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Here it is, finally: Pajtim Statovci’s debut novel is the first book of literary merit written in Finnish by an author who originally came to Finland as an asylum seeker. Kissani Jugoslavia (‘Yugoslavia, my cat’, Otava, 2014) is a wild depiction of identity, told simultaneously from the perspectives of the mother of an immigrant family and her son. Statovci builds a keen sense of tension between the narrative of the Albanian woman and that of her youngest son.
Born in Podujevë, Kosovo, in 1990, Statovci came to Finland at the age of two, his ethnic Albanian family fleeing the war. He is studying comparative literature at the University of Helsinki and film and television scriptwriting at the Aalto University. The French and Norwegian translation rights to Kissani Jugoslavia were sold before the book had even been published.
Emine, a girl from the countryside, is married at the age of 17 to the handsome Bajram who, despite his university education, behaves in typical macho fashion, subjugating and humiliating his wife from the very first day of their marriage. When the family flees the war and arrives in Finland in 1994, now with four children in tow, Bajram continues in his previous role as the master of the family.
But in a foreign culture things gradually change: Bajram loses his job and, eventually, his family too. Emine, meanwhile, becomes more independent and emancipated, the new environment finally offering her a life of her own. The cost of this, however, is the loss of contact with her own family and children. As a family they don’t seem able to cope in the new environment without emotional scars.
The son’s story is completely different from the realistic historical narrative used to tell the mother’s story. Young Bekim is a gay, ethnic Albanian Muslim now forced to find a place for himself in an often unwelcoming Finnish culture. The novel’s narrative style incorporates fantasy and elements of the grotesque as Bekim explores human relationships and sexuality.
Cats and snakes represent everything previously shunned, the despised and the desirable associated with human sexuality and, in particular, with the inherent use of power. In Kosovo the cat is a ‘dirty’ animal, but Bekim nonetheless tries to build a shared life with a handsome man – in the feline form – he meets in a bar.
In her homeland Emine too has previously been frightened of cats, but at the end of the novel she takes a cat as a pet. In the world of the novel both characters bravely confront their fears – and transcend them.
The figure of the snake is more multifaceted. The terror associated with snakes that Bekim experiences as a child is very real: he suffers from debilitating nightmares and anxiety attacks – for which his father is largely responsible. Therapy helps him, and as a young student he takes a boa constrictor as a pet, and thus begins a fascinating exploration of his own fears.
The novel succeeds in giving cats and snakes strong, vivid characters. These fantasy animals nonetheless retain their realistic personae too: when, as an adult, Bekim returns to Kosovo, the land of his ancestors, he captures a poisonous adder and hurls it at his grandfather. The scene can be read as a final greeting to the restrictive patriarchy which has ordained the fate of his family.
Translated by David Hackston
I met the cat in a bar. And he wasn’t just any cat, the kind of cat that likes toy mice or climbing trees or feather dusters, not at all, but entirely different from any cat I’d ever met.
I noticed the cat across the dance floor, somewhere between two bar counters and behind a couple of turned backs. He loped contentedly from one place to the other, chatting to acquaintances in order to maintain a smooth, balanced social life. I had never seen anything so enchanting, so alluring. He was a perfect cat with black-and-white stripes. His soft fur gleamed in the dim lights of the bar as though it had just been greased, and he was standing, firm and upright, on his two muscular back paws.
Then the cat noticed me; he started smiling at me and I started smiling at him, and then he raised his front paw to the top button of his shirt, unbuttoned it and began walking towards me.
Before long he was standing in front of me in all his handsome glory. It was as if the cat had got my tongue and at first I was unable to utter a word. The famous hits of yesteryear were playing in the background, and the cat clearly felt an affinity with the lyrics, as he was singing along to songs by Cher and Tina Turner with such gusto that I thought he might burst with the force of his own memories.
Give me a lifetime of promises and a world of dreams / Speak the language of love like you know what it means / You’re simply the best, better than all the rest / Better than anyone, anyone I’ve ever met.
What am I supposed to do? / Sit around and wait for you? / Do you believe in life after love? / I can feel something inside me say / I really don’t think you’re strong enough.
The cat leaned his head back and grinned so widely that his chin formed three different chins. The expression on his face was as dramatic and fateful as that of an opera singer arriving at a climax: his eyes had creased shut, his mouth was wide open as though he were about to sneeze and his knees bobbed in time with the chorus from Believe. One paw was clenched to his heart and the other reached out as if to take a lost lover by the hand.
After praising his extraordinary rendition, I looked him in the eyes and smiled.
‘I know,’ he began. ‘Nothing short of astonishing, isn’t it?’
The cat’s white stripes shone in the dark, and the flashing strobe lighting sometimes made him disappear altogether, as though he weren’t there at all. The cat was such a wonderful, beautiful, gifted interpreter that I took him in my arms without waiting for any indication that he might be interested, and straight away I noticed that his silky smooth fur smelt good and that his body was muscular from top to tail. The mere sensation of touching it was so magical that, goodness me, I needn’t have touched anything else ever again.
During one flash of the strobethe cat bounded back on to the dance floor, leaving my arms momentarily embracing nothing but thin air.
I prowled round the bar a few times and started to get agitated. I realised I wanted the cat so much that I’d already decided I would have him. My upper lip tensed, my head was pounding and my focus sharpened. And just then his magnificent, arched back appeared from behind a corner, his long black tail wagged up and down and he crept forward as though he were stalking fresh prey.
The cat stopped a short way away. He peered discreetly – even seductively – over his shoulder and looked me right in the eyes. With his front paw, he gestured for me to follow him, winked at me the way the other men in the bar winked at meand disappeared once again round the corner.
I began following at his command, and before long I was standing right behind him, and I felt like saying what a beautiful cat he was, a truly lovely kitty-cat. After walking across the corridor, the cat found a free table. It was one-thirty in the morning, the music was blaring and the dance floors were crammed with party animals. The cat leapt on to the sofa and settled himself by the table with a look of pride: his eyes were closed and his stately face slanted up towards the ceiling in a truly aristocratic pose. When I sat down on the sofa beside him, he made room for me but still didn’t look at me directly.
‘Well, well,’ he quipped, nonchalantly scratching his chin. Suddenly he was wearing a pair of glasses. ‘And who have we here?’
I mumbled something indistinct, stumbled over my words and stammered. Eventually I managed to spit it out, told him we’d just met, over there, on the dance floor, you hugged me and I hugged you, do you remember?
‘You look terrible,’ he exclaimed in a grandiose tone. ‘I don’t know you and I certainly wouldn’t hug you, ugh,’ he said as though spitting in the other direction. ‘A brute like you.’
I was so shocked by the cat’s judgemental tone that all I could do was sit quietly next to him.
‘Right, hah hah – that was a joke, you wally! We do not know one another, so don’t talk as if we did,’ the cat reprimanded me. ‘But we can get to know one another, hah hah, I’m open to suggestions. Do you want to get to know me or not?’
The moment I said yes, the cat wanted to know things. Everyday things, my name, my date of birth. And I told him my name, and he said he’d never heard such a funny name, such a frightful name, he continued, utterly dreadful, hah hah, laughed the cat. Bekim. It’s such a dreadful name that I’m not sure I want to hear it ever again!
Only now did the cat turn his head towards me, peer through his narrowed cat’s eyes and find a face for the name he found so disagreeable, ears and eyes, a mouth and body. He brazenly crossed his legs, all the while gawping at me, and started guffawing, his mouth set in a grimace.
‘Nomen est omen,’ he said. ‘Did you know that? The name is an omen, hah hah.’
And I told him of course I’d heard that and that it’s just a collection of letters and that, by the way, my name means ‘blessing’. But before I could continue, the cat burst into a volley of such raucous laughter that I could no longer think anything at all, and he rolled and writhed on the spot without trying to control himself in the slightest.
‘Well, in that case it’s the worst possible name for you!’ shouted the cat through the roar of his laughter.
‘Okay, it might well be quite a bad name, but isn’t that a little impolite?’ I said, trying to effect a mature, adult tone of voice.
‘Well, now!’ the cat shouted and sat up straight. ‘Sourpuss. It wasn’t the least bit impolite,’ he said, trying to imitate my tone of voice and continued laughing as though he didn’t care how uncomfortable he was making me feel.
‘Oh, do forgive me, monsieur,’ he began, raised both front paws into the air, and with a pout he began stroking his whiskers at both sides. ‘Or should I say, mademoiselle, hah hah,’ he continued. ‘I didn’t realise I wasn’t allowed to joke about your name. This all seems deadly serious now, doesn’t it, meow!’
I gulped. ‘Do you fancy a drink?’
‘Of course I fancy a drink,’ he replied. ‘And only now you ask me – how rude!’
I stood up and fetched us both a gin and cranberry juice, and when I placed the long drink in front of him, the cat muttered something to the effect of how bloody long it had taken to bring the fucking drinks.
‘There was a bit of a queue,’ I said in my defence. ‘Sorry.’
