Between cultures

Issue 4/1991 | Archives online, Authors

The task of a story is to find words to express that which is too extraordinary to be told. ‘Stones should interpret silence and make it understandable.’

Colorado Avenue, Lars Sund’s third novel, is undoubtedly his most spectacular and dramatic so far. A substantial and weighty epic (a rare genre in Finland-Swedish literature), the book is at the same time formally inventive and playful. A particularly dramatic, action-packed episode may be written in the form of a script for a silent film, while a broader portrait of the times is sketched in a chapter which invites the reader to examine a set of old glass negatives, found among the effects of a parish primary schoolteacher, which an enthusiastic indoor gardener has later incorporated into a greenhouse to protect his tomato seedlings.

Without undermining the tragedy of the events he describes, Sund writes into his texts a distance, a kind of fatalistic irony, using a lively and far from impartial narrator whose origins and family history, recounted, created, reconstructed and mythologised, form the substance of the book.

The story takes place against the broader historical background of the strong wave of emigration from Southern Ostrobothnia, which reached its peak between 1890 and 1910, gradually fading away after the first world war. Surprisingly, this important subject has not figured prominently in Finland-Swedish literature – perhaps, as Sund himself tentatively suggests, because it is too concrete and sensitive a subject for the autocratic and self-sufficient forms of literature.

Marks of this period are still present in the dialect, customs and everyday objects of Ostrobothnia. The migrants, and re-migrants, of Colorado Avenue speak, in addition to their English and their native dialect, a highly individual form of ‘American Swedish’. Such textual language games, all too rare in Finland-Swedish prose, are undoubtedly part of the same creative linguistic uncertainty that stands behind the great modernist tradition of Finland-Swedish poetry. In the beginning, then, there is Rödskars Hanna, who leaves Siklax in Swedish-speaking Ostrobothnia for America to find work as a maid, marries Ed Ness (or Näs), an all-American ‘union man’ originally from her own parish in Finland, is left a widow, returns in 1905 with her two children to Siklax, and becomes a shopkeeper, known to the villagers, inevitably, as ‘Dollar Hanna’.

Her son, Otto – the narrators grandfather – exploits the only qualities he has inherited from his father, his fatal charm and quick wits, as a bootlegger during Finnish prohibition, and disappears, surrounded by vague rumours – perhaps back to the ‘Newyork’ of his dreams, the unforgettable wonderland of his childhood. At home in Siklax, the story is dominated by Hanna and Johannes Smeds, chairman of the local council, whom locals call, simply, the Chairman. Smeds’ fate, too, is to lose his first-born: his oldest son, Erik, goes to join the Jäger battalion in Germany, returns to fight for the Whites in the Finnish civil war, and is killed in the fighting at Tampere at Easter 1918.

Lars Sund was himself born in Ostrobothnia, in 1953, and has experienced the life of an immigrant in the United States: his parents emigrated in 1961 – the very last Ostrobothnians to do so – and Sund attended school in the Bronx for two years before returning to Finland. Is the story of Colorado Avenue also his story? Is the narrator’s family also Lars Sund’s family?

‘No, it’s all lies and make-believe! There are plenty of American emigrants in my family, but not a single bootlegger that I know of! All my characters are made up; the parish of Siklax, too, is pure fiction,’ Sund says. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of a fictive world, in which I as a writer can play both God and local government committee chairmen.’

All the same… the narrators grandfathers name, Näs, means ‘headland’, while the writer’s own surname, Sund, means ‘channel’. ‘What a coincidence,’ exclaims Sund; ‘I’d certainly no intention…’

Sund himself has spent the past 14 years living and working in as a journalist in Uppsala – like many Swedish cities, a multicultural ethnic community. The subjects of his previous novels may suggest future directions: the rockers of his native town of Jakobstad in Natten är ännu ung (The night is still young’, 1975), or the Turku student life, coloured by 1970s leftism, of Vinterhamn (‘Winter harbour’, 1989).

For the present, Sund is delighted to hear that his accent is still pure Ostrobothnian: ‘That’s good to hear, that’s what I’ve tried to preserve. I’ve certainly been helped by the fact that I’m hopelessly unmusical; the intonation of rikssvensk just doesn’t take root with me.’

Sund, or his narrator, runs the many-stranded plot of Colorado Avenue up to 1929. And what then? What happens after page 358? Will the same narrator one day tell us more: of the Winter and Continuation Wars; the tomato-growers and greenhouses and mink farms of Närpiö; and the young people who, like the author himself, leave home to study or emigrate, taking with them, as he has done, the dialect, linguistic and cultural, of their native Ostrobothnia?


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