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Author Kalle Päätalo (1919-2000) was a rare bird in the book-publishing world. Beginning in 1962, his series of autobiographical novels Juuret Iijoen törmässä (‘Roots on the banks of the Iijoki river’) were published annually in editions of 100,000 copies. At a cautious estimate, one million Finns out of a total population of five million read Päätalo. He was a unique phenomenon, and, for his publishers, a highly lucrative one.
Despite his popularity, this former forestry worker and builder never achieved critical acclaim; the literary establishment remained cool towards him. What was the secret of his enormous appeal? By 1987, when we published this week’s extracts, the way of life Päätalo was chronicling was fast disappearing; he portrayed of the living and working conditions of the far north and the rich dialect of the region with a near-anthropological accuracy. Päätalo’s autobiography was almost coterminous in scope with the existence of independent Finland, and his depiction of the ruggedly individual characters of the north was at the same time a celebration of national values.
In this excerpt, from Tammerkosken sillalla (‘On Tammerkoski bridge’, 1982), the narrator’s excitement as he finds Martin Eden by Jack London – along with the Finnish author Mika Waltari, one of Päätalo’s great writer-heroes – in the local library is palpable. And many of his readers would have remembered the difficulties of living in small apartments at close quarters with other family members, in this case a less-than-congenial mother-in-law: ‘My cock cowered among my pubic hair like a guilty prankster after a practical joke…’.
The Books from Finland digitisation project continues, with a total of 400 articles and book excerpts made available on our website so far. Each week, we bring a newly digitised text to your attention.
Right at the top of the list of untranslated Finnish masterpieces, for me, is Helvi Hämäläinen’s monumental Säädyllinen murhenäytelmä.
Written in the fateful summer of 1939, as the world waited for war, this story of love among the Helsinki intelligentsia is at the same time both a roman a clef – it caused a sensation on publication as the real people behind the fictional characters were recognised – and a vivid picture of its age. The falling cadences of its luxuriantly proliferating phrases offer a voluptuously aesthetic poetry of the senses as they slowly tell the story of love lost and then, gradually, regained. And the book answers the question, what was it like to be alive then?, with incomparable vividness. In this extract, the novelty of apartment living in the 1930s, the colours and smells, the new social habits, are all brought to life with extraordinary intensity.
We also republish a selection of poems published much later in Hämäläinen’s life, many of them impassioned elegies for the lives lost in the Second World War, giving voice to the sheer weight of sorrow, of grief for those who were lost.
If you’d like to read more, Soila Lehtonen’s evocative essay on Säädyllinen murhenäytelmä accompanies another excerpt; while a glimpse of its sequel, Kadotettu puutarha, (‘The lost garden’, 1995), follows the story onward to an elegiac description of the parts of Karelia that were ceded to the Soviet Union in the Second World War.
The Books from Finland digitisation project continues, with a total of 396 articles and book excerpts made available on our website so far. Each week, we bring a newly digitised text to your attention.
Erehdys [‘The mistake’]
Helsinki: Teos, 2015. 154 pp.
The protagonist of this new novel by Leena Krohn (born 1947) is an elderly author, E., who one dark and cold winter night arrives by car in a small town to perform in a literary event at a local library. The atmosphere does not seem very welcoming, and as the author begins reading extracts from his works, the comments and questions from the audience are mostly negative and impolite, even hostile. Gradually the sinisterness of the whole event becomes tragicomic; on leaving, the author has to fight his feelings of self-pity and anger. This novel frames E’s life in a portrait of a serious soul in constant pursuit of comprehending life – which he finally seems to acquire in death (in a car accident). The larger part of the novel consists of the stories the author reads; they will be familiar in style to fans of Krohn’s work. Unexpected, strange and unexplicable events and moments of everyday life take the characters by surprise; dreams, memories, remembering and forgetting what has taken place in the history – imagined or real – may perhaps change the way they have lived their lives.
‘You’re 97 today! Your wakeup call service today congratulates!’