‘Ooh, what beautiful eyes you’ve got, what beautiful dark-brown hair,’ said the cat once he had relented and unexpectedly leapt on to my shoulder and began stroking my hair.
The tender, soft touch of his paws made my skin tighten into goosebumps, but after only a short moment the cat jumped away again.
‘So, what do you do for a living?’ the cat asked, now serious, and pressed his fingers against his lower lip.
And so I began to tell him this and that, talked about my studies and my lowly job as a postman, my apartment and all the various courses I’d taken at all the various faculties, my hobbies, my likes and dislikes, my free time.
The cat didn’t seem to think my story sufficiently interesting, as his attention drifted and now he was looking at other men in the bar and their behinds. His eyes were half shut and drool trickled from the corner of his mouth.
‘Ugh,’ he said as though he were about to vomit.
‘Gays. I don’t much like gays.’
I was astounded. People don’t come to a place like this if they don’t like gays. When I asked the cat why he didn’t like gays, he explained that he had nothing against homosexuality per se, just gays. Before I could ask him another question and point out that people usually liked gays but not homosexuality, the cat clarified his answer.
‘Naturally, I like all kinds of toms, but I can’t abide bitches!’ he said abruptly and crossed his paws on the table. ‘You have to decide whether you’re a man or a woman,’ he continued and leapt suddenly on to the table, raised his backside in the air and stretched his front paws on the table.
‘Look, just look at that,’ he said quickly, fixed his eyes on the men on the dance floor and wagged his tail. ‘How disgusting. Men’s hands don’t move through the air like that, and men don’t talk the way women talk. And men don’t wear such tight tops or wiggle their bottoms like that – like a prostitute, a whore!’ the cat snapped so loudly that the dancers turned to look at us.
The cat wound his way between the pints of cider and jumped back on to the sofa. Christ alive, and sex between men is even more disgusting! Unnatural through and through. Horrific, absolutely! he declared. Wouldn’t it be easier just to leave people in peace, I asked, and let them be themselves?
‘Hippie,’ said the cat pointedly. ‘It so happens that the world works rather differently. People have expectations and opinions, there’s no getting away from it.’
‘Yes, I think you’re right,’ I said.
‘That would hardly be a surprise,’ he said, wallowing in self-satisfaction as he smugly stretched out his paws and gave a brazen smile.
The cat assured me that his opinion of gays wasn’t based on mere hearsay but on personal experience, for he had once met two gays. He had been backcombing his luxuriant fur in the bathroom of a local restaurant when two gay men had cornered him. According to the cat, the men marched up to him, stood on either side of him and began pointing at his handsome flanks and gleaming tail as they might a piece of meat, and the cat had felt so objectified that he had been forced to stop his preening and cover up his sweet curvature.
A moment later the cat said I should tell him something that would make me special, someone worth getting to know, because otherwise he would go straight home. He thought everything I had told him was meaningless nonsense, as boring and predictable as the government’s budget proposals, ugh, again he almost spat. Good grief, you certainly know how to bore a person so completely and utterly!
‘Now tell me something you’ve never told anyone else!’
At this, as if by accident, I began telling the cat about my past, the country I had come from, about the situations in which people moving from one country to another find themselves, and about the small Finnish town in which I had grown up. The cat sensed that I don’t normally talk about my past, because now he was listening more intently, narrowed his eyes and cupped his paw at the edge of his chin the better to hear through the music.
I told the cat about people for whom my name was always something I had to explain, people who, when I answered their questions and told them where my name came from, were always disappointed. That’s why I’m so wary of it; surely you appreciate that a name can cause more bad than good.
I told the cat about how it always feels as though people are scrutinising my behaviour at school, at work, everywhere, watching how much food I take for lunch and checking to see whether I remember to thank the people working in the canteen, to see whether I write my essays in flawless Finnish and how often I change my clothes.
Whenever we talked about Islam, dictatorships or foreign languages at school, I always lowered my head, as I could feel the way they all turned to look at me. And when they asked me to say something in my mother tongue, some of them even said out loud what a shame it was that speaking such a language was useless here. And whenever I was late, I often heard that it was high time I learned this isn’t a third-world country. Living and going to school in Finland is like winning the lottery. Remember that.
The cat sent me a text message. He told me he was homeless and needed somewhere to sleep. I was writing him a response asking him to come and live at my place when my phone beeped again.
I’m moving in. That’s all it said.
By all means. Welcome! I answered.
I followed this immediately with another message explaining that I have a pet, a boa constrictor. You don’t mind, do you?
Not at all! the cat replied and moved his things in a week later.
Our shared life began promisingly enough, though until then I hadn’t lived with anything except the snake. We shared all our expenses, and gradually the cat got used to the presence of the snake, even dared to touch it, and I thought that perhaps our love could be just like in the cinema: strong and powerful love that needed no questions and wasted no time.
We walked through parks hand in hand, we read the morning paper together, we told one another the things you only tell your lover. The cat asked about my previous relationships, and I told him I had been with both men and women but that nothing had ever come of it and now I was more than content to be with a cat.
I told my cat about my hopes and fears, and the cat told me about his dreams and family. It’s a perfectly normal story. I’m a perfectly normal cat from a normal home and everything about me is normal, normal friends, normal job, yada yada. Not worth worrying about. I never asked the cat why he was homeless, because I sensed that he didn’t want to talk about his financial situation or social position. He would tell me everything when he was ready.
We took baths together and I would read him extracts from my favourite novels. We went rambling and visited spa hotels; we tried our hand at bowling and mountaineering and squash. And every evening we returned to our shared home, both of us convinced that this time it was different, this was fate, these two beings have finally appeared in one another’s lives to make them more worth living.
Then our life began to turn routine, and suddenly we knew one another so well that we had run out of questions to ask. The cat knew not to talk to me for half an hour after I walked in the door, he let me read in peace and kept the sound on the television turned down whenever I went to bed before him, while I knew to lay out the clothes he needed for the next morning, as the cat was terrible at mornings, whereas I was excellent.
One perfectly normal June day, the cat came to the decision that he wasn’t cut out for such a life. It’s the same every day, he said. I have to leave you. I want to leave you. I don’t want to do this any more. A cat, in a world like this, a relationship like this.
At that moment the old Kosovan proverb popped into my mind whereby too many good things can spoil a person. We can achieve good things and they can occur in a variety of ways. If someone has more possessions than he needs, if he is used to being treated too well or becomes too adept at something, he starts to believe that he deserves only the best. He refuses to associate with people other than those who are the same as him. He becomes accustomed to good food and drink, and wonders how it was once possible to drink lemonade with added sugar or smoke the cheapest tobacco. And all the while he thinks other people’s pity is nothing but envy.
Did you really think that we would be together forever, just the two of us? How can you believe something like that? Surely you realise that you are like that and I am like this, and that together we’re not like anything? People should be fined for such abject stupidity.
I got out of bed and walked into the living room. Sami was looking out of the window at the weighty snowflakes falling to the ground, at the light that never ended. He said he’d been thinking about things all night, turned his head and looked me in the eyes.
I wasn’t angry about my father’s death. I was relieved, relieved that he had finally found a way to turn to the only option still open to him. The only thing that made me angry was Sami’s tone when he had asked me, because my father hadn’t been a father to me, not the same way as his had been a father to him.
‘I think it’s high time you told me,’ he began and glanced at his clothes, neatly folded on the sofa.
When I didn’t answer immediately, he shot out a volley of questions, as if it would be easier for me to start from a single detail. What was he like? What did he look like? When was the last time you saw him? Tell me, please, say something, trust me.
I picked up the pile of clothes and said that my father had left this country long ago. As I walked into the bedroom, I told him it had taken months before I even heard he had left. I placed his clothes in the wardrobe, and once I returned to the living room I said it had taken even longer before I heard he had died.
I put a hand on my hip, shifted my weight from one leg to the other and hoped that Sami had more clothes than I did. Then I pressed my hands to my face, as I realised I had never told anyone about my father’s death; I had always said we weren’t on good terms or that he’d left us when I was young.
Sami gripped my shoulder and turned back to face the window, and the snowfall was lighter now, more drifting. He was silent, but his questions weren’t over; they were there in the way he moved his head, in the trajectory of his coffee cup as he drew it closer, in the grip with which he tried to hold me still, and they were in his mouth, in the delicate rhythm in which his lips tried to form words.
For a long time I hadn’t understood my father, because he didn’t view life the same way as others. Whereas other people asked one another what they wished for in life, my father asked people what the wished for in death. He couldn’t understand why people didn’t spend time wondering about the way in which their lives would one day come to an end. It would happen to every one of us; it was the only thing that united us. How on earth can they bring themselves not to think about it, not to discuss it? he would ask, roll his head and eventually burst into laughter.
Then he would start to list ways of dying: cancer, a car accident, suffocation, falling to the pavement, drowning, burning, being shot. Do me a favour, he said. Close your eyes and imagine what it would be like if you accidentally leant against a circular saw and your arm was sliced off and you’d never be able to get it back again. Instead of fingers, there would be nothingness. Or what would it be like to fall from the deck of a ship into the freezing water? The motors would swallow you up in a millisecond no matter how strongly you tried to swim away.
