WORLD LITERATURE IN REVIEW - FINNO-UGRIC & BALTIC LANGUAGES.
A History of Finland's Literature. George C. Schoolfield, ed. Lincoln. University of Nebraska Press. 1998 (released 1999). xxxi + 877 pages. $60. ISBN 0-8032-4189-5.
Unlike the first three volumes in the Histories of Scandinavian Literature series, which are histories of Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish literatures respectively and are so named, the fourth volume is titled A History of Finland's Literature rather than "A History of Finnish Literature." Thus the work claims to represent the histories of both Finnish and Finland-Swedish literatures while stressing the separateness of the two-or, in the words of George C. Schoolfield, its editor, "Finland in fact has two literatures, in some periods more closely connected than in others."
While Schoolfield acknowledges the problem every literary historiographer-or, to use his word, chronicler-of a bilingual body of work faces (many choosing language alone as the determining factor for obvious reasons; as an example, Margaret Atwood's Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in English comes to mind), his inclusive choice, in my opinion, in some measure determines the scholarly integrity of this extensive and important work. Here, I hasten to add, the critique should not fall as much on Schoolfield's mammoth editing achievement, or, for that matter, on the section dealing with Finland-Swedish literature, his generous acceptance of responsibility for the whole work notwithstanding, but on the absence of vigorous participation by scholars of Finnish literature, whether inside or outside Finland, and their seeming lack of interest in attaining an international audience.
Ideally, contemporary writing of histories (literary or other) recognizes the relationship of ideas, composition, and the choice and arrangement of words. This history, however (as indeed befits a chronicle), continues to rely on the traditional, objectivist (if not documentary) model of knowledge; hence it is unavoidably blind to its own rhetoric and its explicit or implicit hierarchy in the allotment of textual space. At the outset, and although the introduction acknowledges that Finland-Swedish writing is "the minority's literature," the immediately observable, unexamined disparity (about 451 pages encompassing the Finland-Swedish section and 269 pages the Finnish-literature one) is striking. Considering that this work is not only gathered from the past, but, importantly, is aimed toward the future, both in terms of scholarly study and as a reference work for interested general readers, it is regrettable that the submissions to the Finnish-literature section fall short of expectations within the context of this work. While Michael Branch's lead chapter "Finnish Oral Poetry, Kalevala, and Kanteletar" is a fitting and time-tested introduction to the section, much of what follows suffers from omissions (scant reference to Eeva-Liisa Manner's substantial body of translations, for instance); scattered, fragmented, and superficial references which undermine the work as a stimulus for further study; lack of reasons why some authors deserve to be considered individually and at length while others are paired or lumped together, receiving truncated treatment or a mere mention of their names; and frequent, dismissive synopsizing generally. Finally, and in keeping with contemporary approaches to literary histories, one would wish to be shown more than told. This is particularly true in the case of poetry, where the difference in approaches to Finnish-language and Finland- Swedish poetry is notable. The latter section's many examples (whether successful translations or less than) enhance the reader's interest in the intricacies of poetic expression. It is reasonable to expect, then, that in the case of Finnish-language poetry, an international audience would be equally interested in observing, for instance, examples of dominant motifs and prevailing images that give the poetry its cultural character. Quoted lines would be particularly helpful in view of the 1980s' and 1990s' renewed interest in the intricacies of rhetoric and emphasis on poems as consciously crafted texts.
An unavoidable part of the objectivist approach is the implicit assumption that the work is value neutral, for example, in the areas of language and gender. The argument that the "Finland-Swedish minority has contributed to Finland's literary renown in a way out of all proportion to its size" can be seen by the uninitiated as suggestive of purely qualitative superiority, rather than a matter explainable by linguistic accessibility and other reasons. As for gender politics-and while this reader is grateful for the stand Schoolfield has taken in avoiding the tokenistic, separate treatment of women writers, sometimes ironically referred to as "the 51-percent minority"-a few archaic generalizations appear especially in connection with the use of the term feminism as an all-encompassing catchword (e.g., "[Suosalmi] is also baroque in that feminism is alien in her world; it is a fashionable trend in which she appears to have no interest"-meaning what exactly, a thoughtful reader might ask). Today we have second thoughts about the use of the term as an adequate explanation for a richly varied and complex area of ideological concerns, many of which could be equally well justified as humanistic, or human-rights concerns. The question of whether gender plays a role in aspects of rhetoric and textual space generally in this work will undoubtedly be a matter of debate for some readers.
As each age reconstructs literary experience, any history of literature inevitably tends to anachronism, making the production of a work of this magnitude all the more remarkable. It means that despite having to accept the risks of the unforeseeable, this product of years of research and thoughtful reflection nevertheless endeavors to keep the literary histories of Finnish and Finland-Swedish literatures alive among what Schoolfield rather insularly terms "an American public." To that end this work richly deserves to succeed in all its aims.
