Chronicles of crisis

Issue 4/1982 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Books from Finland presents here an extract from Dyre prins, a novel by the Finland-Swedish writer Christer Kihlman that is to be published in 1983 by Peter Owen of London under the title Sweet Prince, in a translation by Joan Tate.

Christer Kihlman (born 1930) first became known as a poet; but, after publishing two collections of poetry, he turned to novels. He has been branded a merciless scourge of the bourgeoisie. Equally important in his writing, however, are his masterly psychological analyses, his examination of the myriad aspects of the human personality, his sovereign disregard for taboos and his unflagging search for the truth. His books are about crises – the conflict between the generations, between the individual and society, between opposing political ideologies, between homosexual and heterosexual love. As Ingmar Svedberg remarked in an extensive appreciation of Kihlman’s work that appeared in Books from Finland 1-2/1976, ‘In his perceptive moral analyses, his exploration of the depths of human destructiveness and degradation, Kihlman is sometimes reminiscent of Faulkner.’ Since 1970, Kihlman has published three revealing autobiographical works, two of them dealing with his encounter with South America; Dyre prins, first published in 1975, represents a brief interlude of fiction.

The extract printed below is accompanied with a personal appreciation of the novel by its English translator, Joan Tate

Grandfather’s astonishing revelation gave me a new perspective on my life. I had suddenly been given a concrete, genuine foundation for both my hatred and my self-esteem. In a way I took the story of my origins as an extreme confirmation of the rightness of the Communist interpretation of reality, and at the same time it gave me a wonderful, dazzling sensation of being someone, despite everything, of having a place in a meaningful human perspective of time, despite everything, of being a link, however modest, in the historical family tradition. I did not need to found a dynasty; I already belonged to a dynasty, if only a minor branch. One was less important than the other, and even if the two experiences were irreconcilable and contradictory, they existed all the same in the same consciousness, contained within the same consciousness, my consciousness. I, Donald Blad!

This new insight, which naturally I never for one moment doubted, gave me a strong, malicious and heady desire to seek out the loathsome Jacob von Bladh and ring his doorbell and say straight to his face: “Hi, Dad’s cousin!” But he forestalled me.

One March Sunday afternoon of extreme cold and swirling snow, the telephone rang at Helga’s and it was him. He was evidently slightly drunk and wanted to speak to me. He apologized for his bad behaviour the last time we had met and said he had had a guilty conscience ever since. He was not actually a snotty upper class type, he assured me, but he hadn’t really been himself at the time. He had been off the rails because of the Control Commission’s arrival in Helsinki, and a number of other things of a personal nature. On the other hand, we were in some ways quits as I’d punched him on the jaw. Now he was wondering whether I would consider coming to see him. There was something he wanted to talk about and he had a bottle of brandy smuggled in from Sweden. We could sit in peace and quiet, in all simplicity, etc. etc. etc. I accepted without a moment’s hesitation and set off in the raging snowstorm, not without a sense of superiority and malicious glee.

“You can imagine the bang here in 1939 when they bombed their own legation to smithereens. I hadn’t a whole window left and everything was a mess. You can see the marks from splinters over there on the wall. God, I was scared, but I went down to the shelter only twice in the whole war, both times compulsorily, so to speak, on principle, for my father’s sake. He never went down, either. He prayed to God and went to bed and slept as the bombs exploded and the anti-aircraft guns roared. Lived in Kronohagen; one night an incendiary bomb fell through his bedroom window, but there was something wrong with it and it didn’t explode. The finger of God, Father thought. He lay there all night with an incendiary as a bedmate. Extremely odd. Plenty of curious events from this unfortunate war … but sit down, do, help yourself. I’ve bought some buns. They taste foul. I’ll throw them away. No, one shouldn’t waste God’s gifts, even if they are extremely modest these days … he does his best, Father’s God, oh, the way I go on … cheers. How’re things with you? Are you studying … ”