I wasn’t sure whether he really wanted to die or whether all he wanted from death was what it would mean for his nearest and dearest.
A heart attack, a plane crash, a stroke, tuberculosis, cirrhosis, being crushed, being starved, freezing to death. What would you choose? If you could?
Then he would start battering his fists against his head, go into the bathroom, fill the bath and lower himself to the bottom of the tub, as though he imagined he could end his life through the force of sheer will power, or he would tighten a belt around his neck, press a sharp knife against his throat and threaten to cut himself. Then he ran into the bedroom, fetched a pile of blankets from the cupboard and buried himself beneath them and said sorry, Daddy’s very scared now.
And I listened and watched, I listened to his stifled voice and I watched as the blankets shuddered to the rhythm of his flinches, I watched until he began to gasp for breath, and I went to him and stroked his damp back and said I was sorry, and when he vomited at the side of the bed I mopped everything away even before he stood up, and as I stroked him, as I cleaned up the mess he had made, I felt nothing for him but disgust, his viscid sweat oozing between my fingers like egg white.
‘That’s what my father did,’ I said.
I stepped behind Sami to see him more closely, to watch his reaction. Then he turned to look at me, took my arm and wrapped it around him.
‘Thank you,’ he said and slid his fingers between my own.
His hand was warm and strong and squeezed my hand, and I thought of the warmth that existed between our hands, the rustle that occurs as he pulls on an item of clothing I have washed for him, the soft hiss from his nostrils as he breathes against my forehead. Did my father ever experience anything like this?
All those years I wished for him to die, though I didn’t understand what death truly meant. And as I wished for his death, I didn’t realise that one day my wish would come true, nor did I realise that, when it finally happened, I would think of him so often: what clothes he had worn or what pieces of furniture he had acquired, who had cooked for him every day and what kind of crockery he ate from, who tidied his apartment, did he have anyone to change the sheets or simply to check that he didn’t lose too much weight?
And I wonder what my father thought about when he woke up in the morning and remembered he was alone, or on the morning he died. What was my father thinking about when he fetched his revolver from the glass cabinet on that cold, early morning when ice crystals had frozen in the air? Had he had enough of searching for answers or asking questions as he slipped the bullets into the cylinder and cocked the gun? Was he thinking of what he had left behind, I wonder as I picture him placing the barrel into his mouth, his dry lips closing around the barrel, as I catch the taste of metal when my tongue runs along my teeth, as I hear the faint sound of the trigger or imagine how hard he must have had to pull it, and the ice-cold metal stings my limbs, makes my bones ache, pinches them.
A light bursting from the window splits his head in two as I see him there, sitting at the table, and he looks at me, askew, over his shoulder and I wonder, was he thinking about me, was my father thinking about me at that moment as he finally refused to carry on living, in such violent fashion?
I never got an answer, but I’m sure that’s what my father was thinking.
And from time to time, when I hear his voice, I go for a long walk in the forest or down by the shore, and when I come back I take my man by the arm, he is a beautiful, decent man, and I embrace him and ask what he would like to eat, because I know how happy this makes him – and I go shopping with him and sit in the passenger seat of his car and he grips the upper half of the steering wheel with his bare hand, the skin taut with the cold, and he is wearing a pair of sunglasses and I look at his hand, his concave knuckles and his fingers, straight as bullets, and his white skin where the frosted light thickens like brilliant ice.
Translated by David Hackston
For 41 years, from 1967 to 2008, Books from Finland was a printed journal. In 1976, after a decade of existence as not much more than a pamphlet, it began to expand: with more editorial staff and more pages, hundreds of Finnish books and authors were featured in the following decades.
Those texts remain archive treasures.
In 1998 Books from Finland went online, partially: we set up a website of our own, offering a few samples of text from each printed issue. In January 2009 Books from Finland became an online journal in its entirety, now accessible to everyone.
We then decided that we would digitise material from the printed volumes of 1976 to 2008: samples of fiction and related interviews, reviews, and articles should become part of the new website.
The process took a couple of years – thank you, diligent Finnish Literature Exchange (FILI) interns (and Johanna Sillanpää) : Claire Saint-Germain, Bruna di Pastena, Merethe Kristiansen, Franziska Fiebig, Saara Wille and Claire Dickenson! – and now it’s time to start publishing the results. We’re going to do so volume by volume, going backwards.
The first to go online was the fiction published in 2008: among the authors are the poets Tomi Kontio and Rakel Liehu and prose writers Helvi Hämäläinen (1907–1998), Sirpa Kähkönen, Maritta Lintunen, Arne Nevanlinna, Hagar Olsson (1893–1979), Juhani Peltonen (1941–1998) and Mika Waltari (1908–1979).
To introduce these new texts, we will feature a box on our website, entitled New from the archives, where links will take you to the new material. The digitised texts work in the same way as the rest of the posts, using the website’s search engine (although for technical reasons we have been unable to include all the original pictures).
By the time we reach the year 1976, there will be texts by more than 400 fiction authors on our website. We are proud and delighted that the printed treasures of past decades – the best of the Finnish literature published over the period – will be available to all readers of Books from Finland.
The small world of Finnish fiction will be even more accessible to the great English-speaking universe. Read on!
In recent years the Finnish novel has been refreshed by central European tones in the work of authors including Kristina Carlson, Katri Lipson and Sofi Oksanen. Among these reforming powers is Satu Taskinen, whose first novel, Täydellinen paisti (‘The perfect roast’, 2011), won the Helsingin Sanomat prize for a debut work.
The novel, set over a day and describing a Viennese family’s All Saints’ Day lunch and, in particular, its demanding preparations, aroused admiration, but also wonderment at its slow, thoughtful monologue, in which absurdist humour and irony mixed with a melancholy atmosphere.
Satu Taskinen, who studied philosophy and German philology at Helsinki University, has lived and worked in Vienna for a long time. Her second novel, Katedraali (‘The cathedral’), is also a one-day novel describing a Viennese family.
Taskinen (born 1970) examines the world of the European middle class: how to live in a world that is growing increasingly unequal without becoming anxious and without a sense of guilt; where do the limits of personal responsibility lie? The author’s style and the works’ intense world have been compared to Thomas Bernhard, Elfriede Jelinek or W.G. Sebald; Finnish critics have also placed a positive emphasis on the moral philosophical approach of the novels, which is felt to be un-Finnish.
The narrator of Katedraali is a lonely woman in her forties who is not quite all right; Tea’s internal disorganisation is also visible on the outside. She is clearly a compulsive hoarder, at least in the eyes of her family and her neighbours.
It is the day of the funeral of Tea’s younger sister: Kerstin has died at the age of only 37 after a long genetic illness. For years, Tea has been living in near isolation in her apartment among things and rubbish. Death has drawn the family together. Anxious, at her older sister Bea’s house, Tea gathers the guests’ serving plates into too-tall piles, the same as the yogurt-pot pyramids she makes at home.
The novel is an excellently told monologue which wanders from global catastrophe to intra-family trauma. How did the daughter of a bourgeois Viennese family, a doctor’s wife and the mother of a clever young man become a builder of yogurt-pot towers? As you might guess: there is no one reason for the depression of the human mind. Her childhood home and her mother’s loveless distance gradually emerge as the foundation for Tea’s powerlessness. The family’s attempts to make themselves look balanced to the outside world have resulted in Tea taking refuge in conserving solidity. She has become a chatelaine who has abandoned herself. ‘The best we can do is stay to one side, save and sort.’ Tea’s marriage has broken up and she retreated to her solitude.
The novel’s questions are big ones: what to do, how to live a good life. Tea has come to the conclusion that whatever a person does, the result is the end of the world. All great efforts, such as the Stephansdom in Vienna, which took centuries to build, are senseless projects. Nothing is redeemed by the knowledge that the cathedral was built to honour life.
Interleaved with the sombre sorting through of Kerstin’s estate are glimpses of the openness of the world: dissent, choice, passing by, letting go. Tea’s son Mark attempts, perhaps in vain, to open the sick woman’s locks: the collector becomes distraught when her rubbish dump is destroyed. It is her world; it is just that its organisation is incomplete.
Katedraali’s narrative, employing free associations and stream of consciousness, allows multiple interpretations. Even though Tea appears to end in despair, the centuries of building of the cathedral may also be interpreted as a person who is continually under construction: every family and every period leaves its own mark on the monument, for good or ill.
Translated by Hildi Hawkins
I am here now, at this funeral; I’m sitting on a puffy rococo chair which stands in the corner of this large living room – hall – on a Berber rug, one of a series of four pieces of furniture. The fourth is a curly-legged table, painted matt white. I wriggle like anything, trying to rid myself of my too-tight shoes. Fish thrash their tails in the same way. The lady in the dry cleaner’s told me she hates fish. She said that clothes that smell of fish and are brought into her shop make her shake with loathing but also bring her satisfaction because she can wash the awful stench away.
