Goodbye to all that

Issue 3/1996 | Archives online, Authors

It is a couple of years since the appearance of Monika Fagerholm’s Underbara kvinnor vid vatten (’Wonderful women at the sea’), which has been bought by a number of foreign publishers. Now Fagerholm’s nostalgic and accurated description of the moodscape of the 1960s has received a companion volume which records the objects of the 1970s and opens the dark record and clothes cupboards of a different young person.

Kjell Westö’s Drakama över Helsingfors (’Kites over Helsingfors’) is, nevertheless, more extended in its trajectory than Fagerholm’s novel because it reveals how the events of the 1990s were included in the values of the 1970s and were born directly from them.

Kjell Westö is known as a short story-writer who loves bilingual Helsinki and is at home in all its social strata. Writing in Swedish, he analyses the angst of the Finland-Swedish bourgeoisie, but also his complex relationship with Finnish working-class people. He himself represents a minority among a linguistic minority, who likes to speak Finnish and enjoys Finnish-language pop music, its taciturnity, its ruggedness and its awkward passion.

Drakarna över Helsingfors is the chronicle of a Finnish Buddenbrooks family, the Bexars. A chain of four generations reaches from the beginning of the century to the bursting of the bubble of casino economics: it is a return journey from youth to the dawn of old age, from the Winter War of the 1930s to the Winter war of the 1990s. There are many narrators, but the speaker always has the voice of the 1990s, and through it we sense the world that is gone. The events follow the last generation, the birth of casino economics in the sand-pits of urban housing estates, of the fragmentation of the family.

Westö reveals the background to the change that meant the disappearance of the old Finland. When the story of the Japan of Europe, as Finland used to be called, ends in the 1990s, it is time to pay the bill: the historyless yuppie generation looks back to find its place in the succession of generations. There is enough post-modernism in Westö, too, for the narrator not to know where the stories come from. Only the old storytellers knew that; the traditional novelistic form was theirs. We no longer know. But, beginning with random moments, Westö tells the story, and binds us to history.

The beginning of the novel is not random: a child evacuated to Sweden returns home with a name-label around his neck, for without that a person is nothing. The image broadens to a metaphor of post-war society. He starts a family, becomes rich, gains position, but rootlessness remains. The unity of the family is only apparent. Work replaces human relations, depression his wife’s human contacts and drugs the son’s. Westö’s psychological accuracy rests in the fact that rootlessness, years later, became the ideology of the father’s own children: the detachment of the individual and unregarding speed are their moral imperatives. Westö’s skill, then, is not in the construction of metaphors but in his success in giving a face to social change without flattening his characters.

The story is familiar: the hippie movement arose in reaction to the materialism of the 1960s followed by, in the 1970s, leftism. Later a strong market spirit arose from the roots of youth communism, and partially from within it, and society was divided into winners and losers. The winners dreamed of quality of life and easy money, but received only the former. Eventually they were forced to retum to the everyday. The losers were displaced. Even those who were born to win. Westö does not allow himself to rejoice in anachronistic hindsight, but makes the development understandable. When even the narrator remarks: The individual becomes historyless when the thought of history is no longer painful.’ What, then, were the people who lived this dream like? What was their psychological landscape like? How could a hippie and a communist become a casino gambler?

Drakama över Helsingfors describes a Helsinki that is losing its soul: ’Ritz ’ Merano, Corona, Adams, Axa… cinemas where I had sat with Ia Holm and Sanna Stiemwall and my secret and permanent hard-on, old movie theatres, their large halls and seats as hard as stone, their glass-eyed plaster angels and massive pillars that brought sublimity to watching films, even if I was only watching Jaws III or the Grease musical. They have all changed into prayer rooms and gyms and replaced with claustrophobic cinema centres that show nine films simultaneously. And dairy shops, bakers’ stalls, seamstress’ rooms and workshops where taciturn, oily-fingered men ruled are all gone, they have been replaced by large-scale and more profitable business activity.’

The narrator’s father, Henrik Bexar, believed in his youth that if one was selling a quality, reasonably priced product, a small advertising campaign would ensure success. In the new world everything was thoroughly manipulated, young people’s habits were charted right down to the last detail as diagrams, all of life, people’s reactions, longings, dreams, fears were at the disposal of the markets. But having swum sufficiently in the swimming pool of his large house, Henrik Bexar no longer wished to do so. In the end, swimming pools were boring, he said, and longed to go back to the sea.

Can one speak of realism at all in the case of Kjell Westö? Drakarna över Helsingfors is conscious of its literary antecedents. It is a boys’ book and a youth novel, always both an ironic novel about human relationships and a serious description of society, but also a work about different modes of expression. Of course, it is realism. But not only that. Above all, the power of the novel is in the accuracy of its language, the extent of its range. Westö’s language far transcends the basic prose, with its dishwasher rhythm, to which we have too often grown accustomed.

I remember seeing a documentary film about the Beatles in a great aristocratic mansion. The band is rehearsing when a confused young man, in a drugged haze, appears at the door. He loves the Beatles. Lennon has an unforgettable conversation with him and gives the hungry boy food.

This dialogue also appears in Westö’s novel, but the colocutor is a fictional character in the novel. The imagined and the real are interleaved ironically. And come to life once more.

Tags: