FeedBurner makes it easy to receive content updates in My Yahoo!, Newsgator, Bloglines, and other news readers.
The director general of the Helsinki City Theatre, Asko Sarkola, announced the winner of the 30th Finlandia Literature Prize for Fiction, chosen from a shortlist of six novels, on 2 December in Helsinki. The prize, worth €30,000, was awarded to Riikka Pelo for her novel Jokapäiväinen elämämme (‘Our everyday life’, Teos).
In his award speech Sarkola – and actor by training – characterised the six novels as ‘six different roles’:
‘They are united by a bold and deep understanding of individuality and humanity against the surrounding period. They are the perspectives of fictive individuals, new interpretations of the reality we imagine or suppose. Viewfinders on the present, warnings of the future.
‘Riikka Pelo‘s Jokapäiväinen elämämme is wound around two periods and places, Czechoslovakia in 1923 and the Soviet Union in 1939–41. The central characters are the poet Marina Tsvetaeva and her daughter Alya. This novel has the widest scope: from stream of consciousness to interrogations in torture chambers and the labour camps of Vorkuta; always moving, heart-stopping, irrespective of the settings.’
The five other novels were Ystäväni Rasputin (’My friend Rasputin’) by JP Koskinen, Hotel Sapiens (Teos) by Leena Krohn, Terminaali (‘The terminal’, Siltala) by Hannu Raittila, Herodes (‘Herod’, WSOY) by Asko Sahlberg and Hägring 38 (‘Mirage 38’, Schildts & Söderströms; Finnish translation, Kangastus, Otava) by Kjell Westö (see In the news for brief features).
Prophet, healer, mystic – and political player and lecher. The hectic life of the Russian Rasputin, which ended in 1916 in assassination, offers excellent material for JP Koskinen’s novel. The fictive narrator is the young Vasili, who Rasputin hopes will be a follower. The mix of fear and adulation and wild events, described from the point of view of the young boy, are persuasive. At the court of Tsar Nicholas II Rasputin gained favour because the Tsarina trusted almost blindly in his healing abilities: the imperial family’s son Alexei was a haemophiliac. JP Koskinen’s earlier works include science fiction. Ystäväni Rasputin is a skilful writer’s description of historial events on the eve of the Russian revolution; it paints an interesting and intense portait of the atmosphere and events of the St Petersburg court. Koskinen does not over-explain; interpretation is left to the reader. The novel was on the Finlandia Prize shortlist.
Translated by Hildi Hawkins
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!
Sahlberg’s short, concise novels about Finland’s recent past are here followed by a massive volume set in the early days of Christianity, in Judea and Galilee. Sahlberg’s accurate use of language, his pithy dialogue and vivid sense of history guarantee a reading experience. John the Baptist is the novel’s great prophet; the short, bow-legged Jeshua remains in his shadow. The main character, however, is Herod Antipas, the Roman tetrarch, and Herod’s wife and his servant are also central. Representing the imperial power in the Judea area is the prefect Pontius Pilate. Herod is a sympathetic character who has, throughout his life, alternately enjoyed and suffered from the use of power. How does power change a man? What is the meaning of trust and loyalty – not to mention love – when life is full of fear, doubt and extortion, poisoners and agitators? Sahlberg (born 1964) also opens up perspectives on the examination of our own time. The novel was on the Finlandia Prize shortlist.
Translated by Hildi Hawkins
Welcome to Twilight Grove, a Helsinki home for the elderly – the bright, institutional lighting in its parlour creating an atmosphere like a dentist’s office, the odd resident dozing on the sofas, waiting for the next meal. The menu often includes mashed potatoes, easy for those with bad teeth. Residents seeking recreation are offered chair aerobics, accordion recitals, and crafts. A very ordinary assisted living centre, or is it? In Minna Lindgren’s novel, Kuolema Ehtoolehdossa (‘Death at Twilight Grove’, Teos), the everyday life of a home for the elderly is the setting for absurd and even criminal happenings, suspicious deaths and medical mix-ups.
Anna-Leena Ekroos: You’re a journalist and writer. Formerly you worked for the Finnish Broadcasting Company. In 2009 you won the Bonnier journalism prize for an article of yours about the last phases of your father’s life, and his death. Kuolema Ehtoolehdossa is your first novel. How did it come into being?
Minna Lindgren: I’ve always known I was a writer but the mere urge to write isn’t enough for a novel – you have to have a meaningful story. The more absorbed I became in the life of the old, the more important it felt to me to write this story. Writing a novel turned out to be carefree compared to working as a journalist. Many of the stories I heard would have become bad social porn in the media, dissolved into banality, but in a novel they become genuinely tragic, or tragicomic, as the case may be.
A-L E: This book could be classified as a mystery, but is it above all a description of aging and society’s attitudes about the aged?
M.L: I didn’t know I was writing a mystery, but you could think of it that way. Perhaps it’s an adventure satire. Of course, an assisted living centre is an environment conducive to criminal activity; the residents’ medications are powerful drugs, monetary transactions are handled without the residents’ knowledge, and no one is monitoring what the private sector is up to when it provides elderly care.
A-L E: There are three main characters in the novel: Siiri, who always makes the best of things, Irma, who is fond of red wine and music, and the realistic Anna-Liisa, who’s always correcting their grammar. How did you come up with this charming trio?
M-L: I used the same technique that Richard Wagner used in his operas – I put my own characteristics into every person. Irma was actually based on my own mother; Siiri was probably more a portrait of my own future; and Anna-Liisa’s personality reminds me of my father, who liked to concentrate on the matter at hand and not get sidetracked, and used to give us long lectures. Anna-Liisa’s tremendous interest in Finnish language is also my own passion.
A-L E: Irma, Siiri and Anna-Liisa are in their nineties. It is quite rare nowadays to read a novel with protagonists who were born at the beginning of the previous century.
ML: I wanted them to be unmistakably old. Nowadays even a 85-year-olds can get offended if they’re called old. Someone who’s over 90 had seen war and seen the progress from times of real want to today’s over-consumption. Members of the younger generations are travelling all the time to different parts of the world, but nobody has any money to spare for taking care of the elderly. 93 years of life gives the problems we wrestle with a suitable sense of proportion.
A-L E: The vast technological changes over the course of Irma, Siiri, and Anna-Liisa’s lives cause difficulties but also create humorous situations in everyday life. You have to remember your one code to pay for groceries with your debit card, another code to turn on your phone. Attempting to deposit money into your own bank account nowadays is an unusual thing to do.
