The elusive reality of Ralf Nordgren

Issue 1/1982 | Archives online, Authors

The poet and novelist Ralf Nordgren, part Ålander by blood, has close family ties with some of the Åland Islands’ most most outstanding cultural figures. He is the nephew of Sally Salminen, and he was in fact born – in Vasa – in 1936, the very year in which she published her best-selling novel Katrina. His brother is the composer Pehr Henrik Nordgren, his mother, Aili Nordgren, is herself a writer who has published five novels based on life in Åland (see Books from Finland, 4/1977).

Nordgren’s father, who shares his wife’s left-wing views and was once a communist party official, is not a writer, but his formative role is quite apparent, clearly reflected in the figure of the father in the first of Ralf Nordgren’s novels, Med (‘Taken along’, 1968), in which there is an appreciable autobiographical element. On one level he is responsible for the political substratum of the family, on another for the regularity with which they move house in time with his changes of job.

In 1972 Ralf Nordgren published a volume of poems entitled Idyll och program (‘Idyll and programme’). There is a literary allusion in this title, to the great nineteenth-century Finnish poet Runeberg’s famous volume of poems called Idyll och epigram (‘Idyll and epigram’), but it is at the same time, and more significantly, a statement of literary intent encompassing both the poetry (of which there are six volumes to date) and the novels, an indication of the tension which informs all Nordgren’s work and gives it its strength and character. It hints at the dichotomy between idyllic years spent in Åland as a boy and the politically conscious but more sceptical years subsequently spent in Helsinki. Ultimately it seems also to reflect the interplay of past and present, the impossibility in the present of escaping from the past, its idyll and its programme.

Past and present

Nordgren now has four novels to his name, three concerned with modern themes and one with an event which took place in the Åland Islands in 1918 at the time of the Civil War. The three ‘modern’ novels, Med, Fjärilsörat (‘Butterfly ear’, 1971) and Stjäl dig ett liv (‘Steal a life for yourself’, 1980), are to some extent linked by the figure of Breng, seen as a child and a youth in the first, a young academic in the second, and an established lecturer at Helsinki University in the third. Both the childhood milieu and the fact that the author himself is a lecturer at Helsinki University point to Breng’s being Ralf Nordgren’s alter ego.

Like the author, Breng is the child of communist parents, and the first of the novels, deriving its title from the way in which the family always takes portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin along with them every time they move house, shows the boy’s upbringing and the pressures to which he is exposed. The presence and subsequent superfluousness of Stalin’s portrait also hint at Breng’s changing attitude to the principles upon which he was brought up, and the pangs of conscience which he experiences on moving away from his parents’ standpoint. The fact that he never frees himself completely from their views is one of the signs of the interplay of past and present. Breng appreciates and understands his parents’ convictions, but he drifts away and moves into a left-wing position which is almost as sceptical of communism as of capitalism, a change which raises the question of loyalty to principles, to people and to convictions. The process is continued in Fjärilsörat, where Breng, still radical in his view, has in practice left the class to which he once belonged. A gradual but inevitable movement towards bourgeois manners is apparent in him and, to a lesser extent, in the historian Matti, who nevertheless still wants to write a history of Finland from a ‘red’ point of view.

Steal a life for yourself

In Stjäl dig ett liv Breng’s role is that of the outside observer and commentator rather than that of a major protagonist. He is not seen at all in the first of the novel’s three parts, which is solely concerned with the relationship between two brothers. The gentler of the two moves to Helsinki and finds employment as a porter at the University. In this capacity he meets Breng, around whom is centred a long consideration of the nature of reality. This is an experimental novel, consisting of three sections of widely different character, though with obvious connections between them. There is more than a hint in one of them that one of the aims is to produce a novel in which the sections can be read in any order, and this has to be appreciated if the sophisticated structure and the complex relationship between the parts are to be fully understood. Although these novels are ultimately related to the realist tradition, the reader expecting an unbroken narrative will be disappointed from the start. Med is a first-person novel in which the narrator regularly embarks on apostrophe directed at various of the characters, including himself, with consequent abrupt changes in perspective reflecting different concepts of reality. In Fjärilsörat the complexity increases when Breng’s girlfriend takes up the narrative in one section, while in Stjäl dig ett liv the technique is taken even further as the narrative is put into the mouths of several of the characters and often appears to be divorced from the action of the first section. Like the reality that one character, an artist, is vainly trying to capture in a mural, the reality of the novel is difficult to grasp.

The rapidly changing point of view is also a feature of Ralf Nordgren’s historical documentary novel, Det har aldrig hänt (‘It never happened’, 1977), the story of the unnecessary and meaningless execution of two ‘red’ soldiers who fell into the hands of the whites on the Åland Islands in 1918. It is a novel on which Ralf Nordgren worked for many years and takes in a large amount of documentary evidence, much of it quoted in extenso, as well as conversations and tape-recorded interviews with some of the survivors of the incident. Although the reader can glean the author’s concept of the truth behind the matter, it is clear that reality has been obscured, either involuntarily, as older people fail to remember accurately, or deliberately, as they seek to cover up their shame. The first two chapters of Det har aldrig hänt are printed below.

Clarity and complexity

One of the characteristics of Nordgren’s work, doubtless resulting from the interplay of past and present and the elusive nature of reality, is the rapid change from clarity to complexity. The straightforward narrative will suddenly give way to a change in narrator or manner, to apparent digression, to prolongued reflection and philosophical or political discussion, to streams of consciousness. These changes may at first seem a little bewildering, but they are carefully controlled, and all serve to create the perspective which the author is seeking. The early novels, with their obvious autobiographical overtones, clearly reflect the turbulence and upheavals of the 1950s, though the later ones have a more general significance. Taken as a whole, Ralf Nordgren’s work documents the evolving conscience and consciousness both of the author himself and the generation to which he belongs.