Onward, downward!

Issue 1/1994 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Lauri Viita (1916–1965) was one of the self-taught writers who made his debut after the Second World War. His extensive, realist novel Moreeni (‘Moraine’, 1950) taking place in Viita’s native Tampere, begins with this prose poem

…over wolds, hummocks, ridges, between boulders, under branches, from cabin to cottage to manor, from coppice to fen, and ditch to puddle – down it drew us, the sloping earthcrust, southward the magnificent granite ploughland slanted.

Paths linked to paths, brooks joined brooks. Onward, downward! The roads widened, the currents strengthened. Bigger and bigger, heavier and heavier were the loads they could sustain. More and more trees, bread, potatoes, butter, meat, people and gravestones, huge boulders, rocks, went into the maw of those channels, and the hunger only redoubled. From channel to strait, from hour to hour, the lines of barges crawled along; from day to day the broad rafts of logs passed their sleepless summer on the long blue strip of Lake Näsijärvi. Spruce, pine, birch, aspen – different pieces for different purposes. How vast the supply and how vast the need! The months and days went by; in the depths of the lake, layer after layer, there wandered the shades of clouds, ships, faces.

The climax of the lake’s lower tip was the knot that tied roads and waterways, paths and brooks, in a single node. The knot you couldn’t bypass or untie. Once in the current, you were rushed through terrific pressure, twisting and tormenting your shape if not drowning you straight off in the bottom-mud of the whirlpool. It was a socio-technological witches’ cauldron, also called an industrial town.

Sturdy dams and flumes had directed the crush of Näsijärvi’s water-races into turbines, the work of human brains and hands, diverting the whirligigs of the swirling rapids into the factories’ steel shafts. A fundamental law – with the simplicity of genius: revolve, stay put in your hole, don’t get hot!

Somewhere a hand grabbed a slim smooth handle, cranked it a little – and set roaring, in a labyrinth of walls, vaults, lifts, wheels, belts, the mighty orchestra of the elements that controlled the postures and motions of thousands and thousands of human brains, hands and eyes. Trees fell, their branches and tops rotted, their trunks floated: the humming forests strayed into crushing machines and pulping troughs, slid as a mash of steaming carbon molecules from mill to mill, and the heavy rollers pressed kilometer after kilometre of paper onto the world’s markets. Dust and din, shaking and quaking, a harsh rumbling numbed the senses in the streetlong weaving shed under a corrugated-glass roof; tirelessly, relentlessly, the metalworkers’ hammers banged on the rivets’ tough metal. The formulae of mathematics and physics celebrated their triumphs: lifeless and living matter followed the same laws; the same machines and the same frantic rhythm reprocessed wood, stone, iron and humanity. The rhythm grantified, the rhythm glorified, the rhythm stamped, stomped, romped, vamped. At the established times the mills filled and emptied: two polyphonic whistlings split twenty-four hours in two: day and night.

Night became day, day became night; and there was not evening and there was not the morning of the first day. There was no sky, only a shop-floor ceiling, where the proud furnace flues were writing their grey gospel.

From the countryside, not only from the north, but from the west, east, south, from all sides, flowed the ever-new human material, the country’s tough mobilia, who, dreaming their dreams, had finally decided to grab firm hold of their fortune. In the gaudy strident cultural carousel of stone and steel, soot and grease, money and love, these surplus seeds of pioneering families began to create their own wonderful career, independent, open and exalted as the skies of their native wildernesses. They felt as if angels had soared down from on high and begun hymning in the ball-bearings of the machinery.

The town spread. The factories and the sleeping-batteries filled up as fast as new blocks could be built. The more and the faster they went up, the more and the faster they had to be made again. New, new, onward!

Consumption accelerates. Remarkable, unbelievably effective means of consumption are created; new ever-more ingenious needs are generated by ever-more ingenious production-machinery; such things are called progress. They say: the living-standard’s soaring to a new level! One may ask: Where is it, that level? Will it stay level? Can you see it? Is it flat-out or straight-up? Is it level, bevel or warped? One may ask: What about hunger? Will hunger reckon whether the stomach’s on the second or sixth floor?

Names create nomenclature, counsel creates a council: something comes into being: a timeless, placeless, addressless Council of Nomenclature. It’s a broad-minded statistical council, an estuary that washes along and doesn’t tangle itself up in tiny details, doesn’t know a single instance, but tyrannises over the totality, rules manifestations of life as a fizz of miscellaneous sedimentary slop. Words create wordmongers, books create bookcases, reason creates reasonableness, people create population; definite offices create an indefinite office and agents create agencies; but a flat flattens into a kitchen, fire equipment into a sack of cement, a bank into bankruptcy; the botanical garden contains no botany, the herbarium turns out to be a pile of papers, the only real herbs, at best, mildew and wallpepper. There’s a machine to take you down and up, a transport machine, an incubating machine, a milking machine, a suckling machine, a parturating machine, calculating, writing and reading machines, and a cantata machine that cantatinates cantatas.

And now the ultimate discovery’s been made: what releases man from good and evil. Ultimately the method’s been found to liberate humanity from all responsibility, feeling, knowledge, hearing, seeing, striving. And finally, in the face of all difficulty, they’ve hit on a system for liberating creators from creating.

Onward! The two lakes, Pyhäjärvi and Näsijärvi, pulled and pushed, and in between was Tampere and the Tammerkoski River. Eighteen metres from lake-surface to lake-surface, and how many to the bottom? There, somewhere, rushed the Nokia River, a river of lampreys strayed, and the Gulf of Bothnia was waiting.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

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