Short Story Review – Urmas Vadi – Boycott (trans. Adam Cullen)

Roman wanted, unconditionally, to be present during the delivery; he wanted to deliver the child himself so no stranger’s hands would come between him and the baby. There had already been too many other people ahead of him in life, preventing him from reaching something of importance.

I don’t want to read too much into the above quote from Estonian writer Urmas Vadi’s story, Boycott, but it’s easy enough to read Roman as a stand-in for the general feelings of Estonia in today’s uneasy world.  The above could be read as a metaphor for Estonia’s sense that its future isn’t in its own hands, but perhaps sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, right?

Roman felt he couldn’t just sit around and witness it anymore! Crimea was gone, Ukraine’s military was simply watching it happen, all of Europe, the entire world was just watching a country be steamrolled.

Oh.

Roman feels powerless because he is waiting for his baby to arrive, he’s waiting for Europe to do something about Russia, and whatever he can do, it isn’t enough and it won’t make much of a difference.  He’s stuck, so he does what he can to show his dissent.

In Roman’s case, this means he destroys some VHS tapes and DVDs of actors who have become sympathetic towards Putin’s aims.  The bulk of the story is dedicated to this, and is quite comic in the way it is laid out.  If you can’t do anything, why not do that?  It at least feels like something.

Bookending this section is a part devoted to Roman contemplating his face and his (lack of) expressiveness when interacting with others, and his misfortune as a child to receive the offcut clothing of older siblings.

Reading this story from Australia, where Estonia is essentially an unknown in terms of its cultural, political and economic impact upon the country (and in fairness I expect it is very much the same in reverse), Roman strikes me as an embodiment of Estonia’s uncertainty about the future and its place in it.  With Ukraine dismembered so neatly and without enough outcry from Europe or elsewhere, what hope Estonia?  Is it next?  Roman seems to think so.

In general, Roman had a hunch that the most important topics were discussed only after he left the room. Or else they talked about him behind his back and laughed.

Poor Roman.  And yet he isn’t a figure of pity, not really.  He may pity himself, but the text doesn’t pity him.  Instead it sympathises, attempting to understand his feelings and, in really the only active scene in the story – when he smashes the films – Roman is not a figure of fun so much as a man taking charge of what little he can in the world.  Vadi is sympathetic, even tender towards the poor man.  And we, the reader, are encouraged to feel for him, not laugh at him.  There’s a fine balance struck here, as too much self-pity could have given the story a colouring of parody or joke – but no.  Roman will live, will continue, will struggle even if its helpless and it seems as though the deck is stacked against him.

After all, there’s a baby on the way.  And I suppose that can bring hope, even if right now it seems like the future is not Roman’s to grasp.

Boycott is a shorty story by Estonian writer Urmas Vadi, and was translated by Adam Cullen.  You can read the story online at Words Without Borders.

Author Urmas Vadi
Title Boycott
Translator Adam Cullen
Nationality Estonian
Publisher Words Without Borders

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

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