ML: Yes, my three characters were already retired before computers conquered the world. They don’t even know how to look for a lost walking stick online, so they’re completely isolated from modern society.
A-L E: These old women’s families are noticeable mostly by their absence in the book. They’re in too much of a hurry, can’t fit them into their weekly schedule.
ML: I’ve visited a lot of assisted living facilities, and I haven’t run into people’s relatives – many of them store their older relatives in assisted living precisely just because they won’t have to worry about them. Grandma’s supposedly safe and sound. Lately there’s been a lot of interest in technological possibilities for increasing the safety of the elderly: floor sensors, motion sensors and timers that allow a family to relax and monitor their beloved mother’s life from thousands of kilometres away.
A-L E: Your novel has quite serious themes, but it is by no means gloomy. There’s plenty of humour in it, verging on parody. Friendship also brings its light to the story – friendship among the three women, between Siiri and her grandchild’s boyfriend, for example. In the words of poet Aale Tynni, ‘Of all, of all that we can have, friendship is the greatest.’
M.L: That’s right. A person can make friends, and even fall in love, at any age they want.
A-L E: This book is also a portrait of Helsinki by tram: Siiri takes several trams every day, and her tram rides are also journeys into her memories of the city.
M.L: My grandmother was run over by a tram when she was 10 years old and lost one of her legs. In the 1970s she had a crude, heavy prosthesis, but she wanted to see the world. So she used to take one of us grandchildren with her, tear the map of Helsinki from the front of the phone book and put it in her purse, and we would go for tram rides. I loved that, and I’ve always lived near a tram line. Siiri Kettunen seeks meaning and adventure in her life by riding the tram around her beloved city, most of it built during her own lifetime.
A-L E: Is it possible that Siiri, Irma, and Anna-Liisa’s saga could continue?
M-L: I’ve promised to write a trilogy, because it sounds impressive: The Twilight Grove Trilogy. In the next installment the characters are the victims of a plumbing remodel and they encounter home care and consider euthanasia.
Translated by Lola Rogers
At the Health Clinic, Siiri Kettunen once more found a new ‘personal physician’ waiting for her. The doctor was so young that Siiri had to ask whether a little girl like her could be a real doctor at all, but that was a mistake. By the time she remembered that there had been a series of articles in the paper about fake doctors, the girl doctor had already taken offence.
‘Shall we get down to business?’ the unknown personal physician said, after a brief lecture. She told Siiri to take off her blouse, then listened to her lungs with an ice-cold stethoscope that almost stopped her heart, and wrote a referral to Meilahti hospital for urgent tests. Apparently the stethoscope was the gizmo that gave the doctor the same kind of certainty that the blood pressure cuff had given the nurse.
‘I can order an ambulance,’ the doctor said, but that was a bit much, in Siiri’s opinion, so she thanked her politely for listening to her lungs and promised to catch the very next tram to the heart exam.
When she got to Meilahti she waited for two and a half hours. She read some Donald Duck comics, solved seven sudokus, and had learned two long articles from last year’s Health News by heart – one about sea buckthorn oil and another on dry mucous membranes – before she got in for her urgent tests. The handsome specialist figured out what Siiri already knew: she had a heart arrhythmia. He spoke in a strained voice and wanted Siiri to have more tests and have a pacemaker installed to normalise her rhythm.
‘What rhythm will I be set for? I hope it’s not a waltz, although there is a song about a waltzing heart. It would be hard to use two feet to walk in threes.’ She was trying to make a joke, but this doctor too was very serious.
‘Generator node and electrical impulse pathways, at which point the sinoatrial node and frequency limit, respectively, in which case an elective surgery or microprocess, perhaps also a telemetry device, all in all a nearly risk-free procedure.’
Siiri listened for a while and then said that she was 94 years old and they couldn’t install some gadget inside her to make her live longer.
‘This is a very small operation that is done under local anesthesia. The pacemaker is placed under the skin and the electrodes are threaded through a vein to the heart. It will remove the unpleasant symptoms and increase your quality of life,’ the doctor said.
‘Are you sure about that?’ Siiri asked. ‘What kinds of things do you think would give and old person’s life quality?’
‘Well… studies show that for the aged… after all, good health is the first step to a quality life. An untreated heart arrhythmia can be life threatening.’
‘You mean that in the worse case scenario, I could die?’ Siiri said, feeling very brisk and strong. ‘You’re still a young person, so maybe you don’t know that getting old is mostly unpleasant. Days pass slowly and nothing happens. Your friends and relatives are dead and gone, and your food has no flavour. There’s nothing worth watching on television and your eyes get tired when you read. You feel sleepy, but sleep doesn’t come, so you end up lying awake all night and dozing off all day. You feel all kinds of aches and pains, constantly – small pains, but still. Even the most ordinary tasks become slow and difficult. Like cutting your toenails. You can hardly imagine. It’s a huge, all day operation that you do almost anything to put off.’
The doctor glanced nervously at his watch and promised to write Siiri a referral for a pedicure, for which she could request state health compensation. He turned his back to her and became absorbed in his computer screen.
‘As far as the pacemaker is concerned, studies show that these small matters affecting health can be crucially important in increasing well-being, not to mention that a pacemaker would go a long way to increasing the length of your life. According to Current Care Guidelines…’
‘In that case the answer is clear,’ Siiri interrupted with relief. ‘Install the pacemaker in someone younger, some fat person who feels too well and makes the mistake of going for a run and dies. Even my sons died. And Reino the foreman’s son. And a lot of other people. We old people don’t die from anything, even if we would like to. Sometimes at the home we talk about how you doctors don’t seem to understand that death is a natural thing. Life ends in death, and there’s no sense in offering longer life to someone my age and denying me sugar for my coffee. It isn’t a failure of medicine when people eventually die of old age.’
The doctor turned around and looked at her in surprise.
‘But you’re a lively person in good health. Why in the world should you die? Current Care Guidelines…’
‘Because everybody has to die,’ Siiri said. She squeezed the doctor’s muscular hands, holding them in her own wrinkled ones, so he would understand that guidelines and studies and pacemakers can’t change this fact about the world.
