A view to a kill

Issue 4/1997 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Klassikko (‘The classic’, WSOY, 1997). Pete drives an old Toyota Corolla without a thought for the small animals that meet their death under its wheels – or anything else, for that matter. Hotakainen describes the inner life of this environmental hazard with accuracy and precision

Pete sat in his Toyota Corolla destroying the environment. He was not aware of this, but the lifestyle he represented endangered all living things. The car’s exhaust fumes spread into the surroundings, its aged engine sweated oil onto the pavement, and malodorous opinions withered the willowherbs by the roadside. Granted that Pete was an environmental hazard, one must nevertheless ask oneself: how many people does one like him provide with employment? He leaves behind him a trail of despondent girlfriends who require the services of human relations workers, popular songwriters, and social service officials; during his lifetime, he spends tens of thousands of marks in automotive shops and service stations, on spare parts and small cups of coffee; he benefits the food industry by being a carefree purchaser of TV dinners and soft drinks. Pete is the perfect consumer, an apolitical idiot who votes with his wallet, the favorite of every government, even though no one seems interested in putting him to work, least of all himself. Every government, regardless of political power struggles, encourages its people to consume. Pete needs no encouragement, he consumes unconsciously, and one might ask: is there anything that he does consciously, the Greens and left-wingers would like him to? Does Pete make smart long-range decisions? Hardly.

Research has not informed us whether Pete is more destructive to nature than writers, columnists, or authors published in ecological journals whose outpourings destroy forests by being printed on good paper manufactured from the best pulpwood. Nor has the study cast light on the effects of people’s talk on the environment – whether gross generalizations and wrongheaded opinions aren’t as pernicious as industrial or automotive emissions. These are unresolved questions, but it is a Pete on that very day, driving a car he had just acquired, killed a rabbit that was to cross the road.

The rabbit had been running for a long stretch, working up a good sweat. He a hum and sensed the presence of the Hämeenlinna freeway but did not patience to stop at the edge of the road. Even though the hum turned into thunder and vibrated under his paws, he started hopping across the road. The rabbit froze and looked to its left. A huge yellow heap was approaching. Pete, sitting inside that only saw a bit of grey, and felt something bump lightly against the right front wheel. The wheel crunched over the rabbit’s neck and squished the animal’s contents, a red mess, onto a square foot of road.

The rabbit’s father sat under a bush on the other side of the road and stared at the scene with glittering eyes. He could not understand why his son had stopped to around in the middle of the road. They had discussed this many times, now gone forever. The father turned to look in the other direction and saw the yellow heap proceeding at great speed. Inside the heap, Pete knew he had run over something but did not feel any need to stop. In his opinion, cats, dogs, and rabbits ought to know where they can go and where they can’t. Pete did not feel anything for rabbits or any other animals. Dogs left him completely cold, and so did cats. Even though he was a country boy, he had long since lost his connection to cows, as well. Drivers rarely are connected to those they hit and run. True, there are times when they manage to maim a neighbor or a member of their own family, but those are exceptions. In the normal course of events, a driver just flattens the rabbit, the hedgehog, or the anonymous alcoholic, drives on and forgets the unpleasant incident very quickly. These are quotidian events, briefly mentioned among family members but not worthy of inscription in their histories – unless the victim is the editor’s longtime golfing buddy or his own German shepherd.

The rabbit’s father cursed as hard as his little brain permitted and waited for the traffic to subside. Then he hopped cautiously out onto the road and sniffed the remains of his son. He had regarded the kid as one of the family’s best runners, but these days that was not enough, not ever since the Japanese, the Germans, and the Swedes had started building fast cars able to traverse a distance of many dozens of yards in a couple of seconds, so that an imprudent rabbit, come to a halt in the middle of the road, hardly has time to turn his head before a rough wheel crunches his neck and the undercarriage shreds his body. The dead rabbit’s distant ancestors had happily inhabited a world without automobiles. They might get stomped by some crazed big creature on the run, but otherwise the world was theirs to run around in freely, making however many stops they wanted. The dead rabbit had been born into Finland’s economic boom, but he had never learned to enjoy its benefits; the tragic aspect of this was enhanced by the fact that it was the splendid freeway built during those days of economic ecstasy that proved to be his undoing.