My shoes are impossibly small. They pinch my feet worse every moment. My back aches, too, despite the painkillers. You can’t swallow pills forever, so I just try to find a better position and put up with it. Finally my shoes leave my feet. I kick them underneath the table so that they can’t be seen. I can breathe again. In my shoes I felt as if I were sinking under the ground.
My father once showed me the Stephansdom catacombs. Thousands of people were buried here, before that, too, was forbidden by someone, he said.
Dad’s second greatest passion was the cathedral in the centre of Vienna, its history and legends. Dad took us there whenever he could, no argument. He knew countless details about the church, its forty master builders, the stone it was built of, the roof’s fire and renovation and significance. You can ask me whatever you want about the history of the Stephansdom, I will definitely get full marks.
Despite the coffee, I am very sleepy, and I must stay awake. Painkillers have that effect – as soon as the pain goes out through the door, sleep comes in through the windows. The doctor laughed, good morning! Good cheerful morning to you too, the doctor laughed, because my blood pressure was so low. And said, at least that’s not a problem. Your blood pressure is not a problem. Better low than high, good morning to you! You should drink water. You have to drink a lot of water and take up endurance training, any movement at all, walking, going to the shops, walking up stairs, tending flowers, even house cleaning, but every day. Good morning!
I take a gulp of water.
I have learned: I must drink a lot, little sips throughout the day, because I don’t absorb water. It bypasses my cells and my veins, rinses my bones lightly without actually washing them, leaving my skin dry, like a downpour on stony loam. The water runs through the soil rinsing even the roots on to the plate and over the edge of the plate, the water runs in streams along the side of the cabinet and on to the floor, drips off the edge of the cabinet into the cracks in the floor, as a result of which the floor may begin to swell, mould may appear, an expensive catastrophe. Keep water inside yourself, lie in bed on your back with your mouth shut and do not move. I have read: 80 per cent of people is made up of water. Water is made up of oxygen and hydrogen. In addition, people contain minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, and trace elements, such as iron, zinc, copper and iodine. There are also poisons, such as lead and mercury.
Yesterday I had thought: the funeral is tomorrow. Tomorrow they are burying Kerstin, and it is wrong. Most of the things in the world are wrong, most things are this kind of struggle.
When I was twenty-four I stopped off on a whim on the way home at a toy shop, because there was a noticed taped to its window about a teddy-bear maker’s apprenticeship. I thought, why not, why shouldn’t I do some useful work. The toy shop was full of toys carved from wood and teddy bears of different sizes, dressed in various ways. I was immediately drawn to a bear standing there in a yellow rain suit, with a yellow rain-hat. Its black nose gleamed. I touched the bear’s paw and said hello to it. The toy-shop owner was a grey-haired woman who said Good afternoon from behind the counter in a tired voice. I was the only customer in the shop and the woman was naturally sad because her clearly winning and pedagogically valuable products did not attract the demand that she believed should have been theirs. She did not know how to market her products more effectively. How to get people to want her gifts. She was not certain of the toy shop’s future. I said I had read the notice in the window and asked whether it was still current. The toy-shop women only listened to half of what I had to say. I had thought I would bring her happiness by responding to her notice, but it turned out that the opposite was the case. The woman asked my age and said I was much too old.
I thanked her for the information and left the shop in astonishment. For the first time in my life I realised what it means for someone to really say ‘no’. What it means for something to be too late. And I had the uncomfortable feeling that this should not have been news to me, but something I should have realized a log time ago. It was awful. That inflexible no. It gave me the creeps. I said thank you, yes of course, stepped out of the toy-shop door and walked along the familiar road home at the same pace as I had walked from my work to the toy shop. No slower or faster, but at exactly the same pace, as if I were not ashamed at all, as if nothing had happened.
The living room smells of sandwiches left out at room temperature, of continually flowing coffee, of black, damp clothes, of restrained sweat and the salt of tears. Just then I feel like some cucumber. I take a big pile of it on to my plate, and cheese, and withdraw into a corner with them. It’s out of the question that I should buy anything as terribly expensive as cucumber and cheese myself.
But then I can’t eat them after all. The sheer quantity suddenly makes me feel sick. I don’t know anyone here. I try to put the cucumber and the cheese back on the serving platters so that they still look new and untouched. They are new and untouched. I don’t want any food to be thrown away just because of me. I don’t put anything back that I’ve touched with my hand, just the ones that I’ve moved with a clean fork.
You can’t eat standing up. You just can’t. I try to sit down, but I fall between two chairs, luckily I don’t fall down on to the floor. Someone comes up again. Says something. My condolences. I’m not sure whether he means this embarrassing slip or Kerstin, presumably both. He helps me on to a chair. I say thank you, but nothing else. The person goes on standing there for some time. I don’t know who he is, either. I’d like to know. I’d like him to tell me a story, it could have animals in it, animals and children, I’d like him to ask me any questions at all, I’d like him to ask me to tell stories, stories in which I remember Kerstin. I would tell him how I often went to the zoo with Kerstin and sometimes on a boat.
Any old boat was good enough, as long as it was in the water. Kerstin liked it, she liked water. Love is knowing what the other person likes and what she wants and hopes for, isn’t it? Love is listening. And taking seriously. I’d like to talk about it. But the person doesn’t say anything. He stands there for another moment. Then he says he’ll take this glass away. I don’t say anything. I think: just as well.
I’ve always done all the organising in this household simply to please others. And ever since I was a child I’ve been told: don’t try to please others. Dad said: it’s not worth being a stereotype, otherwise you will never think of anything of your own and your life will not go forward. Ilse said: you don’t have to please other people all the time. And all that same that’s exactly how things had to be. Kaspar Hauser became an animal when he was with the animals. Nothing in a human being comes from himself or herself, without other people you dry up like a prune, talk like a chicken, eat like a horse.
I begin to collect the plates. I’m so feeble that I can only carry two cups at a time. I notice that people are giving me pitying looks. I raise my hand as a sign, no, this saying no works perfectly well, I see, if someone is about to rise and ask me to sit down. I don’t want to sit down or to be helped, I want to walk, I want to walk from one room to the next, to try Bea’s method. I’ve decided to buy new tweezers, just like Mark said. I have decided to throw the old ones away, if ever they condescend to turn up.
Now that people are talking about remorse, I begin to think that in a way I could say that Kerstin was also more of a child than a sister to me. Bea and Leo, they are my siblings, but Kerstin was more like a child, everyone’s child. That’s exactly what Kerstin was: everybody’s child. Whenever necessary. If someone needed some creature that they could look after or educate or perhaps even discipline a little, whom they could use to put pressure on other members of the family or officials, Kerstin was always available. And Ilse? What about Ilse? Was Ilse my mother? Did the fact that I have spent nine months inside that person make her my mother? Yes, of course it did. And nevertheless I would say no. No, Ilse was my aunt. The kind of aunt you address formally. Ilse addresses me formally. That’s how she keeps her distance. Denies me. Ilse is a ball and chain. Ilse is a storm, a lurking danger, a good educational method, the kind that was used to keep gladiators alive, just the same thing: if their concentration wavered for even a second, they could lose their head.
Bea, too, comes into this guest room, now a storeroom. She says: Is this where you are, among the boxes? You’re always disappearing, where is it that you go, you were just the same as a child, ants in your pants. I’ve put a new cake on the table, you haven’t eaten anything today, or have you. Bea stands next to me, she’s standing there now, fingering the things in one of the boxes. She’s standing so close to me that I can smell her skin and her hair. She says: I’m gradually clearing and sorting Kerstin’s things, I’ve put the ones that can be thrown away on the left, so I suppose that’s the ‘rubbish’. I’ve put the things we want to keep on the right. For example most of the summer clothes, since summer’s coming. It’s quite difficult to work out what belongs with what, but on the other hand it can’t do a lot of harm. Most of it’s old and ragged.
For me, ‘these rags’ are the loveliest of treasures. Toys, tent-like dresses, tights, ankle-socks, gloves, t-shirts, sleeveless tops, scarves and belts. I pause for a moment in my examination of the things, because I’m trying to remember the words to that Easter hymn, how annoying, since of course I’ve known them. Then happily I get the words in the right places, just by singing, the same segments many times once after another, and I try not to think pointlessly, first one word at a time and then in little rushes, sentences, the lines I once learned by heart begin to come back in the right order. I haven’t found any tweezers or any hats, but I can still find these words. My head is so full of the same thoughts, always the same thoughts. I have read: Each of us thinks thousands of thoughts a day, of which more than half are old, familiar repetitions. Have they became a mad spider’s web? Almost nothing I look for can be found. Not people’s names, not years, not place-names, not foreign words. But now I did find the words of this song. Christmas, Easter. Johann Sebastian. Vom Himmel hoch. O sacred head sore wounded.
Who can say whether bronze is more expensive than copper, on what basis it’s better to receive a golden gift than a silver one?
