Armin Kõomägi

Estonian Writer Armin Kõomägi Explores His Armenian Roots

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YEREVAN / TALLINN — Estonian writer Armin Kõomägi was born in 1969, in Moldova. He started writing in 2003 when he was 34. His first book, published in 2005, was a collection of short stories titled Amateur. A short story from this collection, “Logisticians Anonymous,” received the Friedebert Tuglas Short Story Award in 2006. One of the short stories of this collection, called “Amateurs,” has been made into a movie in 2008. In 2006 he published another collection of short stories titled The Face That Was Left Over. This was followed in 2009 by his first novel, Runaways, and in 2011 by his second novel, The Good Firm. In 2012, Kõomägi contributed to the Dalkey Archive Press published Best European Fiction 2012, which contains a collection of new fiction from European writers. In 2015, Kõomägi won the Estonian Writers’ Union’s novel competition with Lui Vutoon, presented as a diary of a young man in the world, in which there are no people, but everything is complete and safe.

Armin, I have read Lui Vutoon in Russian translation. It is very multi-layered, there is almost everything: vivid imagination, philosophy, eroticism, naturalism, remarkable observations about life and society. Many questions remain unanswered, such as why all mankind disappeared and only two survived. And the open ending left me more confused. Nevertheless, I am glad I read your novel. The impatience with which you look forward to the next chapters, whether it was rewarded or not, speaks to your literary skills.

Thank you very much for your comments, Artsvi! To be honest, when I was writing it, I did not follow any certain concept. I allowed myself to write in the same way jazz musicians improvise. It could last for hundreds and hundreds of pages, but I just had to finish it off in some way. So, my goal was not to be clear what happened to the people, why they vanished. And the very same goes with the ending.

How would you describe its genre?

Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer to this question. When I start writing I don’t think of genre. Writing for me is a game, where there are no boundaries. The only instance I set restrictions for myself was when I wrote my last collection of short stories called The Heroes of Periphery in 2020. It is a collection of the mini short stories, where each text consisted of 1,000 words. The average length of a story was three and a half pages. It was quite a challenge. There are stories telling someone’s life from the start until the end, or even sagas reaching over centuries. It demanded a cruel decision of what to take and what to leave out. What was left, became thick as syrup. Despite its shortness, I advise reading only one story at a time; it’s impossible to relieve the thirst with syrup.

You have published Lui Vutoon in 2015, when the nightmare of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine did not yet exist. Why did you adopt such apocalyptic and eschatological moods back at the time?

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I started writing the novel in 2013 because of my son, who was then 12. For some time already, I had noticed how he sank into the world of internet, to come out only for a brief visit to the fridge. I then asked, what would he do when he realized that we were no longer there. I spoke of his mother, sister and myself. He replied “no problem, I have everything necessary at home.” I then asked that while we gone, the fridge will be empty one day eventually; what then? He replied that he would then take a bike and ride to the nearest shopping center, since everything is available there. The young person’s opinion of what is essential in life amazed me.

The subject of a lone person left in the world is not new, but I thought that it might be interesting to write it from the perspective of a very “green” member of society. We lived in a very different world in 2013, in retrospect. Even the climate change and the environmental concerns caused due to human activity hadn’t reached the majority of people. If we add the global pandemic, that lasts for several years already, the ongoing war in Europe with its tens of thousands of victims, all energy and migration crisis.

If I would write Lui Vutoon today, it would hardly have turned out a light adventure story of a young marketing man lone in the world throwing witty slogans. There is probably no more place for that kind of flabbiness in the world.

In your novel it is said: “Three things you cannot trust for anything in the world: advertising, music, history.” I can agree with the first and the third one, but music?

It is the main character’s opinion, that everything poetic, including music, is really a flamboyant nonsense to influence a human being emotionally. He sees the effect mainly as manipulation. He, as a marketing person knows very well, how music has been used in ads, films, shopping centers etc. Although, he is also capable of enjoying music and distance himself from rationality and throw himself into its deceptive waves, in the same time, however, his brain is still calculating the real purpose of this music.

But I totally agree with your stating that “Man is the most dangerous creature in the whole world. You cannot rely on him, his moods are changeable, his desires are unpredictable, stupidity is not inferior to the mind.” Are you a skeptic about humans in general?