After sniffing his son’s remains for a while, the rabbit’s father returned to the side of the road, where his relatives and friends sat waiting for him in the shrubbery. His expression told them what had happened. In the preceding weeks, many a rabbit known as a good runner had lost his life on the same road. The rabbits did not know how to deal with the new fast cars, but neither did their drivers, mostly men in their fifties, productive members of the baby-boom generation. The latter had begun their driving life in Citroën 2CVs barely able to reach a top speed of sixty miles an hour, but now they were in charge of rockets marketed as normal family cars. The power of a normal-sized engine had been enhanced tremendously by means of a new valve system, and under a fifty-year-old foot, this power turned the vehicle into a murderous and hard-to-stop missile in orbit, even though the initial idea had been merely to take a leisurely drive from one’s suburb to visit Grandma at Keuruu or Suonenjoki. Under the broad butt of fifty-year-old Daddy, in immediate proximity to the soft upholstery and the ergonomically correct adjustable seat, sat a sixteen-valve fuel injection engine that easily accelerated to one hundred and twelve miles an hour before Mom had time to raise her eyes from her Illustrated Home Journal. The quiet running of modern engines kept her from her usual admonitions. At sixty miles an hour, their first car had made so much noise that the whole family knew when Dad was flooring it in hopes of a risky pass.

If the rabbits and the successful members of the large generations were nonplussed by the increase in speed, Pete certainly wasn’t. He was driving an old used Toyota Corolla, a car smarter than himself, without any contemporary frills, a car responded to acceleration with rattles and groans. In its own clumsy language, the Toyota expressed the limits of its momentary ability to cope with a given speed. Toyotas had a long history on the frost-damaged roads of this northern country, and Japanese engineers had gathered reliable data on what was required for getting those unfortunates from their famous point A to point B where some frigid wife or stony field was waiting for them. The Toyota was used to being tortured by some horny loudmouth loser or Peter Pan who had watched too many motor rallies. During the twenty years of their northern sojourn, Toyotas had seen just about everything a vehicle can see in this country, and Pete was now the beneficiary of the knowhow the Toyota concern had acquired the hard way.

This background information did not console the rabbit’s father, who was jumping about in aimless grief, momentarily deprived of his sense of direction. The other rabbits of the clan had to surround their bereft compatriot in order to protect him. They sat in a circle around the mourner and sent out telepathic messages to the effect that he better return to his senses before he, too, was just a smear on the highway.

While this was going on, Pete drove through the landscape humming a tune. The wastrel’s viscous blood kept on circulating through the veins that had not yet been clogged up by deposits from fatty meals and heavy-duty smoking. In this phase of his life, Pete was as carefree as a summer frock ballooning in the wind. Buzzing along, the Corolla was almost as debonair. It did not yet know what kind of a man had taken it in hand. The summer day, a straight road in good shape, and a purring awareness of having made a good deal, conspired to create a flattering impression of the driver. Only adversity will truly test a driver, and in that respect Pete’s test scores were not promising.

After six consecutive speeding tickets, he had to take the tests devised by Highway Administration. Pete did not give a damn about those tests, since he was immortal the way anyone under thirty is who has not yet sunk to wearing straight trousers or to holding open the doors of service stations for women he does not know. In Pete’s opinion, those tests revealed more about their devisers than anything else, but we shall refrain from considering Pete’s opinion and proceed to examine what they reveal about him.

Nikander and Kummonen started AutoMan in 1989. It was the first inspection station designed to inspect and test both vehicles and their drivers.

In the Highway Commission’s study, particular attention was drawn to the fact that the worst excrescences in traffic are men in their forties and fifties, victims of midlife crisis, moving at an average speed of eighty miles an hour without a care for themselves, hedgehogs, rabbits, or wives.

The study recommended an expansion of the tests to all highway users, regardless of age or gender. This was opposed by the Automobile Association and practically all the professional drivers, who said they would be made to suffer for the behavior of shitheads. The actual wording of their statement was not quite so blunt, but its content was.

Nikander and Kummonen, the founders of AutoMan, were forward-looking pioneers in the field. Nikander had previously worked for the Veho concern, as a mechanic, repair supervisor, and salesman. Kummonen, for his part, was a Licenciate in Medicine who had worked for general and mental health centers and acted as a private therapist for speeders.

This is their version of Pete’s visit. Although the form was filled out by Kummonen, it represents the views of both partners.

Subject owned a used Toyota that had seen its best days, even though subject himself regards it as a viable vehicle. In addition to the corrosion damage caused by abundant road salt and permanent dirt, it had also suffered from poor maintenance. Indications of its owner’s indifference were numerous cigarette bums in the ceiling upholstery, and there were such bums in the doors as well, and one in the middle of the dashboard. The owner was obviously a chain-smoker.

