Family crimes

Issue 4/1990 | Archives online, Authors

Olli Jalonen’s novel Isäksi ja tyttäreksi (‘Becoming father and daughter’), one of the shortlisted books for the 1991 Finlandia Prize, is set across Europe in 1999. Introduction by Erkka Lehtola

Olli Jalonen (born 1954) is one of those authors who have brought Finnish literature out of the forests and into the cities – even into the nuclear shelters. Unien tausta (‘A background of dreams’) won a short story competition run by the publishing house of Otava, and was published in 1978. His first novel, Sulkaturkki (‘Coat of feathers’) appeared in 1979, to be followed by Ilo ja häpeä (Joy and shame’, 1981), Hotelli eläville (‘A hotel for the living’,1983), Johan ja Johan (‘Johan and Johan’, 1989) and the story-novel Tuhkasaari (‘Ash Island’, 1987). Jalonen was awarded the Eino Leino Society Prize this year; Johan ja Johan was on the shortlist for the Finlandia Prize.

His most recent novel, Isäksi ja tyttäreksi (‘Becoming father and daughter’) is a loose continuation to the previous work, which described the lives of a father and his son who never met: the father lived in Petrograd (formerly St Petersburg, latterly Leningrad) in the 1920s, while the boy tried to find his way to a better life in Helsinki and Hämeenlinna in the 1930s and 1940s.

‘My new novel is a book about a grandson. I wanted to write a sequel to Johan ja Johan: the grandfather had gone through his life as an ideological fighter, while his son was a pioneer of early capitalism and entrepeneurism. The family connection was important: I wanted to explore what happens to the character who was born at the end of the last novel.’

And what about the journey from forest to city?

‘It’s no longer important whether the external events of my books are set in a Finnish forest or an Iraqi swamp. People travel. My generation started by hitching through Europe in the 1960s.’

Jalonen is not interested in literary realism: he mixes myth with reality, breaks the mould of traditional epic storytelling.

Isäksi ja tyttäreksi begins at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where the main character, the divorced Finnish father, is carrying out research into Mandaeanism on a Unesco scholarship. Mandaeanism held Jesus to be a false prophet, born of the devil, and John to be the greatest of all the prophets. The father returns to Finland and kidnaps his daughter from her new family, pretends to be planning a visit with her to Switzerland, but instead makes a confused flight through the cities of Europe to Northern Ireland, where he wants to start a new life with a new identity. The year is 1999; Jalonen describes it through the relationship between father and daughter.

Jalonen has examined Mandaeanism through the sect’s central works, The Book of John and The Great Treasure, published in Swedish and German in the 19th century. Maps and coincidences have also been important to him in writing the book. At one point he was travelling on a night train, which stopped in the North Korean countryside.

‘A Syrian was travelling in the same sleeper. We began talking. I got a lot of information and material for the background of the novel.’

Ireland, to which Jalonen often returns, is familiar: he lived there a decade ago. Reading and travel are part of his working method. Most recently, he spent two weeks on the island of St Helena, writing. The ship from Bristol goes there only six times a year.

Isäksi ja tyttäreksi sketches the outlines of the Europe of the coming century, but in the lives of its characters family problems take centre stage. Living abroad, the father misses his daughter, and the only solution seems to be to take by force that which divorce has, wrongly in part, forbidden him. The relationship between father and daughter is the book’s central motif: the 11-year-old girl matures and becomes able to take her own decisions, and the father has to rebuild his life once again. For him, this means leaving Finland: that alternative is still open.

Tags: