Higher goals

Issue 4/1987 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An extract from the novel Tammerkosken sillalla (‘On Tammerkoski bridge’, 1982). Introduction by Panu Rajala

I had thought there were a lot of books in the libraries in Oulu. But both those libraries were totally overshadowed when, having climbed up to the top of the Messukylä Workers’ House, I began to cast my eyes along the bookshelves in the attic. A tallish and refined-looking librarian responded when I exclaimed aloud.

‘Just under seven thousand volumes altogether. Some of them are out on loan. We’d like to have a lot more books, but getting the money to buy them is like getting water from a stone.’

‘But you’ve already got an incredible amount compared to what we have in the rural library at home… In Taivalkoski during the war all we had was two cupboardsful.’

‘You didn’t have a lot of choice there,’ agreed the librarian.

‘And now there’s not a single book there. The Krauts… I mean to say the Germans… burnt the village primary school. The library cupboards went up in flame…’

There were just a few women in the library, walking along the groaning bookshelves and running their eyes along the spines of the books. The pretty librarian had seemed stuck-up to begin with, but when she heard I had moved to Messukylä from the north she warmed up and started to chat. I asked: ‘Could I borrow some books from here? My papers haven’t arrived in Messukylä yet, but they’re on their way. I live over there in Kirkonmäki.’

‘With pleasure. These books are here to be used.’

I began to look at the shelves. One interesting author after another caught my eye. I’d followed the book reviews and publishers’ advertisements in the papers from the early Thirties onwards. I knew a lot about books and authors, even though I’d never had the chance to choose my reading matter from a big library.

Stunned by the sheer number of books, I decided to go over the shelves first to get a general impression. Since there were so few library members there, I didn’t have to worry about someone swiping the book I wanted from under my nose…

Martin Eden!

My eyes were caught by two names embossed on the spines of books in gold letters: Martin Eden and Jack London. I was so startled that at first I wasn’t sure which was the book’s title and which the author’s name. All the same, I did realise that the book I’d dreamed of for the past ten years was here in front of me on the shelf. The fictional autobiography of the American sailor, gold-panner and labourer Jack London. A man who through his energy and talent had become one of the best-known and most widely read authors of our time.

Suddenly I recalled how, at the military hospital at Oulu Central Primary School, when I was invalided out of the war, I’d hobbled on my crutches to a library that had, I suppose, been set up for us wounded soldiers. There I’d set eyes on Pentti Haanpää’s book of short stories, Field and barracks, and had it all to myself.

Before me now on the shelf was a thickish volume on whose beautifully clean spine were the words: Jack London MARTIN EDEN. None of the other borrowers in the library were even looking at the same section. But I found myself grabbing at the book as if I thought it might sprout wings and fly away…

The book I’d coveted so much was now in my hands!

The little sense I had left told me that the librarian, and maybe some of the other borrowers, must have seen what I’d done. So I forced myself to calm down and, as if nothing had happened, slipped behind a bookshelf where the librarian could not see me. There, with all my willpower, I forced myself to steady up. Almost in a trance, I chose two or three more books. I just couldn’t think about anything else but the book I held tightly under my arm. When I began to feel confident that my cheeks weren’t burning any more, and that my hands had stopped shaking, I went up to the librarian’s desk and put the books down in front of her.

‘Did you find anything interesting?’

The librarian’s glance and her question were so straightforward that I relaxed. Perhaps she hadn’t seen the way I’d lunged at Martin Eden!

‘Well, you’ll always find something in a library as big as this. It’s just difficult to know what to choose.’

The librarian was good at her job. In a moment she had marked the cards, slipped them back into the pockets inside the back covers and pushed the pile of books towards me.

Before I left, I checked the library’s opening times.

When I got back my wife had already laid the table in the parlour. When I put the books down on it, daughter and mother began to chat. My wife said again that she knew the librarian well.

‘Did you say whose husband you were?’

‘I didn’t want to put you to shame.’

I answered only partly in fun. While I was on holiday that autumn I’d overheard two housewives talking about me and how I was a forestry worker from Lapland.

‘Don’t talk like that! How could you put me to shame?’

‘Well, it came up in conversation with the librarian that I’m a northerner and a lumberjack…’

‘Oh, don’t start that lumberjack stuff again!’ laughed my wife.