Leena Krohn. Pereat mundus. Helsinki. WSOY. 1998. 302 pages. FIM 150. ISBN 951-0-23005-7.
Leena Krohn characterizes her latest collection of thirty-six stories as "a novel, kind of." Many of her previous works, including the Finlandia Prize-winning Matemaattisia olioita tai jaettuja unia (1992; see WLT 67:3, p. 640), are also assembled in a similar short-story format. In the present compendium, most of the stories have a main character called Hakan, who is not always the same Hakan; rather, they are different individuals with the same first name, an idea adopted from a Carl Sandburg poem: "There is only one man in the world / and his name is All Men," quoted on the book's dedication page. Another unifying character is Dr. Keinolempi ("Dr. Fakelove," reminiscent of "Dr. Strangelove"), who peddles his counseling business on the Internet to various Hakans who frequently suffer from fears of apocalyptic proportions.
The ideas discussed in Pereat mundus (Latin for "The World Is Perishing") are familiar from many of Krohn's earlier writings. Typically the subject matter is intriguing and illuminating as it moves from the unusual and bizarre to the frightening and nightmarish. There are accounts of many phenomena of the natural world such as the dart- poison frog and its plant-world counterpart, henbane. Elsewhere, one of the Hakans, a teacher, is depicted in an exaggerated but decidedly realistic classroom full of unruly, feebleminded students. In many, if not most, of the stories the characters suffer from physical and mental afflictions. There is, for example, the true story of Phineas Gage, an American man who lost part of his brain in an accident when an iron bar was driven through his head. Miraculously, he survived, only to live the rest of his life as a very changed man, which raises questions about the various functions of the brain in determining personality, perception, and intelligence. Juxtaposed with the human experiences are excursions into the futuristic worlds of cryobiology, artificial intelligence, and unknown dimensions.
Current world problems surface time and again, ranging from violent crime and ethnic conflicts to environmental concerns and population control. The latter is reflected upon in a cynical chapter titled "The Society of Voluntary Extinction." In "The Breathers" yet another Hakan joins the extremist wing of a group of environmentalists, comprised of "hyperbreathers" who believe that they, like plants, can live on air, water, and sunshine alone.
Pereat mundus portrays a natural world that has certain laws and order, which are not necessarily benevolent. A final story, "Vita nuova," describes the feelings of a particularly science-oriented Hakan: "The world was not a language, it was based on numbers, series, codes, and formulas. Language and words were secondary, even marginal." He further explains that language has nothing to do with the natural world; rather, it is simply a waste of memory in the human brain.
Leena Krohn's cornucopia of stories uses language in an effective and enjoyable manner to ponder the myriad problems that the world faces as it enters the twenty-first century. Pereat mundus paints a gloomy picture of a world that is increasingly dependent on technology, and harsh on humanity. The mixture of the real and factual with the fictitious and futuristic in these stories leaves the reader with an eerie and unsettling picture of a frightening, "perishing world" in which the lines between real, unreal, and surreal are blurred.
Walla Walla, Wa.
Pirkko Saisio. Pienin yhteinen jaettava. Helsinki. WSOY. 1998. 254 pages. FIM 150. ISBN 951-0-23016-2.
"When I wake up, I remember that my father has died. / I decide to write this book." This straightforward remark leaves no room for confusion about what prompted Pirkko Saisio to write Pienin yhteinen jaettava, a collection of childhood memories punctuated by vivid dreams and the depiction of the events at the time of her father's passing. The title, "The Lowest Common Denominator," is a direct reference to the inner conflicts she feels while growing up as an only child who is shuffled from relatives to day care and preschools while both of her parents are working. She grows accustomed to trying to please all the adults around her, to being a good girl when she really wants to grow up to be a man, to being obedient and rebellious at the same time: "To be invisible. / To be present."
The parents naturally have their own aspirations for their only daughter. The father is a leftist idealist who makes a meager living working for the Finland-Soviet Union Society, but over time he appears to go through an ideological transformation as he studies business part-time at an evening school. He helps his wife open a small grocery store, which is successful enough to lead him to dream about his only daughter's becoming the owner of the first Finnish chain-store conglomerate. From her present-day perspective, the daughter sees her mother-who died years earlier-as someone who generally let her be her own person, with the one exception of wishing she were more interested in gymnastics and other sports. She remembers her mother as a happy, hardworking, pretty woman who loved to sing and who had tried her luck as an actress without much success because she was unable to recite her lines without laughing.