As if she wouldn’t have remembered. Ninety-seven was almost a hundred. She and Irma had decided that they would refuse to turn one hundred. It would only make trouble. One lady, in the bottom apartment of the A staircase, had received an invitation to the health centre on her birthday. Apparently all five-year-olds were called in for monitoring of their motor and psychological development, and when this lady turned 105, the computer system thought she was a toddler. The computer didn’t recognise numbers over one hundred. Siiri thought the lady should have kept the appointment; she would have done, for the tests were fun. You had to draw a triangle and walk along a straight line. Not that easy for someone of 105. But the lady didn’t go, she just made a terrible fuss about it and complained to everyone, until she died before her complaints reached the right official.
‘Heartfelt thanks,’ Siiri said to the smartwall, which pressed an image of a bunch of glowing, bright red roses upon her in honour of her birthday.
Siiri poked the smartwall randomly, as it hadn’t dawned on her where the gizmo was actually located or how you were supposed to control it. But everything was like that these days at Twilight Grove: you touched and jabbed at surfaces. There was intelligence everywhere, masses of it, just a hiccup and something terribly intelligent would happen. Siiri’s little two-roomed flat was full of sensors, probes, chips, transmitters and cameras, which monitored her life. Somewhere in the depths of her mattress there was even a vigilant contraption that, for want of anything better to do, observed her incessantly while she slept and recorded every movement as if it had nothing better to do. If she were to fall and to fail to get up sufficiently quickly, the smartnodes on the floor would send a message to the alarm centre, and an ambulance and its paramedics would rush to help her to get up. This would ensure that old people did not die on the floor. In Finland, there was unanimity on the subject that dying was more tragic if it took place on the floor at home than in a health-centre bed. There had been an emotional debate in a full session of parliament, which she often watched together with Anna-Liisa and Irma.
Life in the smartflat was really quite amusing, if you were able to cope with the surprises arranged by the computers. For example, a visit to the refrigerator was always a big adventure. You never knew what the refrigerator would tell you this time.
‘Remove. Half. Litre. Of. Sour. Milk. Sell-by. Date. Today.’
Siiri’s refrigerator was a young woman, quite cheerful but a little bit full of herself. Irma had absolutely wanted hers to have the voice of an older man, and it was really funny when her refrigerator turned out to be the former main announcer from Finnish Radio, who was familiar to all of them from the exchange rates and shipping forecasts of years gone by. Irma had immediately begun to call the fridge her admirer and she had desperately tried to teach him to say ‘butty’ instead of ‘sandwich’.
‘Even a parrot would have a bit more brain,’ she had huffed angrily, when her industrious teaching brought no result.
At first, the talking fridge had just seemed like a bit of fun, something that got you into a good mood since you didn’t have a cat or a husband, but in fact it saved the old folk from bouts of food poisoning and diarrhoea. Many of them ate spoiled food, as they didn’t look at the sell-by date. Or they might forget a piece of salmon at the bottom of the fridge for two weeks until it turned into green slime. Something like that smelled so bad that one lady’s smell alarm had begun to make such a din that they thought they must be in the middle of an air-raid.
To begin her breakfast and to appease her fridge, Siiri drank the half-litre of milk whose best-by date was today. If you tried to shove in something that should have been eaten the day before yesterday, it would start to nag annoyingly, and she didn’t know what to do to calm it down. She was always having problems with liver casserole.
‘You did not follow the instructions. You did not follow the instructions. You did not follow the instructions,’ the fridge sometimes repeated for hours on end, always in the same tone, with too much emphasis on the beginning of each word. It was enough to send an old person to their death, to make them lose their will to live and shrivel up, tortured, at the dining room table, felled by the fridge’s sermon, with an only slightly spoiled liver casserole in the frying pan.
‘I’d rather listen to my admirer sermonising than to those volunteer workers,’ Irma would have said, if she hadn’t been online in real time during this conversation. Those were the kinds of words the daisies of Twilight Grove used as they helped its residents adjust to their new living environment. There was no real staff any more. No exercise or crafts coaches, no kitchen staff, social workers, wardens, no carers or even trainees in the theoretical care of the elderly or immigrants temporarily employed in the name of social integration, just computers and an indefinite number of volunteer helpers who trained the residence to enjoy the machines.