‘One day you’ll die, too. And I hope that you’ll be old enough then to know what dying is, and not fight it. Maybe you’ll even be waiting for it, like me and my friends at Twilight Grove. Even if you put pacemakers in all of us you won’t change our everyday life one bit. So I thank you, from the bottom of my heart. I need your report and I’m grateful that you’re writing it. May I have two copies of that paper? That’s all I need from you, and I hope that you’ll take care of young people who are too tired to even work anymore. The nurses at Twilight Grove are so overworked that we’re practically left alone there.’
The doctor looked anguished. He tugged his hands forcefully out of Siiri’s well-intentioned grip, rushed to the sink, disinfected his hands, tightened his necktie, straightened his doctor’s coat, and sat back down in his chair to stare at the computer screen as if the machine actually knew something and would give him the solution to this dilemma. Then he straightened up, picked up his dictaphone, and started to murmur into it, glancing now and then at Siiri.
‘…otherwise healthy for her age comma memory functional and the patient is alert period refuses pacemaker however period in respect of the patient’s wishes taking into account her advanced age period.’ The doctor turned off the dictaphone and asked her if she wanted some depression medication in addition to the heart medicine.
‘What for?’ Siiri asked, sincerely surprised.
‘They can help your… condition. You might regain your desire to live.’
Siiri got up. She was about to put the dumb lug straight about the the hard facts of life and death, but she remembered her heart and its raggedy impulse pathways and took a deep breath before saying to him that she didn’t need any of his silly pills. She didn’t need them now and she hadn’t needed them back when her husband died. The doctor was persistent.
‘Some sleep medication might be helpful. You said that you weren’t sleeping at night, and there’s no point in that.’
Siiri started to have the desperate feeling that she would never get out of there without a stack of prescriptions. There had been something in the papers about responsibility for outcomes, how it was becoming a problem for public sector employees. Outcomes were measured in numbers, so child protective services was considered more effective when more children were reported to state custody officials, and doctors apparently were only earning their salaries if they sent patients for surgery and wrote them an adequate number of prescriptions.
‘That’s not what this is about,’ the doctor said wearily. ‘I’m just trying to help you and do my job as well as I possibly can.’
Siiri realised she’d behaved badly. The doctor surely had enough work to do without her making more work for him. He had studied hard to be able to prescribe sleeping pills to old people, and what would happen if all his patients refused his pills and pacemakers? He had no need, at his age, to know what a 90-year-old’s life was like. It wasn’t his fault that Siiri had lived to be too old. She thanked him for a job well done and left, headed for the tram stop. It was such a beautiful early winter day that she decided to walk one stop further toward town just so she could look at the majestic Aura Building, designed by Erkko Virkkunen, which was still handsome even though they had ruined the window frames a long time ago when they renovated it.
Translated by Lola Rogers
More and more new Finnish fiction is seeing the light of day. Does quantity equal quality?
Fewer and fewer critical evaluations of those fiction books are published in the traditional print media. Is criticism needed any more?
At the Helsinki Book Fair in late October the latest issue of the weekly magazine Suomen Kuvalehti was removed from the stand of its publisher, Otavamedia, by the chief executive officer of Otava Publishing Company Ltd. Both belong to the same Otava Group.
The cover featured a drawing of a book in the form of a toilet roll, referring to an article entitled ‘The ailing novel’, by Riitta Kylänpää, in which new Finnish fiction and literary life were discussed, with a critical tone at places. CEO Pasi Vainio said he made the decision out of respect for the work of Finnish authors.
His action was consequently assessed by the author Elina Hirvonen who, in her column in the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, criticised the decision. ‘The attempt to conceal the article was incomprehensible. Authors are not children. The Finnish novel is not doing so badly that it collapses if somebody criticises it. Even a rambling reflection is better for literature than the same old articles about the same old writers’ personal lives.’
‘The ailing novel’ takes a look at new Finnish fiction and at the decline of literary criticism in the media – where there seems to be little space for ‘unfavourable’ criticism. (Why indeed annoy readers, authors and publishers with derogatory comments? Besides, an ‘unfavourable’ critical judgment always requires lots of words, more print space, in order to be balanced and well-validated.)
But isn’t it the duty of the news media to present the readers with, well, news about what is happening in the world? This includes works of art that appear in public, and shouldn’t newspaper arts page be dealing with both their quantity and their quality, and not just those that are assumed to please the readers?
In his blog Turmio ja perikato (‘Downfall and ruin’; in Finnish), Putte Wilhelmsson, writer and critic, analyses the attempts of the Finnish newspapers to attract more readers to their cultural pages, as it is the quantity of consumers that matters to publishers: the contents have begun to be aimed at those readers who don’t read the cultural pages. ‘This results in segmented reviewing directed at the focus groups used in market research,’ he says. ‘The economic management of the newspapers guides editorial work either from above or by forcing the producers of the cultural pages to be part of the economic decision making process in a way that was unknown a couple of decades ago.’
The number of fiction titles published in Finland has recently grown rapidly, the number of publishers’ editors has not. The status of an author is considered very media sexy, and the media are more than willing to feature new writers – making no separations between their work and their personal lives.
It seems things are no better in the neighbouring Sweden either. The critic Åsa Beckman complained in an article in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper (30 October) that the talk about literary value of works – language, tone, form, conceptualisation, dialogue, narrative – is very much avoided in contemporary literary life. However, literary criticism which is able to assess the aesthetic and formal quality is absolutely vital.
Writer and blogger Tommi Melender quotes Beckman in a blog post (in Finnish) entitled ‘The slow death of newspaper criticism?’. He argues that writing in novels often resembles scripts for television: short scenes, limited surroundings, lack of the wider perspective. Novels are critically discussed on the level of subject and theme only: authors are seen as specialists on any subject they have been writing about – burnout, various relationships, alcoholism etc. – so they become people who are able to generate potential public interest and thus help fill newspaper pages and broadcast schedules.
The fact is that a small country just cannot produce a great number of masterpieces. When the number of books published grows, this will result in a greater number of less carefully and skilfully edited, mediocre works.
Bad criticism, for its part, shrinks to short summaries of plots and themes – of books that the cultural editors think might be ‘good’ enough to be reviewed, because it is not economic to publish reviews of books that either are (in advance) considered ‘bad’ or ‘uninteresting’ or too ‘difficult’ for the ‘average’ reader.
’Average’ novels, for ‘average’ readers? Never. Literature is an art, and there are no limitations to what art can do. Criticism, for its part, is able to rise above the average when it is not limited. Literature and criticism are like Siamese twins, as Åsa Beckman puts it; they share a common bloodstream.