It is the father's death that motivates the daughter to delve into the world of her dreams and childhood memories, where two to three generations of her relatives parade through stories and pictures from old photo albums. Although this is sometimes a little tedious to follow, it does not take away from the portrayal of many entertaining characters such as the odd aunt Ulla, who adds a notably amusing twist to the family tree by having traced its roots all the way back to British royalty.
Pirkko Saisio, a professor of dramaturgy at the Theater Academy in Helsinki, has previously written numerous novels and plays, many of them under a pseudonym and some of them very well received. Pienin yhteinen jaettava is composed in a lyrical, rhythmic style that is intense and concise. The novel reads much like prose poetry, with each chapter given a title indicative of its content. The authentic and often witty, humorous text consists of passages that resemble verses of a poem. Despite being the catalyst of the autobiographical memoir, the father remains a rather distant figure, which is emphasized very movingly in the last three short lines of the novel: "I wake up. / It is the morning of my father's funeral. / I miss my mother."
Walla Walla, Wa.
Ilpo Tiihonen. Boxtrot. Helsinki. WSOY. 1998. 80 pages. ISBN 951-0- 22999-7.
In A History of Finland's Literature (1998; see review above) Markku Envall devotes half a page to Ilpo Tiihonen's poetry. Among the characteristics that apply to the present volume, he mentions a cautious return to meter and rhyme, a coming together of emotion and comedy, a union of roughness and tenderness, sympathy toward the common person, the use of slang, phrases from foreign languages and allusions to the classics, and a certain "wordsmith's skill."
The cover of Boxtrot shows a boxing glove, leaving us in no doubt as to what kind of box is in question. "Boxtrot" is also the title of one of the seventy-eight poems contained in as many pages. These are divided into four sections. The first, brief section is largely about the unemployment that has bedeviled Finland in the nineties. Various kinds of unemployed people appear, including such recent phenomena as a begging Somali. They have their desires just like anyone else: "I want one a them and one a them and one a them. . . . Somewhere there's a marilyn, somewhere a jayne / . . . and somewhere a rita / names, names, Names / But no addresses."
The second section is harder to define. There are several examples of what might be called Tiihonen's world, where seemingly meaningless juxtapositions and ambiguities of meaning suddenly crystallize into a sort of "sur"-realism. There is a "catchiness" in Tiihonen's verse too, as there was, say, in some of the weird and wonderful song lyrics of the sixties. I head a radio-request reading of one of these poems, "Daddy Tension," only a few weeks after the book came out.
The third part includes poems dealing specifically with Finland, with Helsinki and other cities. Tiihonen can be lyrical if he wishes, as in one of the Helsinki odes: "Spring, Primavera, a dripping ballerina / rises on her lush toes." Some of the poems are almost Japanese in their brevity:
you can only see the moon, god's
And then we're suddenly back with unemployment in the northern city of Oulu, where there are far too many people out of work, and the poet tells us darkly that "we understand that this world is complete, it has started to die."
The last part had me so puzzled that I will only mention that the poems have titles like "Transit Blues," "Yin and Yang," and "Salto Luminoso." But meaning aside, there is much to enjoy in Tiihonen's wordsmithery: the "cautious return" includes adept rhymes and half-rhymes, internal rhymes, alliteration-a whole battery of effortless technique. I'm still not sure where Tiihonen's going, but he's certainly going there fast.
Tukor elo tt: In memoriam Dsida Jeno . Bela Pomogats, ed. Budapest. Nap Kiado. 1998. 396 pages + 8 plates.
Jeno Dsida (1907-38) was arguably the best Hungarian poet living in Transylvania, which at the end of World War I was annexed by Romania. While his achievement was recognized in his lifetime, for a variety of reasons other poets such as Aprily and Remenyik enjoyed more publicity; after Dsida's premature death his poetic afterlife was hindered by various factors. On the one hand, lovers of poetry both in Hungary and Romania enjoyed his amazing formal versatility and the beauty of his poetic language, but after 1945 his Catholicism, his constant preoccupation with death, and the alleged lack of social content in his poems gave him low marks with the authorities and prevented republication of his work. It took thirteen years after the 1944 selection for another, broader selection to appear, and it was not until the 1980s that a volume of his Collected Poems, edited by Lajos Szakolczay, could be published. It was only with the latter edition that Dsida's rank in modern Hungarian poetry was at last firmly established.
