The 101-year anniversary celebration

Issue 3/1989 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

From the collection of short stories, Saksalainen vävy (‘The German son-in-law’) , 1988. Interview by Erkka Lehtola

Järvinen thought he must have turned up at the wrong place when he saw an iron cross on a grey concrete wall. Surely the library couldn’t be holding its celebration here?

He groped in his breast pocket for the map the librarian had sent him. No: there the landmarks were, he’d followed them, he was at the right place.

He drove on a bit and saw there were cars parked behind the building. He parked next to them and got out. All the other cars were shiny, as if they’d just been washed; his was the only dirty one, its chassis a dusty grey. Rosinante came into his head, and he started wondering what Rosinante’s colour was supposed to have been: just the sort of knowledge he could fit in somewhere. Grey, he guessed – just as General Sandels’ horse in the Runeberg poem was white. And what colour was Pegasus? Didn’t know that either – it hadn’t ever even occurred to him to wonder. Almost certainly it would be there in the mythology.

He went in through the huge portal. The entrance hall was dim and cold, reminding him of a cemetery chapel. Perhaps it was a cemetery chapel.

A plumpish lady dressed in black was hurrying over to him. She offered her hand: ‘the librarian.’

‘How d’you do,’ she said, looking past him at something in the rear of the hall. ‘Splendid that you could make it.’

‘What building is this?’ Järvinen asked, trailing behind her towards a dimly visible ballroom beyond pale wooden doors.

‘This is our new parish hall,’ she said.

She led Järvinen in. The floor was a glossy parquet, the walls white paint. Rows of upholstered bluish leather seats began halfway down the room and continued to the back. There was a rostrum, also with a cross on it, and beside it a man-sized plant.

‘If I may introduce…’

Järvinen came out of his trance as she spoke. There were four men sitting on the front row, two wearing dark suits, the third one a priest, the fourth in colonel’s uniform. Järvinen didn’t recall any reference by the librarian to dark suits: he felt vexed, even though he was otherwise neatly turned out, in pale lightweight summer trousers and a short-sleeved white shirt. There’d be a tie in the glove compartment of his car.

The Chief Executive of the Town Council. The Bank Manager. The Dean. The Colonel.

‘Actually, I’m principally here as the chairman of the Lions Club,’ the bank manager said.

Järvinen nodded. The Colonel gave him a long look, no doubt wondering whether he’d done his military service here. The stare disconcerted Järvinen: he had come prepared for a relaxed occasion in a library and didn’t feel like squaring up to the colonel’s scrutiny.

‘Ah – people coming now,’ the librarian said and waddled back to the hallway.

The men sat down, and Järvinen perched at the end of the row.

‘You’ve been writing a long time,’ the chief executive said, so affirmatively that Järvinen didn’t realise at first that it was a question.

‘Twenty years or so.’

‘Can one make a living out of it?’ the bank manager asked.

‘Yes, I’ve managed to get by,’ Järvinen said.

‘They do say the grants are coming in so thick and fast now, there’s hardly any call to do the writing any more,’ the bank manager said.

‘Not as thick and fast as that, I must say,’ Järvinen said.

‘Well, I only say what I hear,’ the bank manager said. ‘I don’t get a chance to read much myself. But Mika Waltari’s The Egyptian is a good read.’

Järvinen nodded.

‘I read it every summer in Swedish,’ the bank manager said. ‘Important to keep your languages in trim.’

The chief executive bounced to his feet. Järvinen glanced behind him. The librarian was conducting a dozen or so people as if she were a guide. They seated themselves several rows away. The chief executive sat down.

‘All we need now is the choir master, and we can get started.’

The silence began to become oppressive. Järvinen could feel his palms going sweaty. When he shifted his bottom, the chair creaked. Then there was silence again. Järvinen began to feel that, with a little concentration, his ears would be able to distinguish the signals coming from the green plant: they’d be pulsating as if from outer space, from some unknown star so far only identifiable as a mathematical calculation or a buried tremor in the human spirit. And it occurred to him that this was just the sort of situation for going off your head, if it was going to happen. He could imagine leaping to his feet, sending his chair flying, and prancing in front of the men, blowing them raspberries, shaking his fists at them, before collapsing and rolling about on the ground, howling like a newborn baby, oblivious of everything, released from all guilt, and screaming with the blind horror of one who has stepped through the gates of the unknown. And then they’d take him away, back to the town.