Twilight Grove, in the Munkkiniemi district of Helsinki, was no longer your run-of-the-mill terminal care centre for the elderly. A renovation, which had taken more than a year to complete, had proved to be much more extensive than supposed. Everything had been made new and the result had been sold to an international quoted company. Now the assisted living building was a pilot project for the monitored care for the elderly, whose founding and activities were funded by three different ministries. The politicians and businessmen believed that the transformation of old people into laboratory animals was the salvation of society and the future global solution to the world’s most explosive problem, old age. Finland would rise from its economic predicament when its diverse health and care technology conquered the world and demonstrated once again the miracles Finnish engineers were capable of.
‘This is our last service to society,’ Siiri said to herself, wiping the table clean after breakfast with the leg of her old pyjamas. She had eaten one hard-boiled egg and a piece of crispbread, by force of will, as she no longer felt hungry and ate merely out of a sense of duty.
At the same time Irma’s head appeared, huge, on her smartwall, just as if she had heard Siiri babbling to herself amid the sensors and the gadgets. Irma’s white, curly hair stuck out untidily in all directions, and she had butty crumbs on her lips and big sparkles in her ears.
‘Damned contraption!’ Irma shouted, not looking at Siiri, but staring angrily somewhere to the side. ‘Drat and bother! Say your name and press enter… my foot…”
There was a peculiar clunk and Irma disappeared from Siiri’s wall. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro thundered away in the background. Siiri listened for a moment and understood that it was the first act. Count Almaviva had found the page Cherubino on a chair under a blanket in the maidservant Susanna’s room. Then Irma came back and looked piercingly at the centre of the screen, as if she were very angry with Siiri.
‘Ir-ma. Län-nen-lei-mu. Enter! How in tarnation does this wall work? Eeny meeny, I want to get out of here. I can’t leave my own home! Help, for God’s sake. Are there still any of the staff members we used to call janitors? Can anyone hear me?’
Irma had wandered out of range of the camera, but Siiri could hear clearly her squawking and the general confusion caused by Cherubino’s discovery in the wrong room at the Almaviva court. At the top bleated the gossiping singing teacher with his tenor. Irma became more and more panicky, she let out some screams and cursed, sighed and whimpered, from time to time flashing past the camera, hair flying. All of a sudden the music stopped, as if cut with a knife. It was quiet, horribly soundless, until Irma began to sing, high and hard, Alessandro Stradella’s ‘Pietá, signore’. Siiri pulled on her dressing gown and rushed to rescue her friend.
Translated by Hildi Hawkins
This is the final novel in a trilogy by the writer and music editor Minna Lindgren (born 1963). The protagonists in Kuolema Ehtoolehdossa (‘Death in Twilight Grove’, 2013) were lively ninety-something ladies in an assisted living facility in Helsinki. Now their life is turning more and more satirically and grotesquely absurd: as employing human workforce is becoming too expensive for the owners of the facility, the old folks are being cared for by electronic devices, monitors, cameras, ’smartwalls’ and cleaning robots, and their food – tasteless but colourful paste – is dispensed from 3D vending machines. In addition to all this, the members of a devious religious group, in pursuit of any money that the inhabitants may still have, begin to manipulate them. Things are not looking good, but the resourceful ladies are not about to give in, even though one of them will peacefully – and considering her age, naturally – pass away (in her bed, holding her favourite book, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain). Lindgren defends the human rights of her characters with gusto. No wonder, then, that the trilogy will shortly appear in several languages, including English, German and French.
The sun shone on the Arctic Ocean night and day, and the voyage went amazingly well, as did all the tasks and jobs that Huurna particularly feared beforehand.
Ships lay in Archangel harbour like objects on a collector’s shelf. They were waiting for timber cargo from the local sawmills where work was at a standstill because the mills lacked the machines and machine parts that they were now bringing them. When their cargo had been unloaded and the machines installed, timber began arriving from the sawmills. They found themselves at the end of the queue, and after the other ships had departed, one by one, they were still waiting in Archangel. That suited Huurna; in the first few days of his stay he had become acquainted with two English merchants and, through them, had received invitations to parties. He had stood in salons drinking toasts to the honour of this or that and made the acquaintance of some charming ladies into whose eyes he wished to gaze another time. He was quite moved by the whirl of this unexpected social life, and brightened at the thought that there was really nothing to complain about in his life apart from the fact that he happened still to be a bachelor.
