Irreverent laughter

Issue 4/1992 | Archives online, Authors

Eeva Tikka, prose-writer, poet and story-teller, seeks her material in the most everyday subjects, the countryside of middle Finland, and the internal landscapes of middle-aged and middle-class people. But she is no simple kitchen-sink realist: she places here and there challenging and dangerous will o’the wisps, passions, jealousies, disappointments, terrors. The austerely calm surface of life cracks, breaks and deepens.

Tikka (born 1939) is a biologist by training, and she scatters her scientific knowledge liberally through her narratives. As such, the presence of the landscape is nothing new in Finnish literature, but for Tikka nature is more than an ornament or an object of lyrical reverie: it is a motor and contributory factor to action, an arrogant foe or a tender earth-mother.

At the same time, nature is a Darwinist battlefield, full of aggression and the right of the stronger. It is also a maker-whole and a birth-giver. ‘… In league with the trees they are stronger than themselves/ in league with death / close to life’, Tikka writes in a poem from Kalliomaalaus (‘Cliff painting’, 1987). Symbols of nature, from wind to rock, water to forest reflect human history and mentalities, sometimes petrifaction, sometimes movement.

Tikka’s breakthrough novel, Hiljainen kesä (‘Silent summer’, 1979) names, according to the writer Olli Jalonen, 61 different creatures. Set in a time of mourning, it describes the network of hidden aggressions within a family whose youngest son has drowned in a nearby pond during the spring gales. Their shared sorrow does nothing to relax tensions, old or new, within the family; on the contrary, ordinary stresses intensify and reach the point of explosion as the summer progresses. Tikka’s characters are not ennobled by grief; they become anguished or petrified, or run away.

Tikka’s themes and characters are a treasure-trove for feminist literary scholars. For her, woman, closer to nature and more flexible, is often the one that somehow survives: she dares to break, and breaking is always the possibility of something new. The socially more rigid, predatory male often remains a spiritual invalid: he dries up, or, sometimes, is destroyed in his defiant Icarus-flight.

One of Tikkas most highly praised works is Aurinkoratsastus (‘Sun ride’, 1986), a novel whose main character is a mentally handicapped boy. The focus, however, is again on relations within the family. The impatient and energetic father has long since rejected his mongoloid child. The boy’s mother and sister, on the other hand, continue to struggle under the contradictory pressures of love, exhaustion and revulsion. The boys death, a kind of unwitting suicide, perhaps solves the practical problems, but raises other, more serious ones: emotional inadequacy, the difficulty of loving.

Until now, Tikka has rarely employed humour or irony in her work. At their most mythic, for example in her poems, her subject-matter and language seem sometimes too sombre.

In her most recent collection of short stories, Pythonin yö (‘Night of the python’, 1992), Tikka experiments with freer tones than before, sometimes farcical ones. One of the stories tells of a cantor who writes to his surgeon claiming that his personality has undergone a change while under anaesthetic. He has lost his respect for serious matters, and is in danger of bursting into laughter at all times and places, particularly during funeral hymns.

Has something similar possibly happened to Eeva Tikka? Few writers describe difficult matters, for example death, with as light a touch as some of her new short stories. Death is a grotesque dynamo that sets lust for life in motion. And if life is a Darwinist game, death is so in double measure.

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