It would be too easy to answer yes or no and be done with it. I think that the unreasonably big burden has been laid on the shoulders of humans. I don’t know why we presume of one species of mammals, on one small planet in the remote edge of the vast galaxy, that so much is depending on him and therefore expect humans at least to take a good care of his home planet. In thousands of years, humans have inhabited nearly all possible places on land, they still take the first steps in recognizing the whole planet as their home. The United Nations which is supposed to be the sum of all nations in the world, is really a marketplace of local national interests. We still wage bloody wars for territory and culture. For a while, there was a hope that the international economy and trade has a potential to unite people globally, but it is gone now. Mistrust and hostility are very present. Tribal mentality is in our genetic code. We are too egoistic and small morally. And although we have planes and rockets to take us to cosmic heights, we still ponder our toes. And even if we look up, we expect guidelines from the God. But the God is like music… everyone has its own favorite. Time will tell, if we are able to grow bigger. And at what price.

Another remarkable quotation from Lui Vutoon: “A natural woman cannot be perfect from the very beginning, because nature itself is imperfect.” I love nature and sometimes I think that human beings do not deserve to have such a treasure. Yet sometimes I also think that the nature is imperfect taking into account natural cataclysms and the irreversibility of processes, especially aging and death.

Again, it is the main character’s understanding of perfect beauty. The view is distorted, originating from mangas and Photoshop, where all things disturbing and irregular have been cleansed. Even the monsters there are tuned up to the perfection. But nature is always something more than purity. For example, take the pure water H2O, there is no such thing in the reality. There is always something more. Pure H2O is the photoshopped version of water. That’s the idea possible only in laboratories. The basis of life is imperfection, the possibility of flaws, a step towards change. The cataclysms, aging and death are the necessary components of life. Without them there would have never been life. We must be grateful to death, but it is a different subject.

You wrote: “Digesting fiction is unhealthy.”

Lui had several bottles of good cognac with his books, if I remember correctly. He acknowledged bitterly, that excluding children’s’ literature, authors tend to act quite sadistically with their heroes. Lui, on the brink of despair, sympathizes with these invented characters. Maybe deep inside he considers himself as one of them, an invention of some crazy author. At that moment, fiction for Lui represents patronized malefaction, where the author plays a role of the cruel God. This makes him sick.

I assume you are an erotomaniac, with the Kinky Kim sex doll in the form of Kim Kardashian! However, your description of the hero on the roof of the trading center under the rain is one of greatest erotic scenes I have ever read. I found it wild and provocative in a good way. After independence many Armenian writers began to use eroticism and a non-normative lexicon in their writings. I assume the same applies to Estonian literature.

Some Estonian literary scholar would have an answer to this question. In 1990s, after the liberation of our region, literature was also liberated and sex, as a part of life, burst out, too. No shame in this anymore. Female and male authors both, write about it boldly and interestingly. And truly, sexual energy plays an important role in actions of all mankind. I agree that Lui Vutoon is very sexually charged. There was a poll of young people’s consumption of pornography in Estonia. It came out that a lot of boys and girls get their answers to the questions of intimacy from pornography. If their parents and the school have no influence on the matter, we might have a generation, who see no difference between porn and love.

I assume you are also a big gourmand — in your novel so many delicacies are being enumerated!

On the contrary. I prefer a canteen to restaurant. I like simple, pure tastes and foods. The insane variety of goods in the supermarket that Lui faces while cleaning the counters, must make an honest person blush. Every few days, we step in the door of paradise, where there are tens of thousands different foods. Tens of thousands!

Last week, Estonia got two Michelin star restaurants for the first time. As a result, the waits to these places stretch for several months now. Prices increase. And prestige, of course. Hotels can advise their guests to go there. It’s all a part of the consumer culture of the welfare society. I’ve been to the Michelin star restaurants three of four times in my life and none of them have particularly delighted me — too much unnecessary playing with food and complacency.

Armin Kõomägi with his mother

“All the novelties that once made humanity shine with happiness every morning are now petrified in eternity.” However, what continues to shine with happiness every time?

