Thunder in the east

Issue 4/1991 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extract from the novel Colorado Avenue (Söderström & Co, 1991). Introduction by Pia Ingström

Come. We are going to look at schoolmaster Johansson’s photographs.

It is true that Johansson himself died of TB back in 1922, and the collection of glass negatives he left behind – several dozen boxfuls – was destroyed in a peculiar manner. This, however, constitutes no hindrance to us. Where reality falls short, fantasy must intervene. By expanding realistic style beyond the scope of the possible we create a new reality.

To seek to grasp at Time and hold her fast is a dangerous and hopeless undertaking; Time wreaks a terrible revenge on those who seek to rise up against it. Thus, too, was schoolmaster Johansson’s dream of eternity with the help of silver nitrate and glass frustrated. In the spring of 1926 schoolmaster Johansson’s household effects were finally sold by auction. A certain Eskil Holm from Blaxnäs snapped up the glass negatives for a small sum.

The art of photography was not something that this Eskil Holm cared much about; it was the glass he was after.

Eskil Holm had been in America and had there become acquainted with the art of cultivating plants under glass. He fancied that it should be possible to grow tomatoes in greenhouses in Siklax, too. With the help of a brush and some gasolene he cleaned away thirty years of the Siklax district’s history from his newly acquired plates of glass. After that he cemented them together into a greenhouse. He also planted the tomato seeds he had ordered from America.

True to custom, the inhabitants of Siklax greeted his project with laughter and the shaking of heads. Since that day they have, however, stopped laughing and have built greenhouses of their own. Nowadays Eskil Holm is regarded as the pioneer of the greenhouse industry in southern Ostrobothnia.

As the glass negatives were several thousand in number Eskil Holm could not clean all of them particularly carefully. Consequently relics of the subjects remained on the greenhouse walls: whole and half people, black, freely floating faces, severed torsos, hinder parts of horses, faded landscapes. The greenhouse was an archive of local history, the contents of which lay higgledy-piggledy. Look here: Dollar Hanna’s country shop as it looked that November day in 1905, to think that precisely that plate survived almost unharmed! And there: the rear end of Nygårds-Elisa’s 1914 model T-Ford, brought home from America, the first automobile in the parish of Siklax as far as is known. The shore, with boathouses and jetties. A school class. The ceremonial opening of Siklax Hospital in 1911; posing in front of the hospital one can see the project’s chief promoters: the Chairman, Dr Norrmén, in a white coat, and Miss Rakel Thodén, the midwife, unfortunately half washed away….

Next to the greenhouse door a funeral. Snow; many people standing on both sides of the road. Six men are bearing a coffin. The bearers have white armbands (black on the negative, of course). So it must all be part of a hero’s funeral in the early spring of 1918.

On the greenhouse’s longitudinal wall, near the ground, there is a negative that is worth a closer examination. The narrator must however ask the patient reader to stand on his head – like so! Yes, the glass has in fact been cemented in upside down.

Standing on our heads we observe the following motif:

In the background the imposing historic building in Smeds’ courtyard. Close to the corner of the house a tall memorial tree, a bird-cherry. On the negative the bird­cherry appears entirely in black, as though it were draped in an enormous piece of crape. But we must turn black into white! Then we discover that the bird-cherry has been attacked by spinning-moths and is shrouded in the white net of those noxious insects.

A coffee table has been set up out in the courtyard. The table is spread with a freshly laundered linen cloth. A solitary coffee cup is set, together with sugar bowl, cream­jug and dish of rolls. Four people are grouped around this symbolic coffee table. On a high-backed chair the Chairman sits in state, next to him sits a woman in white festive apron, she is looking down into her lap but can nonetheless be identified as Smess-Bat. On a rattan sofa sits a young man with a broad, open face, he is cheerfully smiling; at his side he has a woman, he is holding her hand. The woman is Dollar Hanna.

But wait a moment!

Dollar Hanna in the company of a young man who is obviously in love on a sofa in Smeds’ courtyard! There is something wrong there, surely.

