Life is elsewhere, but you can get there by taxi

Issue 2/1996 | Archives online, Authors, Essays, Interviews

Jari Tervo interviews himself, avoiding the subject of his new novel, Pyhiesi yhteyteen (‘Numbered among your saints’)

These light mornings, the writer Jari Tervo bubbles over with springtime after he has written a page or two of his new book and is getting ready to walk to the Thirsty Camel to enjoy a pub quiz, alongside about two pints of well-brewed beer. The birds have come back like boomerangs.

On his way to the shadow of the beer­tap, some people greet him, others stare shyly. The shy starers remind him of the television quiz. Those who do not pay any attention to him are thoroughly acquainted with his work. Tervo has written a Rovaniemi sequence – three novels, a collection of short stories and a collection of poetry – about his home town. Rovaniemi, located on the Arctic Circle, is, for these southerly citizens of Espoo [next to Helsinki], as exotic, remote and startling a place as Haiti, but snowier.

All this Tervo tells me as we wait for his first beer to be poured. I remind Tervo about the interview. A small cloud passes across his high forehead. He claims he feels ridiculous in saying, with a straight face, such things as ‘The local is global’, ‘Deconstruction is the foundation of prose’, ‘Dramaturge as demiurge’, ‘The Volga flows into the Caspian Sea’, ‘Collared shirts rise up your back when you bend over’.

Tervo likes interviews with lots of short questions that demand short answers. White, Tervo replies in exemplary fashion to the unasked question, what colour are your socks. Reindeer stew, barks Tervo as he orders another beer. Your favourite food, I answer, or ask, and Tervo says I’m a quick learner. He knows reporters like it when their questions are praised. He knows because, before he became a full-time writer, he spent eleven astonishingly long years as a journalist.

During his autobiographical sketch, Tervo has been trying, with impertinent coughs, to disturb the games of poker played by the unemployed and pensioners. He has been tempted by their games, which are played for stakes of a couple of marks, for almost two years, but he has delayed taking part because he was taught the game as a small boy in Rovaniemi. It became clear to him too late that his teachers considered poker a team game. Tervo’s interference has its result and the group begins to take quiz questions.

Where are the Langerhans islands? Who succeeded Yuri Andropov as secretary of the Soviet Communist party? Who scored a hat-trick in the football World Cup in 1966? Which distant relative of the Princess of Wales is a famous writer of historical romances? What is K2? What is U2? How many loads of wood are needed to heat a country sauna in the orthodox way? Who’s been sitting in my chair?

Questions rain down in rapid series and cause puffing and blowing, head­scratching, occasionally disdainful laughter when everyone knows the answer (What is the meaning of life?). Answers fly in all directions. I manage to interpolate one interview question.

‘Who is your favourite writer?’

‘Barbara Cartland.’

I stare in astonishment at Tervo, the unemployed people and the pensioners, but they all nod soberly. I write ‘Barbara Cartland’ in my notebook, although I know that Tervo has been heard to praise Volter Kilpi, Aleksis Kivi and William Faulkner.

Tervo orders another beer and disappears to comb his hair. His hair stays in order, according to his estimate, for the time it takes to drink two pints. He soon returns, and says: thirty-five. He forces a beer on me when I guess that it is the number of narrators in his new novel, Pyhiesi yhteyteen (‘Numbered among your saints’). At the same time he gets a second beer.

The quizzes of two evening papers have been gone through. Tervo seems restless. He claims to know many artists and writers whom wild horses would not drag to an interview unless their work is to be discussed. Tervo’s attitude to interviews is, he believes, as contrary as possible. He speaks with pleasure about anything but his books, because they can speak for themselves. Tervo orders a second beer and develops the comparison. It is customary to commemorate important people with statues that look like important people. The achievement of an important person, in other words, is himself, a bloated old bloke in an incessant rain of bird-shit… This is not a good comparison, Tervo sighs.

He tries another tack. When a department store catches fire, a TV reporter rushes to the spot, cameras begin to roll (Tervo demonstrates the process with an invisible camera, winding it from the side). The enthusiastic reporter shouts into the microphone that a department store is at this moment burning behind his back. Tervo complains that he has always been bothered, in this kind of situation, by the fact that the building is burning behind the reporter’s back, while the reporter is standing in front of the camera. If the reporter were to stand outside the picture, the conflagration could be seen more clearly. The same is true of books and writers, I think… This is a good comparison, Tervo says; he is delighted.

‘Since murder is a crime, other crimes are mere pranks,’ Tervo says after a short silence.

‘Why does your novel Pyhiesi yhteyteen tell the story of the murder of a criminal,’ I say.

Tervo calls a waiter, orders beers for us, and says his wife, who works in the library of the Finnish Literature Society, will soon be home.

‘Two,’ Tervo says.

‘How many beers have you had to­ day?’ the waiter says and slams two pints on the table.

‘The question is more important than the answer,’ Tervo says, but asks me to leave it out of the interview as too aphoristic and arrogant. I promise him I will.

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