Kalle Päätalo – work hero of Finnish literature

Issue 4/1987 | Archives online, Authors

Finland’s most profilic and successful author is a former forestry worker and builder, Kalle Päätalo. Since 1962 he has produced, on average, a 600-page novel every year. Published in an initial edition of 100,000 – which always sells out immediately – Päätalo’s works are constantly on loan from the country’s libraries, and there are lengthy waiting lists for his newest books. At a cautious estimate, around a million Finns read a Kalle Päätalo book every year. There are five million Finns. In relation to the population, the scale of Kalle Päätalo’s readership is, in world terms, a rarity; perhaps unique.

The medium-sized publishing house Gummerus, which functions in Jyväskylä and Helsinki, bases its operations largely on the financial success of Kalle Päätalo’s novels. When printing of a Päätalo manuscript starts, three giant lorries set off for the Jyväskylä print works from a paper factory in Jämsänkoski, laden with seven tonnes of paper from the Finnish forest. The lorries arrive, the presses start to roll, and other juggernauts set off to distribute Päätalo’s latest by the box­load to the country’s bookshops, accompanied by a fervent prayer from the publisher’s director, Pekka Salojärvi, that the manuscript of Päätalo’s next novel will be ready in time for the deadline the following summer.

He has no cause to worry, for the time being at any rate. A couple of weeks after the launch of the new novel, at the darkest point of the bleakest month, November, the regular sound of the typewriter is to be heard from the upper windows of Kalle Päätalo’s modest war veteran’s house in Tampere. The tapping of his typewriter keeps rhythm with his heart pacemaker: even, confident, a set number of pages each day. All the same, the work demands effort and the beginning is just as difficult every time. But Päätalo’s unbending discipline overcomes all obstacles.

The tightly regulated, ascetic months of work result, by the time spring comes, in a 1000-page novel. It is the publisher’s assistant, the writer Juhani Syrjä, who selects and edits from this sheaf of papers the final manuscript. In collaboration with Päätalo he condenses the narrative and mercilessly cuts back many of the author’s favourite passages in order to make the structure clearer.

Kalle Päätalo is particularly hurt when critics say, as they are apt to, that he has ‘again managed to scrape together enough material for 600 pages’. Few of them know what a great effort it has been to whittle the new book down to a manageable size.

But what does Päätalo write about? What is the basis of his titanic inspiration?

In his memoirs Gummerus’s former literary director, Ville Repo, recalls how, at the end of the 1950s, he came across a pile of manuscript, massive as a block of flats, sent by an unknown builder.

Clearly present beneath the clumsy and painstakingly detailed portrayal of life on a building site were a power of human description and a need for self-expression, both of which recalled the searching psychological portraits of Dostoyevsky. After many revisions, Päätalo’s first work, Ihmisiä telineillä (‘People on the scaffolding’), was published in 1958. The author turned 39 that same autumn. He got off to a late but bracing start: at the end of the decade of modernism there was a desire for someone new to write about the lives of ordinary people, an author in the tradition of Väinö Linna. Kalle Päätalo emerged to fit the bill as if by order.

The publisher noticed at the time how difficult his new author found it to produce as much as a single page of autobiography for use in promoting his books. Some painful inhibition afflicted this broad-shouldered man, schooled in the hard discipline of manual labour. He was from northern Finland, the north-western region of Lapland province. Since his early youth, when his father’s mental illness made him unfit for work, he had had to earn a living for his family through heavy forest work. The family had suffered the stigma of being taken into care. Enormous family problems, in short, overshadowed Päätalo’s childhood and youth.

Päätalo put his early experiences into the four-part Koillismaa (‘The north­east’) series, which appeared between 1960 and 1965. In it, in the spirit of the realist tradition, he portrayed himself and his family in a distant, literary form. In the books he killed his father, for the humiliation of his mental illness was still too difficult to write about. One might have thought that this extended epic treatment might have exhausted this subject for Päätalo, but there was more – much more – to come.

Having published a few novels about lumber camps and the ruggedly individual character types of the north, Päätalo returned to his childhood and his own life in 1971. He began to write again about the characters, events and landscapes of the Koillismaa series, but now in the first person, in a naked and undisguised autobiography. Real people appeared under their real names; the documentary basis of the fictive novel series was laid bare.