He had always considered himself to have a poor memory, but he remembered everything about all the women who had ever rejected him, including the weather and the light conditions, and he remembered the roads along which he had walked afterwards, recalling his failure and his clumsiness.
On those lonely roads he always realised how little he had been able to say and how abruptly he had said the little he did utter, and it annoyed and amused him so much that he grimaced, and he experienced a sudden need to talk to someone.
In Archangel, he remembered the expressions and the poses and the weather of Viipuri. He hadn’t been rejected in Viipuri, but he had been bidden farewell: it was in Viipuri that he had met the charming young lady with whom he had exchanged smiles and a single kiss and to whom he had written friendly letters all spring. They had bumped into each other in the Tervaniemi park, and he had been delighted to see her again, and the young lady, too, had greeted him happily, and when he cheerfully asked for her news, the lady exclaimed that she had got married and proudly held out her hand to show her ring. He had congratulated her. They had wished each other all the best.
He did not speak of the matter in Viipuri, and he did not speak of it in Valencia or in Hull or in the Arctic Sea either, but the captain’s mate may have sensed something, for he was still enquiring as they arrived in the harbour at Archangel whether the girls of Viipuri had treated him badly, since his countenance was so grave; did the boss have unfinished business in Viipuri?
At cadet school they, the future captains and mates, had been forbidden to make friends with their crew and with each other, but the mate of the Brave II, a giant from Kokkola, a metre and a half of solid wood, had not heard this instruction. He made friends with everyone and asked after all their news and talked about it as if it was common knowledge.
Of the mate’s own business, Huurna knew only that he longed for the forests, to wander in the woodlands and kick the moose-droppings on the game trails. The mate considered the sea dull, more boring than a Liminka meadow; you could tramp across a field, but at sea blue waves rolled from one side of the world to the other and a man was trapped between them. The mate said that he had gone to sea for the simple reason that he believed what the priests said: he would end up in hell, and that place sounded so boring to him that he decided to sin in all the harbours of this world.
The mate had a foul mouth. That amused Huurna, but since he himself didn’t have the same gift for language every official-sounding sentence he uttered sounded as if he were criticising the mate. This conversational inequality didn’t bother the mate in the least: straight-talking people have an amazing capacity not to mind about such things. That is, of course, what makes them straight-talking.
Huurna remembered particularly the mate’s answer to all the men who complained about some misfortune or hurt that had befallen them: ‘A man always has something, if his tooth doesn’t hurt, he has a hard dick.’
The town of Archangel was so far from the world that their own familiar ship appeared, in its quiet harbour, quite especially familiar. His crew, too, seemed to Huurna his own, and familiar, and many times he found himself wishing to talk to his men about their lives and about his own, but his attempts flagged at the first formal greeting. Among themselves, the men appeared to talk about everything, home-sickness and pubs and liquor and cunt; there is no bashfulness aboard ship, and when you reach harbour you don’t go ashore to listen to a piano concerto with a bunch of roses in your hand.
Just as eating salted herring for days on end gives you a thirst, Huurna developed a strong desire to talk as if to a close friend, and in one of these moments of uncontrollable loneliness he went and revealed everything to the mate from Kokkola, his longing and his despair and his disappointment in Viipuri. The mate listened to him in silence and then rushed to his cabin, returning soon, with a conspiratorial air, to offer him his collection of pornographic postcards. The mate said he could borrow them for as long as he wanted to.
When, later, alone and unhurried, he leafed through the mate’s collection, Huurna was forced to admit that in some sense these pictures really did connect with his misery, and lightened it, even if only for a moment.
On the eighth of October the English came into harbour and warned that no one who intended to set sail for the open sea had ever lingered in Archangel so long into the autumn.
Huurna began to hurry the gathering of cargo, but no so much that he didn’t leave himself time to stand in salons drinking toasts, and after one of these parties he proposed.
The woman was from a Karelian family; under her colourful skirt Huurna could glimpse her light, slim calves, and he grasped the opportunity to do so as they walked along the peculiar wooden pavements of the town. One one of these walks, by happy coincidence, they spotted a bride and groom, and Huurna was prompted to try a spot of repartee. He pointed to the pair and said that they could also, perhaps, do something like it.
