On Markku Lahtela

Issue 3/1979 | Archives online, Authors

Markku Lahtela is one of the more colourful personages on the Finnish literary scene. He studied at the universities of Moscow and Munich, served on the editorial staff of an encyclopedia, published his first book in 1964, and proclaimed that his favourite writer was Anatole France. The powerful radical currents of the 1960s took him out into the streets as a demonstrator: he wrote scripts for a theatre group that went in for staging ‘happenings’, took part in politics as the enfant terrible of the Centre Party, publicly burnt his military passbook, translated Herbert Marcuse, and became an enthusiast for the anti-authoritarian educational experiments of A. S. Neill and his followers. Out of these restless years came two long, highly personal and very uneven novels, Se (‘It’, 1966) and Yksinäinen mies (‘The solitary man’, 1976), in which Lahtela is primarily concerned with a young man’s difficult family relationships, and seeks to demonstrate his fundamental honesty by recourse to automatic writing. Early in the 1970s he published three short collections of philosophical observations and stories. These, the fruit of wide but indiscriminate reading, amounted to little more than the compilations of an amateur, the basic idea being to demonstrate, by means of biological and psycho-analytical arguments, the primacy of the mother-child relationship among the factors affecting a human being’s development.

Now that he is in his forties, Lahtela has achieved a degree of artistic and intellectual balance and concentration that makes all his earlier work seem no more than the exercises of a promising beginner. His novel Sirkus (‘Circus’, Gummerus, 1978) does in one respect remind one of the younger Lahtela: he is interested in everything, down to the minutest details, treating these with the same inquisitive and affectionate interest, the same ironical appraisal, as his one-time idol Anatole France. At the same time he seems to be moving closer to the modern ‘novel of fantasy’. He is still a long way from achieving the masterly touch of a Jorge Luis Borges, but at least the brashness of those youthful philosophical fanfares is no longer in evidence. In this latest work it is a whimsical imagination that stands out as his chief characteristic.

Sirkus purports to consist of the memoirs of one Xesmer Reodisius: poised on the threshold of the third millennium – in other words, shortly before the numinous year 2000 – he peers back into the past and forward into whatever there is of a future. His memories are peopled by a strange assortment of characters: eccentric relations, priests, traders, anglers who have fallen out of their boats, persons who once got drunk in the company of Dostoevsky. Of particular importance to Xesmer are the two parent-figures. His father’s consuming passion is to record the everyday life of his time in the greatest possible detail. Xesmer finds reams and reams of notes in his father’s handwriting, occupying a space of several cubic metres and revealing a strange combination of empathy and pedantry: these provide him with a source on which he draws extensively. But equally important to him is his mother, with her lively intuition, directness of speech, and aptitude for living hedonistically in the present moment. Xesmer, in his passion for observation and his penchant for intellectual curlicues, is every inch his father’s son, yet he also shares his mother’s wish to live her experiences, without having to abstractify them and theorize about them. When he looks at an object with the eye of an artist, it begins to quiver at the edges, as though something inside were trying to get out.

The contrast between the two parents is central to the novel. The world is seen as a conglomeration of contradictory but simultaneous experiences. The effect is multiplied by the presence of a host of subsidiary characters who fill up the picture. Pablo Picasso, Hermann Hesse and Konrad Lorenz appear in the novel, under their own names, as friends of the family: and the text is further enlivened by quotations from such intriguing authorities as the thirteenth­-century mystic Cambrosius (author of Zhenshchiny i zhizneoshchushchenie, or roughly ‘Women and the Apprehension of Life’), or the Roman sage Haius (whose name is oddly reminiscent of the Finnish word for ‘biceps’). From time to time, in the course of his expatiations on this or that item of genetic or astronomical information, Xesmer has a fleeting vision of scientia universalis, the pattern that explains everything.

All this pondering and speculation is seasoned by Lahtela with a devastating wit. It has been said that scepticism is the foundation of knowledge. In this novel Lahtela tries to show that is the foundation of art as well. His curiosity is insatiable, like that of a child or a sociologist. From his book there emerges, split up into a thousand refracted images, a picture of what it feels like to be alive.

Translated by David Barrett