Travels in language

Issue 1/1994 | Archives online, Authors

‘I become paralysed when I have to write prose, for publication, lf I do not get down on paper something fit to be printed at the first attempt, I become nervous and lose my patience, I do not know how to analyse…’

(Ihmisen ääni, ‘The human voice’, 1976).

Pentti Saarikoski (1937–1983) was a poet – his first collection was published when he was 21 – and translator whose passion was language; among his translations were Homers Odyssey, works by Aristotle, Heraclitus, Euripedes, Sappho, James Joyce’s Ulysses and Dubliners, Ibsens Peer Gynt, Henry Miller, J.D. Salinger, Italo Calvino, Swedish poetry. Despite the fact that he found prose-writing a painful process, he wrote a number of prose works, which have their existence in the border territory between the novel, the diary, the work-diary, autobiography and confession.

Often the narrator is abroad, away from Finland, in Prague, Dublin, the Tjörn archipelago in Sweden, on the Norwegian coast or in Brittany. His prose works Aika Prahassa (‘A time in Prague’, 1967) and Kirje vaimolleni (‘A letter to my wife’, 1968) show the influence of Henry Miller and the beat generation in their descriptions of travel without a destination. As early as his Nuoruuden päiväkirjat (‘Diaries of my youth’, edited by Pekka Tarkka, 1984), Saarikoski wrote of Dublin that ‘it would be fun to flee to the city from which Joyce fled’. He put this idea into practice in a journey to Dublin that provided the basis for Kirje vaimolleni.The Tjörn archipelago near Göteborg in southern Sweden is particularly important in his later works, Asiaa tai ei (‘True or pretend’, 1980) and Euroopan reuna (‘The edge of Europe’, 1982). Having moved there in 1975, after marrying his fourth wife, Mia Berner, Saarikoski portrayed it in many ways (and thereby also became a part of Swedish literary history). Tjörn appeared in his poetry as well as his prose, in his Tiarnia trilogy, which takes its title from the Latin name of the archipelago. The history of the Tjörn archipelago emerges in Saarikoski’s radio plays.

All Saarikoski’s prose works are slim, first-person works in which, in addition to comments on creative work and books the author has read (which themselves form a very diverse selection), the narrator records various events from everyday life, meetings with friends and acquaintances, meals, use of alcohol and stomach ailments. The continual observation of his state of health and the description of various wretched ailments play a prominent part. But the narrator is not lacking in a peculiar sense of humour, with which he relates to his health troubles. At times Saarikoski’s performance begins to recall a sick report, which is, however, not lacking in ironic or sarcastic tones. As he explains in Asiaa tai ei, ‘my knee-cap split, ribs break from time to time, my teeth crack, bronchitis chronica and gastritis chronica, my liver, a lump of stone, nothing serious. Since I live in Sweden, I could of course declare myself ill with depression or impotentia concupiscentia, but before that I had better improve my daily allowance.’ Despite his bad health, Saarikoski is, in his collection of poems Katselen Stalinin pään yli ulos (‘I look out over Stalin’s head’, 1969), prepared to admit: ‘I am not ill, in me health is hidden’.

Saarikoski cites a diverse range of things and events that he has experienced or of which he has read. True and pretend, truths and half-truths, historical and quasi-historical statements form a continuous flow with real events. Often Saarikoski’s comments and associations turn to grotesque humour or absurd chains of reasoning. This last is cultivated particularly in his last work, Euroopan reuna, for example when he ponders ‘otocinetology’: ‘Among politicians and businessmen, among whom I also number the clergy, their ears flapping like an elephant as it cools itself, and among people who have proceeded further in their careers I have noticed the phenomenon that the ears begin to flap before the person concerned opens his mouth, in other words it corresponds to clearing one’s throat, an announcement that I have something important to say. The scholarly study of earflapping, otocinetology, is held to be mere occultism, but in the Soviet Union the new diplomatic and military possibilities offered by otocinetology have been noted.’