The following day, on a rising tide, Huurna ordered the lines to be released. His cough had become bad, and he drank liquor for his illness.
The snowstorm began as soon as they left Archangel harbour and their tug-boat. They were on the Arctic Sea on a voyage across the North Sea, but first they should have navigated the reefs of the White Sea.
In the narrow channel, the wind turned against them. All they could see of the world was the length of the ship. Snow and damp turned to ice on the decks. On the outward journey it had been light even at night on the great northern seas, but now it was dark even in the daytime. You could see the snowstorm against the sky, but toward the prow all you could make out was your own fear.
The ship, slowly becoming blanketed in snow, the dark sea below, the grim sky above and far in front the gloom of the Arctic Sea; how cold was it possible for a person to be, at sea. But when you have set out on a journey, you must take what you can from the wind, wrestle it on board and hope that after you have survived this moment you will survive the next one too.
At the mouth of the Arctic Ocean the storm eased and the sky opened up with stars. The wind, on the other hand, intensified, and the swell surged and the ship was tossed on the waves like a child’s bark-boat. The entire crew stood on deck, holding on to whatever they could.
During his years as a deck hand, Huurna had glanced in distress in the direction of the captain, hoping that the bearded father-figure would lad them to safety, but as captain all he was able to do was glance at his ship and seek in its creaking essence some sort of guarantees of the future. When they did not seem to be forthcoming, he began merely to breathe and accepted the moment, and then the next one, and thought how fitting it was that he should disappear from the world, since nothing so extraordinary awaited him that he should not be lost in this storm.
The only valuable thing that, in his distress, that he could express in words was spring, that he should see another spring. The word held within it everything that he had no time, now, to think about, the balmy days of early April, the barn wall and the sunshine, the sky in which the clouds had space to wander, the bright air which lasted well into the evening and the free, open shores.
It was spring he thought of in the storm on the Arctic Sea. He went to his cabin and thanked his ship and the heavens and something that he quietly in his mind called spring, and slept.
At the age of fifteen he realised he was lucky: things would always go well for him. Later, he forgot the feeling, just as the body forgets youth, and he concluded coldly that there were no lucky people, it was just that life felt easy if you hadn’t yet left the shelter of your childhood home and had not experienced very much. Then the world noticed him, too, and he began to experience the same troubles as everyone else.
In place of his lost luck he chose superstition; he began to protect himself with charms. It was lonely work. You don’t even find safety in God if you shape your prayers only in accordance with your own desires, and he did not even have a God; he had to conjure everything, make it all good, all on his own.
In moments of the most severe exhaustion he was able, for a second, to give up his superstitions and his wishes and blissfully believe that it is as it is, but as soon as his strength returned he began once again to coax luck on to his side and hope that it would once again come rippling around him. Sometimes luck accepted his wishes, sometimes it didn’t; luck is a matter of luck.
He woke to a shout from the lookout and struggled through layers of dreams, dragging on a sweater and oilcloths, and went on deck. All the men were now shouting. He, too, could see that they were being approached by an unlit vessel, its pale sails looming in the darkness. The helmsman had changed course and the lookout ran to check the lamps and the men were bellowing, mouths gaping, until they all fell silent, one by one, and absolute silence reigned.
All of them stared at the iceberg, unspeaking, rooted to the spot. It seemed unnatural for something so big to be so close. Mute and noble, the iceberg drifted first towards them and then past them and disappeared, without making a single sound, back into the same darkness from which it had emerged. Huurna felt a hollow stupefaction in the pit of his stomach, as when, as a little boy, he saw from a rowing boat the bottom of the sea, another world in which you could imagine whatever you liked, your father’s body. The iceberg, too, was its own kingdom, something too big to look at, and he realised now that not everyone wanted to look at it, but hung their heads as if in exhaustion.