This new series, a genre of its own, received the overall title Juuret Iijoen törmässä (‘Roots on the banks of Iijoki River’). The name refers to the writer’s birthplace. But Päätalo can hardly have guessed the scale to which the series he had started would grow. Now, in the autumn of 1987, the seventeenth volume of the series, Pyynikin rinteessä (‘On the slope of Pyynikki’), has just been published. What may well be the world’s most extensive autobiography has reached over 10,000 pages, and there is as yet no end in sight.

The series begins in 1919, the year of the author’s birth – two years after Finland’s independence – and has now reached 1948. The central character has not yet turned 30. Päätalo’s goal is 1958, the year in which he became a writer. The books are now progressing at the rate of less than a year per volume, so this tireless marathon writer could have more than 10 years of writing to go before he runs out of material.

It is only with this latest series of books that the Finnish readership at large has really joined Päätalo on his epic journey. What exactly is it that has enticed them to throw in their lot with him?

A need for confession that had long been bottled up flowed into Päätalo’s autobiography. He is from the area where the charismatic Laestadian Christian movement took strongest root, and the need for confession is in his blood. But his hearers are not merely fellow members of the congregation. When Päätalo confesses, he addresses the whole nation.

In the early volumes of the series Päätalo relates the tragedy of his early youth, his father’s illness and the humiliation of his family through the eyes of himself as a boy. In these books – Huonemiehen poika (‘The lodger’s son’), Tammettu virta (‘The dammed river’), Kunnan jauhot (‘On poorhouse bread’) Päätalo won his readers over, and in subsequent volumes, dealing with the young man’s growing up, his feelings of inferiority, his social and intellectual alienation and finally, through hard work, his reaching independence, he has kept his readers’ interest.

Ranging, as it does, from the countryside to the industrial town, from the experience of a child in care to a man with his own career and technical training, from extremely repressed relationships with women to marriage and, after its break-up, more sexual adventures, from work on the land in time of peace to the war and various experiences on the battlefront and behind it and the rebuilding after the war, Kalle Päätalo’s autobiography becomes symbolic of the development of independent Finland.

An additional twist is given to the story by the fact that as the writer, whose unremittingly hard work has been rewarded by an incurable heart disease, taps away at his typewriter, his earnings make him one of the biggest taxpayers in the city of Tampere. His way of life, however, preserves unchanged the habits of thrift and austere simplicity to which he was brought up.

As well as being an allegory – and a hymn of praise to the ruggedness of the Finnish character – Päätalo’s series records a giant slice of a disappearing way of life: living and working conditions in the north, the rich dialect of the region, of which Päätalo’s characters are masters, are portrayed with a truly anthropological accuracy.

City dwellers may find Kalle Päätalo’s leisurely, unhurried narrative and angular, dialected style is sometimes strange and offputting, but after a while the way of life and of speaking with which the book deals becomes oddly compelling. Between November and Twelfth Night the Päätalo season is in full swing on farms and in the new suburbs. His latest book is passed from one member of the family to the next; his world and characters, their language and personal quirks, take hold of the people of Finland as they live through the darkest part of the year. Their actions and sayings are discussed, their fortunes are followed with greater interest than those of friends or relatives. How is Kallio-Kalle going to get out of his current difficulties and, now that he has swallowed his pride, how badly will he suffer at the hands of his nearest and dearest? People with common origins return to their roots, to the eternal forest and the time when new houses were built on virgin soil and belief in the future could still sustain men and women who lived in the most basic of conditions. To the reader who is caught up in the struggle for a better standard of living in a society that simultaneously cushions and alienates, recourse to these experiences is an unfailing source of peace and refreshment.

As a small boy Kalle Päätalo decided that he would be a writer. Among his heroes were the very different epic writers Jack London and Mika Waltari. His development has been full of painful setbacks and obstacles, of which the last but not the least, has been the unsympathetic coolness of his books’ critical reception. But Päätalo seems to be able to smash these obstacles, too, as isolated phenomena with the unstoppable: force of a man who has earned his living, by his physical strength. Before the advance of his story-telling machine aesthetic measurements splinter like matchsticks.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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