Everything Is Wonderful by Sigrid Rausing, book review

 

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The Independent Culture

When Sigrid Rausing came to Estonia in 1993, she found herself in a world turned upside down. Its manifestations were everywhere: a renovated manor house with its front and back swapped around; dressing down seen as dressing up; a good library owned by people who hardly ever read, which included a copy of Nabokov's Lolita, banned in the country under the Soviet regime.

After regaining independence in 1991, Estonia provided an abundance of material for Rausing, then a PhD student in social anthropology. In Everything Is Wonderful the results of her research, combined with her diaries kept during that field trip, are presented as a personal memoir. Living in a small village, formerly a part of a collective farm, Rausing conducted numerous surveys, recording her observations on the social and economic ways and seasonal patterns of local life. Over her year there, she lit traditional midsummer fires and milked a cow, ate cabbage soup with stale bread and drank sweet liqueur, taught English at school and danced at parties. Her recollections are framed by historical background facts about Estonia, which touch upon the late 19 century rule of the Russian Empire, the Soviet and Nazi occupations and the liminal period of early independence.

Rausing's choice was partly dictated by her origins: born in Sweden (her grandfather co-founded the packaging company Tetra Pak), she was interested in the story of the Estonian Swedes and saw her research as aimed at understanding both her own identity and the society she was studying. Her fieldwork did not always go smoothly: some of the locals were unwilling to talk, others treated her as an informant, trying to find out from her about the West, a culture they aspired to belong to. Lodging for a while with a local family, she wondered if her hosts were on their best behaviour in her presence, but ultimately realised they were “always authentically themselves”. Remembering how she once managed to defuse a difficult situation by making them laugh at her expense, she concludes: “There is no dignity in fieldwork, only constant engagement.” Yet, despite all the tribulations, Rausing found peaceful atmosphere and beautiful landscapes in the country she was drawn to.

Rausing, who owns Granta magazine and Granta Books and is known for her philanthropy, often compares anthropological fieldwork to psychoanalysis, talking about one of its hardest aspects, the ability to keep your distance from your subject, while also carrying on with “participant observation”. Once established, the process resulted in a number of discoveries. The researcher was particularly struck by the absence of the all-too-familiar Western obsession with material things: the villagers “did not identify themselves with anything they owned”, their poverty being of a communal nature. Important to Rausing's academic studies and personal impressions was the concept of “the new normal”, something Estonia was seeking at the time. “As in Russia, 'normal' meant good, or okay, but it was also the ubiquitous expression for what Estonia […] ought to become, rather than what it was.”

 In this informative and heartfelt account the author goes for a personal rather than scholarly approach, while also pointing out that an anthropologist's notes are different from a journalist's report. Her knowledge and experience are moulded into a series of comments, mostly insightful, though occasionally clichéd. “It was the price paid for independence”, in a passage about the introduction of the Estonian kroon, which made people's savings melt away, is one such example. However, these lapses are rare, and the narrative is rescued by its inner logic. Describing a visit to a seedy club, Rausing comes to a deep, sobering conclusion: “All we know are clichés. Fieldwok can get you beyond clichés, but only if you stay with the people for so long that you almost want to just stay forever. Then you have to leave, before you tip over the edge and go native.”

 The oppression Estonia suffered under the occupations, often mentioned in the book, is best exemplified in a section about the country's intellectual losses. Over half a century, hundreds of thousands of volumes have been destroyed, hundreds of books and publications banned. Quoting these figures, the author thinks again of that copy of Lolita on her landlords' bookshelf, and wonders how it got there. Perhaps their decision to buy the first Estonian edition of Nabokov's masterpiece was a step towards the new normal.

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