When the iceberg lay behind them and they were sailing southward in a steady wind, he began to think that, just as children’s innocent eyes are protected from the horrors of the world, it might be better for adults, too, not to see some of the things in this world. The Arctic Sea, all of it, seemed one of those oversized things, and more particularly, the iceberg, whose threatening form he was unable to banish from his mind. Things of a suitable size for seeing included, for him, a barrel and a horse; among smaller objects, perhaps grains of wheat and the individual snowflakes which he could now make out against the dark cloth of his coat.
Translated by Hildi Hawkins
This is the second volume of a novel trilogy by the writer and music editor Minna Lindgren (born 1963). The protagonists in Kuolema Ehtoolehdossa (‘Death in Twilight Grove’, 2013) were ladies in their nineties in an assisted living facility in Helsinki – administered by a foundation entitled (ironically enough), ‘Care and Love of the Elderly‘. Lindgren’s ‘adventure satire’ continues to focus on the lack of common sense, respect and empathy (as well as presence or interest of relatives) in the – often patronising – care of the elderly. The story revolves round the evacuation of the inhabitants from the facility to temporary housing as a tragicomically huge renovation project sets off, not without some seriously fishy business. This volume might be described as a slightly more sombre in its themes than the previous one, as illnesses and death occur – however, the point is that dying, not an unexpected turn in a person’s life after the age of 90, should be regarded as something natural. As what Lindgren writes about is by no means a phenomenon foreign to contemporary western societies, it is not surprising that so far the translation rights of the trilogy into eight languages have been sold.
For someone who is not Finnish, but who has had a love affair with the country – not its beauties but its idiosyncratic masochisms; its melancholia and its perpetual silences; its concocted mythologies and histories; its one great composer, Sibelius, and its one great architect, Aalto; and the fact that Sibelius’s Finlandia, written for a country of snow and frozen lakes, should become the national anthem of the doomed state of Biafra, with thousands of doomed soldiers marching to its strains under the African sun – this book and its idiots and idiocies seemed to sum up everything about a country that can be profoundly moving, and profoundly stupid.
It’s an idiot book; its closest cousin is Voltaire’s Candide (1759). But, whereas Candide was both a comedic satire and a critique of the German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), The Beggar & The Hare is merely an insider’s self-satire. Someone who has not spent time in Finland would have no idea how to imagine the events of this book. Candide, too, deployed a foil for its eponymous hero, and that was Pangloss, the philosopher Leibniz himself in thin disguise. Together they traverse alien geographies and cultures, each given dimension by the other.
In The Beggar & The Hare, the foil to the Romanian hero, Vatanescu, is a Finnish rabbit. The rabbit is not a philosopher, and is not a foil. The rabbit acts as an angel of God and, essentially, carries the weight of the entire book’s lurch from misfortune to misfortune to misfortune to miracle.
But it’s a wonderful book. Mr Everyday Finn is represented superbly by fatty Pykström, who is eating and drinking himself to death in the wilds, in the forbearing company of his wife, who does Zumba and is writing a perpetual doctorate on feminist cultural studies from the beginning to the end of time.
The book is also a considerable political satire – or at least it seems to be. Not having kept up with Finnish political personalities, it is difficult to imagine Simo Pahvi [‘Cardboard’] as anything other than a crude archetype of a particularly crude form of populist Finnish politician. If it turns out the author, Tuomas Kyrö, is satirising or just plain depicting a real person, then that person should now commit suicide out of sheer embarrassment. It is hard to distinguish whether Kyrö is in love with butchering a particular politician, or just in love with butchering; but someone like Pahvi just cannot be part of a Europe in which Finland tries to be taken seriously.
But I take the book also to be a genuine, if fantastic, tale of an illegal migrant to Finland – someone who escapes the protracted asylum system and its terrifyingly ‘humane’ efforts to treat claimants fairly but strictly, but which drives them to insanity instead. Vatanescu as illegal migrant is first criminalised on CCTV by being unable to observe the bureaucratic requirements of the country where everything needs a licence. Owning a rabbit or being adopted by a rabbit is a crime. Hygiene laws abound. And, if there was anything about Finland that finally discouraged all thoughts of staying there for any decent length of time, apart from its endless winter night, its alcoholism, its utter cleanliness, the requirement to jump into freezing lakes and roll naked in snow and be whipped afterwards, the ubiquity of books depicting Moomintrolls, and the language with (by my last effort to count) 17 future conditionals, it was the paperwork that gave permission to breathe in a health and safety-assured manner.