Translated by Hildi Hawkins
Peter Sandström debuted in 1998. His sixth book, the novel Transparente blanche [White transparent: apple variety], is about a middle-aged man who returns to the place of his upbringing and his elderly mother to help her with a strange task she has been given. He is confronted with memories of crucial experiences of his youth – the early death of his father, and his first love – experiences which, the reader understands, guided his life and made him the alienated person he is. The novel also depicts in an unusually sensitive and penetrating way the relationship between a grown man and his mother. However, plot is never the focus of Sandström’s books. His interest lies in using a specific environment and precise and poetic language to depict the vaguest of existential experiences: transience, mortality, changes in the perception of one’s body and in things, the unreliability of memories, the enigma of other people, all that it means to be human, impermanent and thrown into the stream of time.
When I was seventeen, I yearned to leave behind the small town where I grew up. I heard the owl hooting in the forest: go to Europe.
I heard the dirt-track gravel crunching beneath my shoes: run, lad, run.
The birch in the yard rustled and whispered: if you spend one more summer hanging around the garden of your childhood, you’ll stay here forever.
A frog in the ditch gave a stern croak: look at your father; if you don’t escape you’ll end up an old codger just like him.
Even the smoke twirling up from the sauna chimney spoke to me in billows: I’ll show you the right direction, head south, and don’t stop until you see the first camel.
I spent the month of June digging graves to scrape together enough money for an Interrail ticket. Grave digging was a painfully slow pursuit. The only person allowed to use the Bobcat was the full-time employee, Anttonen. He drove the thing up and down the lanes, its forklift in the air, while a guy called Jussi and I shovelled earth, sweat running down our spine. The earth was still frozen at the beginning of June, and Jussi and I spent hours battering the ground with iron spades to hew out even the smallest of pits. To round off the afternoon, Anttonen would pull up beside the pit in his Bobcat and shake his head. No, boys, no, he said. Kids these days can’t do a thing. Then he and the Bobcat would finish off the pit in five minutes. It was our job to clear up all the sand and mud and clay that Anttonen had scattered around him, gather it into a pile and hide any exposed bones so as not to scare the relatives. All this as unpaid overtime. Anttonen careered out of the gates in his Bobcat.
On one occasion, in a pile of mud left by Anttonen’s Bobcat I found the skull of a woman with only a few blond hairs left in its scalp. The skull spoke to me: why haven’t you left already, lad? If you don’t leave soon, you’ll rot in this place just like me. First the flesh, then the hair.
I quit the very next day. I had less money than I’d hoped for. I managed to buy my Interrail ticket and had a bit left over. I packed a few hunks of salami and a head of cabbage. My travelling companion ended up being a punk girl from my home town whom I barely knew and who said she wanted get the hell out of Europe and head for Africa. The girl’s name was Donald. First we ate the head of cabbage; that kept us full for four days. It made us fart a lot, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to fart in a six-person carriage because we didn’t really know one another, so instead we took turns going out into the corridor. We got as far as Avignon. Women didn’t dance along Avignon Bridge, as I’d been taught to sing at school. On the bridge we ate the remains of the cabbage and started on the salami. It made us thirsty, we had to drink from a nearby fountain. In the south, water is pumped into fountains straight from pure mountain springs, and people drink the water.
They didn’t drink from this fountain though. I ended up with terrible stomach cramps, it felt as though the muscles were wrenching themselves free from my ribcage, and I was forced to lie in a bug-infested hostel bed for three days. Donald drank from the same fountain every day but didn’t get ill. Bloody duck. Eventually they moved me from the ten-person room into a single room, because my groans were apparently scaring off all the guests. Our host tried to explain that his hundred-year-old grandmother was dying. He asked me for an extra payment; I said I couldn’t give him anything because someone had pinched my wallet while I’d been lying there ill. He kicked me out; you could hear the curses two blocks away.
Of course nobody had taken my wallet. All my money was in a stomach pouch, which I had kept in my underpants. The pouch had changed colour with the progression of my stomach bug, as had the money inside it. Down at the riverside I soaked the banknotes until they were clean, above me the curve of Avignon Bridge, where there were still no women dancing. They must have moved to the local discos.
Eventually the banknotes turned from brown to green. I dried them on the embankment of the River Avignon, and placed small pebbles on top of them so that they wouldn’t be blown away. I watched the people fishing. Two dark-skinned men came up to me, their faces like the surface of a shrivelled raisin. They had noticed my money and had come to rob me. I hastily gathered up the notes and decided to jump into the river. The waves gushed at me: swim, lad, swim, we’ll carry you to the first palm tree. I never managed to wade out into the current; the men were already right next to me.
I decided to kick the one closest to me in the nuts before he could ask me anything. My thighs were so stiff from all the crouching that I couldn’t raise my leg more than five centimetres. The men asked me to look after their things while they went swimming. They piled up their clothes and wallets and glasses and jute shoulder bags and a pocket camera right there in front of me and went splashing into the water. I could easily have made off with their possessions and they wouldn’t have had time to run after me.
I waited for them to climb back up the embankment. I didn’t have the energy to run. The men thanked me and offered me some food from their bag. One of them took a photograph of me with the pocket camera. He asked for an address so he could send me the picture. I’d been warned against giving my address to strangers. As a precaution I gave them my grandmother’s address. If they turned up in Finland with the intention of robbing me, let them rob Grandma’s place, let them take all the hideous ornamental glass vases and the cuckoo clock that startled guests twenty-four times a day.
Later that autumn Grandma received a letter containing a photograph of me standing on the river embankment. Grandma said that I looked like a prisoner released from the Bergen–Belsen concentration camp. After my stomach bug I was nothing but skin and bones, and as I’d lain there ill the hostel owner had cropped my hair short because he’d thought I might have lice. Donald thought my shorn hair made me look like Johnny Rotten; it seemed a stomach bug suited me.
On the back of the photograph was a text. I had been certain that the men were after my money, that they would threaten to come to Finland all the way from Avignon and kill me if I didn’t give them anything. I gave the text to Tuija, a girl at school who studied French, and asked her to translate it. She told me it read: Heartfelt greetings to the boy from the North. Ahmed & Abdul.
When I look at that photograph I still hear the waves whispering: swim, lad, swim, we’ll carry you to the first palm tree. We’ll take you to Paradise.
Translated by David Hackston
The red sphere of the sun plopped into the sea.
At 23.09 official summertime Köpi announced the reading from his wind-up pocket-watch.
‘There she goes,’ commented Aimo, gazing at the sunken red of the horizon, ‘but don’t you think it’ll pop back up again in another quarter of an hour, unless something absolutely amazing and new happens in the universe and the solar system tonight!’
Aimo pulled long, accelerating sweeps with his oars, slurped the phlegm in his throat, spat a gob overboard, smacked his lips and adjusted his tongue on its marks behind his teeth. There’s a respectable amount of talk about to come out of there, thought Köpi about his old friend’s gestures, and he was right.
‘Sure thing,’ was Aimo’s opening move, ‘darkness. Darkness, that’s the thing. I want to talk about it and on its behalf just now, now in particular, while we’re rowing on the shimmering sea at the lightest point of the summer.
‘A good 4.5 billion years ago there was a massive jolt in the Milky Way in roughly these regions. A lump of space-matter about the size of Mars – an asteroid – had strayed into the orbit of a planet-in-formation called Earth, driving towards it full speed ahead, slap-bang-wallop. The collision was so huge that the cores of both participants melted together in the heat it generated, after which they gradually cooled down and solidified into the core of the Earth, upon which, some considerable time later, the pyramids, the Uusimaa Bonk Centre and the Isokari lighthouse were built.
‘Fragments and other loose stuff was thrown into space to orbit the Earth in a disc. Gradually they came together as a result of the laws of gravity and formed a little ball, the Moon.
‘It’s this cosmic shock we have to thank for both our existence and the length of our days and our months.
‘The collision also slanted our revised planet’s axis of rotation to a slant of 23.5 degrees. And it’s like this, individually rotating on our tilted axis, that we still roll our orbit around the Sun, and the Moon does its own trustworthy work around us. And our speed has remained constant for billions of years: a full orbit takes exactly a year.
‘The seasons are the result of the fact that the Earth’s axis was permanently stuck in a slant, however much we orbit the nuclear power station of the Sun along our beautiful elliptical spatial track. So at different points on the track the rays from this hydrogen generating plant hit the surface of our globe at different angles. A large angle means long days and heat waves, a small one long nights, darkness and cold.
‘In what relation and what intervals these occur depends on what part of the globe you happen to live on. For us, living near the north pole, the radiation of the Sun’s nuclear reactor reaches us, on average, at a small angle. And just as well!
‘It is the climates generated by the annual variation in this radiation angle that have offered the possibility for the development of life on our planet. We must be grateful for light and heat, but just as grateful for darkness and the essential cooling it allows.