Readers need books, books need reviews – and of course debate is needed by both. Good writing happens all the time, despite doubts and debates.And so does good reading.
JO: How did you decide on Queen Victoria? I remember you once commented that you only had a very general picture of her, but once you started rooting around you must have found a wealth of information.
ST: I didn’t make any sort of concrete decision to write a book about her; she fascinated me in a peculiar way. I would return to her every time I was working on a new collection of poetry; I’d already written so much poetry that there was almost a hint of routine about it all, this was something I could really get my teeth into. Because we know so little about Victoria’s childhood, I actually had quite a lot of freedom. Of course, there are reams of books about her! But I’ve never found a novel about her.
JO: How did you go about creating her voice?
ST: I read a couple of deathly dreary books about Victoria and gave up several times. It was mostly only politics and things that didn’t interest me in the least. All the delicious little details were brushed aside in appendices. Then I happened upon the book We Two by Gillian Gill, which focuses largely on how the relationship with Albert affected Victoria, and vice versa. The books about her by Lytton Strachey and Edith Sitwell have also been important.
Finding her voice was painstaking and took me a long time – I thought how absurd it was that I of all people should be writing a book from Victoria’s perspective. Who am I to do such a thing? I knew that Victoria’s diaries were available, but I decided not to use them in finding the tone of the book. I travelled to London, walked around rooms she had also walked around, looked at the bed in which she slept, her toys, her clothes. But when the voice finally came to me, there was no going back: the first person gives you such freedom! She became ‘I’, or rather I became a vessel for her. Many of the books I read about her were so tedious because they tried to distance themselves from her. I wanted to access the intimate, the forbidden. I wanted to get right inside her. Of course, her voice changed a lot on the way. The child becomes queen, then marries and becomes a mother herself, is widowed, and slowly ages.
JO: Now to Albert: there is a duality about the image of him we read – idolised by his wife, reviled by his newly acquired people. How did you find negotiating his character? Though Victoria narrates throughout, we see him through her: is there a love-power binary at work here?
ST: Albert, yes… I empathised with him rather a lot. He was Victoria’s poor little cousin, and initíally she was more interested in his older brother Ernest. But then Albert grew into a muscular, tall man, and this was important for Victoria. He was enormously cultured and, to top that all, very handsome. In many ways he was her polar opposite.
The relationship of love and power was in fact the doorway into this project. When I first caught sight of the enormous, golden Albert Memorial, a monument in itself, I was taken aback – it seems the taciturn queen knew something about passion after all. The sculpture is the proof of her adoring love. She herself stands outside Kensington Palace in modest marble form. I couldn’t help but think of the balance of power – their relationship was an ongoing power struggle, and nine pregnancies certainly took their toll on her. Victoria could not show herself in public when she was pregnant. This, meanwhile, represented career opportunities for Albert. Victoria retaliated and Albert retracted. She bought some land and asked him to build another castle, and with this they were reconciled. And so it continued.
JO: Humour is also an important element of the narrative; it lends the text a sense of playfulness. This is perhaps not what one would expect in a novel about a queen – how did you come up with this?
ST: Well, she is so endlessly amusing, absurdly funny! Humour is part of the text right from the start; indeed, the era itself seems to invite a certain humorous levity. I’m drawn to the kind of comedy that gets stuck in your throat. Victoria’s position and the power that brings with it opens the doors to a great deal of black humour too, such as when she suddenly decides to lock Albert out of Windsor Castle, then proceeds to enjoy his humiliation from behind the curtains.
Victoria… she still fascinates me. It’s like having a stone in your shoe. Eventually you have to take your shoe off and examine the stone.
Translated by David Hackston
A kick in the stomach – yes, that is what it feels like each time I catch a glimpse of the Crystal Palace. The miniature on Albert’s desk has finally grown to maturity. The great greenhouse towers where once the elms stood. On a clear day the sun dances along the glass, making it glisten, the whole place all but blinding us. One is forced to squint on approaching it. One reaches out a hand, and when it touches the glass and steel, one knows one is there.
The grand opening is a mere five days hence. I step inside, he will be there somewhere. He is unaware of my arrival; it is to be a surprise. These last months he has been gone long before I have woken, and arrives home only once I am asleep. He seems quite indefatigable, neither sleeps nor eats properly. These last weeks there has been nothing else on his mind but the Great Exhibition.
Inside is a frightful, deafening din, thousands of people busily making their final preparations for the grand opening. It is much like being caught up in swarm of bees. A fountain stands at the majestic entrance, no water yet bubbling through it. Two of the park’s most opulent elm trees have been spared and now stand shooting up through the floor and groping at the ceiling. Enormous crystal chandeliers are suspended from the ceiling, oriental carpets hang from the balustrades. There are palms trees and flowers, vitrines filled with miniature ships, porcelain china, sculptures. In the park outside is the curve of the Serpentine. Curious passers-by stop and gaze up at the building. A myriad of beautiful items blinding the eyes of those observers, all collected in one and the same place. It is like Uncle Prinny’s pavilion, only a thousand times larger. Strange and spectacular. And all this is Albert’s doing.
I stroll through the various different rooms. The mechanical room with its locomotives, envelope machines, speaking telegraphs, etcetera. In one room I find a daguerreotype of the moon. And as I saunter through the countless galleries, it strikes me that the Great Exhibition is Albert’s love letter to England. Now shall my people finally see his greatness, and come to love him just as I do. His glory shall be sealed. And so it must be. The opening will be nothing short of a great success. It shall be Albert’s resounding triumph. With that I remember the original purpose of my visit: I am here to surprise Albert. Where can he be?
‘I know precisely where I shall take you,’ says Albert when I eventually locate him in one of the lounges. He was deciding which cushions should adorn the profusion of settees. Full of expectation, I allow him to take my arm in his. We take a few steps forward, then stop.
‘Shall we no further? I thought you were to take me on a great adventure.’
‘Look, there are water closets that everyone can use. They only cost a penny,’ he says, joy radiating from his face. ‘I wager you hadn’t expected that!’
‘Albert, I am quite dizzy.’
‘Come, there is something else I must show you.’
‘I thought so.’
We take the stairs, walk through a number of galleries I have not seen before.
‘My love, I wish to show you the largest diamond in the world.’
‘How happy I am, how endlessly happy and proud of you,’ I falter.
‘Allow me to introduce the Koh-i-Noor.’
‘Is that it lying there? But it isn’t glittering. Why does it not glitter?’