Oh, and I live to jaywalk. I recall crossing the main street in Tampere, against the lights, with no traffic in sight for hundreds of metres in either direction – and being castigated on the other side by a citizen who said I should be ashamed for being such a lawless vagabond.
In Kyrö’s book, neither the environmental movement nor the youth of the country are spared. The sympathetic creatures are his fellow illegal migrants. It is they who bring a sense of human solidarity to an otherwise bleak book when it comes to simple human relationships.
So, is this a book of loving satire? Or one of satirical denunciation? It is a somewhat shallow and episodic book. No character develops or grows, except to a very limited extent, the arch-villain, Yegor. It is certainly one episode piled upon another, until the reader is screaming for an end to the endless accounts of one failure by Vatanescu after another. Vatanescu finally gets the football boots he has promised his son in Romania. To get them he has to become Prime Minister of Finland. He has no qualities whatsoever to become Prime Minister. He is a vacuumed soul. He has a rabbit. Finally, the rabbit deserts him because Prime Ministers must live in germ-free surroundings and a rabbit, after all, is full of diseases, lives with its diseases, and is allergic to sterility. Finns live with Finland.
Rather, Finland lives on while populated by Finns. They invented a variant of the tango where each bar ends on a downbeat. No one else could or would do this. The Finns love this tango. I think Kyrö loves Finland so, yes, let’s settle on loving satire. I smiled a lot when I read this book.
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!
The winner of the prize this year, worth €30,000 and awarded on 27 November, is He eivät tiedä mitä he tekevät (‘For they know not what they do’, Tammi) by Jussi Valtonen (born 1974), a psychologist and writer. The novel – 558 pages – is his third: it focuses on the relationship of science and ethics in the contemporary world, with an American professor of neuroscience, married to a Finn, as the protagonist.
Professor Anne Brunila – who has worked, among other posts, as a CEO in forest and energy industry – chose the winner. In her awarding speech she said: ‘The novel is an astonishing combination of perceptive description of human relationships, profound moral and ethical reasoning, science fiction and suspense…. I have never encountered a Finnish portrayal of our present era that is anything like it.’
The other five novels on the shortlist of six were the following:
Kaksi viatonta päivää (‘Two innocent days’, Gummerus) by Heidi Jaatinen is a story of a child whose parents are not able to take care of her; Olli Jalonen’s Miehiä ja ihmisiä (’Men and human beings’, Otava) focuses on a young man’s summer in the 1970s. Neljäntienristeys (‘The crossing of four roads’, WSOY), a first novel by Tommi Kinnunen, is a story set in the 20th-century Finnish countryside over three generations. Kultarinta (‘Goldbreast’, Gummerus) by Anni Kytömäki is a first novel about generations, set in the years between 1903 and 1937, celebrating the Finnish forest and untouched nature. Graniittimies (‘Granite man’, Otava) by Sirpa Kähkönen portrays a young, idealistic Finnish couple who move to the newly-founded Soviet Union to work in the utopia they believe in.
The longlist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 2015 has been announced and, among the 142 translated novels – from 39 countries and 16 original languages – are two from Finland.
Cold Courage, a thriller by Pekka Hiltunen (Hesperus Press, UK), is translated by Owen Witesman. Both entries were nominated by Helsinki City Library.
Among the authors writing in English are Margaret Atwood, J.M. Coetzee, Roddy Doyle, Stephen King, Jhumpa Lahiri, Thomas Pynchon and Donna Tartt.
This literary award was established by Dublin City, Civic Charter in 1994. Nominations are made by libraries in capital and major cities throughout the world, on the basis of ‘high literary merit’. In order to be eligible for consideration in 2015 a novel translated into English must be first published in the original language between 1 January 2009 and 31 December 2013.
The award for a translated novel is worth €75,000 to the author, €25,000 to the translator. The shortlist of ten titles will be announced by an international panel of judges in April 2015, the winner in June.
We’ll be keeping our fingers crossed for our ex-Editor-in-Chief Kristina Carlson!
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 from the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo. 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. 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 restlessness 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 sexually confused young man 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
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