On Arto Melleri

Issue 1/1981 | Archives online, Authors

Arto Melleri

Arto Melleri, 1982. Photo: Pekka Turunen.

Arto Melleri (born 1956) is an experimenter, and, though still young, has lready explored a vanety of forms. He made an unusual start by writing, early in the 1970s, for a series called Kontakti-kirjat (‘Contact Books’): these were intended for a teenage audience and consisted of short stories and confessions written by young people. It is possible Melleri now feels some embarrassment at this debut. It did, however, get him off to an early start in poetry, and his first volume, Slaageriseppele (‘A bouquet of hit-tunes’, 1978) contains a faintly nostalgic piece about a teenage boy who churns out poems for the local newspaper in Ostrobothnia and collects his pittance for them.

Melleri is also involved in the theatre. He has studied at the Finnish School of Drama, and worked as dramaturg in the Finnish Radio Theatre. Together with Jukka Asikainen and Heikki Vuento, he wrote the script of the play Pete Q, which was a big hit in the summer of 1978, when it was performed by a scratch fringe group of actors bored with the conventional theatre with some gifted young drama students, and directed by the talented young Arto af Hällström. It is an avant-garde play, cutting through the current theatrical shibboleths, and establishing the point of view of the new theatrical generation.

Melleri’s young throughout the performance, calling for roads to be cleared. Melleri’s inspiration takes off from his idyllically pastoral Ostrobothnian childhood, but does not stick there. Some of the poems in Zoo (1979) and Ilmalaiva “Italia” (‘The airship Italy’, 1980) do hark back:

On Easter Sunday Eve the forest rises up full
                                                    of the bawling of wounded cattle,
we go circling round the village, dancing, dancing,
in the smoke of bonfires…
The zealous firsprigs keep on thrashing, the old
                                                    Michelin tyres
smoulder on in their drifts of ash until dawn...

But Melleri isn’t satisfied with the nature-inspired miniatures so popular in the 1970s. He has left his childhood behind him and has moved off into the country of maturity and freedom. He is fascinated by romantic explorers, often seeming like one of their camp-followers, caught up in dangerous a ventures into the unknown – sharing the precarious involvement in the dubious, contingent and unpredictable evolution of mankind.

                                              Sometimes, just before
the bootmarks pap over again,
a tiny drop of bright water
splashes into the mire, the flitting evening light
refracts in it, and then the marsh is marsh again,
night, night, the roads of the deceased
as unexaminable as they were before they lived.

He writes subjectively and exuberantly, often with a furious panache, creating apocalyptic toccatas or rhapsodies round love, history or the future, whose black utopias appear against a landscape of dying carnivals and crumbling pillars.

Venice here's doomed
                         to sink to the bottom, to drag with it
the ballet of candleflames, the silken ribbons
                                           and their tatterdemalion pleasures.
The four-poster-bed fortifications
                         were set up against philandering,
                                           the dragoons of the flesh were found
                                                                       scattered, laid flat
in a wilderness of Persian carpets ...
                                           ...The world's
a conglomeration of crumbling histories, a pile
of inkstained explanations why…

                                           ...The revolution's
                              on us already, the first prisoners
have been taken: they're going round and round
                         a prison yard without a shadow, heads bare, hands on neck,
                                                      shoelaces undone.

Melleri creates a theatre of dreams, full of embellishments and imagination – but also hallucinatorily suggesting the world in which we live. He can also write quite tenderly and affectionately and lyrically.

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