‘I believe it should be yours,’ he says.
‘What on earth should I do with such a thing?’
‘It would make a fine brooch. Or you could wear it in the crown.’
‘I have no need for so many jewels. Come, let us continue. I was rather taken with the mechanical section. People will love it. The talking telegraph is quite magnificent. I would very much like one of those out at Osborne House.’
The opening was quite unforgettable. Even at a great distance, I can see the water glistening in the Crystal Fountain. It is as though all the beauty of the world has converged on this one place. Flowers in an abundance never before seen, statues, palm trees, everything on a monumental scale. Music from the great organ melds with the buzz of thousands upon thousands of visitors. Today everything is magnified and everyone, simply everyone, is smiling. The Koh-i-Noor is no longer in the glass vitrine, but now sits in the crown. And the crown sits upon my head, heavier than ever before. But I bear it, I manage it. Albert smiles, enthralled. Before the day is out I know that the opening of the exhibition will remain one of my dearest memories.
We enter into the Crystal Palace, accompanied by trumpet fanfares, throngs of peoples both inside and out. Albert leads me, with Bertie in my other hand. Before setting off, the boy spent an eternity in front of the mirror straightening his miniature clothes, without the remotest sense of modesty. Albert tries to interest him in theology and German philosophy, but Bertie would rather try on clothes. He hasn’t the slightest appreciation for life’s seriousness. It is clear that we must choose his friends with the utmost care.
But what of it? This is Albert’s day. We stand beneath the grand marquee, at the point where the Crystal Fountain gushes what looks like pure gold. The organ and choir seem to lift the roof. ‘Two hundred instruments, six hundred voices,’ whispers Albert.
At that moment it seems my Albert has the whole world in his hand. I think of the splendid lounges. How I wish I could steal away unnoticed, hand the crown to one of the ladies-in-waiting, and lie down and rest for but a short while. It would do a world of good for my head. But, of course, such a thing would be unthinkable. The glass walls and the cascades of water in the fountain match other gleam for gleam. One cannot mistake the elation in the faces surrounding us. Everybody is here and everybody is happy. There they stand, cheering – my people, guests from afar. I must remember to smile. That little smile, just not showing the teeth.
A man steps forward from the sea of people and runs right at me. I imagine that my final hour must have come, but instead of a pistol he carries a large bouquet of flowers in his hand. The tautness in Albert’s face dissolves, and I see him give the guards a nod. I allow the man to approach me. He hands me the bouquet and I take it.
‘Mummy! Look at my new cufflinks! Aren’t they simply wonderful?’ exclaims Bertie before I lay down the flowers.
‘Can you see the fountain? Over there,’ I say in an attempt to divert his attention.
‘They have a B on them, for Bertie, and they’re made of gold.’
Bertie’s voice was drowned out by the choir, who struck up in a rendition of God Save the Queen, accompanied by the clang of the organ, the clamour of the strings. This is Albert’s greatest hour. We look at one another and smile so much that our faces hurt. When our eyes meet, standing there beneath the marquee, it seems as though all the nervousness we have felt finally ebbs away. It is an unforgettable day, a fantastic day. The bubbling of the fountain mingles with the peal of children’s laughter. Everything is fused, woven together.
‘They’re made of gold, Mummy!’
It seems as if the whole world has converged on the Crystal Palace. There is room for everything, and everyone is welcome. And all this, the doing of my dearest Albert.
‘Mummy, why aren’t you listening?’
Bertie grips my hand tight, holding on to me with both hands. I look down at him and catch his eye.
‘You’re not frightened, are you, little one?’ I ask.
Bertie shakes his head, but I can see that tears are close.
‘It’s just, you’re not listening.’
‘This is your father’s greatest moment, you see,’ I explain. ‘It could hardly be any greater.’
‘Must everything always be so big?’ he asks and looks around anxiously.
‘Inside there is a section full of miniatures. We can go there shortly, once the music has quietened down and I’ve said a few words to the crowd.’
At this, Bertie looks more content; he lets go of my hand and looks right up at the ceiling. A few birds are fluttering around up there; it is hard to make out what birds they are. Perhaps they are doves. And what bird would be better suited? Albert’s vision was guided by the idea of a brighter future. The whole world united in one enormous greenhouse.
The birds criss-cross one another above Bertie’s head, as though they are out looking for a playmate; he points up at them, enthralled, and I nod my head. He looks back as he runs further off, assuring himself that I really am looking at him, stretches out his arms and runs round in circles. He looks like a true little gentleman. His shoes glint beneath the crisp creases of his trouser legs, his scarf is carefully knotted and his jacket was tailored less than a week ago. Everything fits him perfectly. In general I rarely allow him to choose his own clothes; we mustn’t indulge his whims, neither Albert nor I would wish that. But this time Bertie chose everything by himself.
I keep an eye on him all the while, and see the accident out of the corner of my eye. Bertie stands stock still and backs away from the birds, which only a moment before had been his playmates. The little jacket with matching scarf now features a white blotch, slowly spreading out across the fabric. I can see his lower lip parting from his upper lip and beginning to quiver. He cannot understand that one of the birds has destroyed his clothes. His eyes look here and there; I see him but he cannot see me – there are swarms of people around him, so many long legs, and he, so little. It is just as well, for now his nose has started to run and he shall soon be bawling. I avoid making Albert aware of the situation, but nod discreetly to one of the ladies-in-waiting who calmly approaches him. I see them disappear the same way we arrived.
After the Great Exhibition, the park is never the same again. The remains of foundations jut into the air, and strange empty spaces are sketched on the ground where the elms once stood. One walks into Hyde Park now ready to be blinded by the sunshine reflected on the glass. But nothing happens. Nothing stands there now, shimmering by the Serpentine. The Crystal Palace has been moved to Sydenham, where latterly it is filled with bawdy spectacles.
Neither is Albert the same after the Great Exhibition. He seems to age quickly. Where once he had a head of thick, dark hair, now there is just his pate shining. His hair has been singed away by the glow from the green lamp. Prisms of light from the crystal chandeliers are reflected in the gleam. He looks like one of the servants. Where has my beautiful man gone? My stately Albert who fenced and hunted? He has become portly and practically bald. He looks so different from when I once said I do. As a matter of fact, it was I who asked the question. Royal protocol would have it so, and he agreed. And thus, my question to him was in fact my I do. I wanted us to be together. But by my life, I did not marry a man who looks like a servant.