Maybe it is the morning. Fortunately, life has been set so, that in every 24 hour a new chance has been given to us. You can get rid of the flaws of yesterday and start anew.

You also say: “Our task is to fill the universe with feelings.” And what is the task of the writer?

The writer’s task is to point out the matters that the reader might not notice. It might be something pleasant or unpleasant, big or small, serious or entertaining. And he or she should do it in fascinating manner for the reader. And give the reader something to think about even after reading the book.

Please speak about the current state of Estonian literature.

In Estonian literature at the moment, there is a sort of boom of short story writing, partly thanks to the book series of Estonian Short Story (Eesti Novell) that each year publishes the collection of the best of the short stories of the previous year. The fifth collection was issued this spring and the promise is to go on publishing it for at least a hundred years. The genre of the short stories is increasingly popular among the writers and readers. Various competitions have been held and collections of short stories have been published. There is a remarkable growth in the number of female authors. This enriches and adds different shades to the Estonian literature, broadens the view. There are good times at the moment.

Your biography says you were born to an Armenian mother and an Estonian father. Famous Russian writer Nina Berberova (of Armenian-Russian extraction) wrote she felt being a half-caste very early. What about you?

I was born in 1969 in Moldova, where my mother, borne Anna Papazyan, now Anna Kõomägi, used to live before she moved to Estonia. When I was two months old, I was brought to Estonia. That was the deal with my parents. I also realized my mixed blood at very early age. I often spent my summers in Chisinau with my relatives. They were quite diverse ethnically. My grandfather was Armenian, my grandmother Polish-Jewish origin, my cousin had Greek roots. All of them, however, spoke Russian. I remember that for a short period, I was even ashamed of it. In 1980s, when there was a sense of liberation from the Soviet occupation among the Estonians, being a “real” Estonian became very important. I felt as if I’m not a pure Estonian. But the feeling passed soon as in personal as well as social aspect. Today, I think that mixed blood has its advantages. In general, people here are tolerant for outlanders, especially when they speak Estonian. But the Russian invasion to Ukraine in February this year changed everything. Even the Ukrainian taxi driver in Estonia, who speaks to me in Russian, apologizes and says that he is an Ukrainian and dooms the Russian army.

Your name Armin — is it the German name or Armenian?

It is a German name that has been used in Estonia. But it seems that my parents somehow wanted to highlight their different nationalities, for my sister’s name is Esta.

Where are your ancestors from?

My mother has told me that our Armenian family is from the port town called Trabzon, this is nowadays Turkish area. In 18th century, they migrated to Abkhazia, where my mother was born. They have never lived in Armenia. My grandfather Mkhitar Papazyan was a highly valued specialist of the tobacco industry and therefore he worked in many countries — Georgia, Russia, Bulgaria, Moldova. And of course, his family travelled with him to these countries.

My mother said that her first language was the Armenian Hamshen dialect. In the course of time, she learned the Russian, Estonian and English languages. It is very difficult to discover in myself something of Armenian, or Polish, etc. I’ve been to Armenia only once in 2013 on a trip of the public cultural diplomacy. I’ve been to Georgia twice. I have to admit that I felt more home in Georgia. Maybe because of the sea. Even my ancestors have been living by the sea in Trabzon and Gudauta.

From Armenia I remember that it was very hot, the air stood still as a wall, and it also affected the people. I sensed a sort of stillness and stasis. People were not enthusiastic or optimistic. The driver, who with the great hospitality was taking us around for several days, asked with tears in his eyes that we invite him to Estonia, where he could find a better job and better life. I also remember in a museum, our guide, an elderly lady, said with the pride that in her opinion most all of the things in the world have been invented by the Armenians, even the skis*. That made me laugh.

And one more thing. One day we were having a lunch somewhere in the mountains. The scenery around was really breathtaking, especially for us, the ones coming from almost the flat land. We were bathing in ice cold rocky river and had the sturgeon soup. That was the best I ever had!

* Actually one of first mentions of skis was by Armenian historiographer Tovma Artsruni (9th-10th century), who in his History of the House of Artsrunik, mentioned that the inhabitants of Sasun mountains used to tie wooden boards on their toes while walking on the snow.

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