While there was still time

Issue 3/1995 | Archives online, Authors

The publication of Kadotettu puutarha (‘The lost garden’, 1995), a novel by Helvi
 Hämäläinen, more than forty years after it was written, has been a literary sensation. The poet Riina Katajavuori describes
 her first encounter with the anguished 1940s intelligentsia whose lives it charts

I am in the midst of a strange, unfamiliar, 
lost World. These 1940s gentlefolk are a
 mixture of backbone and nerve: externally they look as if a breath of wind could 
blow them away but internally they are
 tenacious and unyielding in their capac
ity to look war and death straight in the 
eye, continuing their own undisturbed 
life, whose affected and aesthetic calm it is 
impossible to dislocate.

Or is it? Does not Helvi Hämäläinen’s
 Kadotettu puutarha describe precisely the
 internal collapse that war inevitably causes 
in everyone – even those who attempt to
 deny ugliness with lime-blossom tea and 
honey, cherry jam and the Moonlight 
Sonata? Into the lives of the main characters of Hämäläinen’s earlier novel, Säädyllinen murhenäytelmä (‘A respectable 
tragedy’, 1941), to which this is a sequel,
 moral decay, materialism and wicked 
manners have penetrated in the form of a
 wicked woman, the din of a radio or a 
noisy lodger. Impurities make their appearance in their lives, which cannot be 
aestheticised and around which no softening web of forgiveness and propriety
 can be spun.

At the focus of the changing world are
the sacred nuclear family and its two 
contrasting manifestations: the elderly
 Doctor and his wife Elisabet, who protects her family with a floating veil of
 prettiness even at the cost of affection and 
trust, and the Doctor’s sister Naimi, and
 Artur, who are incapable of marriage, let
 alone the family idyll, incapable of reproduction, incapable of everyday love, for
giveness. For them, only passion is possible, the worship of beauty, the search for
 extreme experience, even in the form of 
macabre death dramas.

Hämäläinen’s language is so abundant, so glowing, so full of colour and 
light, that it dazzles the reader of the
1990s who is accustomed to the language
 of the principal clause and has been taught
 to admire concision. I find myself comparing Hämäläinen with Proust when the
 smell and taste of honey that is connected
 with Elisabet’s persona is repeated in the
 narrative in its different states: the rough 
honey helmet of her hair, the honey for
 their tea, so difficult to obtain in wartime,
 her honeyed, girlish voice, the appropriately pretty piano compositions, her sweet, conciliatory gestures, her hypocrisy that 
turns to beeswax, which is embodied in
the superficial religiosity of the illegiti
mate child, Maaret. Hämäläinen refers to 
the senses in a strictly programmatic way:
 she forces her readers to taste and smell;
 it is impossible for them to insulate themselves from the flood of stimuli.

The characters of Russian novels have
 time to drink tea and converse unhurriedly and lengthily, earnestly and profoundly. The characters of Hämäläinen’s novel have endless time to probe their
 emotions, ponder their implications and
 nuances, examine their souls. It is just this 
lost time, this exorbitant slowness, this 
thoroughness in the analysis of all emotions and innert urmoil that is, for me, the
 garden that the characters of the novel
 have lost because of the Second World
 War. What has happened to us when we 
pass experiences by so quickly, condense
 them into three words or create around 
them a concept or phrase, one of the
 pieces of gibberish the Doctor so despises
 and shuns? Are we lacking in the courage,
 the desire to look into the dark well and
 describe all we see at the bottom? Or has 
our conception of time changed over fifty 
years into something completely differ

And at the same time I know that that
 quantity of time is simply an illusion
 created by the narrative. It is not a question of time, but of substance. It is a
question of the writer’s decisions – whether 
to choose, as a style, the baroque, or
 functionalism, or something else.

I observe Hämäläinen’s language as if 
it were an extinct animal. Sometimes I
 seek predicate and subject, main and
 subordinate clause, in order to understand the jungle of commas, as if were
 translating from a foreign language. I ab
sorb into myself strange, unknown adjec
tives, struggling to grasp all their tones 
and values. How she narrates, descending, reversing, anticipating, braking, decelerating! An insignificant remark that 
hides a turmoil of emotions is brought out 
like a leading motif, then prepared for,
 told again in a new context, viewed from 
a different perspective, and then, again, 
elucidated, from every side, with pains
taking skill.

I am not particularly interested in the 
real people behind Säädyllinen murhenäytelmä and Kadotettu puutarha. The real-
life author and dandy Olavi Paavolainen
(1904–1964) is, to me, as fictional a character as the books’ Artur, surrounded by 
erotic turbidity; like his double Artur,
 Paavolainen is a legend, a story-creature,
whose doings I can read about in books.
 I read Kadotettu puutarha as a tragic and 
pathos-laden description of its time, a
 description of strategies of survival and
 destruction, as if it were music that I do 
not entirely understand, but which nevertheless causes physical reactions in me.

That mysterious, suffocating, lost
 World is built up through repetition:
 Elisabet’s quivering eggshell eyelids, her
 orderly way of being alarmed, vigilant or
 offended, the Doctor’sblue, pulsating temples, Naimi’s black poison of passion and 
yellowish face, Artur’s inconstant insolence, his dependence on his mother, the
 way he bears himself. These characteristics are reiterated, forged, they become
 symbols greater than their bearers.

The book tells of a strangely oppressive culture, a way of life that is based on 
repression and impeccable behaviour. Lies 
and misunderstandings, insults and conflicts are muffled with the virtuous cotton
 wool of respectability and good manners,
 whose symbols are Elisabet’s ear-plugs.
 Eroticism and corporality are shunned 
like a disease that demands disinfection.
 But at the same time the impression is
 given that nothing could be otherwise different behaviour, in the world of these
 refined people, would be impossible.

it our fault that we do not know how to 
speak, / we do not know how to be silent, /
that we are silent in the wrong way, / that
 we smile, look, weep wrongly. / What is 
our speech but the echo of some silence, /
the echo of the dumbness of years, burst
 into itself,’ writes the poet Aila Meriluoto.
 It is of this that, at base, Kadotettu puutarha tells.


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