The servants tell me how they take fright at him when they see him wandering the palace at night. He looks like a wavering wax candle, so pale and haggard as he is. He has taken more regularly to falling asleep midway through supper. Going to the theatre is entirely out of the question.
What exactly had I fallen for?
I take off the ring, just to see what it feels like, and gently stroke the band of skin that has lain hidden beneath the gold. It is younger than the rest of me. I play with the thought of not replacing the ring at all, of allowing that which is young in me to grow steadily older, to age just like everything else. I could go through to Albert and see whether he notices anything amiss. I could even ask him outright:
‘Do you see? Do you notice anything different?’
Translated from the Swedish by David Hackston
The previous novels by Kjell Westö (born 1961) have been sweeping in their scope, encompassing several generations. Westö’s writing is characterised by a precise instinct for historical details and love for his hometown of Helsinki. Hägring 38 focuses on the year 1938; the new ideas of that era and the worsening political climate in Europe are reflected in the differences of opinion among a group of Finland-Swedish gentlemen. In June of 1938 these friends attend the opening gala for the new Olympic stadium in Helsinki and watch as the winner of the 100-metre dash, a Jew, is demoted to fourth place. [In October 2013, after the publication of Westö's novel, the Finnish Athletics Federation finally corrected that erroneous decision, which had been made for racist reasons.] Claes Thune, a lawyer who has lost his wife to another man and suffers from depressive episodes, is a leading member of the circle of friends. His new secretary, the taciturn Mrs Wiik, is one of the central figures Westö utilises to portray the prison camps and traumatic events of the Finnish civil war of 1918.
Translated by Ruth Urbom
The second novel Jäätelökauppias (‘The ice-cream vendor’, Tammi, 2012) by Katri Lipson won her one of the 12 European Union Prizes for Literature this year, announced at the Gothenburg Book Fair, Sweden, on 26 September.
Each winner will receive € 5,000, and the priority to apply for European Union funding to have their book translated into other European languages.
The European Commission, the European Booksellers’ Federation (EBF), the European Writers’ Council (EWC) and the Federation of European Publishers (FEP) are the organisers of the prize which is supported through the European Union’s culture programme. The competition is open to authors in the 37 countries involved in the Culture Programme.
The prize aims to draw attention to new talents and to promote the publication of their books in different countries, as well as celebrating European cultural diversity.
The previous Finnish winner of the prize was Riku Korhonen in 2010.
Kari Hotakainen’s twelfth novel is characterised by a dramatic plot. A year and a half ago, the author had a car crash, which he miraculously survived. Luonnon laki draws on Hotakainen’s experience, at the same time continuing the series started by his last two novels, with their commentaries on the contemporary world. The main character, the entrepreneur Rauhala, wakes up in hospital after a car crash and begins the slow process of recovery and rehabilitation. Incapable of movement and dependent on the care of others, the man has time to think – to think, for example of the free healthcare service of a welfare state such as Finland, whose cost, in his case, is high. Ideologically estranged from her father, his daughter is about to give birth to her first child; Rauhala himself is essentially reborn and makes peace with his daughter. Both melancholy and amusing, linguistically rich and delicious in its associatons, this tale and its characters are highly enjoyable.
Translated by Hildi Hawkins
This first novel by Philip Teir (born 1980) brings to mind a stereotype of the Finland-Swedish minority: pleasant, controlled, civilised and rather amusing. Teir has previously written short stories, and no doubt his work as a cultural journalist has sharpened his detailed perceptions of society and life in general. Hence, the result is controlled and rather amusing. In the focus are sociologist Max and personnel manager Katarina, who have in their long marriage become alienated from each other. Two grown-up daughters have problems of their own, as a working mother of small children, and as an arts student trying to find a direction for her life. Teir’s characters look for ways to solve their problems: Max seeks the company of a younger woman, whereas the more straightforward Katarina applies for a divorce. Yet, amidst confusion, Teir seems to place his trust in a traditional safety net, represented in the novel by the family and the community. The portrait of a middle-class, academic family with rather ordinary problems is ironically gentle: a pleasant reading experience.
A melancholic diplomat’s wife in Turku recalls her childhood in 1970s Leningrad. This is how one might describe the new novel by Zinaida Lindén – then one might be surprised encountering nuance after nuance that challenge our expectations.
The melancholy in Lindén’s novel isn’t soft and misty; it is sharp and metallic. The life of the protagonist Galina, a diplomat’s wife, is far from glamorous, and consists mostly of standing over the ironing board in the family’s one-bedroom flat, ironing shirts for her conscientious and overworked husband at the consulate. The 1970s Leningrad of her memories is not an arena for ideology or culture, but serves as the backdrop for an intimate familial drama, in which the child always remained on the outside and was eventually left alone after the death of her parents.
Zinaida Lindén’s perspective is unusual in its sheer diversity. She was born in Leningrad in 1963 and grew up in the Soviet Union, but now lives in Finland with a career as a Swedish-language writer. She has seen the land she left behind undergo violent convulsions, a change of name, while she also indulges a fascination for Japanese culture. This diversity is reflected in her literary output which, including her new novel För många länder sedan (‘Many lands ago’, Schildts & Söderströms, 2013) comprises three novels and two collections of short stories.
Lindén’s prose tends to display a distanced, ironically self-reflective quality, but all of a sudden it may dive, like a tern, deep into the world of emotions, at once violent and precise. ‘Did I love him?’ Galina asks herself when she thinks of Igor, her husband, the man who saved her from the loneliness of childhood. ‘If a stranger had asked me that, I would have replied with something rather brusque. Whoever said that marriage was made in heaven alone? And what of us that end up in hell, what shall we do? Turn to a life of celibacy?’
The novel is meticulously constructed around the notion of vertical movement. For the most part, the narrator succeeds in remaining above ground through a bittersweet commentary on contemporary phenomena from her family life to the differences between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Russians.
However, the reader is constantly reminded of elements from the underworld: the vaults beneath the small church where eleven-year-old Galina encounters a bizarre ‘flasher’; the imaginary dungeons in the Carceri suite by 18th-century artist and architect Giovanni Battista Piranesi, with which Galina becomes fascinated during her studies; Yerebatan, the enormous underground cistern beneath Istanbul where, as a middle-aged tourist, she immediately feels at home.
It becomes apparent that beneath Galina’s understanding of her parents’ happy marriage as one of carefree equality, in a time before ‘sexism became fashionable under Khrushchev’s Thaw’, there ran deep complications.
