The good magician Urmas Vadi

Text by Kaupo Meiel

It is very simple to enter the world created in the works of Urmas Vadi (1977). It is a bit more complicated to get your bearings there and it is quite complicated to fully understand it. This is, in fact, a feature of good fiction, and literature produced by Vadi is good. In his case, the word “good” does not just mean good as in a “good book” or “good bread with good cheese”. For Vadi, the word “good” means brightness, wealth of fantasy and cordiality, which are not that common in Estonian literature. The excessively serious and grim aspects in Estonian literature may be due to the Nordic cool temperatures, long autumns and short winters. Urmas Vadi has also experienced all this. How can his intelligent humour, his work, which always seeks the best in man, emerge in the first place? Maybe because Vadi himself is a good person. Bright and blessed with rich fantasy, in whose hands even simple events can become magic.
Once, for example, he kept putting off mowing the lawn. The mere idea became increasingly unpleasant. He was hoping for the rain to come, which it did, and this eased the situation magnificently. Rain, however, has a habit of stopping at some point and the weather usually turns nice again. This is exactly what happened, the sun came out, but Urmas decided instead to read Michel Houellebecq's novel The Map and the Territory. He got to the place where the artist Jed goes to visit Houellebecq and sees that his garden has not been mown, has become almost overgrown. Vadi immediately decided to mow his own lawn. “Who knows whether I am a better man or writer than Houellebecq, but at least I am a better gardener,” summarised Urmas.

Urmas Vadi appeared on the Estonian literary scene in 1996, when he published the collection of short stories Kui klosetist kerkib kloaak (When the cloaca rises from the closet). From then on, he published short stories, novels and plays. Ten excellent books for such a relatively young man is quite an achievement.
Vadi’s texts are fluent and seem to have been written down in the easy rhythm of breathing in and out. There is, however, detailed preparation. For plays and longer prose texts, Urmas produces graphs, noting down the main events, plot lines, and how the main characters move and change. This provides a structure and composition to return to if something seems wrong. Nothing flippant then: writing is hard work.

How did it happen that a perfectly nice young man became a writer? Vadi says he began writing in secondary school. The 8th Secondary School in Tartu was rather exceptional: it had a special class of literature that included creative writing. Urmas regarded himself as a writer even back then, although he now finds it idiotic to be a writer if you see yourself as one.
For his readers, it is certainly no longer an issue whether he is a writer or not. Urmas has no need to prove himself, but if he really has to introduce himself to someone he might confess to being a writer.
It can be pretty embarrassing to be introduced as a writer, and a well-known one at that. Urmas once went to a wedding reception and was introduced to the bride’s mother as “the famous writer Urmas Vadi”. The poor mother seemed to frantically search her memory, but the name of the “famous writer” clearly did not ring a bell. It happens.

Having started with short stories and published novels, he now mostly writes plays, which have been staged in Estonian theatres since 2001. Some are reflective, and some more humorous. Urmas is still fond of writing short stories and has, in fact, recently given up plays for a while and is planning to write a number of stories. He thus keeps the genres apart, as they really are quite different, starting with the plot structure.
In the past few years he has produced a number of his plays himself. This has nothing to do with being suspicious of other directors; he just assumes that he knows the theatrical language in which his texts can work best.
The good thing about producing your own plays, according to Vadi, is that he writes almost all his plays shortly before directing them, thinking about a specific venue or actors. Some examples: The Last Kiss of Peeter Volkonski and Rein Pakk Is Looking for a Woman. The lead in the first was naturally played by Peeter Volkonski and in the other by Rein Pakk. Vadi thus creates a situation in which it is not easy to grasp where the actor’s own self begins and where his role starts, the border between the documentary and fantasy.
Mixing the documentary with fantasy has become one of Urmas Vadi’s trademarks. In his play Ballettmeister (Ballet Master), he tackled the first president of the Republic of Estonia, Konstantin Päts (1874-1956), and turned him into a greedy schemer. The script Kohtumine tundmatuga (Meeting a Stranger) was made into a film in 2005 by Jaak Kilmi. Among other things, the film showed the relationship between aliens from space and Estonian Television. Really existing people, mainly prominent Estonian cultural people, acquire a new and far more fascinating life in Vadi’s imaginative work. Myths emerging from reality are given a new and unexpected dimension.
According to Urmas, he arrived at this method quite naturally. In his very first stories, he dealt with his own dreams and fears. Then he got fed up with this and he wrote quite a few plays about Estonian celebrities. And not only Estonian: in his play Elvis oli kapis (Elvis Was in the Cupboard) he presents an overview of the “real” life of the rock king. In his own singular way.
If we want to find a common denominator for this side of his work, Vadi himself suggests “alternative life stories”, where invention meets facts. This all relies on Vadi not being too keen on the documentary, on being faithful to history; instead, he prefers to play around so that everything blends with fantasy.
For the author, this kind of play is liberating: “It is something like an artist drawing a person. What is more true to life – someone drawn in photorealism or a portrait resembling a kind of scrawl? A scrawl may actually tell something significant and precise about the portrayed person. I am in favour of scrawling. I am a small boy who has got a felt-tipped pen and is drawing beards and moustaches on people in newspaper photos. What I want to say is that people do not just consist of dates and facts, but ideas, images and secret wishes as well.”