‘More than once, in the process of evolution, darkness and cold have turned out to be saviours of our developing species. The dinosaurs celebrated tens of millions fo years as autocrats of our spherical plot in entirely tropical conditions, until, 65 million years ago, Mexico was hit by a sufficiently large object from space to raise a cloud of dust that obscured the Sun. Plants died and the food-chain of the gluttonousdinosaurs was severed at the stem. So they, too, kicked the bucket, in hunger and cold.
‘Rat-like small mammals, our grandparents, coped better with these cold, dark conditions, feasting on the carcasses of the dinosaurs, multiplying and covering the Earth. In 50 million years, evolution rattled on, making apes from primal rats.
‘The present day began five million years ago, when humankind got up on its back feet near the Great Rift Valley of Africa. The cooler climates played tricks, bringing about every now and then – at least once in a hundred thousand years – ice ages an other irritations. We big-brained, dexterous swots had a good chance of doing well in the savannah’s battle for survival in these varying, difficult surroundings, these chilly, dim mists.
‘And after many exciting and sometimes hairy adventures, we conquered all our competitors and invented fire, the combustion engine, industry, the pocket computer, reality TV and insatiable markets. This gave the dinosaurs the opportunity for revenge from beyond the grave.
‘In our factories and in our cars, we’ve burned so many of the hydrocarbons that condensed out their carcasses in the bowels of the earth that the carbon cycle of our space garden, rotating on its tilted axis, has been disturbed. The carbon that was locked away in the earth has been sprinkled on the winds to clog the system’s natural ventilation. The thermostat is broken and the greenhouse is getting hotter.
‘We shall have to see what happens.
‘As we wait for the thrilling finale, it’s worth enjoying the cold, dark season whenever we have it. Nothing is more refreshing than horizontal hail on a slippery road on the way to work in the pitch dark! You really feel you’re alive – la condition humaine!’
‘And what about dark literature,’ interjected Köpi at the helm, refreshed by the mental image of late autumn. ‘Who do you think is the world’s darkest writer?’
Aimo rested his oars and thought for a moment before answering. ‘The American Ambrose Bierce. He is such a dark writer that he sheds a clear light from more than one hundred years ago. Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary is a colourful smear campaign of civilisation, one of a kind. This work has even been translated into Finnish, but so messily and modestly that I have left it be and translated it from the original as much as I’ve been able. It has a great definition of November: NOVEMBER (noun) The eleventh twelfth of a weariness.’
‘I remember those too,’ said Köpi delightedly. ‘That book is one of my favourites.’
The oarsman and the helmsman began to remember Bierce’s dictionary entries and definitions. A considerable hullaballoo and tumult of laughter spread over the calm waters of Hamskerinaukko, but never mind – the nearest human habitation was kilometres away. The following Bierce definitions, at least, were recalled through two-headed collaboration and collective fraternal effort:
MARRIAGE (noun): the state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress, and two slaves, making, in all, two.
LIFE (noun): a spiritual pickle preserving the body from decay.
PHILOSOPHY (noun): a route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.
TRUTHFUL (adjective): dumb and illiterate.
‘To read a good book is a work of art,’ said Köpi, ‘A good book turns its reader into an artist. If you can’t read well, enthusiastically and fearlessly even when the text happens to be strange, you will never learn to write, in other words to live. Without readers there would be no literary texts. The text itself is a bunch of clues offered to the reader, enticing him or her to form a chain of black marks into meaning.
‘Modern physics shows us that the world is empty.
‘Modern aesthetics shows us that literature consists of gaps.
‘The masterworks of world literature are really strange, shapeless, uneven, scabby and feral: Don Quijote, Oblomov, Huckleberry Finn, Pride and Prejudice! A good reader and citizen trains over the course of his lifetime in the capacity to encounter strangeness fearlessly.
‘In Finnish, the root of the most important doing word of our lives, tietää, to know, is tie, road. The word entered the Finnish language at a time when the road was not a four-lane asphalt canyon dug out of the ground, signposted and lit, but a route through virgin forest and swamp that you had to know in order to follow. True knowledge, tietäminen, is independent wandering, route-finding, rambling, continual travelling to new, often unknown destinations.
‘Everyone is a traveller, a writer, an eternal student, an eternal writer, an eternal sceptic.
‘The terrain is difficult.
‘We live in a cultural space in which anything can be anything. Things only have exchange value. Whatever is on top at a given moment is true. Our production institutions do not produce things that are good to use, but things that generate the most profit.
‘The artist, in other words the poet, in other words the human being, makes cracks in this mass delusion, cracks through which the world flows into our lives. True knowledge flows. Unknowedge, the lack of true knowledge, is the root of all evil. Wise laughter is the source of all good.
‘The funniest Finnish plays, Nummisuutarit [Heath Cobblers] and its little sister, Kihlaus [The engagement], are made up of tragic materials, unsuccessful love and final loneliness. Aleksis Kivi’s laughter, however, is not mocking but comforting. The first laughter in the universe came from a cavewoman who laughed at her self-important caveman, the tribe’s Great Hunter; she taught him to laugh, even at himself.
‘In the beginning was Error. Life is a matter of stumbling and wandering. The world isn’t complete until the day we die. Until then all we can do is row bravely on. The destination, however, is fixed: our own grave. It is comforting to think that we will find our way there and that even the weaker oarsman will find it and have the energy to reach it. Everyone will get there! The reindeer herder of Lake Sevettijärvi, Sofi Oksanen and the former Communist Björn ‘Nalle’ Wahlroos are all on their way to the same place.
‘In America there are apparently some rich materialists who do not consent to this, but have instead given instructions for their bodies to be frozen at the moment of death, in order that future science should bring them back to life. There is the risk that the world will end first. If I were God, in other words the Greatest Humorist, I would, wilfully, bring everyone back to life, the most drunken Sevetti reindeer herdsman and the most sinful person ever, but I would let the frozen ones stay frozen forever, as a monument to the greatest stupidity and selfishness, the denial of death. In a word: capitalism.’
The prow of the boat bumped against the jetty terrace of the Wild Rose restaurant. Aimo moored the boat to a stake and the oarsmen climbed onto the terrace and ordered some beers.
Köpi woke up on the morning of 17 July and, unusually, remembered his dream. He had dreamed an angel had appeared to him and given him a lecture on the sausage, the long jump and the work of art. Thus spake the angel:
‘In the case of the sausage you can cut a slice, weigh it, wrap it up, estimate the price per kilo as defined by the conjunctures of the market forces and laws of supply and demand, and sell it. In the same way, the long jump is a clear case, governed by agreed rules. You measure the distance between the front edge of the plank and the rear edge of the mark in the sand and obtain result measured in centimetres. The sausage becomes problematic when you begin to talk about what it tastes like. What is good, what is better, what is unacceptable. The long-jump debate rapidly becomes chaotic if you start to award points for style – whose performance was the most daring, the springiest, the most complete, the most organic leap from plank to sand?
‘A work of art has neither weight nor length. There is nothing measurable about it. It is a human creation, a cultural tool, an artefact like the sausage or the long jump, but it differs in one essential respect. The work of art is a shout. It is the opening of a conversation. It is the first term in a dialogue. After that, the conversation is continued by experiencers and experiencers’ experiencers. This conversation is articulated in many different ways and may continue for thousands of years. It is both in invisible and visible, conscious and unconscious. It takes the form of thought, speech, writing, criticism, scholarship, parody, interpretation, interpretation of interpretation and even interpretation of interpretation, which will eventually be examined by some future PhD student. The shout of a work of art brings echoes from other artists, who begin their own fields of conversation and echoes.
‘The role of the human being is to eat tofu sausage, do the long jump and participate in the unending conversation about art, which will never be complete. Time’s judgement is merciless. Ben Jonson was the cash cow of Shakespeare’s London. The poet V.A. Koskenniemi was feted in the 1930s; no one noticed Volter Kilpi. The ultimate truth is still unrecognised. It is known only by God the Mother.’
At this point Köpi woke up, happy. He awarded his dream, and his unconscious, an excellent grade. The transformation of sausage into tofu and God’s femininity were particularly charming details. The angel was also unforgettable: a sixtyish, stout, very short-sighted transvestite with thick glasses. He had wings on his back, and on his bottom was a long tail.
Progress was darkling. The nights had drawn in and summer had turned to autumn. Aimo’s nightlight glimmered in the prow as the boat progressed stroke by stroke, metre by metre, towards Raahe. A big tanker came towards them and they circled it humbly from a distance on the landward side. The harbour waters of Raahe concealed treacherous rocks, which they avoided and circled successfully. Aimo tricked the night wind into blowing a little, much needed help into the sail; Köpi put all the strength of his body into long, forward-moving strokes of the oars.
At three o’clock in the morning of 20 July the boat was moored in the centre of Raahe, at the Naval Museum’s jetty. Raahe was dreaming. The oarsmen had mattresses and sleeping bags in the boat and made their beds on the jetty, beneath the sky of space. Aimo fell asleep in a second; it took Köpi a minute….