Subject, Pertti Sakari Kiilopää, presented an attitude described by Nikander as pissed-off, but I would characterize it as impatient. Aware of the volatile situation, we explained to him what we had in mind. Kiilopää waxed eloquent about the merits of his vehicle, and Nikander had it jacked up and tested the undercarriage with a screwdriver. Kiilopää commented that he had not concealed any drugs there. He was very nervous but relaxed a little when I offered him a cup of coffee and a doughnut. (Note: Subject has a very sweet tooth. This indicates poor powers of concentration. As we know, sugar causes anxiety. Kummonen.) Without asking, he helped himself to a second one, and wiped off his sugar-coated fingers on his upholstered chair. We began our questioning.

After approximately ten minutes we had established that subject is a male, in all likelihood unemployed for extended periods, who has practically never been serviced. Love, mercy, or forgiveness have been absent from his life, factors that should be attended to at annual service appointments.

Kiilopää has clearly been left to his own devices in an urban environment, with the assumption that he’ll do all right – the likes of him have always managed to get by somehow. Such a hard, uncaring attitude has left Kiilopää with dents and rusty areas he himself is incapable of locating.

Kiilopää’s nerves are shot. Unable to endure any feeling of defeat, he considers every driver in the right lane his adversary. This attitude is intensified after dark, when subject perceives oncoming long lights as intentional chicanery. In his opinion, almost everybody dims their headlights too late, thus intentionally blinding subject and trying to make him lose control of his vehicle. According to him, owners of BMWs, in particular, persecute him by switching on their long lights five yards before they meet. Kiilopää’s gearbox is a shambles. He is quite capable of shifting into first, always believing himself to be pursued uphill. He has no sense of second, not to mention third or fourth gear, and is thus oblivious of any smooth, steady, and positive motion. He disdains and hardly ever uses the reverse. He does not want to go back anywhere he has come from. This applies to urban districts as well as emotional states.

Like his car, his sexual life is in permanent high gear: he reacts to a photographic slide of a nude American female personally and is unable to see it as merely the image of some unknown person. Kiilopää asked us to change the slide show from the American woman to calming rural winter landscapes. We were unable to oblige.

In our opinion, drivers of Kiilopää’s type can be traffic hazards. Their situation is made particularly problematic by a typical double bind: they drive a vehicle whose condition is practically identical with their own. It would be better for Kiilopää if he drove some late-model German car – e.g. Opel Astra, Vectra, VW Rabbit, etc. But this is not the case, on the contrary: our roads teem with thousands of Nissan Cherrys, Ford Escorts, Fiat Unos, Toyota Corollas and Ladas that barely pass inspection by daylight but shoot like flares through the dark. They pass inspection because the station employs an acquaintance of theirs or else a deaf person. They are fitted with summer tires as smooth as a virgin’s buttocks (a metaphor borrowed from the tire supplement of Speed World, 6/92). The steering of these cars is loose, which means that when the steering wheel is turned to the 1023hrs position, the car responds at 1025hrs. That kind of two-minute error can cost the bum his life.

Pertti Sakari Kiilopää and his Toyota Corolla complement each other the way only a car and its driver can: both have been designed for merciless everyday driving. To put it another way: although the prognosis is poor, generally speaking, both car and driver may go on grinding along their chosen road for quite some time; this became remarkably apparent when comparing their respective chassis. Despite the intensive use of road salt in southern Finland, and the nutritionally lopsided edible offerings of service stations, both the Toyota’s chassis and Kiilopää’s stomach were in impeccable shape. In this case, Kiilopää may just be lucky: he may have a genetically inherited socalled iron stomach, designed to deal with the most common fare available at all-night service stations and freeway oases or automotive stores.

In view of all of the above, we recommend that Pertti Sakari Kiilopää should be taken off the road, removed from traffic. Although nothing of the sort has occurred until now, it is only a question of time before subject causes dangerous situations.

For AutoMan Co.: Lauri Nikander and Kummonen

The subject received this report in writing and on the spot. This was a mistake. Due to the confidential nature of the findings, the report should have been mailed to Kiilopää, but in the interests of candor, Kummonen and Nikander wanted to be fair to Kiilopää. The country was in the clutches of a trend according to which persons should be candid in their relationships with other persons. In practice, the trend caused problems whenever The Other – neighbor, patient, lover, or client – also adopted this policy and responded in a refreshingly candid manner. And in this case, Kummonen and Nikander were treated to an exceptionally candid counterblast.