"Tukor elo tt" (In Front of the Mirror) was the title of Dsida's ambitious attempt to write an autobiography in verse, and it is this title that was borrowed by the editor of the present collection of essays, letters, and reminiscences about the poet. The volume is divided into five parts, the first dealing with Dsida's youth and poetic debut, while the second gives a selection from Dsida's correspondence and from obituaries written by his contemporaries. The rest of the book is devoted to his "afterlife," the critical reception of his poetry. This is the most valuable part of the book, for it contains reviews and essays otherwise unavailable to the general reader, such as Sandor Remenyik's review of Dsida's second book, Nagycsutortok (Maundy Thursday), where he states: "There is no other poet in Transylvania who could wrap his message in so many and so varied forms as Dsida." Zoltan Jekely, a fellow poet and friend, compares Dsida's poetry with "an overornamented . . . little Baroque church in Venice." Gyorgy Ronay, on the other hand, speaks of a kind of "lyrical realism" that had affected Dsida's poetry, though it was manifested in the poet's ability "to bring miracle down to everyday life."
Among the essays by critics of different generations, from Balazs Lengyel through the eminent Dsida researcher Gusztav Lang to Eva Cs. Gyimesi, there is a particularly interesting piece by the poet Agnes Nemes Nagy delineating the curve of her changing appreciation of Dsida's poems over several decades. There is also a section in the book which is now an important part of literary history: it reproduces the so-called "Dsida debate" of 1956/57 in the Hungarian-language Kolozsvar (Cluj) weekly Utunk. The debate was started by Zoltan Panek's article "A Call to Awake Jeno Dsida," occasioned by the discovery of several unpublished poems by Dsida by the then young researcher from Budapest, Gyorgy Gomori (identical with this reviewer). What it demonstrated was an irrational and stubborn resistance of some Transylvanian communist writers to the allegedly "reactionary" Dsida's resurrection, a resistance that was finally overcome only in the more tolerant atmosphere of the 1960s.
Finally, the only criticism of the book that one could make is the absence of Sandor Weores's epigram about Dsida ("In Jeno Dsida's Memory"), written shortly after the poet's death. Let me quote its last two lines: "If this guardian-tribe has still enough strength to save its treasures, / Lovely-Voiced One! it will remember you forever."
University of Cambridge
Lidija Dombrovska. Snieg}an[degree sign]s. Lidija Dombrovska, ill. R[superscript one]ga. Sol Vita. 1998. 208 pages. ISBN 9984-556-45-X.
Lidija Dombrovska, a creative mind endowed with talent to burn, calls Snieg}an[degree sign]s (Reaching) a novel of fantasy, which bears some slight family resemblances to the Voltairean conte philosophique, which was, among other things, Voltaire's way of commenting on some philosophical ideas he considered utterly nonsensical, as best exemplified in Candide. Somewhat similarly, Dombrovska's novel involves a sort of critique of our infatuation with technological progress. The central personage is Rozalija, a Latvian immigrant to Australia who returns to her native country after many experiences in the land down under, which is in many ways the antipode of what Latvia may stand for.
In Australia, Rozalija is abandoned by her vagabond husband, by whom she has a daughter who follows her later to Latvia. In Latvia she hitches up with a poet, an inveterate drunkard whose bigamous love for Rozalija and alcohol precludes any possibility for stable relationships. On this domestic framework the author has erected a superstructure of fantasy and keen observation of present-day realities, thereby projecting a vision of a future that can be both promising and frightening. Organ transplants have become so common that even heads can be exchanged for new and improved versions, though Rozalija herself decides to keep the one that was allotted to her originally. Transplantation of human genes into animals has created new hybrid beings like the human rat, whose portrait the author obligingly provides for the reader. People move around in aeromobiles of sorts that are improved versions of our current modes of transportation. Intruders from outer space arrive to spoil clean party fun. These scientific advances are all projections into the future, but not too far into the future, leaving the essential human nature unchanged. Cybernetics, however, has created a new generation of computer fanatics who find themselves at odds with their parents. Still, the generational conflict is not yet ripe for fomenting a revolution.
Occasionally the author turns away from society and provides sketches of the background, the Australian outback, dry and inimical to man, as well as the lyrical Latvian landscape that invariably inspires poetic flights. But generally Dombrovska is in a hurry to spin her story, dwelling little on analyses of human emotions and explaining less. Projecting a vision of human destinies into the future, the author waxes skeptical and is not convinced that the advances in technology and science will save man from himself. No new Mozart is waiting in the wings, and humanity is not expected to produce other candidates for the edification of man. Candide, having seen fabulous Edens as well as hells, having been whipped and almost burned at the stake, returns home with the grain of wisdom that fits all ages: let us cultivate our own gardens. Dombrovska's fantasy novel seems to suggest similar conclusions. Though not elevating, Snieg}an[degree sign]s provides engaging reading outside the almost ubiquitous realm of realism that encompasses so much of Latvian fiction.
Carnegie Mellon University
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|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1999|
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