The comi-tragedist

Issue 2/1988 | Archives online, Authors

Early March, Rome. Mimosas and cherries are in bloom. Few tourists are about as yet. On a street corner close to the Spanish Steps I bump into Juhani Peltonen. He and his family have been to see Pompeii the day before. We agree to meet again back in Finland.

The journey into the world of Juhani Peltonen passes through clean, white snow. Two big dogs are barking in the garden of the yellow house. They are familiar from Peltonen’s books. The dogs are as friendly as their master.

In the house there are many rooms, many beautiful things, many paintings, framed book jackets and theatre programmes, books, books, books, an old-fashioned typewriter that is still in use, an aged grand piano, flowers. The stuffed birds on top of the book case are so life­like that they look as if they have just alighted for a second to listen to our conversation before flying off again.

This is not just a house. It is also a fantasy world. In these spacious rooms it is easy to believe that Juhani Peltonen began his career as a romantic with leanings towards surrealism.

‘I’m a details person. The minute particulars are important to me,’ he says.

If, in one of these rooms, I were to come across Anton Chekhov, lost in thought, I should not be at all surprised. And there he is: in a big painting of the Russian classics which has found its way from old St Petersburg to the middle of this Finnish forest.

Juhani Peltonen taps Anton Chekhov on the nose and says: ‘It’s those writers who have meant the most – and still do. I’m always taking Chekhov or Dostoyevsky down from the shelves and reading their old, familiar, beloved words.’ He pauses for a moment. ‘And Kafka, too, sometimes…’

In the midst of a desk full of papers, pens, letters and sheets of paper, the telephone rings. It is like a proof of the existence of another world. The unknown voice congratulates Peltonen on a play that has gone out on television the previous evening. The play is about the suffering of a lonely man in a world that has left him entirely alone. The theme of the difficulty of loving in a violent, mechanical and oppressed world is one that appears repeatedly in Peltonen’s work. The play has clearly provided therapy for the unknown person on the telephone.

We go out into the silent, white landscape of snow. There is almost half a metre of snow, even though it is almost April. Juhani Peltonen indicates a snow-covered hollow. ‘I keep a few sheep in there in summer. They keep the grass down, and they don’t need more than water and a salt tablet for minerals. Sometimes I go and check that a lynx hasn’t eaten them in the night …’

We make a trip to C. G. Mannerheim’s summer house. Mannerheim was a general of White Finland, a big military commander, eventually a marshal and the sixth president of the independent republic of Finland. Even though the object of our visit is an uninhabited log cabin deep in the thick forest, and covered in snow, it brings to mind the influence that wars and history have had on Peltonen’s work.

Kohti maailman sydäntä (‘Towards the heart of the earth’), which has been performed by the Finnish National Theatre and many others, is the story of a group of officers at the time of the Finnish war of 1808 who wander into Russia and are made prisoners of war. They have believed in the greatness and power of Sweden, of which Finland then formed a part, and in their own unbesmirched honour as soldiers. Little Finland is once again caught between East and West.

The play’s central character is an old major, a man who is tired of war and of turmoil. He finds the object of his love in the home of an old prince, and together they begin their journey ‘towards the heart of the earth’. This, Peltonen’s fourth play, first performed at the end of the 1970s, has left behind it the absurdity and unreality of the playwright’s earlier dramas. Seeing it, one knows what is meant by ‘melancholy farce.’

On the way back we stop at a completely crazy place to drink an Irish coffee: in the middle of the dark forest is an ugly motel, built as a base for caravanners. In the restaurant is a group of men who are recognisable from a distance as Finnish sports enthusiasts. They are arguing with each other about Finnish Olympic achievements.

They do not recognise Juhani Peltonen. It’s a shame, because he has written some extraordinarily funny, absurd and ironic novels and radio plays on the subject of sports. The most famous of them is called Elmo, a tale of the imagination based on exaggeration and inflation about a national sports hero with a dozen gold medals, whose achievements put Baron Münchhausen himself in the shade. At the same time it is a sharp parody of sports-mad Finns who worship their heroes with almost heartbreaking sentimentality.

As we leave the forest motel and go back into the snowy landscape, one of the men gives Peltonen a searching look. He may have recognised the author of Elmo. It was a good job we got out in time. There might have been fight.

We go back to the yellow house, to its beautiful old-fashioned rooms. Peltonen disappears into the kitchen. He starts to make ‘pea soup à Ia Finntrader’: every Thursday, he says, aboard the Finnish freighter Finntrader, the traditional navy meal of pea soup is served. Peltonen ate pea soup on board the Finntrader almost ten times, for his journey from Finland to Japan – via the cape of Good Hope – lasted 65 days. The return journey, by aeroplane, took twelve and a half hours.

Peltonen admits that, as the only passenger on board, he would have gone mad if he had not been able to ring his wife Tuula at home in Finland every day. ‘My sense of humour sometimes came under pressure,’ says Peltonen, Finnish literature’s best-known ‘comi-tragedist’.

Sea has always been a beloved element ever since, as a young man, he went to sea and soon afterwards wrote articles, crosswords and jolly language games under the pseudonym Felix Navita. Peltonen has been admired as a linguistically inventive writer from those first published pieces; it is not a very common form of writing in Finnish literature.

There was another purpose in the long sea voyage beside the testing of his patience. Peltonen wrote, wrote, wrote. He is known as a regular and exact man: at home, the old-fashioned typewriter taps away every weekday from nine in the morning to three in the afternoon.

Now he is happy to be at home again, but all the same Juhani Peltonen always has in mind some country, city or means of transport which you will not find in package trip brochures of newspaper advertisements.

We eat the pea soup and talk. Peltonen speaks about the ceremony of crossing the equator, in which all the passengers are tarred in the traditional way. It was, for surrealists, an impressive experience. And suddenly, it is evening. The white, snowy landscape darkens around the yellow house. Friends arrive. Quietly we drink a little red wine and carry on talking, being, enjoying ourselves.

The stuffed birds on the book shelf listen to us carefully, and commit everything to memory.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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