He was moving nervously round the room all the time, from one wall to the other, shifting things from one place to another, or arranging them in puzzling formations which he soon dismembered and replaced with others, matchboxes, coffee cups, spoons, tubes of paint, anything. He was wearing a great baggy sweater which a long time ago had been white. His hands were dirty, the nails black, and he had a black beret on his head. His thick lips were wet with saliva, his fleshy nose red. From a cold? Alcohol? The cold? It was very cold in the studio. On the wall immediately opposite where I was sitting at the table, one hand resting on the yellow oilcloth, hung a very large picture, black squares in different sizes on a yellow background, rather like an imaginative plan for a large apartment, but not so few rooms. I told him I was working voluntarily for my brother, who had just come back from America, in his firm (unusually well paid, but I did not tell him that). This did not seem to interest him much and I started feeling uncertain and embarrassed, as on the previous occasion.

“Let’s wipe out the past. We might as well. Your fists are terrible, I must say. I was ill for a week afterwards, headache, black eye. I suppose it’s how you were brought up. I understand, I understand, and I behaved unforgivably badly. I should have … but as I told you, I wasn’t myself. You must forgive me. Let’s forget it. Let the dead bury their dead. Oh, sorry, perhaps you’ve someone in the family who … you never know after a war. I’ve a lot. My nephew was killed a year ago, my cousin, my sister’s brother-in-law, lecturer at the university, twenty-seven years old. This country has only inferiors left, like me, a failed artist. What can I do for the rebuilding of the country, nothing, absolutely nothing. We must put our hopes in you, the new generation, new blood in old bottles … or what the hell it’s called, but that wasn’t why I phoned. I ought to be able to offer you something, a post, a job for the future, a loan … but I can’t. I’ve no say in things. No one listens to me. A real Mister Nobody, that’s what I am. They just laugh at me, glancing meaningfully at me and whispering and moving away, the black sheep, the shame of the family. It was nice of you to come. I didn’t think you would, actually, after what went on, but there’s still a bit of humanity left in the world. I very much value your friendship. I like you, I really do. Cheers! What about dropping the mister stuff. Jacob’s my name.”

We shook hands formally and touched glasses. I had never been through that ceremony before, but nevertheless I realized it must constitute one of the high points of bourgeois life. He just went on and on talking and I hadn’t the slightest idea what he was getting at. My flesh began to creep and my brain kept repeating all on its own: “Hi, Dad’s cousin, hi, Dad’s cousin, hi, Dad’s cousin … “Then suddenly it was “Bat’s cousin Bat’s cousin Bat’s cousin”. I’ll go soon, I thought. But then he fell silent and sat looking piercingly at me, as if expecting me to say something. I didn’t know what to contribute.

“You know already, don’t you?” he said then. “What?” I replied, shaking my head.

“No, of course not. But you see, I’ve made a little discovery which I think is interesting. That house you lived in before the war, where your father was the caretaker, did you say it was number seventy-six, Skarpskytte Street?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know who owns it?” “No.”

“The Lehtisuon-Lehtinen family.”

“Yes, that was the manager’s name, anyhow.”

“Quite right. And do you know what that family is?”

“No.”

“The Lehtisuon-Lehtinens are the Finnish branch of the von Bladh family. My cousins, in other words. Rather a remarkable coincidence, isn’t it?”

My heart suddenly started thumping. Grandfather had said nothing about this. Perhaps he didn’t know. And how much had Brynolf known? For some reason, I felt myself turning red, my cheeks flaring.

“So one really starts to wonder… ”

I had it on the tip of my tongue, but couldn’t get it out.

“What was your father’s name?”

“Brynolf.”

He shook his head.

“I’ve tried researching a little into the records, but there’s no one by the name Brynolf there. There’s one thing that’s certain though …”

“My grandfather says …”

“What does your grandfather say?”

”… that his father was awarded a title and was called Karl-Johan von Bladh.”

