hold the dirty business or black arts of politics at arm’s length and with good reason. Too many great talents have been swallowed up by the political waves of their days. Recent history is rife with such tales. Writers who involve themselves in politics are played for fools or worse. Think of Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos falling out during the Spanish Civil War. Hemingway went on to host Castro on his yacht, Dos Passos became an enthusiastic convert to conservatism. Nobody won. The writers lost.

It was always the political instigators who actually benefited most from these relationships: they got to appropriate the aura and mystique of great writing, to anoint themselves with the creativity of others. The Soviets were no different, with their state-sanctioned “people’s writers.” Every time I encounter the works of Juhan Smuul, an Estonian writer who won the Stalin and Lenin Prizes, I wonder how he would have fared as a writer without the support of the Communist authorities.

The most notorious of them all is, of course, Mr. Johannes Vares, who led the puppet government during the Soviet annexation in 1940. A poet and doctor, he should have never had anything to do with politics. Nor should have the French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline or the American poet Ezra Pound, both of whom supported the Axis Powers in the Second World War by writing pamphlets and producing radio broadcasts. As history has shown, collaboration with any authority, and illiberal authorities in particular, only harms the reputations and work of writers.

The best thing a writer can do, even in times of political upheaval, is to keep on writing honestly. The only words that matter are the honest ones. A writer should remain an island, an autonomous psyche. Never should we join hands with propagandists, never should we give ourselves fake political names. There is no ideology out there that can contain all the contradictions of a free mind, there is no movement that can summarize with a few cheap slogans the human condition.

There is no political force that can shut up free thought so long as we continue to think freely. Honest writers will always win too, because political parties and movements just come and go. They are as changeable as the weather. One second as hot as summer, the next a brisk spring. One honest sentence will outlast them all.

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