And true enough: if we look closer we see that it can scarcely be Hanna. The determined posture, the head held high, the lines of the face are reminiscent of Hanna, but the woman is quite a bit younger – really still a girl. There can hardly be any doubt: this is Hanna’s daughter Ida, who has grown up into a stylish young woman, strikingly like her mother. The young man at her side is the Chairman’s Gusta. They are engaged to be married.

But ought there not to be one more person in this family portrait? Where is Erik, the Chairman’s eldest son?

Schoolmaster Johansson took this photograph one Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1917. The Grand Duchy of Finland’s last summer; a summer of war, evil rumours and flies.

This Sunday when schoolmaster Johansson comes up to Smeds’ with his camera the sun is burning white and petrified as usual in a sky as hot and dry as a brick­kiln – for the summer is shaping up to be unusually warm. The haymaking is already over and done with, its quality was only a little above average. The severe drought has already taken a heavy toll of the rye and corn harvest, which is showing yellow spots; the earth in the fields is grey-white and cracked, in the potato patches the haulm is drooping, scorched by the heat. There is a rumour that the inhabitants of Blaxnäs have already begun to take their cattle out to pasture in the skerries, and that is earlier than any living soul can remember, yes, these are strange times we are living in, no rain will come, it is as though everything were out of balance, and out in the big world men continue to wage war and no peace is in sight…

The peace of a holiday reigns. The inhabitants of Siklax have been to church to let Dean Roschier call down the blessing of the Lord upon them (and also enjoy the coolness under the medieval stone vaults), after which they have eaten dinner, and now Siklax is dozing, smothered by the heat and the food.

Only the buzzing of flies and the shrill cries of the swifts high up in the air can be heard.

In the shadow of the lilac hedge sit the Chairman and schoolmaster Johansson, talking things over after the photographs have been taken, they are brothers in the same party and longtime companions in local politics. Neither host nor guest can bring himself to make a move, so they remain sitting here in the heat. Smess-Bat has long ago gone in. Ida and Gustav too have disappeared, hand in hand, and cheerfully laughing.

The Chairman has lit his pipe, but there is no relish in smoking in the heat, it is as though one’s mouth were filled with the fumes of burning rubber. Schoolmaster Johansson coughs every now and then: he holds a handkerchief in front of his mouth and sometimes spits into a small brown bottle. At such times one looks away. TB should be acknowledged with reluctance: otherwise one may draw it upon oneself.

Buzzing of flies. The cries of swifts.

‘Well, and when is the wedding to be?’ asks schoolmaster Johansson.

‘Towards Christmas, we thought,’ replies the Chairman, distractedly.

‘Yes, Ida is certainly a sensible and reliable girl in every way, she was my pupil….’

The schoolmaster suddenly grows hesitant, the rest of what he was going to say remains hanging in the air.

The Chairman looks at him. And Johansson thinks with a kind of sudden horror: ‘But good Lord how he seems to have aged” The Chairman’s gaze is certainly tired – but it is sharp nonetheless. Johansson begins to shift uncomfortably as he sits in his chair. Calmly the Chairman says:

‘Yes, I know exactly what people are thinking. There should have been a real farmer’s daughter at Smeds’ and not the country shopkeeper’s lass. But you see, Johansson, I’m such an old man that I don’t give a damn about talk like that any more. It is definitely not social class that decides a person’s quality, but something else, that I have learned. When the time comes, Smeds’ cannot hope to acquire a better lady than Ida, she is worth more than a dozen farmers’ daughters, so she is, and so would she be even were she a crofter’s daughter”

‘It almost sounds as if you’d gone and become a socialist!’

Then the Chairman laughs.

‘No, see here, Johansson, the Social Democrats have never had any kind of a sympathiser in me and they never will, either, that’s one thing that is certain. But I seem to remember a certain young schoolmaster who in 1905 spoke warmly in support of social democracy….’

‘Well, there were many who did in connection with the General Strike,’ the schoolmaster said, cutting short the gibe. ‘I was still a young man then. And young men fall such easy prey to all kinds of aberrations, one has to rebel against the authority of one’s father….’

‘They do it,’ said the Chairman stiffly.