He laughed, stiffly, wearily dismissive, and then said very coldly:

“I don’t understand. My grandfather was called Karl-Johan and he was awarded a title, but I’ve heard that …”

“He was an illegitimate son … or whatever it’s called …”

“That’s the most insolent thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Anyhow, that’s how it is.”

“How the hell can he prove it? Is it in the parish register? No, it isn’t. What’s this really all about … a conspiracy to get at the von Bladh money, or what?”

“You were the one who started talking about it, Skarpskytte Street and the Lehtisuon-Lehtinens, weren’t you? You suspected it yourself, though perhaps it wasn’t your own grandfather who …”

“I don’t believe it. Grandfather was a man of honour, not an old goat.”

I burst out laughing, suddenly feeling certain. At last he was the one sitting there stammering.

“This is no laughing matter. Anyhow, it’s impossible when you think of the spirit of the time. One just didn’t do that sort of thing in the 1860s. One was … honourable … loyal …” I just went on laughing.

“No von Bladh ever had illegitimate brats, I’m convinced of that. We’re not that type in our family. We’ve never been loose-living, that’s one thing you can be sure of. We’re serious, ambitious, successful, often true believers, and we’ve always had damned high morals. You’re an imposter, I sensed that from the start. Let’s not talk about it any longer.”

I just laughed and laughed.

I told him all about Kreetta and Kalle Hamalainen and randy Karl-Johan and how Kalle Hamalainen became Kalle Blad, and about New Farm and the deed of gift which still existed for viewing by anyone interested, and so on. I told him everything, the whole story.

Jacob von Bladh sighed. He sat staring at the oil-cloth, leaning on the table with his arms folded. A broken man. All illusions shattered. I felt wonderful. Serve you right, you bloody upper class twit, you bloody conceited upper class twit, I thought.

He gulped down his brandy. “All right,” he said and got up, slapping his hands together with a bang and rubbing them in a military kind of way. Finally he made a smacking movement at the corner of his mouth, which meant approximately I give up, but don’t you go thinking it’s amusing.

“If it hadn’t been for that bloody nose of yours, I’d have thrown you out,” he mumbled angrily.

“What nose?”

“Your nose, your nose,” he shouted, suddenly furious. “You’ve got a typical Bladh nose, a wide strong bridge, a strongly marked tip and quite large triangular nostrils. Look, now, look! I saw it the moment you came through the door for the first time. Where the hell did he get the family nose from, I thought …”

As he was speaking, he came over and started eagerly poking at my face with his dirty fingers. I jerked my head away and lightly slapped his hand. He immediately turned his back on me and walked away across the floor.

“He’s got the Bladh nose and he bears the Bladh name, and in addition to that he maintains he has Bladh blood in his veins, to hell …”

Then he swung round violently and stared at me, saying tightlipped:

“But you’ll see. Do you want to see, yes, damn me, you shall see your ancestors, by Christ, your ancestors …”

Out of a pile of all manner of rubbish, old magazines, art books, illustrations, loose sheets of paper and newspaper cuttings, he extracted a photograph album of a very old-fashioned kind, with hard brown, finely-worked leather covers and an intricately engraved metal clasp.

He brought the album over to the table, slapping it a few times to rid it of the worst of the dust. Then he opened it and carefully began to turn the stiff, almost half-inch thick pages, into which were inserted, four to each page, photographs of old men in an endless sequence, clean-shaven, or with large moustaches and sidewhiskers, old men in uniform and frock-coats and jackets and great-coats, with epaulettes and high collars and starched shirt-fronts, old men in black and old men with colourful braids and stripes and queues and shining buttons and gleaming watch-chains and sparkling rings and monocles and ruffles and medals and charms, old men with long hair and short hair and with no hair and black hair and grey hair and white hair, with sharp eyes and kind eyes and large eyes and small peering eyes, with thick lips and thin lips and loose lips and tight lips, with smooth foreheads and frowning foreheads, fat and thin, harsh and amiable, stern and good-natured, pompous and modest. And old women in bonnets and hoods and large hats and wasp waists and laces and simple costumes and linen cloth and buns and corkscrew curls and pearls and brooches and plaits and parasols, fat old women and thin old women, with kind eyes and sharp eyes, with smooth rosy cheeks and flabby wrinkled cheeks, with cherry mouths, sorrowful and smiling, stern and languishing, ugly and beautiful, with clever faces and foolish faces and intolerant faces and motherly faces … page after page, an endless overwhelming succession of faces.

