The pursuit of happiness

Issue 2/1996 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novella Ilo (‘Joy’, Helsinki Media, 1995)

‘The flower is a characteristic feature of the highest group of the plant kingdom – the flowering plants – and is the name given to the association or organs, more or less leaf-like in form, which are concerned with the production of the fruit or seed.’
Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1910

The encyclopedia made us happy. But what was happiness? That the encyclopedia did not say. You had to set out to look for it. Our exploratory party represented the highest achievements of the field: it would be difficult to find a more serious or committed group.

When we waved to the people cheering on the quay, we were overcome by a strange feeling. It was as if we had already arrived. I made the mistake of speaking my thought aloud.

‘It will all end in tears,’ remarked our welfare officer, Mrs Rose. The atmosphere was ruined. What a pity that our quick-witted Doctor Stratelli was not present at that moment! For it was he who solved the problem of happiness.

*

The landscape flashes by. In the train’s narrow corridor, eyes that are familiar, but tired.

‘Is it you?’

‘Yes, me, who else… You didn’t recognise me?’

‘I did, I did… You haven’t changed,’ I said, embellishing the truth. ‘I just couldn’t believe you were you.’

I was about to say something, but did not say it. I could not remember the woman’s name.

‘Do you remember?’ she asked.

‘How could I forget?’ I said.

I remembered a dance-floor on a small hill beside a village, one warm July evening. The woman, a girl, had grasped a boy’s hand. The boy had nodded formally, and the girl-woman had stepped stiffly up the stairs. But then complete disorder had ensued. An English couple from the same course, energetic but lacking in a sense of rhythm, had rushed on to the floor after them.

‘From one side of the dance floor to the other…’

‘We whirled, whirled, and laughed…’

‘Even the orchestra got completely confused in the end… Refused to play, insulted….’

And the woman laughed and I laughed, and as I laughed I saw the woman’s hands, her girlish fingers on the cover of a notebook, I saw a page opening and a hesitant, shy movement, from years ago, the name….

‘Helen… it’s so good to see you, Helen,’ I cried.

Embarrassed, the woman looked at me mischievously: ‘Perhaps you are a little confused. Marika, Marika Vacek.’ And the woman continued rapidly, to comfort, to encourage. ‘Do you still collect beer-mats, Hans?’

‘No,’ I whispered. ‘In fact, I haven’t even begun. I am not Hans.’

The woman grew pale. ‘The Toledo course, wasn’t it?’

‘Antwerp,’ I answered. ‘Late spring.’

‘Early autumn,’ whispered Marika Vacek.

We were both silent for a long time, looking at the familiar face that would surely soon say it had all been a joke.

We went our ways, the woman to her own compartment, I, my case in my hand, to join another group.

*

I heard, from close by, Mrs Rose, singing in Latin: ‘Gaudeamus igitur, Iuvenes dum sumus.’

‘So, do you have happy memories of your youth?’ I snapped.

‘A table full of delights, which someone else has set.’

*

Once I surprised Mrs Rose smiling. She had fallen asleep in an armchair in the hotel lobby. She was sleeping and smiling.

I sat down in a chair opposite hers – and tried to sleep too. I wanted to dream the same dream.

*

A splash on the water’s surface. Is that what Stratelli was referring to? What he really said is still a mystery to me. I have since, by interviewing other people, tried to sketch the main lines of what he said once again, but without appreciable success.

One thing has become clear: it was Doctor Stratelli himself who solved the problem of happiness.

But how, how on earth? According to one idea, he suddenly began to talk about the way to find happiness: ‘Some people advise efficiency. Happiness must be found as quickly as possible. Others want to take expenses into account. It is important to find happiness, but as cheaply as possible. There are also those who…’

The conclusions Stratelli has reached in his meditations seem to escape all attempts at clarification. How is this possible? Around the table there were, surely, ten serious people who had studied the matter, and I have interviewed at least eight of them (I may also have interviewed Stratelli himself, but of that I am not sure).

Doctor Stratelli’s philosophical cast of mind and the abstruseness associated with it will not do as an explanation. I believe that everyone in the group understood each of Stratelli’s statements, all the different clauses in which he expressed his thought.

The problem, therefore, is elsewhere. But where?