The oarsmen were now ready for the last lap of the voyage…. Set-off at 1pm. They had noticed from the map, and confirmed through observation, that a short-cut canal had been dug from the city basin that would save them many a sweaty kilometre: it ran from the Pikkulahti swimming beach via an angle bend directly northwards. That’s the way they pointed their prow. Aimo rowed, Köpi steered.
‘It can’t be true,’ said Köpi. From the tone of his voice, Aimo understood immediately. A glance over the shoulder and the matter was clear. No words were needed. Köpi steered them to the swimming beach. Clothes off, swimming trunks on. A climb up the ten-metre diving platform. Aimo in front, Köpi behind. Dizziness, dive, flight, splash. Wild joy at daring to do it once more. The body and the body’s strangest part, the brain, refreshed, they continued on the last lap.
Popping through the canal and Kylmälahti bay, they found themselves on the open sea, and took a northerly course. A light following breeze helped them enough that they hoisted a sail, which gave the oarsman some background support. They had to circle Tauvonneimi peninsula, hooking a long way to the west to avoid fishing nets and shallows. Small disagreements as to course. Aimo thought he could see a sandbank ahead. Köpi thought Aimo was blind and lilylivered. The conflict was resolved tactfully and a compromise, which proved useful, made about direction….
They were already just a couple of kilometres away. Triumphant strokes with the oars, knowing exactly where they were going, heading there. Hailuoto was known territory for both of them. They had been hiking in this unique spot together and separately at all seasons. The only tree, a rowan, was a certain landmark. Nevertheless they came ashore on a sandbank when they tried enthusiastically to take a short cut. Never mind, they pushed the boat off into deeper waters, threading their way back into the channel demarcated by the buoys and whizzed into the lee of Pöllänlahti bay. And that is how, with celebratory strokes of the oar, they made land at Pöllä at 21.56 according to Köpi’s pocket watch. A recount gave the result of 20 days and 26 minutes. They reflected that no one could have rowed the distance between Kustavi and Hailuoto faster since the Vikings and Väinämöinen, and were satisfied.
Translated by Hildi Hawkins
At the top of the list of best-selling books – compiled by the Finnish Booksellers’ Association – in March was the first novel by Tommi Kinnunen, a teacher of Finnish language and literature from Turku. In Neljäntienristeys (‘The crossing of four roads’, WSOY) the narrative spans a century beginning in the late 19th century and is set mainly in Northern Finland, focusing on the lives of four people related to each other. Undoubtedly well-written, it continues the popular tradition of realistic novels set in the 20th-century Finland.
Finland is a small country with one exceptionally large newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat (read by more than 800,000 people daily). The annual literary prize that carries the paper’s name is awarded to a best first work, and candidates are assessed throughout the year.
In February the paper’s literary critic Antti Majander declared in his review of Kinnunen’s book: ’Such weighty and sure-footed prose debuts appear seldom. If I were to say a couple of times in a decade, I would probably be being over-enthusiastic. But let it be. Critics’ measuring sticks are destined for the bonfire.’
In March, Kinnunen’s book immediately shot to number one on the list of the best-selling books. (Other professional critics have also noted the mature skills of the author.)
Number two was another first novel, published last autumn and still exceptionally popular, about problems arising in a religious family, Taivaslaulu (‘Heaven song’, Gummerus) by Pauliina Rauhala. Number three was February’s number one, Fingerpori 7, a comic book by Pertti Jarla.
A Dance with Dragons by the American sci-fi and fantasy writer George R.R. Martin led the list of translated fiction. On the non-fiction list of 20 books there were eight books on cooking and food, and one on slimming…. To the second place rose the biography of the artist, writer and creator of the Moomins Tove Jansson (1914–2001) compiled by Tuula Karjalainen.
The architect and writer Arne Nevanlinna (born 1925) published his first novel, Marie,in 2008; it became one of the six finalists for the Finlandia Prize of Fiction. His fourth novel, Heta, is set in Helsinki in the late 20th century. It depicts the Swedish-speaking Celerius family: Gustava’s seven children – three have died – and their spouses come to celebrate her 70th birthday. Noblesse oblige – the general’s widow is not wealthy, but Gustava has to keep up appearances, so she has four servants. One of them is the bright orphan girl Heta, too often called Clubfoot, because her left leg is shorter than the right, and who, to her surprise, finds out she can read people’s minds. When Gustava dies unexpectedly, poor Heta becomes a murder suspect. The plot takes surprising turns, and the epilogue, in which Heta herself is the narrator, presents the reader with even more revelations; love, it turns out, does conquer all. Nevanlinna’s depictions of the milieu and the era are colourful, and his narrative is laced with plenty of satirical comedy.
When Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s largest newspaper, asked its readers and critics in 2013 to list the ten best novels of the 2000s, the result was a surprisingly unanimous victory for the historical novel.
Both groups listed as their top choices – in the very same order – the following books: Sofi Oksanen: Puhdistus (English translation Purge; WSOY, 2008), Ulla-Lena Lundberg: Is (Finnish translation Jää, ‘Ice’, Schildts & Söderströms, 2012) and Kjell Westö: Där vi en gång gått (Finnish translation Missä kuljimme kerran; ‘Where we once walked‘, Söderströms, 2006).
What kind of historical novel wins over a large readership today, and conversely, why don’t all of the many well-received novels set in the past become bestsellers?
In the 2000s, Finnish novels built on a historical foundation have stepped firmly outside the country’s borders. Kristina Carlson, Katri Lipson and Sofi Oksanen have all written effectively about human destinies outside of Finland. Of the three, Oksanen is already an international success story, but Carlson and Lipson have also been critically praised, translated and awarded prizes.
Riikka Pelo’s Jokapäiväinen elämämme (‘Our everyday lives’, Teos, 2013) is a new chapter in this spate of novels situated in European history, a broad spectacle of the Russian psychological landscape that opens in the 1920s and ends in the 1940s. Through the main character, poet Marina Tsvetayeva, and her daughter Ariadna (Alya) Efron, the novel tells the story of a region split by war. Like Oksanen’s Estonian series, Pelo’s novel is a labour camp story, part of the genre she calls gulag literature.
The narrative style of Jokapäiväinen elämämme is that of the modern personal history. Its point of view is quite free in its assemblage, combining various narrative strategies and layers of reality. Winner of last year’s Finlandia Prize for Fiction, the book has been greeted with critical acclaim although its text, often poetic, with shifting points of view, has also been called ‘unwieldy’. It eschews an objective, analytical perspective on historical reality, leaving, for example, the relationships among the characters up to the reader’s interpretation.
An extract from Jokapäiväinen elämämme:
When the lights of the fast train to Paris struck the attic window Marina woke up next to Alya. The child was deep asleep, and didn’t awaken with her movements. The lamp flame flickered; it would go out soon, sucking the last of the oil with it like the darkness sucked away the time itself, the order of things.
She didn’t used to be afraid of the dark, had been incapable of fearing anything, but since she’d been here she had often gone to bed when Alya did, to cover up the darkness with sleep. But there was a new, gentler quality in the darkness now, it felt like she had become a child again, like she might not remember the names people gave to objects and things as they changed their shapes in the dusk, but she could hear how they breathed, what their names were. She could hear the trees outside breathing, too, saying goodbye.
Winter was an endless night, filled with alienation and oddness, the days opening just a crack for a few hours from within a grey fog. There wasn’t even any snow at first. In Moscow there was always light somewhere, someone shouting, whispering, fighting, singing, but here, in this place that thought it was in the middle of Europe but was in fact a blind spot, far flung, out in the woods, there was nothing but darkness. When the hood of night slid over the hills and villages the whole rest of the world ceased to exist and they were all alone in the dark, just she and Alya and the gas furnace she was supposed to keep watch over through the night so it didn’t go out, so the flame wouldn’t escape, and the lights from trains between Prague and Beroun ate up the snowy river shore every hour or two, and even they stopped running by ten o’clock.
It was difficult to write at night; she needed mornings, and even the morning dark was a long one. The church was right next to the house and there the lights came on early, in the dark and slush, you could cross the road no matter how icy the weather was, however dark it was, even in your nightie, at an hour when you couldn’t go into the forest or the mountains, but you could go to the first mass at six o’clock. And the forest frightened her at night, even though the moon shone and she was starting to learn the paths. But it was like going into her deepest self, into what she didn’t want to see, didn’t want to hear, though the night sounds followed her into her dreams, too – a bird, a night moth, deer and roe, whatever it was that was stirring there, even the animals had no names or histories. And Alya was afraid of bands of thieves and the people who hated them, hated all Russians, came stinking from the taverns and went from house to house and took whatever they could find, leaving humiliation behind. But she wasn’t afraid of them. She only feared her own dreams, waking with a scream that had no sound.
Pelo’s novel, which has been described as ‘challenging but rewarding’, wasn’t expected to receive the commercial success of Oksanen, Lundberg and Westö’s Finlandia Prize winner, but its Finnish readership has surprised the pessimists; as of the end of 2013 the book had sold more than 50,000 copies.