Jacob became more and more excited, pointing and exulting as he went on:

“Look at that, you see, look there, absolutely clear, there and there and there, the Bladh nose, right the way through, the Bladh nose, strong bridge with a marked tip, triangular nostrils, the same thing everywhere, look, isn’t it amazing, except the ones who married into the family, of course …”

I could see nothing. I saw no likeness. Naturally they were noses, but different noses, each and every one his own nose, as it is in human beings. However much I looked, it was impossible to see the nose as something in common, a distinguishing mark, a characteristic feature.

It was a family myth, quite simply; later on I found out that this was only one of many. They all cultivated them, but Jacob was especially energetic … the Bladh nose, like the Habsburg chin, the labyrinth of family vanity, the dreamed-of emblem of bourgeois family consciousness.

Jacob just went on and on.

“You see, the Bladh nose, right through, the Bladh nose. Here, for instance Johan Emmanuel, Director of the Mint and founder of Finnish railways, he wrote a book on the presence of God in the flow of capital, and another about the institution of money and the universe. He lived for ten years in the USA and was a very devout man with pure high ideals. Note his eyes. I’ve rarely seen eyes that so clearly radiate goodness. That’s Jacob Ossian Walter, the nose again, a financial genius, one of the many universal geniuses of his century, began as a priest, very strict and incorruptably pious. Slightly later we find him as a teacher and reformer of the entire Finnish education system and founder of the Finnish Clothing Factory. He discovered a method of improving the durability of wool and homespun cloth, then later discovered a method of counteracting that same durability … a remarkable man, he founded several sawmills in eastern and central Finland and died at ninety-four the richest man in Finland. That’s Karl-Johan, my grandfather, who carried on the work, and was awarded a title, note the likeness, the nose. This one’s Johan Gustaf, legal prodigy, provincial councillor quite young, provincial governor, wrote books, On the Right to Castigate and On the Right to Defiance. He pacified the wild tribes of east Karelia, a Finnish Livingstone of his kind, and brought a little western culture to the primitive backwoods peasants and was killed in thanks, lynched by peasant scum when he tried to introduce compulsory vaccination against smallpox, a cause célèbre of the time. That one’s the founder of the bourgeois branch, Peter Johan, official of the East India Company, later independent shipowner, landowner, farmer, introduced cattle breeding into the country, refused honours, founded towns and owned fifty ships and was immensely rich, wrote about freedom and equality, was taken prisoner by the Cossacks in the 1808 – 1809 war and made to run behind the horses with a rope round his neck, fifty miles from Kaskö to Vasa. He survived, a genuine son of the eventful days of the Age of Enlightenment, a true Gustavian. This one is his son, Karl Edward, who went into exile when Finland became Russian, travelled all round the world, wrote books on wonderfully strange places, almost became king of San Salvador and was chosen to make a Swedish colony out of Uruguay at King Karl XIV’s request but did not succeed … as you know, later on he introduced the use of coffee into our country just as his father had introduced the use of tea. These are four Bladh brothers who all went their own ways, upright men, convinced of the existence and victory of the only rightness; pity the only rightness was so different for them. They couldn’t pull together, or to put it briefly, they hated each other profoundly for most of their lives. That’s the eldest there, you see, see the nose? Jacob Bladh, went Snellman’s way and became Jaakko Lehtinen, later ennobled to Lehtisuon-Lehtinen, thus Russian nobility, founded a dynasty, professor of history, politician, senator, financier, founder of the National Bank, farmer, Finnophile, a man of compliancy, hot-tempered and terrible, was shot in the shoulder by an activist and lost his left arm, hence the nickname ‘one-armed devil’, opposed to Jews and persecuted gypsies, was high church. Here’s the second, Johan Sigvard, quite bald, lost his hair during a sleigh trip from Åbo to Brahestad in forty degrees below zero, fought off hungry wolves with a burning torch and a sheath-knife, killed twelve in one single night but lost his raccoon-skin cap, a legality man, constitutionalist, long-standing chairman of the bourgeoisie, senator, Swedish, professor of civil law, zealous supporter of legal and social protection of ethnic and linguistic minorities, reformed our penal code, died rich, owned half of Nyland archipelago, low church. The third one looked like this, Oscar Johan Emmanuel, note his long beautiful hair, even more beautiful than Topelius’ hair, officer in the Imperial Life Guards, general, university chancellor, director of Rautakoski copper mine, founder of Atlas tobacco factory and father of Finnish gymnastics, wrote the epic Hercules Conquers or the Secret of Male Strength, an academic document On God’s Purpose with Man, and On God’s purpose with Woman, built and managed four apartment houses in Helsinki, died rich. The fourth brother looked like this, his nose unusually atypical… ”

