Death by boredom in record of Estonian expat's demise

  • 2004-07-22
  • By Alec Charles
TALLINN - "Irma" by Marjorie Devine (Vauve Press, 295 pp.)

There's only one word to describe this book. Terrible. Its subject - an individual's slow decline into death - is something of a postmodern paradigm. If you want a beautifully crafted, philosophically challenging account of the processes of one's departure from this mortal coil, then I suggest you try William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying" or Samuel Beckett's "Malone Dies." If on the other hand you favor the feelgood factor, then Mitch Albom's "Tuesdays With Morrie" is the deathbed dialogue for you.
But if art and entertainment leave you cold - if you want something that's profoundly terrible - then I recommend Marjorie Devine's account of the long illness and death of her friend Irma. It's called "Irma."
Irma was an Estonian woman who fled her country at the end of World War II and settled in Canada. Devine tells the true story of her final illness - her last eight years of multiple sclerosis - in the form of a diary. It is, to say the least, an unsentimental read. It is grueling and often tedious, as is frequently the case when we die, or when we watch others dying.
Irma spends her days - while she can still speak - recalling her youth and complaining about her current circumstances. Disappointment, unhappiness and resentment recur throughout the text as a relentless leitmotif. Her dissatisfaction and distrust alienate her caregivers and her friends alike. Even her sister stops talking to her.
But Irma believes her stubbornness is typically Estonian. "Estonians have always been stubborn in order to survive," she says. This book, however, won't teach you a lot about Estonia or its history. Irma's failing memory, her prejudices and her mild dishonesty see to that.
She hates Russia - "that damned country" - and constantly conflates Russians with the Soviets. She lies about her age by a decade, which leads her biographer to discover some "discrepancies" in her narrative. The author herself all too often takes Irma at her word and also makes the odd historical mistake. (For example, she gets that name of the U.N. Relief and Rehabilitation Administration wrong.)
The writer relates Irma's "bitterness" to "a feeling of guilt at leaving loved ones behind to struggle with the hardships, real or perceived, under Soviet rule." And, sure enough, when you recall Solzhenitsyn's tales of life in the gulags and remember the stories that Baltic and Russian friends have told of murders, purges and deportations, you start to lose sympathy for Irma as she laments the fact that she can't get her dinner delivered to her Canadian hospital bed.
But even though you may not feel much sympathy for this moribund old woman, you do feel a lot of pity. Pity and terror. It's in that sense that this book is so terrible. It is terribly truthful.
There is truth here, and there is terror too. The book is at its most pitiful and horrific - its most inescapably hollow and bitter - in a comment that Irma makes about the only man she ever loved: "There are many, many problems that come with old age but one good thing - you don't fall in love anymore."