Stories of solitude

Issue 3/1988 | Archives online, Authors

The short story has, discounting a few seasonal variations, always been a popular and greatly loved literary genre in Finland. Recently young writers, in particular, have lent new credence to the strengths and variety of the short story.

Sinikka Tirkkonen (born 1954) has published two highly original collections of short stories, Halla (‘Frost’, 1985) and Luvaton elämä (‘Forbidden life’, 1987). In them she has claimed her place as a writer and aroused great expectation. Her second book won the 1988 Runeberg Prize as well as a Government literature prize; she has also been awarded a one­-year literary grant. Sinikka Tirkkonen gave up a teaching job to become a writer. Now she does her solitary work in a little cottage in the village she was born in, 350 kilometres from the literary circles of the south.

A characteristic feature of Tirkkonen’s short stories is their poetic quality; in her latest book the narrative element has strengthened, although the plot is more usually dispersed into a series of allusions, and tensions are born of tiny nuances, the story is pushed into the background while vignettes, impressions and movements in the characters’ consciousnesses come to the fore. The interleaving of images and mental pictures, like the movement of ideas, is another lyric element. The rhythmic arrangement of these elements in a stream of consciousness create the illusion of the present moment. Her treatment of time is also lyrical: there are many moments in the present.

Halla was the first evidence of a new talent, a clearing of the throat, as it were; but Luvaton elämä is in all senses a balanced and controlled work. Sinikka Tirkkonen has broadened the spectrum of life she describes and deepened her character portraits. She has developed her expressivity in a scale that reaches from almost standard Finnish to deep dialect.

Tirkkonen’s favoured literary mode, in this early phase, appears to be the very short short story, tight and dense in meaning. People, little events and moments are seen in close-up. The narrator seems to walk beside her characters and knows their most secret thoughts and feelings. But they do not allow anyone else close to them. When the narrative is in the first person, as is usual, these people’s basic solitude is laid bare.

Sinikka Tirkkonen’s heroes belong to the countryside, to the places that are neither habitations nor wilderness. They live aside from the rest of life, on the fringes of society, and what happens to them is nothing like the experience of the average citizen. They have fallen away from normal life: they are the unemployed, the village idiots, the bewildered.

The short stories are variations on the basic themes of living in a private world, of turning in on oneself. A certain Einari shuts himself up in his house and won’t open the door to anyone; later he escapes to the wilderness. In another story the hard-working Kaarina is made redundant and goes to bed and lies under her quilt; in the end she leaves her husband and disappears somewhere. In a third story, Teuvo dries nylon shirts in the April sun and remembers his youth: ‘Once there was a real girl.’ They still have their relationship with nature, which is why solitude feels different in April and November.

Tirkkonen describes people’s most intense experiences in all their ordinariness. She has the capacity to intensify and concentrate in the best traditions of the short story. At the same time she stylises with a masterly hand, so that dialogue and dialect avoid the exaggeration of excessive realism while remaining natural and lively.

The landscape of these stories is comfortless and depressed. The processes of life have jammed into a state almost devoid of movement, everything is silent and small, there is only a little light. People live on a border-line where the smallest thing may crush them, but miraculously they survive. Sinikka Tirkkonen describes her landscape with beauty and control – delicate matters remain unshattered with the help of a quiet but constant humour.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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