Despite the novel’s geographical reference points, the nomadic diplomatic lifestyle as a symbol of contemporary society’s compulsion for change and assimilation, vertical motion is nonetheless paramount. För många länder sedan is not a dark book. The tern, as the symbol of the style, both dives deep down and rises up again. So does Galina, who is drawn, on the one hand, to Piranesi’s fantastic subterranean spaces and to her parents’ grave, but to the street on the other, a space that is home to sparrows, signposts, trams and pedestrians.
Perhaps this novel ends somewhat abruptly, before it has time to examine its subject thoroughly. As I reached the final pages I found myself wanting to follow Galina a while longer, both higher up and further down.
Translated by David Hackston
‘I assume your father wanted you to become a doctor?’ asked Igor at the beginning of our life together. My parents did indeed want me to become a doctor. Not a pathologist, but a general practitioner. I became an art historian instead. There was a time when my area of research aroused curiosity in Igor.
‘Why Piranesi?’ he wondered.
‘As a child I devoured classic novels about pale, emaciated families living in a cellar,’ I explained jokingly. ‘I became interested in catacombs and vaults. That’s why I wanted to study the history of drawing.’
I’ve always had a fascination for underground spaces. I’m drawn to them like a homing missile. This interest of mine must have genetic roots. My mother was born in a bomb shelter during the first German air raid over Leningrad.
My grandmother was a schoolteacher. During the war she often had to teach her classes down in the shelters. The first light my mother ever saw was the dark, obscure light of the underground vault.
While studying at the university, I’d first wanted to write my thesis about Albrecht Dürer, but that was before Giovanni Battista Piranesi suddenly came bounding into my life.
I was dating a young artist. We had met in a discotheque at the Muchina Institute of the Arts. He was a fragile creature with angelic features that he tried to keep hidden behind a bandit’s beard.
The artist sketched courtyards. He was besotted with their sinister magic. One courtyard led into another, and this in turn into a third. To me it all looked more like geometry than art, but I liked his work nonetheless. I was twenty years old. I was studying Marxism-Leninism and the dogmatic theory of art. Then came perestroika, bringing with it new exhibitions, magazines, mass meetings. Everyone was moonstruck back then, not just us twenty-year-olds.
When the artist finally managed to lure me into his lair, I discovered a photo album on his bedside table. The album contained etchings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an artist to whom I was soon to devote my academic career – and, indeed, my entire life.
Suddenly the courtyard interiors sketched by the angel bandit didn’t seem all that original any more. My passion for him dwindled. Such was the grim maximalism of youth. Since then I have loved Carceri, the prison suite by Piranesi.
My interest in vaults also stems from an old secret. I was eleven years old. One evening I was on my way home from the skating rink and walked past an old church that was to be demolished any day. The dark-blue sky was as peaceful as it can only be in the eyes of a child. My path was lined with tall streetlamps, glittering snowflakes dancing in their buttery yellow light. The snow creaked beneath my feet. Above my head I heard a voice saying hastily:
‘Little girl, my hands are full. Come and help me get out my door keys.’
I cannot remember whether the man’s hands really were full. However, I do remember that I declined to follow him. He became angry and shouted again:
‘Come and help me take out my keys!’
The word keys he pronounced as if in baby language. It didn’t fit the otherwise threatening air about him. I was amused. The man isn’t right in the head, I thought.
Barely had the thought entered my mind when the man knocked me over, skates and all, and I fell into a gap between two planks in the fence around the church. In that split second, it never occurred to me that I might have called for help. When I realised this, it was too late: I was alone with him in the church vaults, lit only by his pocket torch. I was gripped by such a powerful wave of fear that I could neither cry nor breathe; I just stood there, my whole body trembling.
The man was missing a few of his front teeth. On his head he wore a battered old rabbit-skin hat with earflaps.
‘Now let me show you something,’ he said.
He sounded like the flasher my friend and I had once encountered in Sosnovka Park. But instead of opening his flies my kidnapper started unbuttoning his dirty, heavy quilted jacket. Beneath the jacket his upper body was bare. Two thin leather straps were cutting into his colourless skin, one of them pulled tightly around his upper chest under his arms, the other tied further down beneath his ribcage. Between the straps I caught a glimpse of a tattoo.
‘Look!’ he commanded me, illuminating himself in the light of the torch.
My heart was beating so much that I could hardly breathe, but at that moment I realised that perhaps he wasn’t thinking of murdering me after all – and burst into tears.
‘Look, I said!’ bellowed the man.
The tattoo showed a cockerel and a speech bubble saying ‘I suck real good’.
‘Now, you see?’ The man sounded almost triumphant.
‘Yes,’ I sniffled. ‘Please, sir, let me go. My mother is waiting for me.’
This is what hundreds of children kidnapped by maniacs must say. The words rarely have an effect. Suddenly a blade flashed before my eyes.
‘Take it!’ cried my kidnapper in a high-pitched squeal. I backed off. The knife fell to the concrete floor. The man bent down and picked it up again.
‘Take the knife and cut!’
This was the worst of it. What did he actually want? For me to start cutting up his bare chest, the cockerel crowing the words ‘I suck real good’? Or did he want me to slit open the leather straps constricting his chest? I reached out my hand and took the knife. The shaft was padded with several layers of duct tape.
With the knife in my hand, I stood there for an eternity. I didn’t dare lift my eyes. Gradually the shaft of light shifted direction. I looked at the man. He looked absent. It was as though he had forgotten all about me. His breathing was shallow and he seemed to be looking above my head, muttering something to himself. Slowly he sank down on his folded jacket. All of a sudden he let out a shriek and landed on his back at my feet. His chest convulsed. His head slumped in different directions at an unnatural angle. His jaws were clenched tightly together. But most disconcertingly, his black, rabbit-fur hat still sat perfectly on his head. I never did find out what colour his hair was.
When the man finally lay still, I thought he was dead. As I was making my way out of the vault I stumbled over my skates and slammed my chin against one of the steps. I staggered out into the street and was overcome by a sense of shock. I hadn’t expected the world outside the vault to remain utterly unchanged. The darkening, bluish evening was every bit as benevolent as before and the streetlamps gleamed, buttery yellow.
I never spoke about this incident to anyone. When I was younger, I kept quiet primarily because I had broken the most important rule of all and allowed myself to be kidnapped by a stranger. As I grew older I kept quiet because the whole episode was so unfathomable that nobody would have believed me.
