Adventures of the intimately disabled

by Vahur Afanasjev

Peeter Helme
Pegasus 2009

Adventures of the intimately disabled
Vahur Afanasjev

In order to tell all, I have to start with a well-known joke. A circus arrives in a small town – clowns, acrobats, ponies and a huge elephant. As in most jokes, there is a Russian, a German and an Estonian in the small town. The Russian looks at the elephant and thinks: 'What a big creature this is; if we could kill it and make cutlets out of it, we could have enough snacks for life!' The German looks at the elephant and thinks: 'Well, this is indeed a huge animal, and very strong – we should put it to work, build something, demolish something else!' The Estonian looks at the elephant and thinks: 'I wonder what it might be thinking about me?'

The protagonist of Peeter Helme’s novel September is like the Estonian in the joke. He is constantly guessing what others are thinking about him, trying to keep one move ahead in communications chess. He sucks up to someone and provokes others, both accidentally and on purpose. It would be dreadful to meet someone like that, and even more dreadful to be that person. Thought games with a psychopathic flavour are hardly unfamiliar to most of us.

The man in September attempts to be a misanthrope in shining armour who is not bothered by the death of a colleague in the next room, or by women’s tears. He cuts through life like a cold knife through warm dung. However, it seems to me that the existentialist lethargy of the character is more a posture than an inherent quality. Albert Camus’ The Stranger (first published in 1941) inevitably springs to mind. Luckily, September’s protagonist is not a copy of Meursault; he seems more insecure and, thus, perhaps more credible than the psychological golem created by the Nobel winner.

Reading September, I was constantly afraid, and I don’t know why, that the author would sink the whole thing with an overstrained finale but, fortunately, neither the protagonist nor any of the deceived women commits suicide. Nor does the main character kill a Russian – although that would of course have been a nice homage to Camus.

The adventures of Helme’s yuppie with insufficient knowledge of human closeness inadvertently bring to mind Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club and Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psychopath, and films influenced by them. Still, September focuses less on describing anti-social and anti-human activities, trying instead to peep into what goes on behind the eyes. Where are all the indifferent, irresponsible, cowardly, devious and stupid people coming from?

Nobody teaches us to live and love. Parents may have a try, but they usually fail. We have to learn all by ourselves, and sometimes we never actually manage it. Peeter Helme’s character (did he have a name or did it slip my mind?) has passed, or perhaps even failed, the tests of life. I remember similar feelings when I found myself in the same situation: graduated from university a few years ago, working full time for a year or two, and with a couple of relationships behind me. This is one of the most confusing periods in life – you either sink or swim, although you think you have already learned to swim.

Being able to swim is not a total guarantee of not sinking. Swimming and living are both healthy activities that can end badly. It is not difficult to at least partially understand the main character. It is revealed at the beginning that his sister and grandmother drowned together. It is obvious that the death of a close person leaves permanent cracks in a teenager’s personality. In that sense, it is impossible to shake off the psychological construction of Helme’s novel.

Fantasies about his sister, especially of her going for a swim naked, later become increasingly tormenting, filling all significant places in the protagonist’s mental world. Other people, including women, cannot remain there. On the other hand, he is not totally without a heart, as he is, albeit reluctantly, seeking closeness, relationships and games. He does his own cooking, and ignores a girl’s wish to come and visit, but at the same time he spends time in Internet chat rooms, establishes contacts and then discards them.
The emotionally handicapped character cites his sister as a direct excuse – in his weird (sexual) fantasies, no woman can match that lost girl who was never tampered with. I have a feeling that the author does not, in fact, want to convince the reader of this. Instead, the protagonist might well be motivated by cowardice and inexperience. These feelings are familiar to all of us, and can easily be concealed by a mask, whether misanthropy or omniscience.

The (anti-)hero of September behaves childishly. He is well aware that messing around with women in the office causes trouble, but goes ahead anyway. Something in him wants to test the limits. At the end of the book, he reaches the limit. Self-created aimless intrigues reach the point of satiation. This is instructive, in the sense that life goes on and nothing dreadful actually happens.

I should have perhaps started by admitting that I have not read a single line by Michel Houellebecq. This particular author gets mentioned in September so often that I’m now anxious to know how this Dutch-sounding French name is pronounced, to say nothing of how much Helme has followed in his steps. If he has at all. In any case, September is certainly a good read. The author has not stuck his finger too deeply into the grey cells of the reader's brain, but instead allows readers to do that themselves.

A bit about the design. Picking up the book I was immediately struck by the question of why it was necessary to feature an anonymous image-bank photograph on the cover. The imprint reveals the author of the picture (a foreigner), the picture is too artificial, and the source is the Corbis photo bank. It’s a pity that it did not occur to the designer or the author to make a pretty woman they knew happy by inviting her to adorn the cover of the book. That would have been cheaper too. Otherwise, the design is effective and occasionally even captivating, especially the golden maple leaf on the black inside page.

But perhaps the photo bank picture is intentional, separating the contents of the book from real life. It might indeed be necessary. The recipes at the end of the book are sensible and might have created even too strong a bridge with real life. Readers often think that a novel, especially written in first person singular, is the author’s own confession. As I am involved in fiction writing myself, I would gladly put my head on the block, or my hand on the Koran, and swear that Peeter Helme is not an individual with the psychopathic leanings of his protagonist; it does no harm to emphasise this again. Done.