‘Besides which, around here you’re at least an unskilled labourer!’ interpolated my mother-in-law.

‘Let’s eat before we addle our brains,’ said my wife quickly – so quickly that I realised that she was afraid that her mother would come out with more that might annoy me.

After we had eaten I sat down on our sofa beds, which had been made up for the daytime, and opened Martin Eden. But I didn’t become nearly as caught up in the book as I’d thought I would. The only thing I felt as if I might have been experiencing myself was Martin Eden’s clumsiness when the aristocratic boy whose life Martin has saved takes him to his fine home. For me that kind of consciousness of awkwardness was so familiar that I genuinely suffered on Martin’s behalf. I groaned with pain when Martin Eden sat down with the posh folk at dinner. I’d trembled in the grip of the same kind of torture on account of my clumsiness and my ignorance of table manners, even though I’d never sat at table with real aristocrats. My father’s horror story of how he’d had to sit at top table with the local manager of Rauma Company, when I was still a little boy, gave me even more sympathy with Martin.

The beginning of the book dealt only with the all too familiar awkwardness and fears the young labourer felt in the company of gentry. I’d shared the embarrassment that Martin undergoes at the beginning of the book because he cannot pronounce foreign words properly or doesn’t know them. The last time I’d had cause to regret my ignorance was in talking to Kerttu, Laina’s workmate. But I was keen to see how the book would reveal how Martin Eden became a famous writer!

But I was prevented from getting properly absorbed in the book by my mother-in-law, who kept talking to me and asking me questions. When she had finished the washing up, my wife sat down close to me on the side of the bed and took up her crocheting. It wasn’t difficult for Laina to work out from my growled responses that her mother’s behaviour was stopping me from reading. I noticed Laina giving little signals from time to time to her incessantly talking mother. But she couldn’t shut her up for long.

‘I feel like talking. I spend all day cooped up in here by myself. I don’t even have the energy to cut up rags for rug-making…’

‘You did when you were well!’ said Laina.

From time to time I put the book down and tried to talk with mother and daughter. Of course I did it more through a sense of duty than wholeheartedly. On the other hand, I’d done so little reading for so long that my weak eyes started to ache. What annoyed me most were my mother-in-law’s admonitions, always delivered laughingly and affectionately:

‘Go on, be nice to Laina! You haven’t even given her a single kiss, and she’s been out at work all day…’

‘Mother, Mother, don’t worry about all that!’

‘I’m not worrying. It’d just be so nice to see you two young things happy. But sometimes it looks as if Kalle isn’t in love with you any more…’

I suppressed the anger that was seething inside me, set the book down and put an arm round my wife.

‘How can Mother even think such things, when I love your daughter as much as a horse loves sugar. At least as much, if not more.’

A mixed expression of satisfaction and suspicion spread itself over my mother­in-law’s face.

‘Laina, get Kalle to explain what he means!’

Of course I couldn’t help laughing, and we started talking. When Laina had made the beds I took Martin Eden with me to my side, nearest the wall. While I was in the army Laina had fixed a little reading lamp to the wall so that I could read by its light.

Because my mother-in-law was bedridden and, like all old people whose health is not good, slept during get day, she found it difficult to get to sleep at night. If I had managed to the through my last posting to Hennala without that visit to the clap clinic in Oulu, I am sure I would have been irritated by the sighs and conversation that emanated from my mother-in-law’s bed in the evenings and at night after the lights went out. But as it was, I’d thanked my stars for her insomnia even on the way up to Oulu. Now, ever since I’d arrived back, all three of us had talked far into the night and once Laina’s mother had begun to snore it had seemed natural to whisper to her:

‘Let’s go to sleep too! We’ve got to get up early tomorrow. And I’ve already had two nights with hardly any sleep.’

My wife had understood. We’d just hugged and kissed over the gap between our beds. I hadn’t suffered from having to make do with my wife’s chaste caresses. My cock had cowered among my pubic hair like a guilty prankster after a practical joke. As we kissed I’d whispered: ‘Let’s just get some sleep. After all, this isn’t a holiday that’s going to end.’

‘I know; isn’t it lovely?’ my wife had replied. We had fallen asleep holding hands.