Conjectures have been put forward as to the extraordinary finesse, sensitivity, of Dr

Stratelli’s deductions. It has been said that he had, with his chains of reasoning, probed the most vulnerable, but at the same time most exciting, core of happiness – its beating, heart-stirring centre. Perhaps his chains of reasoning were so nuanced and exact that they succeeded in describing the states of being that defined happiness. Perhaps it is just that reality is not enough to awaken our interest, to stimulate our memory. Perhaps the reason we cannot remember Stratelli is that he has answered all our questions.

There is also another possibility: mere disposition. Perhaps Doctor Stratelli simply happens to be one of those people who hover slightly in the air, whom no one can remember. In that case, could Stratelli himself be the answer to the problem of happiness? Perhaps we have lost happiness for some quite rational reason which we have all forgotten. Might Stratelli once have spoken that reason aloud?

It was not only the content of Doctor Stratelli’s speech that provoked differences of opinion. Some people claimed that he had not even been present on the journey. One person thought the doctor was an entirely made-up character.

*

We bumped into Mr K for the first time on the Åland islands: ‘I should move here. Island life is the life for me.’

The next time we saw K was in Odessa: ‘Nowhere are the people as beautiful as on the shores of the Black Sea. I could live here.’

‘Africa is my continent,’ it is rumoured K said when the Torremolinos flight passed through Moroccan air-space.

We were forced to spend a night in the housing estate of Korteranta in central Finland; the apartment was a little box in the middle of a lump of concrete. I opened the windows to get some air.

‘This is almost like the Riviera,’ shouted Mr K, who was passing by in the street.

‘Fools are easy to please,’ cried Mrs Rose.

*

‘What about all those people?’ I asked, gesturing toward the masses who were spread out on the slope below us. Some of them were opening their picnics, chequered clothes were being spread out here and there, voices were bright, almost rowdy. From farther down there echoed a resounding laugh.

‘All those people are happy,’ said the leader of the expedition. ‘Listen to that laughter!’

I must have looked as if I was about to burst into tears. I managed to control myself: ‘First Stratelli, and now this: when shall we tell them?’

The leader looked genuinely astonished: ‘Tell them what?’

I could not speak a word. But Mrs Rose said without difficulty: ‘When shall we tell them about the report?’

The conclusion of the report was unambiguous: lasting happiness was impossible to achieve.

The leader took the report from my hand, tore it into pieces and threw the pieces into the wind.

‘Lasting happiness is there,’ he said, pointing toward the scraps of paper as they fluttered away. ‘Do you see? We have a following wind!’

*

In the midst of a live broadcast, the newsreader was transfixed by heavenly joy. At first it looked as if he was just having a fit; then his eyes blinked open and he began to preach salvation; finally he jumped up and leaped round the studio, shouting for joy, as the shocked cameramen tried to avoid him.

Mrs Rose telephoned the studio immediately and complained (although the broadcast had immediately been cut off for an advertisement break, during which beautiful young bodies rejoiced, in a perfectly secular manner, about chocolate).

‘Killjoy,’ I said. ‘You’re not really anyone’s wife, for who could put up with being your husband? You’re only Mrs Rose because it sounds good.’

Mrs Rose did not, could not, say anything. She just looked at me and then went away. After five minutes I began to miss Mrs Rose, but she did not come back.

*

We decided to rejoice in each other like adults. For night had come again, and the time of fleshly joys, the moment for agile bodies to meet, to combine rhythmically with each other.

But how can flesh rejoice? A piece, a lump, of flesh. Even the darkness of the bedroom could not conceal from us the flesh that lay beside us.

We lowered the blinds, drew the thicker curtains. But when we reached out our hands we encountered flesh once more.

Embarrassed, we withdrew to our own sides. Even a small movement and the springy mattress reminded us of of the weight of our own carcass.

We did not believe we had slept, but suddenly we started into sunlight. The room was filled with a dazzling brightness that penetrated everywhere. No place, no detail could hide from it.

We looked sorrowfully at our own flesh, its so ordinary forms. We looked at each other, the dim, moist eyes that glimmered from amid the flesh – like our own. In a simultaneous decision, we reached toward one another again and tried to comfort flesh with flesh.

But can flesh be in need of comfort. Can a lump of flesh feel sorrow?

Embarrassed, we began to examine that intertwined flesh of ours. We squeezed it and poked it, we let flesh slap against flesh. And where it was pressed, flesh sprang back. Its surging motion began irresistibly to amuse us.

