The living
 and the dead

Issue 1/1995 | Archives online, Authors

The idea of the primacy of matter has taken on increasingly sombre resonances in
 Tiina Kaila’s work: in her third novel, Koe (‘The experiment’),
 an eccentric doctor seeks to reduce his human guinea-pigs to their primary,
 material, factors – and himself becomes the subject of his cruel experiment.

Tiina Kaila (born 1951) first came to the attention of the wider reading public in 1990 
with Bruno, a novel about the scientist and philosopher Giordano Bruno, whom the
 Inquisition burned at the stake in 1600; Bruno reached the final list for the Finlandia
 Prize. In creating her fictive Bruno, Kaila wished to
 portray how ‘terrifying, absurd and crazy a struggle the perception of the world is’.

Both Bruno and Koe combine acts of extreme violence with esoteric thought. But Kaila
 began as a children’s writer and a poet: her first book, a collection of poems entitled 
Keskustelu hämärässä (‘Conversation at dusk’), appeared in 1975, and was followed by
 children’s books and more poetry.

Tuva Korsström: I see some coherent thematic links in your work, although you have 
written in very different genres. You began, didn’t you, as a children’s writer and poet,
 and now write novels for adults. Have you abandoned children’s books altogether?

Tiina Kaila: Yes, obviously. I can’t get near them any more. Perhaps it’s also because 
children’s literature is so definitely undervalued. I do hope, though, that poetry 
hasn’t abandoned me, although my last two books have been novels, and I’m 
currently working on some more prose.

Tuva Korsström: How would you describe your children’s books?

Tiina Kaila: It feels somehow as if they are the opposite pole to my poems. Another, 
lighter side to the same thoughts. They are also set on islands, like Koe. Islands appear, for example, in my books Saari joka
 nousi merestä (‘The island that rose from the sea’) and Simon matka peilikaupunkiin 
(‘Simo’s journey to the looking-glass city’). The latter is based on 
the thought that by quieting down all thoughts, one can reach another world and 
that this world is as close as it is unattainable, a sort of description of a child’s 
direct sense and experience. For a child, everything is present.

Tuva Korsström: You have said that your poems, compared to your children’s books, are
 sombre.

Tiina Kaila: My first collection of poetry took the form of a discussion with Kafka 
about the absurdity of the world. This theme was present for the first time then, 
and in this last book it has reached its climax, the idea that there is no difference 
between dead and living material… it’s there as the starting point for existential
 discussion.

Tuva Korsström: Where does your interest in this theme come from? It’s like a thread that 
runs through all your work.

Tiina Kaila: It was a basic realisation to me, I suppose first experienced in my youth
 as a pantheistic and happy realisation, which has subsequently taken on intellectual
 and, finally, cynical overtones.

Tuva Korsström: In your collection of poems, Valon nälkä (Hunger for light’)
 there is a long poem, ‘Loimi ja kude’ (‘Warp and weft’), in which you condense your basic
 thought that small and large, detail and universe, all are the same.

Tiina Kaila: All are part of the same whole, matter includes everything, and there
 are no higher or lower levels. I wrote that when I had already begun researching 
the Italian renaissance philosopher Giordano Bruno, about whom I wrote my first 
novel, Bruno. I studied Bruno’s own writings and writings about him for a year in 
Oxford.

Tuva Korsström: Is that when you realised that your pantheism had once existed as a
 coherent philosophy of nature?

Tiina Kaila: In point of fact, Bruno’s philosophy was not coherent. It was fragmen
tary in the extreme. What interested me about Bruno were precisely these frag
ments, the irreconcilable aspects and the nuances that I have experienced as 
enormous conflicts in myself. I was also interested in his mediation between these
 aspects. The impossible accommodation of things is a feat of courage in itself,
 which speaks of heroic creativity. I wanted to build Bruno’s chaotic bootstrappings 
into the life-story he carried within his head, which has a beginning and an end
 and its own undeniable logic.

Tuva Korsström: In the case of Giordano Bruno, there is the paradox that he is regarded 
as a pioneer and martyr of the modern period… and nevertheless he bases his thought on
t he mysticism of the middle ages.

Tiina Kaila: On magic and the cabbala… everything old! It’s precisely that which is 
remarkable in that he championed Copernicus’s new ideas about the heliocentricity
of the galaxy and even the infinitude of space. But in Bruno’s case it didn’t start 
from scientific thought. Bruno was a terribly bad mathematician and didn’t understand the new science that, according to Galileo, was coming. These new thoughts 
just happened to fit with his own thoughts. But Bruno didn’t use them as symbols
 – heliocentricity, for example – for him, through some kind of pantheistic realisation, they became concrete reality. He really was the first thinker in our European 
history of ideas to argue that the infinity of the world is a concrete fact.

Tuva Korsström: You made Bruno’s cousin Giulia into a kind of Beatrice figure whom 
Bruno worships all his life. Bruno finally makes love to Giulia when she is old, ugly and
 mortally ill. Why did you want to portray love in this way?

Tiina Kaila: First, love is the basic force behind all fantasy and creativity. When 
Bruno then begins climbing his staircase in order to transfigure this love and make 
it still greater, we see how every step gives way beneath him. When he stumbles 
and falls on the stairs, he realises that love is physical love, and not this theorising
 at all; but then that stair, too, gives way. Love is never realised on any level… the
 only way to attain oneness is to die and decompose into the stream of matter. In
 the end, one must throw oneself into the arms of mother substance.