As a poet and translator, Saarikoski was also interested by various linguistic matters. Mentions of dictionaries, individual words and their etymologies (‘words are whores’ children, one can never be completely sure of their father’) are plentiful. They are generally haphazard, and make no attempt at linguistic accuracy. Often Saarikoski also mentions various eccentric amateur linguists and semioticians. While he lived in Sweden, Saarikoski made frequent journeys to Finland – hunting trips, from which he returned with his rucksack full of new words. Another reason for returning to Finland was to hear the true echo of Finnish words, which comes, as he put it, from the Caucasian mountains. In a foreign culture and a foreign language Saarikoski felt this to be of increasing importance, as is clear particularly from Asiaa tai ei. And Saarikoski believed that James Joyce’s habit of playing with words also derived from the fact that he lived abroad.

There are two groups of people in Saarikoski’s works to whom he continually returns: Communist politicians and theoreticians, and women. Even after his spell of leftist political activity, during the 1960s, Saarikoski never ceased to talk about the Communists – during his last years, he was planning a play bout the Finnish communist Edvard Gylling, who moved to the Soviet Union and was liquidated under Stalin – but often they, too, developed into grotesque figures who are present in the extraordinary deductive sequences of Saarikoski’s prose: ‘When it is said that Marx turned Hegel upside down, then what did Lenin do to Marx – kicked him in the knees. Marx agreed to work with Lenin, and these two turned Hegel back the right way up, so that Stalin could be born. There were plenty of sperm, and they used the Russian people as the egg-cell, which had over the centuries suffered so much that now it would consent to anything, to Stalin’s bordellos, from which disturbing weeping and the grinding of teeth were never heard’.

Saarikoski’s descriptions of strong women begins in Aika Prahassa, where women ‘hauled me over the coals, threatened to castrate me, called me impotent, tore up my books, mocked my appearance and my uncultivated ways, but their tenderness I can never forget! I cannot cease to love them. They are lovely. They tear out each others’ hair and scream. They persecute me in my dreams and when I awake in the morning, the windows are steamy’. His descriptions of women culminate in the stories, in Euroopan reuna, about Margrethe Hvitfeldt, who lived on the Tjörn archipelago during the 17th century and an old woman called Frog and her relatives, aunt Fingerborg and aunt Loro, who belong to the noble family of Havregrynsfeldt (‘Oatmealfield’). For the narrator with his stomach pains, as for the vegetarian Kafka, women were a kind of physical power that enabled him to write and that, in their vigour, constantly drew him to them at the same time as he felt their threat.

Among the many writers Saarikoski mentions in his prose works, James Joyce has a special role. He is particularly strongly present in Kirje vaimolleni, in which Saarikoski roams through Dublin and visits places that are known through Joyce’s personal history and through his Ulysses. He wanders through the city in the footsteps of the Irish writer and imagines how he would show Dublin to his wife: ‘And when we have made love until we are satisfied, we will go out for a walk and I will show you this lovely, decaying town, Anna Livia, the harbour, Eccles Street, the crammed houses of the poor, the dolls’ houses of the suburbs, Sandymount, Sandycove, the wall against which Leopold Bloom masturbated, Joyce’s tower, the places where I have lived, the pubs where I have boozed, we will sit on the top floor of a bus and look at Dublin, which is my city and which I will give to you’.

Saarikoski’s journey to Brittany, too, which he describes in Euroopan reuna, means, to him, following in Joyce’s footsteps; Brittany, ancient Armorica, is part of the Celtic cultural area and, for Saarikoski, formed a key to Joyce’s work. Euroopan reuna was the writer’s last autobiographical prose work; his last work, the third volume of the Tiarnia poem-trilogy, was published after Saarikoski’s death, in autumn 1983.

‘I must build a thought, for if one has not built a thought, one cannot die, one cannot leave the world. The thought built by the individual is the pyre used to burn his body. More knowledge than this we cannot attain. Everything is here.’

(Euroopan reuna)

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