Writers from Pispala, the Red citadel: Lauri Viita and Hannu Salama

Issue 4/1988 | Archives online, Authors

Pispala is a Tampere suburb of some 7,000 inhabitants which has produced two top-class writers, Lauri Viita and Hannu Salama, as well as many others. In Finland it has the same kind of legendary status as London’s Bloomsbury, but how different it is from Bloomsbury!

No university, no museums, no old patrician mansions. Its little wooden houses are built higgledy-piggledy on a high moraine ridge from which a magnificent view opens out over two lakes and the river valley between them, where the chimneys of Tampere’s machine works, textile factories and paper mills rise. Pispala’s inhabitants have traditionally been factory workers whose contact with acting and literature has come through working men’s associations, sports clubs and local settlement houses. How is it that such surroundings gave rise to the birth of real literature?

Lauri Viita’s novel Moreeni (‘Moraine’, 1950) begins with a description of this milieu. It follows the forested country and waterways that open up to the north, carrying timber, grain and people. ‘At the lower end of the lake was at last the knot that bound roads and routes, paths and streams into a single node. It was not possible either to avoid or to untie that knot; anyone or anything that had joined the river had to go through the merciless process that stretched and tortured its victim into a new form, if it did not simply drag it into the waste sludge of its whirlpools. It was a techno-social giant’s churn, which also goes by the name of an industrial city.’

Viita’s picture of Tampere is poetic, determinist and materialist. Natural forces and social laws bring people to the city, and there they become slaves: the water, fire and raw materials that whirl in the factory machines dictate the movements of thousands of human hands and brains. The industrial city is, for Viita, ‘a method which frees the individual from all responsibility, emotion, knowledge, hearing, sight, effort’, as well as ‘creators from creating’.

Independence and individual choice are beyond the reach of the many, but for the few the new surroundings can provide a good starting point by jolting into action talents that have lain dormant in the slumbering countryside.

According to Viita’s vision, Pispala is something completely other than a city. The characters in Moreeni move from cramped rented factory accommodation to the ridge at Pispala, where they build their own houses with their own hands, without building plans or interference from architects; in short, they rise as creators above the coercive urban machine. Viita’s account of the building of Pispala is a creation myth: ‘Just as birds know how to build their nests, the men of Pispala know how to place God’s building bricks on the high moraine terrace.’ Life on the ‘holy mountain’ is conditioned by wide views, winds from the forest and a sense of space. It is no wonder that in his poem Alfhild Viita saw the builders of Pispala sitting alternatively in their garden swings at home and in the manors of heaven.

Hannu Salama’s short story Hautajaiset (‘The funeral’, in the volume Kesäleski, ‘Summer widow’, 1969), deals with the scattering of a close-knit community, the death of the old Pispala. Salama’s Pispala was from the beginning a more down-to-­earth place than Viita’s. His first collection of short stories, Lomapäivä (‘Holiday’, 1962), begins with a story reminiscent of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories, in which a young boy goes on fishing trips around Pispala with his grandfather, who passes on a fund of stories about political controversies, oppression and predicament in the family.

The background is the Finnish civil war of 1918, after which the Red losers, in the decades that followed, formed a sort of embattled camp in Finnish society. Salama is much more politicised than Viita, and in his opinion the class struggle has ruined the lives of two generations. Viita’s characteristically romantic icing is completely absent from his landscapes. Pispala is for him, too, a ‘landscape of the soul’, but a very naturalistic one: ‘asphalt, cellulose waste, scrap iron, rusted bicycle mudguards, flattened cans of fish, last night’s condom like a giant clod of snot splattered on the surface of the road’ – ‘it wouldn’t become beautiful by adding a couple of parks, however carefully you watered them.’