We stroked our flesh, caressed it, slower and slower, lighter and lighter, but the motion of the flesh did not slow down on the contrary. Then we stopped, gave up: we looked at how flesh wrapped around flesh, curved again and again into new combining and separating forms.

But we wanted to be absolutely certain: we pressed our eyes and our ears against the flesh, explored it with our tongues.

Yes, it rejoiced.

*

‘One last question,’ said the telephone interviewer, ‘What word would you use to describe your feeling or mood at the end of the telephone call?’

At first, nothing came to the mind of the customer. But then he remembered the rough, unclear voice of the telephone seller for Buryati Airlines, the complete helplessness he had caused in the seller with even his simplest question, and the unapologetic benevolence with which the voice was clothed and which had immedi­ ately brought to his mind a girl, now no doubt a woman, ten years before; a little rotund, clumsy, but with the same voice, and eyes which reached out from behind the serving counter, a little too round-shouldered, so that she would never have been beautiful by any guide to etiquette, but the spotlight in the ceiling reflected off the serving counter straight into the girl’s eyes, which glittered like an angel’s.

‘Yes?’ said the handset.

‘Happiness,’ replied the customer.

*

The out-of-date guarantee of my watch appeared in the midst of a pile of papers. It said: Time Centre Ltd. wishes you much joy with your watch.

I had not thought about the time.

‘The time is now twelve-thirty,’ I said, happily, to the members of the expedition. ‘Exactly twelve-thirty.’

‘Yes?’ I imagined Mrs Rose saying. ‘And then?’

‘See for yourself,’ I would have said, and shown her my watch. I would have made as if to struggle with my memory and glanced secretly at my piece of paper. ‘How did Schiller put it: “Gladly, like the heavenly bodies / Which He set on their courses / Through the splendour of the firmament.”‘

I started and glanced at my watch: it was no longer exactly half past twelve.

No battery failure could take from me that happiness, already lost.

*

Nietzsche looked the anchor-man squarely in the eye: ‘That man stands in the centre of all this wondrous uncertainty and ambiguity and does not question, does not tremble with the desire and joy of questioning, does not even hate the questioner, but perhaps faintly amuses himself at his expense…’

‘Thank you, Friedrich,’ interrupted the anchor-man. ‘So the nice book of the month this time was Joyful Knowledge.’

‘… it seems to me contemptuous,’ continued Nietzsche, although the music’s flowered carpet hid his last words.

*

Doctor Stratelli continued to be missing. The claims concerning him confused us all: for we could not describe the doctor properly. Those who remembered the content of his speech best now had to admit that it was possible they had heard the name for the first time when I had asked after the content of the speech. I believe it possible that it was the first time I heard of Doctor Stratelli myself.

*

It was useless to try to deny that the Stratelli case caused discord among the group. There was no use but to divide the group in two. We, the majority, continued looking for happiness, serious and unceasing, showing the gravity demanded by the great value of what we had lost. The others set out to find Doctor Stratelli.

Once we met them on the road. Or rather, by the roadside: they were sniffing flowers on the slope by the ditch. It must, unfortunately, be admitted that they had all gone mad. We had heard their peals of laughter from far off (later it was revealed that there was absolutely no cause for it); as soon as they noticed our silent group, they ran toward us, waving their hands and emitting strange sounds, grasped our hands and pumped them, slapped us on the shoulder – a few even tried to embrace us, but most of us succeeded in withdrawing to a safe distance.

Then we thought we understood: ‘Have you found Doctor Stratelli?’

‘Stratelli?’ they asked in puzzlement, and the shouting and noise died down for a moment. Restraining their laughter, they shook their heads: ‘No sign of any doctor!’

*

Once I saw a woman who knelt after every second step.

Can there be such a density of joy in the world?

*

It was a hot summer night, its only really dark hour. I heard some familiar, sharp steps.

‘Mrs Rose!’ I exclaimed.

There she walked, toward me, out of the midst of the darkness.

‘I love you, Mrs Rose,’ I said.

‘Love is joy, to which is connected the idea of an external cause, Spinoza says,’ said Mrs Rose. ‘So love is continual striving, but it cannot reach its goal without destroying itself.’

I really did not have the patience to listen to what Mrs Rose was saying, I was so much in the power of my emotions: ‘So could you strive continually with me, please.’

Mrs Rose laughed. For the first time. I could swear that there was a twinkle in her eye.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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