Full circle

Issue 2/1993 | Archives online, Authors

The characteristic genres of Daniel Katz (born 1938) are the picaresque novel, the tall story, and the burlesque. He is unusual in Finnish literature in being a humorist and a cosmopolitan. Ever since his first novel Kun isoisä Suomeen hiihti (‘When Grandfather skied to Finland’, 1969) he has drawn on his Jewish family’s rich supply of stories from eastern and central Europe. Katz transforms a dark and tragic background of cruelty, pogroms and alienation into piquant, warm-hearted narratives about survival.

Daniel Katz is one of the few male Finnish authors who does not write from a wounded, introverted ego. He is cheerful, open, alert and full of healthy scepticism towards both Jewishness and Finnishness. One of his tours de force is to portray the encounter between Nordic introversion and central European extroversion. This was one of the triumphantly successful achievements of his first novel, the story of his grandfather, a cavalry officer in the tsar’s army who came to Finland in order to get married.

Katz has novels and collections of short stories. He has settled in Finland-Swedish Liljendal in eastern Nyland (Uusimaa), and at the same time broadened the thematic scope of his writing to include the Middle East, both in his prose and as scriptwriter for a film about the Finnish orientalist Georg August Wallin. It has been said of Daniel Katz’s writing that his exuberant imagination is both a strength and a weakness. The episodes and the ideas sometimes have a way of devouring one another. But Katz can also produce taut and profound psychological compositions, particularly in his short stories.

Katz’s novel Saksalainen sikakoira (‘Schweinehund’), is one of his most ambitious works; in it he succeeds in keeping the narrative’s central plot under perfect control, along with a host of sub-plots.

The general outline of the plot is as follows: Mauri Pertuska, gymnastics teacher and headmaster by profession, Finnish Jew and widower by civil status, discovers that he is suffering from an incurable illness. At the same time he comes across diaries kept by his father in 1930s Germany, which reveal that as a young man his father worked as a circus down and conjuror. From these diaries it emerges, among other things, that a certain Herr Ullrich, the main landlord in the little eastern German town of Eggenau, sent his father a pig’s tail as a threat.

This incident, combined with incipient neo-fascism in both Finland and Germany, and the knowledge of his own imminent death, makes Pertuska decide to avenge, as his final act, the injustice done to his father. He buys a pistol, conceals it in the saddle-bag of his bicycle, and goes bumping off over the roads of the former GDR to Eggenau, where Herr Ullrich is living out his old age. When he gets there, Pertuska almost immediately ends up in bed with Herr Ullrich’s granddaughter, something that makes his role of avenging angel more difficult. Everything ends in comic chaos, with an enormous ‘pig-dog’ (Schweinehund) and its tail playing a decisive part.

Schweinehund is one of very few recent books in Finland to contain a serious social and ethical discussion. Mauri Pertuska’s act of revenge is irrational and absurd, but it none the less has its origin in a real insight into the causes of the Holocaust and the rebirth of fascism.

Daniel Katz is also one of the first writers to see Finland in terms of the new Europe, and a part of it. It is not the ECs image of Europe that he presents, but glimpses of something quite different: racism and xenophobia in Helsinki pubs, the shuttle traffic of refugees on the ferries between Sweden and Germany, a shabby, unaccommodating former GDR… And behind each dark scene lies a burst of laughter, or at least a gently ironic smile.


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