Life and letters

Issue 3/1989 | Archives online, Authors, Interviews

Meeting grey-suited Jarkko Laine on a Helsinki street, few would guess that he is a poet. His black briefcase seems more likely to contain accounts and computer printouts than Chinese poems or short stories by Raymond Carver. Few would imagine, either, that this friendly, smiling, gentle poet chairs the Finnish Writers’ Union, a post he has held since 1987.

And even fewer would guess that this is the most characteristic poet of post-war Finland, an ‘urbanist’, ‘child of Marx and Coca-Cola’, ‘mouthpiece for his generation’, ‘Nordic beatnik’, ‘the Gladstone Gander of Finnish literature, who succeeds in everything he sets his hand to’…

‘Sometimes it seems to me that people still brand me as a young poet,’ says Jarkko Laine, whose work is prolific and diverse: poetry, prose and journalism, in his capacity as editor-in-chief of the literary journal Parnasso.

Jarkko Laine made his appearance on the Finnish literary scene at a time when the entire country was in a state of change. He published his first volume of poetry, Muovinen Buddha (‘Plastic Buddha’), in 1967. ‘At that time traditional Finnish society was still going strong. In literature, too, all the old, safe values were still in place, without a drop of irony. Thinking about it now, it’s like digging up old bones.’

Then literary life became politicised, but the critics’ desire to pigeon-hole Jarkko Laine did not lessen. In those years he took on the editorship of Parnasso, but went on writing assiduously. ‘It still feels as if there’s something wrong if I don’t write anything during the course of the day even if it’s only a letter,’ says Jarkko Laine who has this year published two works: a volume of poetry, Oodi eilispäivän sanomalehdelle (‘Ode to yesterday’s newspaper’), and a collection of short stories, Neuvostopiru (‘Soviet devil’).

Jarkko Laine concedes that when all of life is literature, it becomes an occupational hazard in the end. ‘There’s a danger that the writer becomes distanced from the real world. It hasn’t gone as far in Finland as in America or the Soviet Union though where writers often live together in special houses. It’s to the good fortune of Finnish writers that they live in a country where we can’t afford such luxuries.’

As chairman of an association of five hundred writers, Jarkko Laine says it is obvious though, that the status of the writer ‘is still very high in Finland. ‘Writers are able to make a decent living,’ he says. He believes that the Finnish system of grants for writers, in many respects similar to the Canadian system, works well.

Jarkko Laine points out that there is no reason to reproach Finnish publishers, either: ‘Finnish publishers have always remembered their ideological traditions. The older houses were founded in the spirit of enlightenment of the masses, and they have continued to feel a responsibility in this direction. It would be completely impossible even to imagine that WSOY or Otava might print their books in Hungary, or stop publishing new Finnish writers.’ On the other hand, writers must constantly be on their guard against the erosion of their privileged position. ‘Sometimes it seems as if all the problems start with the copyright question. As Europe unites, it’s important, for instance, to keep an eye on the law regarding writers and, for instance, the standardisation of library dues.’

At present the Finnish Writers’ Union has around five hundred members. Of them, around a hundred are full-time writers, and around half of the total membership write actively in addition to their main employment.

As editor-in-chief of a literary journal, Jarkko Laine has followed the development of Finnish poetry, in particular. ‘It’s technically accomplished. The skill of our poets has increased, but there doesn’t always seem to be enough content to match the form. There hasn’t been any real renewal in Finnish poetry, although some good individual volumes have been published over the past few years. There’s no real poetic movement,’ says Jarkko Laine and points out that in neighbouring Estonia poets are in the vanguard of the process of social change.

The translation of literature, too, interests Jarkko Laine. At the same time he ponders who might be the writers whose works could be taken out into the world beyond Finland: of the classics, Ilmari Kianto, of today’s mature writers, Veikko Huovinen, of the middle generation, Arto Paasilinna – and then, of course, Veijo Meri.

Of course. My meeting with this besuited man ends in a joint eulogy of Veijo Meri. There’s a real European writer for you, we agree; he deserves a Nobel Prize.

We decide to take this idea to the Swedish Academy forthwith.

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