“What was remarkable about him?”

“Nothing.”

“That’s strange, isn’t it?”

“Well … no … no one knows for certain … he was different even when young … rather individual … one suspects … that is, he … to put it briefly, he was probably a Socialist. He died relatively young, presumably of syphilis, we know very little about him. He … he … but look, here’s Emelie Therese, Ossian’s first wife, who died in childbirth when she was only twenty-two, buried in Kexholm. Fifty years later, Ossian wanted the coffin transferred to the family tomb. The grave in Kexholm was opened up and the coffin looked as new. Ossian felt called upon by some inner voice to have the lid opened, and there she was in her beautiful silk shroud, perfectly preserved, as if alive, the dark curls round the fine oval cheeks of her face. Already an old man and a widower for the second time, Ossian gave a sob of surprise and emotion, and she opened her eyes, smiled and also tried to rise. “My darling,” she whispers, then sinks back and decomposes before his very eyes. Ossian was as if transformed from that day on, having apparently received a sign from another world and evidence of the indestructibility of pure unselfish love. This is Aunt Cathrine …

“Whose aunt?”

“What? Aunt Cathrine? Aunt, aunt, aunt only in general, everyone’s aunt. Don’t you know anything about these things, genealogy and history? There were paternal aunts and maternal aunts. They populated the world in their way, had special tasks. Do you understand …”

“No, not at all.”

“Oh, well, you come from such a different background, don’t you? Aunt Cathrine, now, you can see the nose again, a genuine von Bladh, she was very artistic, painted, drew, played the piano, used to have the piano taken down to the rowing-boat. Some labourer or crofter took the oars and rowed slowly out into Björknäs Bay and on early July mornings she played beautifully on the still sun-drenched water, Liszt, Chopin, Scarlatti, yes, my goodness, things were different in those days …”

“Who is your father?”

“My father? Have you never heard of Johan Konstantin von Bladh?”

“No, never.”

“He was my father. General in the Imperial Army, took part with success in the Russo-Japanese war, was Mannerheim’s right-hand man in the War of Liberation, crushed the rebellion in Poland and was called the Napoleon of Lapland, because he had the courage of a lion but was rather short of stature …”

Thus Jacob von Bladh continued his story and I listened, believing every word, my heart filling with envy and loathing and pride and triumph and a sense of conquest, and I made an irrevocable resolution that one day I would outshine them all, my right-wing relations and ancestors, all those fantastic, glorious, invincible von Bladh ladies and gentlemen.

 

Translated by Joan Tate

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