All at sea
Tytti Parras’ novel Vieras (‘The stranger’, 1993) is a chronicle of fear and loathing among boating classes of the Baltic. Introduction by Pekka Tarkka
Of all modern writers, the best delineator of life at sea is probably William Golding. His skill is apparent, among other things, in the way in which, as his ships do battle with the ocean, he arranges encounters between old styles of literature and, both on and below decks, lays bare the divisions of class. The most developed character in Rite’s of Passage, Mr Summers, has done something unusual, risen from deck-hand to first lieutenant; but despite his social ascent, he is forced to acknowledge: ‘In our country for all her greatness there is one thing she cannot do and that is to translate a person wholly out of one class into another. Perfect translation from one language into another is impossible. Class is the British language.’
I do not know whether Tytti Parras has read Golding, but her novel Vieras (‘The stranger’) could be seen as a Nordic welfare-state equivalent of Golding’s ironic portrait of the British empire. Parras sends out to sea, not an ancient ship of the line, but an early 20th-century leisure yacht whose captain, in the 1990s, is a modern woman civil servant, with an adolescent youth as her deck-hand. The yacht is in an advanced state of decay; the trip has no aim, no purpose; the woman is fleeing an unhappy love affair, the youth a life of petty crime. She and he have nothing in common. Parras might paraphrase Mr Summers’ speech thus: Perfect translation from one age-group to another is impossible.
The comic extract from Parras’ novel that follows demonstrates that she is also a grim sociologist of the boating classes of the Baltic. The young woman of the novel is an impeccable captain who preserves the traditions of the old vessel with honour, but still more appalling than the young man she carries on board are the parvenu plutocrats they meet on the waterways, for whom the sea is merely a setting for unearned leisure and wasteful consumption.
Much allegorical material can be found in Parras’s novel, but fortunately the yacht she launches into the Baltic is no ship of fools. Her two sailors are individuals: both of them, in their own way, aliens in the society they leave behind them. But they are not elevated to the rank of The Flying Dutchman. The enigmatic end of the novel – does Parras’ yacht ever reach safe haven after the storm? – nevertheless underlines the fact that this is no ordinary maritime adventure. I believe the core of the novel lies in the consciousness of Parras’ slender captain, which simultaneously registers memories of the life that has been left behind and the movements of wind and vessel as well as the ice-age sand bars that lie beneath the water and the endless space that stretches above the sea. And the angry roar of the sea, which shows that the world is made of chaos.
Parras began writing in 1968: her first novel Jojo, described, with great virtuosity, the advance of the Sixties youth rebellion on tradition. The book was immediately translated into Swedish. Among her best works is Pieni hyvinkasvatettu tyttö (‘The well-mannered little girl’, 1978), in which she uses playful prose techniques to invade the consciousness of the youngest daughter of a highly traditional family and, finally, an experience of existential horror. I feel Vieras to be Parras’s most ambitious achievement: setting her central theme, the conflict between prosperous democratic culture and the natural forces that gnaw at it, in a sensitively observed maritime landscape, she amuses and appals her readers.
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Also by Pekka Tarkka
In good company - 18 October 2013
Nationalism in war and peace - 3 May 2012
In memoriam Bo Carpelan 1926–2011 - 24 February 2011
Arne Nevanlinna: Hjalmar - 5 November 2010
About the writer
Pekka Tarkka (born 1934) is an author and literary critic. Among his works are an extensive biography of the poet and writer Pentti Saarikoski (1937–1983) and of the author Joel Lehtonen (1881–1934; first volume, 2009; the second volume, 2012).
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