Nowadays we have the internet; checking different facts is no problem whatsoever. As a child I had to piece an explanation together all by myself. I didn’t know what the tattooed cockerel and the man’s knocked-out front teeth really meant. Ten years later I learnt about it from a young man who had spent his military service as a prison officer.
For a long time I was convinced that my kidnapper had never left that vault. I imagined his body being discovered by a janitor. I saw the vault man’s body, naked and vulnerable, lying on my omnipotent father’s rust-free, stainless-steel autopsy table.
When I was fifteen years old, I read about epilepsy in an encyclopaedia. At that, I experienced yet another shock. The man in the vault had probably not died as a result of that seizure.
To my mind, not only did the man’s presumed death represent atonement for his sins, it also lent me a sense of guilt. For so many years, he had been my invisible companion; I spent far too long thinking about him. In some way, that man – poverty-stricken, repellent, deranged – had taken possession of me. I was incapable of resistance. I allowed him to become a part of my personality; he had a right to that much. He hadn’t murdered me; he had given me life. And at the same time he’d entrusted me with something: he had infected me with a love of vaults.
His spirit appeared to me on a school visit to the Kazan Cathedral. Back then, the Cathedral included a museum on the history of religion and atheism, and at that time it featured an exhibition on the Spanish Inquisition. Even in the prison beneath the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg could I make out the shadow of the vault man. I saw the contours of his face in The scream by Edvard Munch and The disasters of war by Francisco de Goya.
When I began researching the work of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, I stumbled across another odd coincidence. It was the vault man looking back at me from one of Piranesi’s graphical self-portraits. The same expression, the same penetrating stare. In this portrait Piranesi even had a prisoner’s haircut. For the first time I became a bit scared. A month went by – and eventually I began to take pleasure in this likeness.
Piranesi’s Carceri gave my soul a strange sense of peace. The black-and-white repetitions of small motifs seemed to calm me, like a dark but life-affirming lullaby. Beauty and fear were woven together, promising renewal and rebirth. As a native of this city, I had quickly learnt to find security in insecurity. Piranesi helped me fight the force of gravity. No other artist had ever managed to convey the essence of this city better than he, though he had never visited St Petersburg.
A ghost was passing through the Soviet Union – the ghost of perestroika. Established art historians watched it, followed it with disconcerted eyes. Choosing Piranesi as the subject of my thesis was almost as hopeless as it would have been ten years previously. His prison suite Carceri was an expression of megalomania, a cosmic singularity, the unbearable nightmare of being – in short, everything that the Soviet theory of art had spent all those years resisting.
One of my friends wanted to write her thesis about Giuseppe Archimboldo, motivated by the fact that he was said to be one of the forefathers of surrealism and cubism. The faculty administration dourly pointed out to her that Archimboldo’s works ‘certainly represent something, but nobody knows what’.
I ended up having to defend my thesis long before it was completed. I wrote an essay about my motivation for the work and ran, brandishing it, from one professor to the next. I posited that Piranesi’s works were ‘imbued with anti-bourgeois pathos’ and compared Carceri with the London Suite by Gustave Doré. I claimed that the repetition of visual motifs symbolised the excesses of the individual in a totalitarian society (by which, of course, I meant capitalism). A few quotations by Friedrich Engels came in very handy. My greatest and most important trump card, however, was Sergey Eisenstein, who held Piranesi in very high regard.
Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s black-and-white works may look three-dimensional, but they have a fourth dimension, too: Time. The era during which one-dimensional concepts such as societal classes and the masses were seared into the minds of Soviet citizens had most definitely passed. The word ‘space’ no longer sounded suspicious. Time had also become a righteous concept. New Russian translations appeared of the works of Marcel Proust, one of the most prominent interpreters of time and space. He had previously been denounced by our ideologists. As it happens, I’ve never particularly cared for Proust – in fact, I’d cared for him about as little as I cared for the delicious idleness of dolce far niente. As my parents’ diligent child, to this day I feel a sense of anxious necessity to busy myself at all times.
My father respected my choice of subject. He himself was not unacquainted with a sense of the macabre. My mother, on the other hand, was unhappy.
‘Even Doré has more joie de vivre than Piranesi,’ she commented sourly. ‘How can a young girl become fixated with something so gloomy?’
As it happened I had my finger on the pulse. Shortly after defending my thesis on the works of Piranesi, gloominess suddenly became the next in-thing. A new strand emerged within the world of cinema: necrorealism. In the faculty smoking room I was introduced to Yevgeny Yufit, the father of the genre.
Reviewers scoffed at Yufit, though in fact necrorealism was merely a natural reflection of our own existence. As Brezhnev was nearing the end of his life, he was wheeled out on to a stage by members of his entourage, propped up, praised, carefully placed in front of a microphone. They opened his eyelids, just like in Gogol’s horror story Viy – and with that, it began. Amidst all the slobbering and muttering (which our teachers respectfully called simply ‘discourse of lesser clarity’) we made out the words:
‘Dear oil workers in Afghanistan!’
Leonid Ilyich was an old man. He was confusing Afghanistan with Azerbaijan. The party took good care of Brezhnev’s living mummy, and all the while the regular flow of zinc coffins bringing home the bodies of Soviet youngsters killed in battle continued from Kabul.
The most important mummy in the country was preserved in a mausoleum in Moscow, a small pinkish body trussed in a smart suit. This was the place cosmonauts visited before setting off for outer space. What did they whisper to Vladimir Ilyich? Morituri te salutant?
In my father’s archive there was one book that he considered a pathologist’s pride and joy: a guidebook to the Lenin mausoleum, published in 1946.
Its author, one Boris Zbarskiy, who had singlehandedly embalmed Lenin’s body, was unable to avoid reprisals. It was clear that he had somewhat misunderstood the honourable task he had been assigned. In his guidebook he described embalming techniques used by the Ancient Egyptians. On top of this, he mentioned that the leader of the global proletariat had undergone an autopsy.
Igor understands the feelings I have towards Lenin’s mummy. Like many Muscovite children, he has memories of standing in that mausoleum, utterly petrified. And this was long before the advent of necrorealism as an artistic genre.
They say that, at the end of perestroika, the Lenin Museum in Tampere enquired into purchasing the embalmed body. It’s surprising that Yeltsin never sold it. This, the man who, on the eve of economic collapse, tried to sell Eastern Karelia back to Finland and the Kuril Islands to Japan.
Translated by David Hackston