The bad and the ugly in the writing of Pentti Haanpää

Issue 4/1984 | Archives online, Authors

Pentti Haanpää

Pentti Haanpää. Photo: SKS Archives

Pentti Haanpää (1905-1955), author of ten novels and three hundred short stories, wrote about lumberjacks, woodsmen, crofters and smallholders; his individual style has established him as one of the most popular short story writers in Finnish literature.

The first full biography of Haanpää, by Vesa Karonen, Haanpään elämä (‘Haanpää’s life’), is to be published in January 1985 by Finnish Literature Society.

Haanpää’s strength as a writer is in his short stories. He is a man’s writer who writes about a man’s world: logging and other heavy manual work, hiking, war hunting, fishing, sport. His language, too: is masculine: rugged, sometimes rough, dense, laconic. Haanpää’s scale of emotions is wide and varied, but there is a bass note that is often sounded in his work. It is one of the characteristics that gives Haanpää’s work its particular stamp: his preoccupation with the bad and the ugly.

It is impossible to understand this basic preoccupation in Haanpää’s work without a knowledge of the internal structure of his world of values. Above all he values the aesthetic. This is not to say that he is an aesthete, nor does it mean that for him everything is to be sacrificed on the altar of beauty; it means that Haanpää regards all other values as transient and untrustworthy. Morality is as the individual cares to define it; laws are disregarded and are in any case often arbitrary. But what is certain and definite is the world’s aesthetic value: the world is beautiful and it is ugly, just as people are. Now fictive narrative, of course, contains two important figures in addition to the characters: the narrator and the writer. All can experience emotion, but the effect is different: if a character feels joy, it is not the same as if the narrator feels the same emotion. In Haanpää’s work a character may sometimes become aesthetically indifferent; the writer, never. Haanpää believes that even if the world is full of misery, there is nevertheless so much new to experience that life is always worth­while – and it may as well be a happy life, not one full of resentment.

According to Haanpää, the human race is a parasite that leaves ugly marks on the face of the earth. Haanpää’s characters live for the most part between the exalted extremes of north and south, in marshy regions where life is mean and full of suffering. Most of them are poor people. But they are very varied: lame people, people with knife wounds, dying people, people who are being eaten alive by worms, diseased people, dirty old folk who live in smelly, rotting huts, misshapen children with grey faces,old before their time, men and women who are grotesquely fat or painfully thin. There are a few beautiful people, but their emptiness only emphasises mankind’s fundamental wretchedness: their destiny is violent death. Haanpää’s ideal is beauty united with moral hygiene and participation in the wildness of life; none of these is easy to achieve. But Haanpää does not concern himself with the ideal; it is so clear to him that he does dwell on it. His problem is the badness and ugliness rep­resented by the majority.

This is particularly evident in Hyväntekeväisyyttä (‘Charity’, 1950), one of his best and most vivid short stories. There are two characters:

A wretched old man, a real backwoodsman. Rag lay against rag and from the midst of the tufts of grey bread peered a pair of faded eyes. Evidently pretty much of a dullard, too; he looked as if life and the world in general had thoroughly ill-treated him.

He is seen by a ‘businessman by the grace of God’, who gives him a lift in his horse-drawn cart and instantly organises a house-to-house collection in aid of the old man:

So they drove along under the fresh autumn sky, addressed themselves to everyone they met, were in and out of houses like a breath of wind, as the businessman’s descriptions of the good and righteous man who had fallen so undeservedly on hard times became more and more elaborate. They extracted their money and moved on…

When they have toured a couple of hamlets, the businessman judges that he has enough money, orders the man to get down and drives off with the profits.

The old man had no choice but to obey and climb down from the carriage. There he stood on the deserted dusky road in the chilly autumn evening, the picture of stupefaction, mouth open and grey beard quivering. Far away a dust-cloud rose as his miraculous helper’s horse trotted briskly onwards.

By chance and for a moment the old man has met his supernatural father, who has apparently helped him, but whose help turns out to be an illusion: the father changes into a devil and is lost in a cloud. The mythical reference is obscure. The comedy is clearer: an encounter between ugliness, which is stupid, and evil, which is clever and arrogant, and has the power to change its shape. Ugliness is naked, evil masked; they are by no means one and the same.

It is part of life’s nature, and of its aesthetic quality, that it is full of change and unpredictable twists of fate. These are not to be avoided; above all, Haanpää insists, they can be enjoyed. And indeed, Haanpää tells of people who submit to any kind of ugliness (or evil) in order to bring change into their lives and to drive away boredom. In these special cases one could even speak of the liberating aesthetic of ugliness.

His characters’ experience of ugliness is, however, only one side of the aesthetic interest Haanpää feels for ugliness. Another side is the writer’s encounter with the same quality. He describes the entire situation in which these emotions are felt – at different times, and developing with time. Thus the writer himself feels pleasure as he contemplates the bad and the ugly as it were voyeuristically, enjoying people’s reactions.

There is an even broader point of view that is reflected in nearly all Haanpää’s stories, both short and long. The writer demonstrates the contrast between the ugly and the beautiful in such a way that his characters do not perceive beauty; that experience is left to the narrator. In one of the short stories the writer remarks that a forest in a deep winter frost is beautiful, but that the men in the story are so deeply engrossed in their everyday preoccupations and work that they do not see this beauty. The contrast is dealt with the utmost brevity. In Hyväntekeväisyyttä Haanpää writes, typically, how the men drive along under ‘the fresh autumn sky’. This is the only mention of beauty. And in this extract, too, the beauty is almost hidden:

He dragged himself, tired, along the dusty road in what had once been his Sunday boots; they were no good now. But at the tops of the boots, now creased and sagging, there still bounced ramshackle but jaunty tassels.

Ahead was a handsome village and to the left twinkled a broad river in the golden light of a summer’s day.

This curt description is enough to remind the reader that evil and ugly humankind is surrounded by beauty so radiant that it almost burns. People are blind, and cannot see themselves against their own background. The narrator, for his part, is able to see the characters together with their often fortuitous surroundings; and as for the writer, he is free to draw attention to the contrasts. That is the key to Haanpää’s work.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins


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