Real lives

Issue 1/1990 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Finnish literature rests largely on a realist tradition. Literature has been valued most when it gives a faithful description of the world. Realistic descriptions of people and nature gradually gave way to social realism, which in turn developed into psychological realism, currently the major trend; sometimes a tiring one. Contemporary Finnish literature overflows with portraits of relationships, family hells and Bildungsromanen, most of them scarcely indistinguishable from one another.

Psychological realism is at its most interesting when it has a social dimension. When – according to the realist tradition – it also deals with its own time, human conditions and ideals, or their absence. The work of Annika Idström (born 1947) has always included this dimension. It may be the main reason for the passion her books provoke, and for their undisputed importance contemporary Finnish literature.

Idström describes contemporary Finland with an almost anthropological attention to detail: slushy city streets, dismal concrete suburbs, smokey bohemian bars, the view from a night taxi. The landscapes and world she inhabits are familiar and safe, yet somehow abnormal. Her characters, too, are somehow sick, made ill and unclean by life. Their everyday lives are constrained, their ordinariness fanatical.

Idström is, nevertheless, not often praised for the realistic portrayal of landscapes. She is, above all, the chronicler of the boundless, sick and miraculous psyche. Her apparently ordinary characters are monsters and saints, dwarfs or cripples, criminals and witches. Psychological realism – and fantasy.

In her novels Idström deals with women. Although she does not consider herself a feminist writer, her books make constant connections with the Finnish tradition of women’s writing. her two most recent books do, it is true, contain profound male characters, and thus extend the genre.

Her first novel, Sinitaivas (‘Blue sky’, 1980) is Idström’s most traditionally feminist book: a story of the various women in a tenement block of rented flats. Life in such urban barracks is a familiar subject of women’s writing, which can be used to examine oppression in more than one generation. In Finland writers who have taken up the subject include Elvira Willman-Eloranta and Helvi Hämäläinen: the former’s play Kellarikerroksessa (‘In the basement’, 1907) described the lives of poor prostitutes; the latter’s first novel Katuojan vettä (‘Ditchwater’, 1935) tells of existence in block of rented flats during the depression of the 1930s.

Sinitaivas demonstrates that the conditions of many women’s lives have not changed a great deal since those times. Poverty and deprivation in society are still concentrated on women, who earn less than men and are often forced to bring up their children alone – thus the majority of inhabitants of council flats, too, are women.

Idström is no more delicate in her description of relations between men and women. All four women characters have been deserted by men, used, alone. They try to escape their narrow lives by going out dancing, but are forced to acknowledge that in the cattle market of the dance restaurant women are regarded as disparagingly as elsewhere. In addition to this, they must compete for men, and this destroys their unity. Competition strips the rivals naked, lies and inadequacies are mercilessly exposed, and at least one of the women is destroyed as a result.

The ways of escape offered by Sinitaivas and Idström’s next book, Isäni, rakkaani (‘My father, my love’, 1981) are difficult for both the books’ characters and their readers. A psychotic submersion in one’s own mind, the destruction of its mechanisms of submission and repression, are according to Idström a woman’s only way of breaking through to a life of human value in which choice is possible.

Isäni, rakkaani tells of a woman seeking her father who finds a father-substitute and proceeds to exploit him in a process of spiritual incest. Only after this is the woman able to free herself of her mother’s power, which her lack of a father only intensified.

Veljeni Sebastian (‘My brother Sebastian’, 1985) also tells of a woman in search of her father. It tears open the myth that motherhood makes women unselfish champions of the weak. Idström’s single parent is forced to acknowledge that she cannot play the role of the ‘real woman’ offered her by tradition and society. But there is, nevertheless, no alternative to the narrow norms of the nuclear family, and so the family becomes ill. The mother becomes a child, the little boy Antti a strong-willed dwarf, cleverer than the adults around him and his mother’s oppressor.

Stepping out of the home and into society, children are neglected, although they should apparently rule the family. Veljeni Sebastian also tells of Antti’s circle of friends, which is made up of children like him, perverted by their nuclear families. Idström strongly attacks her parents’ generation, which replaced love with material goods, suffocated children with its selfishness and sent them out, unprepared, into the world. The main characters in Idström’s books are these children, grown into adults: unknowing how to change their patterns of behaviour, they treat their own children, Antti and his friends, twice as badly. The result is a complete anomaly, a generation that seeks safety in magic, totalitarian thought, drugs and violence.

Seen from another perspective, Idström is far from being a submissive, descriptive writer. In her two most recent works, in particular, the struggle of the child – representing innocent, original humanity against artificiality and corruption looms large in the foreground. The main child characters of the books have, on account of their deviation and suffering, or despite them, their own systems of morals, according to which they live. They believe in goodness, miracles, mercy and salvation – in stark contrast to their modern, wavering, relativist, value-scorning elders.

Kirjeitä Trinidadiin (‘Letters to Trinidad’, 1989) demonstrates that Idström’s habit of redeeming her characters through psychosis, the shedding of the old self, is based on some kind of spiritual conviction. But it is no conventional Christian belief; more a Dostoyevskian faith in the necessity of sacrifice.

The new novel, like its predecessors, deals with the nuclear family: a father, mother and daughter on holiday in Israel. The novel is based on complete transformations which are undergone by the members of the family on their journey, both factually and in the narrator-father’s imagination. This conscientious, well-behaved tax official is revealed as a home tyrant, seducer of a young girl, a merciless exploiter of his clients. His wife is an erotic volcano inhibited by her husband’s pedantry, who projects her aggression on her daughter. The daughter is apparently handicapped, a near-mute lump of flesh who seems at first to be the devil incarnate, but is later revealed to be the innocent victim of her parents’ terror.

In the Holy Land, the narrator begins unconsciously to use biblical images in his fantasies. Family crises become a Passion play in which the father is both the suffering Christ and the devil, baying for blood. The Mother is Lilith, Eve and Mary in the same body. The mute daughter continually acquires more saintly characteristics until she becomes an angel and, through her own death, redeems her parents to a new life.

Idström’s solution to the family tragedy is strange, brilliant, and remarkable. First, it shows how empty, materialist and distressful contemporary life is. Idström’s description is, in its detail, a horrible and at the same time dazzling satire of the Finnish bureaucratic welfare state. Second, Idström’s solution demonstrates that her belief in humanity is not yet dead. Idström bridges the gap between truth and miracle naturally and shows that realism reaches beyond rationality. This seems, indeed, to be the direction of contemporary literature: from psychological, fantastic realism into the irrational.

All Annika Idström’s novels are characterised by their descriptions of contemporary Finnish life. Technically, they are highly realistic: the force of the narrative is in the reality perceived by the narrator, not in comparisons with past times, other values. Annika Idström does not write epics or analyses of what it is to be Finnish. Perhaps it is precisely this that makes her the cosmopolitan of contemporary Finnish literature.

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