Desire and revulsion

Issue 2/1997 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Perhaps there is an economics of comprehensibility that runs directly counter to the thesis that a new form makes possible a new content.  Olli Jalonen’s novel Kenen kuvasta kerrot (‘Whose picture are you talking about’, Otava, 1996) is an entirely conventional story about women, men and marriage. The manner in which he tells it is, however, unconventional.

The result is an involved but never off-puttingly difficult novel that keeps its promises of a psychological suspense and complexity, even partly using them to motivate its form.Kenen kuvasta kerrot is at once artfully intellectual and heartrendingly sentimental. The first part is a text that has already been published, a collection of erotic short stories entitled Suhteellisia iloja (‘Relative joys’) by Hanneliina Seret. Then follows a psychological novel, not previously published: Askelia (Footsteps) by Helena T. Siiranen (an anagram of the previous pseudonym). The third part is a thriller, Kolmasosa Koirapään kuolemasta (‘A third of Koirapää´s death), which was published a few years ago under the pseudonym Sari Helena Tenni (another anagram).

This is followed by a novella and the sketch of an autobiography of Siiranen and her letters to the publisher, together with an old letter to her husband.

The fact that Seret and Tenni were the same person must have been known to those who take an interest in such things before the final disclosure took place. With the benefit of hindsight it seems blindingly obvious that Jalonen is the author of both texts. Who else would employ precisely this kind of syntax, which balances on the verge of regression and shows such a delicate inquisitiveness in its emotional address? And is there not, in a novel like Johan ja Johan (‘Johan and Johan’), a method of portraying physicality in precisely this way, with an intensely shame-conscious tenderness and concreteness? (But critics often read so carelessly.)

With regard to the Seret novel, much was written about male and female – could one tell the author’s sex from these erotic descriptions, and what was proved if one read correctly or incorrectly?

To the extent that the female sexual experience in the ‘realistic’ sense is considered to be increasingly characterised by the frustration of inferiority, and by an acute consciousness ‘from below’ of the link between sex, power and humiliation, it can perhaps be said that Jalonen has managed to identify with female sexuality. That it might consist of anything other than disgust – of pleasure, enjoyment, positive experience – does not seem to interest the author in this particular text.

This pessimism has, however, possibly less to do with Jalonen’s having chosen to write ‘like a woman’, than with a well-developed Finnish conventional genre. Finnish literature has a long tradition of depressive sex revulsion, more repulsion and embarrassment than desire, cultivated by both women and men. (The female exceptions are easy to enumerate: Eeva Kilpi, Pirjo Hassinen and Anja Kauranen come straight to mind.)

The same features are to be found in the thriller Kolmasosa Koirapään kuolemasta (‘One third of Koiranpää’s death’), a story with gothic overtones about mythical creatures that prey on young women in the forest darkness of a national park.

In the other texts – Askelia, the autobiography, the letters – another kind of reading activity takes place: the main character/narrator gradually begins to unmask herself, bit by bit.

The heart of the book is, in my reading of it, Askelia, the story of a honeymoon trip which the bride makes alone, in a surrealistically threatening landscape but with a conciliatory ending, an image of fulfilment and consolation. This consolation stands in melancholy contrast to the ‘reality’ which the final ‘epistolary novel’ illumines. Kenen kuvasta kerrot is the kind of reading experience one is reluctant to describe in too much detail, an adventure in form, a machinery that constantly produces new meanings and questions rather than results and answers.

Passing like a tremor through the whole book is an apparatus of notes, short fragments of text that are linked to apparently arbitrary passages like notes. Like whisperings from another narrative the notes remind the reader that this story is not the end, that it breathes and transforms meanings and relates to another or many others which we have not read. One’s strongest sensation after finishing the book is one of sadness. But gradually the first impression makes room for variations, as the different texts continue to live and act upon the reader. For the inward relation between the texts is not so unambiguously hierarchical as to make the sad ‘ending’ the revealed truth.

Perhaps this strange, many-headed monster of a novel is also about some­thing more than disclosure What if Kenen kuvasta kerrot is only part of an as yet unwritten novel that will again alter everything, with a new voice that whispers in the notes and reminds the reader of the text’s and the world’s textuality?

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