Tuva Korsström: You wrote your first novel about a man, and in the first person.

Tiina Kaila: I felt there were so many different threads to the story that it could not
 possibly be expressed except by using the first person. On the other hand, I did not 
see the distinction between man and woman as important in the book, because I was relying on my own experiences in any case. I saw Bruno as such a terribly self-
important, stubborn and nevertheless passionate and energetic character that it felt
 good to get under his skin… to be really arrogant… it was really liberating. I always 
felt I was three steps above everyone else when I began writing.

Tuva Korsström: Bruno had a very good reception, but was it understood here?

Tiina Kaila: Very rarely. What I was specifically trying to avoid was the idea that a
 great man is really an ordinary dare-devil and that it’s terrible that the church
 should act like this – that really wasn’t my story at all, because that story has been
 told a thousand times, specifically about Bruno himself. Nevertheless my book has
 been taken as being that same story again; some critics thought that the final part, about Bruno s many years of torture and his death on the pyre, wasn’t horrifying 
enough… I’d apparently forgotten to use wrenches and instruments of torture.

Tuva Korsström: Koe is a completely different kind of book, isn’t it, and
 yet I feel it addresses the same matters.

Tiina Kaila: Yes, that’s true. As I see it, it’s the other side of the coin, it’s the story of 
Bruno, but about an opposite journey in the opposite direction. The same aim, but 
this time starting from lovelessness.

Tuva Korsström: Koe is very small and concise and dense. Why did you choose such 
a form?

Tiina Kaila: Somehow I had Dürrenmatt’s little novellas in mind, I took some 
thriller-like elements from them.

Tuva Korsström: The story takes place in the present and in the Finnish archipelago. The
 novel’s characters seem fairly ordinary and every day. Gradually it becomes clear that
 you – or your main character, Kari Suurmanen – has built a cabbalistic machine on his 
island, a train that will take its six passengers into the subterranean World of six 
sephiroths, on a journey that is irreversible and flnal. He is fixated on medieval cabbalism 
and intends to use his six guests as guinea-pigs in a magical experiment. Your Doctor 
Suurmanen is clearly a person who is in a condition such that he cannot know love.

‘The sun-train will travel to the beginning of the Path of Names! The sun-
train will travel the Path of Names of seven gods, and that synaptic track will
 be traversed in such a way that each layer of the mind will be blasted to 
pieces, one by one… Of course, it will mean pain. Bitter pain. Physical
 suffering, feelings of loss. Perhaps the individual cannot be purged of every
thing… But I shall meet the train when the journey is finished, I shall take 
you into my care at the other entrance to the cave, and I believe…’

Tomi rose to his feet. He stared at Kari Suurmanen in horror. ‘What?’
 he shouted breathlessly. The room was completely silent. Far away over the
 dark sea a seagull screamed. ‘You can’t make people like newborn babies by 
force, people are the result of their own histories,’ he whispered.

‘You can!’ Suurmanen became enthusiastic. ‘When I speak of the back-
to-front Cabbala, I mean the back-to-front reflection of evolution! Making 
the hands of the clock go backwards for a moment! Correcting the errors of 
evolution, because the creator was our own, unsuccessful culture, and not
 God, who I nnocently realises Himself in all-pervasive Matter!’

Tiina Kaila: Suurmanen speaks of pure existence as if personality and other such
 things were the just icing on top of human consciousness. As if divine, he is interested in the profoundest existence. The theme of matter is linked, again, with this.
 He wants to peel the self from people in order to grasp it. The turning point in 
Suurmanen’s back-to-front journey to the heart of matter comes when he falls in 
love and changes. The idea of the divinity of matter, of pure substance, was, in the 
middle ages, against all the church-approved Aristotelianism of the time; for real
 magicians, matter was simultaneous with God, one and the same thing. One had 
not created the other.

Tuva Korsström: The guests, the guinea-pigs, manage to escape, except for one girl, with
 whom Suurmanen falls in love. He is then caught up in his own machine…

Tiina Kaila: Exactly. And then this old self is shattered. What is important is that 
after he has been swallowed by the machine the only thing that is left of him as a
 person is love, as a little spark in his grandmother’s carpet, a girl’s face, which he
 vividly remembers from his childhood and which is described at the beginning of
the novel. lt’s also a kind of return to Bruno.

Tuva Korsström: When you constructed the machine, did you follow the cabbalistic system exactly?

Tiina Kaila: The cabbalists did have the Theatres of Memory and speaking statues I 
wrote about in Bruno, and the idea of different layers and their achievement. I’ve e
changed it to the perspective of modern medicine, so that they’re areas of the brain 
connected with the different senses.

… I have chosen the number of my own sephiroths as seven, which is the
 cabbalists holy number. They are: Movement, Hearing, Sight, Smell Taste 
and Feeling! Which all lead through the last sephiroth, Association, to unity 
with God, which Aristotle called Intellectus agens and the Cabbalists Mens. Ali
the senses converse, according to their own natures, with Association…’

Tuva Korsström: When Suurmanen finally finds love, then it is a return to childhood?

Tiina Kaila: Precisely, to the beginning, where the individual is at his purest a little as in Simon matka peilikaupunkiin. The child is whole in the world. There is, as yet none of that self or negation of self, only a direct skin-touch with the world and at the same time a life of thousands of opportunities. When the game retums to the egmmng, then one can start again with different building-blocks from different 
starting-points.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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