At last the choir master arrived. With him there was a little girl carrying a violin case, and a thin woman wearing black lace gloves, clearly the girl’s mother.

‘Our own local writer,’ the bank manager whispered.

The thin woman sat next to Järvinen, drew her knitted skirt over her knees, and pursed her lips. The skin on her long neck looked like used wrapping paper.

The choir master began to play a hymn on the harmonium. The men sang, including the colonel, and so did the thin woman. Järvinen did not sing; he did not even open his mouth: the hymn was totally unknown to him.

After the hymn, the programme began. The chief executive gave an address; the little girl scraped her fiddle; the bank manager brought greetings; the colonel reminisced about his youth; the dean gave a history of his home district.

‘And now it’s the turn of our writers,’ the chief executive said. He didn’t hasten to the rostrum this time but simply stood up and turned towards the audience.

The thin woman rose. She walked over to the green plant, stood a moment with her eyes closed, then raised one of her hands.

‘A poem to the holy lake, Lake Pyhäjärvi,’ she said and opened her eyes.

‘Pyhäjärvi, you gleam in the morning,
with joyful song your wavelets pour.
Trembling groves are gently adorning
and tenderly girdling your every shore.

The cuckoos warble their twofold cry,
bring summer’s bliss to all our breasts.
Thousandfold birds are filling the sky
in concert, Pyhäjärvi, as your guests.’

The woman raised her hand once more and opened her palm, as if releasing an imprisoned bird into the air.

Järvinen clapped his hands with the rest. When he got up and walked over to the plant, he felt as if a part of himself had been left behind, still sitting in his place, an essential part. He took some index cards out of his breast pocket, three in all, where he’d jotted down, in between dashes, the main points of his speech. ‘The book in Finland’ had been the librarian’s preference – ‘and also a brief survey of the literature of our own province’. Järvinen shuffled his index cards, looked at the audience, who had adopted a listening pose, and made up his mind that everything he’d prepared was inappropriate.

‘I came here as a little boy,’ he said, uttering the first thing that came into his head. It was a ploy that had produced many an appreciated talk.

‘At that time I came on a bike, with clothes pegs for bicycle clips, and a cardboard box on the back rack. In those days, these were my travel accessories and my haversack.’

Järvinen related how he had camped on the lakeshore, rambled in the forest, tried in vain to catch a fish for lunch, ended up eating the sandwiches his mother had made for him, and had sat dreaming on a rock by the shore. He told about the morning a duck waddled into his tent, a long swim he embarked on, the musical call of the spirit of the lake, and his journey back home in wind and rain.

It was a beautiful story, and while still in the middle of it Järvinen had hit on its final sentence:

‘And the memories are stored in the heart like cherished old gramophone records in a cabinet; the old tunes, so familiar, so dear, sometimes so sweetly sad.’

He gave a slight nod and went back to his place. The applause was brief and was followed by a general chorus of the national anthem.

When they started moving out towards the hallway, the Colonel came up to Järvinen.

‘I say, always been plenty of fish in this lake, you know,’ he said.

Järvinen nodded. How could he admit he hadn’t the faintest idea whether he’d even tried to catch anything? All he could remember were the mosquitos, sniggering around a bathing hut used by a gaggle of girls, and a duck he’d tried to hit with a stone.

‘You’ve never written about this neighbourhood,’ the bank manager said.

‘No, that’s true.’

‘Miss Mustonen’s poems are all about these scenes and the local people round here,’ the dean said. ‘She gets them in the parish magazine too.’

‘Splendid,’ Järvinen replied.

Outside, the librarian grabbed Järvinen by the elbow. ‘Come over to the library now, and we’ll have some coffee.’

‘Fine,’ Järvinen said.

The librarian came in his car and directed him. She told him the library was having an exhibition of the work of a local artist in honour of the 101-year anniversary celebration.

‘So it really is the 101-year anniversary!’ Järvinen said. ‘I thought there must have been a printer’s error on the invitation card.’

‘Oh no,’ the librarian laughed. ‘It was originally supposed to be the centenary, but the building works on the parish hall were held up.’