Pispala’s workers sent their children to school in Tampere to learn culture. Both Viita and Salama went to Tampere’s classical high school, whose walls carry the painted symbols of antiquity: Jupiter’s eagle, owls, a Roman lamp and other allegories of light, learning and wisdom, together with injunctions to fear the God of the Old Testament and obey his commandments. The southern façade of the school house is adorned with a poem that encourages its readers to listen to the voice of classical Greece:

Fennia vos genuit
Gremio vos intima fovit
Arboris auscultet
Murmura quisque suae.
Fenni vos maneatis,
At hoc animis retinete
Graecia quid dederit
Vobis et Hesperia.

Finland has given birth
and lovingly chosen you.
So listen to
the murmur of her trees.
As men of Finland
carry always in your minds
that which is given to you
by Greece and Hesperia.

Neither of the Pispala boys, Viita or Salama, flourished at this school; both abandoned their studies after a couple of years. At home Salama read Marx, Engels and Stalin, but at the classical high school he did make an important contact with Dostoyevsky. Five years before the publication of his first book, he wrote in his diary: ‘Dostoyevsky is nevertheless more of a genius than I am.’ When, later, he studied at the Christian folk school, he found on its library more important guides to his literary work in the shape of Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed, Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra and Camus’ L’Etranger.

The remarkable combination of a proletarian childhood with its materialism on the one hand, and on the other Christianity and Existentialism, is reflected in Salama’s major work, Siina näkijä missä tekijä (‘No crime without a witness’, 1972), which received the Nordic Council’s literary prize in 1975. It describes Pispala’s embattled communist minority over a period of almost 40 years. But it is no simplistically chronological realist or political account. Salama employs the techniques of the modern novel as he has learned them from, for example, Joyce Cary’s sequence novels or Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet.

The central factor of the action of the novel is a description of the activities of the sabotage group of Pispala communists during the Second World War in Tampere. Traditional communists opposed the official government of Finland, which conducted its own independent war against the Soviet Union as an ally of Hitler’s Germany. They swore on the name of Stalin and made contact with reconnaissance parachutists sent from the Soviet Union, and when they were caught they were imprisoned for treachery. Their activity remained marginal and even with the best will in the world it is impossible to accord them the kind of importance of the persons, for instance, in Sartre’s resistance novel Les chemins de la liberté.

Salama concealed within his own resistance novel elements of both an Entwicklungsroman and a family chronicle. Centre stage is taken by Salama’s alter ego, Harri Salminen, whose individual view of events is present at every turn of the novel’s plot. It is no wonder that the communists of the 1970s were enraged and accused Salama of defaming the working classes and distorting history. It is absolutely true that Salama’s characters are no heroes of socialist realism, but real, often very corrupt, people. The lives of the Pispala family are described revealingly, not shirking their picaresque or comic elements. There results a web of sexuality and hate, whoredom and treachery, in which all loyalties, and even the clear divisions between characters, become problematic. The central element is the fruitless history of suffering of a young man, the novel’s existential hero, and above all the confession of a wretched man who is believed to be a defector, which brings an element of Dostoyevskian dizziness to the novel.

The short story Hautajaiset appeared when the novel was already in progress. It sets out from almost the same starting point as Camus’ L’Etranger. It coldly predicts a couple of dozen forthcoming funerals: the former Pispala is no more. There, will be no more singing of communist psalms, fantasies of the solidarity of the family and of the revolutionary spirit will give way to day-to-day, selfish quarrelling. The successful writer boasts like a child of his role and appears ironically as the focus of the family.

Salama is a writer with impressive powers of metamorphosis. His novel Amos ja saarelaiset (‘Amos and the islanders,’ 1987), one of his latest achievements, is a dystopia which describes the world after a nuclear catastrophe. Its fixed social grouping is the priestly elite, which gives it some similarity to Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Salama has said that he began this book shortly after completing the Pispala novel, and in it the place of the Red citadel of Pispala is taken by the theocracy ruled by the priests, which keeps beyond its walls the heaving masses crippled by radiation. The old arrangement is turned inside out, but Salama’s narrative preserves its unity with guilt, suffering and death.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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