War and the environment surrounding war are the most important narrative canvas for the Finnish historical novel. Väinö Linna’s (1920–1992) novels Tuntematon sotilas (The Unknown Soldier, WSOY, 1954) and Täällä Pohjantähden alla I–III (Under the North Star, 1959–62) in many ways form the literary historical background on which later wartime narratives have been written.
The inception of the modern Finnish historical war novel, however, can be traced to the novel Vuoden 1918 tapahtumat (‘The incidents of 1918’, Otava, 1960) by Veijo Meri, a leading modernist prose writer of the 1950s. Its narrative makes use of a problematicisation of story, viewpoint, and character that is seen in many other later books in the genre. The civil war has been portrayed many times before and after Meri, but neve had a historical novel so freely rejected the traditional pillars of the form. The contradictions of its anecdotes and scattered points of view test the concepts of character, point of view and plot.
Meri consciously left the war’s background of class conflict unanalysed – no one within the world of his novel provides a political historical explanation for the events of 1918, the year of the Civil War. Meri’s modernist break with realism is a powerful predecessor for today’s historical novel. The book has always been described as ‘disconnected’ and ‘associative’. The best analysis of the novel in recent years is author and theatremaker Juha Hurme’s afterword to the 2006 reissue: ‘This is vexing, brain taxing literature that demands effort and carries its trademark impudence and mischievousness with pride.”
Jenni Linturi’s second novel Malmi, 1917 (Teos, 2013) is set on the eve of the Finnish Civil War, in the autumn of the general strike, when the first violent confrontations between the ‘reds’ and the ‘whites’ were occurring around Helsinki and the parties in the conflict were gathering their forces. The central characters are two families of whites, the young members in particular. Linturi (born 1979) doesn’t provide a portrait of any of the reds; they are merely potato thieves and starving beggar children seen in quick glimpses.
Linturi’s thematic idea is to use social conflict as a window on a turning point of the modern era, as the young people of the story, balanced on the dividing line between the old and the new world, make very different choices than their parents. Linturi’s treatment of the language question is one interesting aspect of the story. The Finnish and Swedish languages have at different times been tied up with themes of class difference and even today language is still not a neutral issue in this bilingual country.
An extract from Malmi, 1917:
The spray of raindrops bounced against the lighted bookstore display window. He stood next to Antero and stared at the play of drops. The weather was like the shoemaker’s new bride, heavy and ugly. The trees were sweating – lime and pine trees. Inside the window was a classroom display – a desk covered in non-fiction, pulp fiction, 25-penny books for boys, Jack London, Kipling’s adventures. Where the blackboard should be was a map like the one his father had. Two big roads tugging a bunch of smaller ones along like clotheslines. That’s what Malmi village looked like from above.
‘What’s that supposed to be?’
Antero was pointing to a green book, Blad ur min tänkebok by Zacharias Topelius. A picture painted on glass hung behind it, a hazy bare-chested angel with pale curls. His wings looked like they were growing out of his ears. Maybe it was painted by the shopkeeper’s wife or daughter. The all-hearing ear angel. Antero thought the creature bore a striking resemblance to a homo person.
‘Some people say angels don’t have a sex.’
‘People say all kinds of things nowadays. These red bows, for instance. Perfectly rational people have started wearing them right here.’
Antero tapped his chest with a finger. Just then a bell rang, high and clear, as if his heart had played the notes. The shopkeeper walked into the street wearing a striped pullover, his shirt sleeves rolled up. Oiva nodded faintly, just to avoid pointless misunderstandings. The shopkeeper looked past him and took off his hat. A horse with a blaze on its nose came around a tall building and turned onto the street pulling a row of open black cars behind it. The white casket was closed, its lower half covered in flowers and a black and yellow flag. Oiva quickly removed his own cap. The hatband was yellowed from sweat. He didn’t let that bother him. Discomfort meant life, at least, instead of death, which was nothing but darkness, the end of everything.
When the procession had turned into the station and the whistle of the funeral train trailed off mournfully, Oiva put his cap back on and pushed it to the back of his head. The bookseller continued to grip his own hat, as if its narrow brim were made of anger. He said that a week ago the unemployed had started demanding resignations from the police force. When the police refused, three officers were stabbed near the cemetery. After that bit of news, Antero didn’t feel like correcting the man’s poor Finnish. The disgusting thought of minds wallowing in Swedish language was overriden by the even more revolting thought of hearts wallowing in Ruskie ideas. That was why decent men had ended up in a pine box. The shopkeeper looked like he was thinking the same thing. He shook his head once, as if that wordless gesture was meant to say that horror united them more than their languages divided them. Then he turned and went back into the bookstore.
Linturi’s novel has had a somewhat mixed reception. It has been praised for its skillfully constructed dramatic narrative as well as its characterisations and the way it freely shifts among differing points of view. On the other hand, reviewers have been critical of the novel’s lack of new perspectives and historical interpretations, as if the story is attempting to avoid taking any side at all in the Civil War. The sparse style of the characterisations has also upset some readers who feel that the book lacks characters they can identify with.
Linturi seems to write over earlier narratives of the Civil War – Väinö Linna’s two worlds of the reds and the whites are not presented. This very aspect is, in the spirit of Veijo Meri, the novel’s strength.
A thought-provoking historical novel is different than other kinds of ‘challenging’ prose. Stories set in the past are expected to rest on historiography. Readers expect the narration to be a commentary, an analysis that follows the course of events and keeps its characters distinct. If they cannot identify with the characters, they don’t feel the story has succeeded. Unusual, unreliable points of view in a political-historical novel caused strong reactions half a century ago, and they still do today.
Translated by Lola Rogers
The airport is a fertile environment for a contemporary novel: a crucible of chance encounters. In his sixth, extensive novel, Hannu Raittila (born 1956) masterfully combines plot and structure: there is adventure, personal relationships, hard living, a love affair, life on a remote Swedish-speaking island. Commodore Lampen sets out to look for his daughter Paula, who has been forcibly brought back to Finland after spending years touring foreign airports. Back in the 1990s Paula and her friend Sara spent a lot of time at Helsinki airport, which developed its own culture of international encounters; this then took them abroad – by accident, on 11 September 2001. Various adventures ensued, including an involvement with the Syrian civil war. Globalisation is based on the free mobility of goods and people, but it also means crumbling of societal structures, and in Raittila’s novel – paradoxically enough – the growing rarity of human encounter.
It seems that the Finlandia Prize does, as intended, have a strong influence in book sales. In December, a novel about the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva by Riikka Pelo, Jokapäiväinen elämämme (’Our everyday life’), which won the fiction prize in December, reached number one on the list of best-selling Finnish fiction.
The next four books on the list – compiled by the Finnish Booksellers’ Association – were the latest thriller by Ilkka Remes, Omertan liitto (‘The Omerta union’), a novel Me, keisarinna (‘We, the tsarina’), about the Russian empress Catherine the Great by Laila Hirvisaari, a novel, Hägring 38 (‘Mirage 38’), by Kjell Westö, and a novel, Kunkku (‘The king’), by Tuomas Kyrö.
The winner of the Finlandia Prize for Non-Fiction, Murtuneet mielet (‘Broken minds’), about the mentally crippled Finnish soldiers in the Second World War, also did well: it was number two on the non-fiction list. (Number one was a book about a Finnish actor and television presenter, Ville Haapasalo, who trained at the theatre academy in St Petersburg and became a film star in Russia.)
The ten best-selling books for children and young people were all Finnish (and written in Finnish): it seems that this time the buyers of Christmas presents favoured books written by Finnish authors.
This novel is a satirical alternative history of successful Finland and self-destructive Sweden. It is also the story of the king of Finland – the protagonist, Kalle XIV Penttinen, is driven by his instincts, which causes him to fail as a family man. Pena, as he is called, would like to play tennis all day long and watch pole dancing at night. Finland is a fantastic wonderland of film and music industry, tennis, space technology and innovative legal usage, whereas Sweden, ravaged by war, suffers from the trauma that passes from one generation to the next. Estonia has done well for a long time, and the Soviet Union (sic) is a stronghold of democracy. Chuckling, Kyrö turns history upside down. As a writer of short prose and tragicomic novels he is currently a very popular author. However, this time his typically witty associations and inventive comedy suffer from the sheer size of this novel.
Leena Parkkinen’s first novel, Sinun jälkeesi, Max (‘After you, Max’) was awarded the Helsingin Sanomat literature prize for best first work of 2009. Her new novel contains crime story ingredients, but the focus is on love between siblings, loss and the demand for truth. The story begins in 1947, after the war, on an island in the south-western Finnish archipelago. Sebastian, brother of Karen, has returned from the front; it’s time to mend the best clothes and dancing shoes. But to the horror of the island community, the body of a young girl is found on the shore, and Sebastian gets the blame. Sixty-five years later her brother’s fate has not left Karen alone, and she sets out to find the truth. Capable of handling different times, Parkkinen (born 1979) is also a skilful interpreter of conflicting sentiments, as unexpected twists develop towards the end.