Portraits of change

Issue 1/1987 | Archives online, Authors, Interviews

Eeva Joenpelto

Eeva Joenpelto. Photo: Tyyne Havia / SKS Archives

Erkka Lehtola interviews Eeva Joenpelto

You can see Eeva Joenpelto’s house from a long way off: a substantial red-painted building in the southern Finnish village of Sammatti. It is the kind of house rich Finnish farmers lived in in days gone by.

The farmyard is big; behind the hedge loom the neighbouring fields and the blue mushroom woods of autumn. In the flower beds are roses and ornamental plants; the red farmhouse breathes the old Finnish countryside tradition.

But there has been no farming in the red house’s fields and meadows for a long time now. Eeva Joenpelto moved from the capital to these peaceful country surroundings just a few years ago.

All the same, the red house, the well-kept yard and forest and cornfields nearby have an important significance: for in many of her novels Eeva Joenpelto, the writer who has moved to the country, describes a huge shift in Finnish society. Many of her novels show the disintegration of the old Finnish agrarian society, and the industrial Finland, that creation of supply and demand, taking its place.

In Eeva Joenpelto’s novels, in other words, Finland changes into what it is today, a modern society dominated by the service and communications industries.

Work brings value

‘In the midst of change the individual has an obligation to recognise his value,’ says Eeva Joenpelto, sitting at the big farm table in the red house.

She knows what she is talking about: from her very first novel, published in the 1950s, onwards, she has described people who have experienced harsh pressures from many different directions – and who quite often are on the point of losing their own sense of value, their grasp on a humane and ethically sound life.

Most often people receive their sense of their own value from their work, through honest and often agonising effort. This, too, Eeva Joenpelto knows from her own experience: for a long time she has published a new work every other year. In these books she has often portrayed country people and factory workers, especially women whom life has stripped of all excessive softness but who have still not lost their humanity.

And Eeva Joenpelto has herself received her own sense of worth through work: she is one of the front ranks of Finnish prosaists, and has received the Government Prize for Literature four times.

Her work is valued both by a large readership and by critics and scholars. Her portrayal of people is fresh and full of life; and it is this that enables her to approach the central issues in the different historical periods she describes through lively personal portraits.

Critical realism comes naturally to a writer like Eeva Joenpelto: she describes people and events straightforwardly and honestly, without stripping her characters of their worth.

Failed heroes

Value, decency, morality, moderation: these, then, are subjects that fit naturally into conversation in Eeva Joenpelto’s red farmhouse. We sit in the writer’s study­ library, its walls lined with books. On the writing table is a pile of copies of her latest novel, Jottei varjos haalistu, (‘Lest your shadow fade’), and an old-fashioned typewriter that has seen better days. Eeva Joenpelto is an author who still writes in the old-fashioned way. She has not switched allegiances to the word processor.

Value, decency, morality, moderation are precisely the issues of which it is proper to speak in these peaceful surroundings. They have recurred, as some of the central demands of human life, throughout Eeva Joenpelto’s long literary career, which has already spanned over 30 years. In fact, such is the importance she has always accorded these demands for a humane way of life that one could speak of Eeva Joenpelto’s moral codex.

All the same, Eeva Joenpelto neither demands nor expects that all the characters in her novels should obey this moral codex. Most of them have only just started out on their journeys towards an honest and uncompromising system of morals, and not all of them attain it.

‘Perhaps this typical sort of character is the “hero” of the new novel – a fat, drunken, even smelly vet who has often tested failure in his life,’ says Eeva Joenpelto, but at once adds: ‘But even if a person has failed, he must not be despised. Unsuccessful and even crushed characters have the right to the same sort of life as the rest of us, the “successes”.’

She immediately cites a practical example: ‘I’m sure I shall never get rid of this man. He is my very own, no one can take him away from me…’

For the first time in many years Eeva Joenpelto has created a weak-willed character. Her characters have generally been strong women who defy their difficulties.

But she cannot be considered as no more than a portrayer of women. The main character of her last novel, Rikas ja kunniallinen (‘Rich and respectable’, 1984) was a rich and decent businessman. Nevertheless, it is true to say that all her novels examine the relationship between men and women, often focussing on their power struggles and their attitudes towards money and property.

Eeva Joenpelto often uses the juxtaposition of opposites to give her novels internal tension. In Jottei varjos haalistu the vet, with a predilection for women and liquor, is counterbalanced by his sister Erika, a woman who is at the same time proud and humble. Widowed, she dedicates her life to her brother – not in submission, but aware that she herself has made the choice.

In telling the story of brother and sister Eeva Joenpelto tells the story of the entire family. Many of the events of the novel are in the past, in people’s memories. Old wounds still bleed, deceptions of long ago throw their shadows over the characters and their actions. Wrong and the justification of revenge are also among Eeva Joenpelto’s themes; many of her characters have been touched by the hand of evil.

Finland’s ‘years of danger’

Eeva Joenpelto’s novel is set in a particular period of Finland’s recent history: the 1940s. Why?

‘I wanted to describe a different kind of time, those years of shortages and want that the Finns experienced during the Forties. The War had just ended the future was entirely uncertain, and the situation was not helped at all by the presence of the Allied Supervisory Committee, which was led by the Soviets,’ says Eva Joenpelto, and adds that many who lived through that time have already forgotten it, while many young people do not know of the existence of such a time.

‘Finland had been damaged by the war, and there were shortages of everything: clothes, houses, often food. They called those years the years of danger, and that describes what It was like then very well. There was a general fear that Finland would be forced once more into open conflict, this time finally.

‘The uncertainty made itself apparent in many ways, among them dishonesty. People cheated to get houses, and there was a black market. Because there was such a shortage of housing, people just had to move into the houses officials directed them to. There was nothing else to be done.’

The power of the church

Even if Jottei varjos haalistu is set in the 1940s, Eeva Joenpelto is keen to stress that she has something to say about today’s issues. One of these is the position of the Evangelist Lutheran Church in Finland.

‘I should really like my book to provoke discussion or embarrassment within the Lutheran church,’ says Eeva Joenpelto. She says this with an intensity one is used to hearing only from the young from punchy iconoclasts, not from an elegant writer meditating in her stylish study.

But Eva Joenpelto is serious. There are sections of the new novel in which she fearlessly criticises the excessive power the church has gathered to itself, spiritual, intellectual and religious, its hypocrisy and its Phariseeism as well as its selfish land policy. Finland is now and has been since the 1940s, a county where dying can be more expensive than living.

But Eeva Joenpelto has, nevertheless not written a pamphlet. Her weapon, once again, is her gift of characterisation; she examines the activity of the Church through following the actions of its priests and lay members.

‘Perhaps the most serious single charge is laid at the door of the old clergyman in the book. He says he wants to be a proper Christian – but that isn’t possible, because he works for the Church.’

It has been said of Eeva Joenpelto’s work that it often brings together a timeless narrative skill and a worldly concern with current events. This is certainly true of Jottei varjos haalistu: the 1940s were in Finland in many ways a difficult time of doubt and resentment that treated people harshly and unfavourably. Each of the novel’s characters encounters the bitter side of life.

‘But that’s just it,’ says Eeva Joenpelto. ‘Life’s beauty is in its bitterness and harshness. You don’t get anything that’s worth anything in this world cheap let alone for free.’

 

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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