On Alpo Ruuth

Issue 3/1978 | Archives online, Authors

Alpo Ruuth

Alpo Ruuth. Photo: Sakari Majantie / Tammi

Alpo Ruuth (born 1943) grew up in Sörnäinen, a working-class quarter of Helsinki, amid dirty grey tenements, railway goods yards, machine shops, timber yards and slaughterhouses; a district reeking of rust and dust, of gasometers, steam locomotives, pinewood, toad-in-the-hole and roasting coffee. Ruuth completed three years of secondary schooling and then decided that he had had enough. He worked as a garage hand, a shoemaker, a casual labourer, a salesman and a storekeeper. The publication of his first novel, Naimisiin (‘Getting married’, Tammi, 1967) set him free to adopt writing as a career.

Ruuth first became known to a wider public through his novel Kämppä (‘The commune’, Tammi, 1969 ). This describes the adolescent years of a group of Sörnäinen boys who live like a tribe of savages in this urban jungle. They establish a commune of their own, cut off completely from the adult world, and rely on a process of trial and error to teach them how to live. The charm of the book comes from the spontaneity and quick reactions of these teen-age youngsters: chattering, mimicking, footballing or fornicating, they are all the time as alert as puppies, while the life of the city around them goes on ‘for real’. The final section of Kämppä describes how they eventually slot themselves into the community. Most of them accept their fetters with resignation, but there is one – the chief character of the novel – who strives to maintain his critical attitude to the values which dominate his surroundings, and to live up to it in practice. Some of Ruuth’s finest writing in this novel is devoted to the harmonious family background of this young man’s early years. He seems to be saying that ethically valid solutions to life’s problems grow out of the personal relationships of early childhood.

Ruuth’s next novel, Korpraali Julin (‘Corporal Julin’, Tammi, 1971), has been compared to Jaroslaw Hašek’s The Good Soldier Shvejk. The protagonist is a wily anti-militarist who finds himself serving in a coastal artillery battery during the Second World War. A singularity of the book is that it is a war novel in which not a single shot is fired. The hero’s truant disposition and amorous escapades provide material for some very effective comic writing, while the inner tension of the novel derives from Julin’s feelings of inferiority: he is very conscious of the contrast between his own Shvejk-like behaviour and the more purposeful approach to life represented by his politically-minded relatives.

The longest of Ruuth’s novels is Kotimaa (‘Homeland’, Tammi, 1974).The chief character here is a young man without a job, of whom Ruuth says that if he had lived in earlier times he might have been a slave in Rome or a Communard in Paris. Despite his low social position he is an extremely knowledgeable young man. Ruuth sends him to the library to read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. His comments on Chaucer reveal, perhaps, something of the author’s own attitude: ‘Life went on in inns and taverns and in the fields, just as it does to-day, even though the newspapers only mention the big names. But that’s what history was really about: people copulating, cheating, weeping. Every now and then there was a wave of destruction, wars and plagues swept over them, and afterwards people came out of their hiding places, rubbing their eyes, and soon everything got going again, and somewhere a woman’s laugh was heard, and somewhere a man’s, and the copulation and the cheating and the weeping went on as before; and somewhere a king would die, and it made no difference to people’s lives, beyond giving them something to talk about.’

This contrast between the things regarded as important, the things that get written about in newspapers, and the things that make up real life, crops up repeatedly in Ruuth’s work. In his novel Nousukausi (‘Boom years’, Tammi, 1977) he deliberately sets the two side by side: official history, as reported in the television news, and the other kind, the kind that goes on in ordinary people’s lives. In this story of a Finnish trade union official Ruuth tries to show how a person’s innermost individual responses can be vitiated by too eager an immersion in political and public activities. Here the main character has become a mere puppet, entirely at the mercy of his own social role. Ruuth portrays him with irony, but also with understanding. He comes close to being destroyed, but somewhere deep within him he finds the energy to overcome his difficulties and go on.

Alpo Ruuth’s novels have been criticized for a tendency to overdo the recording of trivial everyday details. In the case of Kotimaa, with its rather mechanical structure, the detail becomes repetitive and the criticism is justified. But on the whole the wealth of descriptive detail in his work – the novels run to four or five hundred pages each – is not tedious in its effect, because his meticulous realism is always apt to explode suddenly into the surprising, the grotesque or the comically absurd.

The narrative instinct – die Lust zum Fabulieren – comes out most strongly in Ruuth’s short stories, of which one collection has been published (Naisten vuonna, ‘In women’s year’, Tammi, 1975 ). The collection includes the story translated here.

Novels by Alpo Ruuth have been translated into Swedish, German, Czech and Hungarian