Andres Noormets, who directed Vadi’s pseudo-historical play The Ballet Master at the Endla theatre in Pärnu, believes that history exists somewhere as real time and how anyone sees or interprets it has nothing to do with history. History simply exists, it is a constant, and history writing is largely subjective and often canonised. History writing provides ideological models to secure certain power structures. Considering this, Urmas’s historical literature, which changes facts and joyfully plays around with them, is, according to Noormets, very charming. “Questioning generally accepted theories with a grin makes the scoundrels feel insecure and they have to creep out of their lairs. It is funny and healthy at the same time. In that sense, Urmas Vadi is like a good doctor who delivers a precise diagnosis and a precise treatment.”
The play about Elvis aside, most of his texts mixing history with fantasy deal with Estonian heroes who are practically unknown in the wider world. Have you heard of the TV legends Valdo Pant or Mati Talvik? The iconic singer Georg Ots? The writer and psychiatrist Vaino Vahing? I doubt it.
Writing new stories about people who are well known in a particular cultural space is fine, but it is very difficult to sell such work outside the cultural space. Vadi agrees, but is not too frustrated by it. “I cannot imagine trying to produce a highly cosmopolitan text that everybody can easily read and understand. It would be complete nonsense.”
Vadi has offered a great deal of precise diagnosis and treatment, as Andres Noormets so aptly put it. Enough to avoid poking in other people’s lives and looking deep into himself. He has recently started writing his prose so that the main character is quite obviously Urmas Vadi. He admits that even in this case it is not totally clear where he is real and where fantasy starts.

Vadi's works are a pleasure to read. His work is fluent, there is background and intelligence, and there is tasteful, occasionally pretentious humour. He does not regard himself as a “joker or jester”, but believes that jokes are essential. We must simply never forget that a joke cannot exist just for the sake of the joke. Vadi himself prefers laughter and jokes that are mixed with something else. For example, when a situation is so embarrassing or frustrating or bad that it becomes funny. Indeed, in similar situations he would much rather laugh than groan under the weight of the entire world and finally pass away, with a quiet sigh. This expresses the Vadi-like world-view perfectly.
Andres Noormets says that Vadi’s texts are full of fantasy, have bold punch-lines and are well focused. “His stories also have a kind of mercilessly final intensity. It is not a matter of speed, it can often be quite slow, but slow intensity is in fact quite decisive. Like a straight tree growing in the middle of a field or a sharp-edged cliff in the middle of a desert or an honest politician. A bit pretty, and a bit startling.”
Writer (:)kivisildnik, whose publishing house Jumalikud Ilmutused (Divine Revelations) issued Vadi’s book of plays Kohtumine tundmatuga (2008) and novels Kirjad tädi Annele (Letters to Aunt Ann, 2010) and Tagasi Eestisse (Back to Estonia, 2013), summarises the Vadi phenomenon succinctly: “The phenomenon of Urmas Vadi is a phenomenon of art, and art is something that is better than entertainment, more profitable than risk investment and more exciting than extreme sport. People who do not devote themselves to art consumption never understand people who fully devote themselves to producing art.”
It is not easy to capture the phenomenon of Urmas Vadi. It is easy not to understand his world, especially if the reader or viewer wants the work to have familiar fixed frames and visible borders. Vadi goes about his own business and if he himself has some frames and borders we do not want to know.

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