The schoolmaster could have bitten off his tongue: now he had touched the open and infected sore! How could he have been so thoughtless! He resorts to coughing in order to get over his embarrassment, pulls up the handkerchief and the brown bottle even though it is not necessary. But this time the Chairman does not turn away his gaze. It is almost as though he wants Johansson to see the gleam of naked pain in his eyes, it glints like a pike-hook just beneath the surface of the water. It only lasts a moment, then the Chairman snaps shut the watch-case of everyday reality around the clockwork of his inner life; a shared sense of relief makes them both shift in their chairs and reach for their emptied coffee-cups, the Chairman rattles matchbox and lights his pipe again.

‘The young folk can’t be set on the right rails the way they used to be,’ said the Chairman. ‘As my father did with me. Nowadays the young people make their own way in life. They burn for what they think is right and proper, that is the strength of youth. But that someone might get burnt by the flames, that they never think of. Perhaps that is right and proper.’

He draws on his pipe and blows out a mouthful of smoke.

‘It’s really rather strange,’ says the Chairman. ‘When one is young one knows exactly how everything must be done. The way is clearly marked out. But the older one gets, the less one knows….’

Then the clatter of horses’ hooves is heard down on the road. The Chairman falls silent. Uneasily he and the schoolmaster watch a patrol of Russian dragoons ride by. The soldiers are sweaty and dusty, their rifles thump against their backs, the harness jingles. The NCO who is leading the patrol wears a red armband. Here in Siklax, too, the revolutionaries have taken control of the army.

The dragoons vanish up towards Ackerbacken where they are stationed, the dust of the road hangs like powder smoke in the air after them.

‘One more reminder of the order of things…’ sighs the schoolmaster.

Yes, the Russians’ regular patrols are a sign of the state of war that now exists. Troops are stationed in several Ostrobothnian municipalities, in Siklax, too, why it is not so easy to discover; is the Russian High Command perhaps afraid of a German or Swedish invasion here? The presence of the Russian soldiers is burdensome in more way than one. It falls to the lot of the municipality to supply the troops with provisions, hay and firewood. The municipal committee fulfils its contractual obligations with reluctance and limits the official contacts to those that are absolutely essential. In general the inhabitants of Siklax keep themselves to themselves. But even here there are ryssbrudar, women who do not consider themselves above fraternising with the Russians. And the handful of social democrats with tanner Juoppi at their head that exists here in the municipality has since the March revolution begun to run all kinds of errands up to Ackerbacken – who knows what sort of get-togethers they have with the Russians….

‘Well, I suppose I’d better start moving along,’ says the schoolmaster, but makes no attempt to get up.

The air above the plain is quivering with the heat; the barns seem to float slightly above the ground, the distant forest edge is wrapped in a duty blue haze. Far away in the east thunder is rumbling.

‘Thunder,’ says the Chairman reflectively. ‘Soon the storm will break out over us, you’ll see.’

‘Oh, we need a bit of rain,’ says the schoolmaster. Then he realises that the Chairman is talking about a different kind of storm. The Chairman pretends not to notice the remark.

‘We must be glad for each day we pass in peace and quiet.’

‘Oh, does one have to be quite so pessimistic?’ says Johansson. ‘After all, up till now Finland has kept to one side of the great conflagration.’

‘But that is scarcely any guarantee that things will go on that way. The general strike in Åbo this spring was ominous. The food shortages and unrest are growing in Southern Finland. There is total political confusion in Helsingfors. And God alone knows what is going to happen in Russia, the Bolsheviks are gaining ground and attacking Kerensky, there is discontent and mutiny in the army.’

‘Oh, in a little while there will be peace, I mean, there are rumours of negotiations….’

‘No, I don’t think the war will be over at once. And now the Americans have joined in, just wait until they’ve got their troops and aeroplanes across the Atlantic, in the end the Germans will probably bite the dust after all. Then it will be important for Finland to know which is the right horse to back….’

The Chairman swiped at a stubbornly buzzing fly. He resumed:

‘Before the war has been fought to an end we will probably end up being sorry too, one way or the other, here in our small corner of the world. And nothing will be the same afterwards. We must only hope that little Finland and all of us are not mown down when History’s harvester comes rolling over us…. ‘

The thunder rumbled far away in the east.

Translated by David McDuff


No comments for this entry yet

Leave a comment