‘Couldn’t you have held the celebrations in the library?’

‘No fear,’ she said.

They drove into the grounds of a red-painted wooden building. All the cars from the parish hall drove up in line. Like a funeral cortege, Järvinen reflected. The colonel’s car was chauffeured by a gipsyish-looking soldier.

By the coffee table, spread with a white cloth, Järvinen was introduced to an artist called Mustonen: a tall grey-haired man, who looked at him critically.

‘From the capital city?’ he asked.

‘No, merely the county town,’ Järvinen replied. Were this Mustonen and Miss Mustonen related? Equally thin they were, at any rate, and equally hostile-looking.

‘Not in the cubist stakes, myself,’ the artist said.

The bank manager came up to join them.

‘He’s painted more than pine fences, this Mustonen has,’ he said.

Järvinen circulated, looking at the pictures. There were both oils and water-colours. Even the frames were inexpertly done.

‘Never had a single grant, personally,’ the artist said. ‘Nor applied for one either.’

‘No one gets one without applying,’ Järvinen responded.

The artist sniffed scornfully. The bank manager drew Järvinen over to one of the bookshelves.

‘One of your books here,’ he said, extracting a book from a shelf and showing it to Järvinen.

Tango Valentine. Järvinen sneered inwardly. Even now he couldn’t help feeling slightly embarrassed: such was the fury of one’s first slim volume. What he dreaded was that someone would ask him to read something out of it.

‘Sign it,’ the bank manager said, his fountain pen at the ready.

‘Not in a library book, surely.’

‘It’s our municipality’s property.’

Järvinen took the pen and inscribed his name. He added the date and ‘the Library’s 101-year anniversary celebration’.

‘Get a better price for it now,’ the bank manager said, pushing the book back on the shelf.

‘Scarcely a lot,’ Järvinen said.

‘True, pictures are a better investment,’ the bank manager said. ‘Often thought of writing a book myself, but never seem to have the time.’

The chief executive was coming over to them, with a sparkling-eyed woman on his arm.

‘Allow me to introduce you to my wife.’

The woman smiled gaily.

‘I read a newspaper interview you gave once,’ she said. ‘They were interviewing both you and your wife. She went off with that musician, didn’t she?’

Järvinen nodded.

‘Don’t understand this modern stuff myself,’ the bank manager said. ‘Nothing but boom-boom and a mop of hair.’

‘Are you still living in the same house?’ the chief executive’s wife asked.

‘Yes, I am.’

‘You had a lovely garden there, I remember, with a Virginia creeper too. All we have here are the usual forest trees: spruce, and birch. And aspens; but the grass suffers under the aspens.’

Järvinen nodded, said yes and no, shook the local artist’s hand yet again and confronted his glower of defiance and suppressed rage. Mustonen’s breath stank of liquor.

‘City slickers, coming here with your advice,’ he said.

‘I never give people advice,’ Järvinen said.

‘Ladies present,’ the artist said. ‘Otherwise I’d tell you straight: fuck off.’

‘Come away, Ville,’ someone shouted across the room. ‘Leave the bugger be.’

Järvinen tried to see who it was, but his eyes only met the Colonel’s and the Colonel’s wife’s; perhaps it was someone in the entrance hall. He put his coffee cup down and made for the door. The librarian chased after him.

‘Have you got to be off already?’

Järvinen tried to raise a smile.

‘I’ve got a long drive ahead of me yet, and there’s some work I have to get out of the way in the evening.’

‘Esko – our bank manager here – has just invited us over to their place,’ the librarian said. ‘They’ve a lovely house right on the lakeshore.’

‘Thanks a lot, but I do really have to be on my way.’

Järvinen loped down the steps and hurried over to his car. A few miles down the road he suddenly remembered Rosinante and its colour. Should have looked it up, once I was in a library… Back home he went straight to the encyclopaedia: ‘Rosinante (Span. Rocinante), the name of Don Quixote’s horse; a hack or jade.’ Not a word about colour. He reached for Cervantes and blew the dust off the top. He leafed through it till he got fed up; maybe the horse was white, as the illustration on the book suggested. White was a good colour, anyway, even greyish white. Black was death. He concentrated on white.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

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