Now I meant to stay awake with Martin Eden. When Laina came to bed I put the book down, leaned across the gap between the beds and whispered.

‘You won’t mind, will you, if I read for an hour or two? I got a book that I’ve been after for over ten years… I’ve got this feeling that it’s going to mean a lot to me.’

‘No, go on. Mother’s sure to stay awake…’

‘What do you mean, stay away?’ came a screech from my mother-in-law, accompanied by a shriek of laughter.

‘I said stay awake! I just meant that Kalle reading and keeping the light on won’t disturb you,’ said Laina.

‘Go to sleep! Your mother and I will stay awake,’ I said aloud.

I propped the book up with one hand and held my wife’s with the other. Even though I’d got so deep into the book that I was really interested, I reflected that there were two good points about my existence at the moment. One was my mother-in-law’s difficulty in getting to sleep at night. The other was my wife’s lack of interest in sex. I’d heard of some wives who wanted intercourse as often as men. If, when I’d come from the army on leave, I’d often cursed Laina’s lack of enthusiasm, I was now, frankly, pleased with her coldness. The desire to possess her completely didn’t even enter my dreams. The fear and shame that lurked in the recesses of my mind were doubtless responsible for the fact that the night before I hadn’t been woken by the pain of an erection…

All the same, I was happy and I didn’t want to let go my wife’s hand. I turned the page with fingers of one hand. It was as if the book was written for me! Martin Eden would give me as much as I had got in Kallioniemi or in the hubbub of the logging camp from reading Mika Waltari’s manual So you want to be a writer? It was almost nine years since I’d secretly ordered Waltari’s book from my father…

‘What happens in your book?’

From where I lay I could see my mother-in-law’s shoulder rising and falling as she breathed, and I knew I would not wake her.

‘I’ve only read about a hundred pages. So far this sailor, Martin Eden, has fallen in love with a girl from a good family. Martin decides to better himself so that he’ll be the equal of this posh girl, Ruth, in education and manners. And Martin starts writing stories for newspapers…’

‘That Martin’s got the same ambitions as you,’ whispered my wife.

‘That’s why this book is like a treasure for me. I know enough about it to know that Martin Eden gets to be a famous writer in the end. They say this is Jack London’s own life story…’

‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you became a writer! You write lovely letters. And you’ve had things published…’

‘It would be a real stroke of luck if Kalle got a job as a clerk! He wouldn’t have to do any more of that manual work, he’d be on a salary…’

‘Mum’s got hold of the wrong end of the stick again!’ said Laina, laughing.

‘You were talking about clerks – I heard you! And about Kalle getting a job as one!’

If I hadn’t been in the state I was I would have had difficulty in controlling myself. As it was, I burst out laughing.

‘Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if a job as a clerk is all that comes of my writing! At the very best… I’m a slow writer, I’m not sure I could hold down a job as a clerk…’

The conversation went on, all three of us, for some time before I was able to get back to my book again. My wife fell asleep at once and soon my mother-in-law, too, began to breathe sleepily. But I wasn’t remotely sleepy. Heart thumping, I followed Martin Eden’s frantic struggle as he tried to educate himself and get his work into print.

It is as if the book had been written on purpose to encourage, I thought. I, too, desperately want to write. Some of my writing – humble pieces, it’s true – has even been published. And now I’ve got the opportunity to study, to educate myself. Tampere Worker’s College is just six kilometres away. And a branch college is going to be set up in this very village. Just half a kilometre from here. In Tampere there are night schools with all sorts of different classes…

These were the thoughts that flashed across my brain as I read. I was relieved, even happy, that I already had a wife and home of my own. I didn’t need to waste any effort in trying to marry some posh girl of much higher social standing than myself. Even if it was cramped in our room and Laina’s mother made our life as man and wife difficult, both living and money matters had been a lot harder for Martin Eden. And if Martin, through determination and hard work, could reach his goal, so could I! How hard was Martin going to have to struggle before he could claim Ruth as his bride? Well, I’d know that when I’d got to the end of the book! Just as I’d find out just how good it felt when he finally became a famous writer and could spend all his time on his work, without having to break off to earn his living and write only in the evenings and at weekends…

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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