Too much or too little love

Issue 1/1987 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Rosa Liksom

Rosa Liksom. Photo: Pekka Mustonen.

On the October day last year on which Rosa Liksom‘s second collection of short stories, Unohdettu vartti (‘The forgotten quarter’), was published, she also opened an art exhibition of her own work. The occasion took the form of a kind of cross between performance art and a practical joke. Young women dressed in Finnish military uniforms carried out body searches on every newcomer, changed the guard and drilled, while crackers exploded in the gallery. Many people were of the opinion that it was all no more than a silly joke. Even the art critics were not enthusiastic: they felt that Rosa Liksom’s felt pen work was derivative of a certain Danish artist who himself had copied the cartoon-like stick-men of the so-called Chicago school. But all the same, there emerged from the pictures a funny story about the artist’s adventures among the underground youth of Russia from Leningrad to Vladivostock.

Only her closest friends knew which of the soldiers in the gallery was Rosa Liksom, which her clones. Rosa Liksom is a pseudonym, and her little game of hide and seek has already lasted a couple of years. We know of her that she was born in Lapland, studied anthropology, has travelled in both East and West and lived for a long time in Copenhagen. Her writing was published for the first time in an anthology of the work of young authors, Kalenteri 84 (‘Calendar 84’, 1984). Her first work, the short story collection Yhden yön pysäkki (‘One-night stand’) was published in 1985 and achieved considerable success.

Protected by her nom de plume, Rosa Liksom has given a couple of interviews and given it to be understood that she herself does not read anything. This is, however, probably not true. ‘When my house burned down in Copenhagen, I managed to save from the flames at the very last minute my library, which consists of three books, all of which I have read even many times,’ she reported in a pronouncement in the season catalogue of very small publisher called Odessa. She further declared that it was her plan to buy three more books for her collection. All six were published by Odessa.

The three classic writers in Rosa Liksom’s library are Georges Bataille, Ambrose Bierce and Jean Cocteau. The other three – Knut Andersen, Robert Sabbag and Barbara Sheen (Shedevils) – portray the underground life of modern cities. Odessa specialises in precisely this kind of book; its list ranges from William S. Burroughs to Hubert Selby Jr and Sam Shepard. But Rosa Liksom is not one of Odessa’s writers; her publisher is the establishment house of Weilin + Goos. It is perhaps typically Finnish that all doors are open to young experimenters, whether good or bad. Rosa Liksom is in many ways good: when she wrote a series of reportage from her trips to Russia, it was good enough for the country’s biggest newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat – the travel diaries opened up a quite new perspective into the unknown world of freely moving, drug-taking Soviet youth.

As a short story writer Rosa Liksom is one of the most promising for many years in Finnish literature. In my own review of Unohdettu vartti I compared her, as a counterbalance to her current stylishness, with the classic Finnish short story writer Maria Jotuni (1880–1943), especially with the early work. Jotuni’s short prose sketches tell of love and loneliness. Jotuni, too, had her library: the master portrayers of erotic relationships Peter Altenberg and Arthur Schnitzler taught her the art of condensation: ‘Extracts from life! The life of the soul and the fortuitous day, squeezed into 2–5 pages like condensed steam, cleansed of everything extraneous, chemically cleaned!’ (Altenberg) Turn-of-the century Vienna meant to Jotuni the same as the Berlin or Copenhagen of the 1980s do to Rosa Liksom.

Rosa Liksom and Maria Jotuni have another characteristic in common: although they are, each in their own way, closely bound to the European currents of their time, they always return to Finland, like Jotuni who, having tasted fin de siècle decadence, switched to writing about Finnish rural subjects (for instance, in her masterly novel Arkielämää, 1909).

Liksom’s sources are annals that tell of the lovelessness of modern city-dwellers, of violence and destruction, but when she returns to her roots and, as often in Unohdettu vartti, describes the peripheral world of Lapland, she finds there the same types of human relationships in a still more purely tragic form. In portraying love and eroticism she chooses situations in which the relationship is hopeless and at an end.

Fairy story and fantasy are sometimes her area of freedom; carefree and happy is her vision of a new kind of nomad, people who move from one European city to another and who heed the words of the gospel on how the birds of the air live. She tells of too much or too little love in terms in which the grotesque and the accurate unite. She prefers writing about men to woman, and although some of her characters are soldiers, her favourite figure is undoubtedly a monk.

It has been fashionable to celebrate celibacy as an ideal, particularly since the advent of the new scourge. Aids appears just once in Liksom’s work, and then in a macabre setting. The source of the asceticism of her Lapp man is not the fear of disease but the tough Arctic climate. Environmental theorists may interpret these stories by saying that the North breeds people who do not know how to love.

But in the end it is not a question of ‘Arctic hysteria’, to use a phrase well­ known in Finland. Setting Rosa Liksom’s Lappish stories side by side with her descriptions of life in the city, it is possible to speak of a theme of unconditional denial which appears in her books on every level, in different surroundings, universally. Her stories of the Lapp hermits who leave their women and mortify their bodies are proud pictures of a great renunciation. When the ascetic theme is shifted to the world of international crime, the tense atmosphere may bring to mind a film, Melville’s Red Circle.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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