Pete slammed the test results down on the table and looked around for anything that might serve as a club. The men tried to calm him down, told him they were only doing their job. To be on the safe side, Nikander managed to grab hold of a wrench.

Mafia movie videos had taught Pete that one who raises his voice never does anything remarkable. The soft-spoken guys are the most dangerous, because they have already decided that the business associate sitting across from them won’t see day dawn again, while making pleasant dinner table discussion about different brands of olive oil, the right temperatures for red wines, or the flowerbeds of downtown Palermo.

Pete decided to calmly discuss the peculiarities of the Lahti highway, the reasons for his speeding tickets. At first, he kept the volume down, but as time went by, his heartbeat accelerated, and he half rose from his chair. And then Pete let it all come crashing down like a load of gravel across a quickly opened tailgate.

Nikander and Kummonen stared at Pete as if he were some refugee speaking a strange language, mollycoddled by the authorities and playing the slot machines at Shell stations. But they could not think of any legal handle to have Pete put on the next flight to Somalia.

‘So there you are, chugging along up the other guy’s ass, and nobody is able to pass anybody. And when someone passes, they don’t speed up, they just hang there in your face, crawling along at sixty. So I lose my cool a couple of times, is that any reason for subjecting me to tests? Why don’t you test those guys? The assholes are driving shit so powerful that if they just stepped on it a little they’d be in Lapland in no time, but there they are, doing sixty because they’ve read in World of Technology that they’ll be saving a tenth of a quart of gas on their way to Grandma’s, if I was riding that many horses I wouldn’t stop to sniff any asses, I’d let her rip, floor her, turn up the radio, shit! They got the wrong cars, those guys. They should regulate car sales so fast ones could not be sold to daddies who like to save gas. Is that what engineers in Germany and Japan are busting their asses for, just so that one more crawler is let loose on the road? I say, no! They’ve given us power to light the flames of hell and fire storms so we can go until the skin of our backs is glued to the seat …

‘Those potbellied pansies drive slow so they can take a longer look at the cars of the likes of us, and then tell themselves there goes another shithead, let’s mosey up to his ass, let him know that here comes Mr. Economic Boom … they don’t have to look at our cars for very long before those beefy-cheeked guys know that there goes a shithead, makes what I spend on tips in a year, no family, high school dropout, casual labor, drives an old Jap number, bowl of rice, rusting out all the way up to the driver’s seat, let’s get on his ass, let him know that my rowhouse is almost paid for, my daughter plays the violin, my son is good at foreign languages, yep, it’s easy to hang in here with this automatic tranny, easy on your left leg, let’s turn on the quadraphonic sound system, see if we can get catch a half hour of some popular stuff….

‘Behaving that way, the beefy-cheeked fatso causes more dangerous passing situations, drives people into ditches and off cliff sides, than the likes of us would ever manage even if you gave them racing cars, and that’s the truth, it’s you who should be tested, but this is where we victims are taken, we whose nerves have been stretched so tight that we get to hear strange symphonies when some fatso is right on your ass and another one blocks the whole view, doing a steady sixty, and all of those slowpokes and crawlers and droolers should be given instant bypasses, so they could perhaps learn to use even just half of the power that vegetates under the hood of the over-priced piece of shit they’re still paying too much for. They never drive cars they have paid for, it’s all borrowed from some finance company or firm or bank, those fatsos are in charge, they don’t own anything but work through middlemen, they glide into the service station and lead their stupid little family to the pizza line, with some bug-eyed and scabby golden retriever, bred to be really tame, bringing up the rear, chattering there in the line as if they owned Europe, spend half an hour picking one sweaty roll and counting the calories in a doughnut, then the phone rings in fatso’s breast pocket and he starts babbling into his phone real loud, OK, OK, but listen, my battery’s way down, the whole gang of them acts as if they owned everyone in the line, even though it all belongs to the bank, they’re lucky if they manage to buy a pair of checked pants with cash, but they keep tormenting the likes of us, I haven’t ever bought anything except for ready cash, and on the straight, my heaps run real smooth, or they would if these mid-level swine waving their Visa cards wouldn’t clog up the roads. They’re on their way to some shitty summer cottage they’ve taken out a loan to buy, at the edge of some brown puddle, and they have to drag over there every other weekend although they’d do better in that rowhouse owned by the bank, there’s no peace and quiet at the cottage, because before you know it there’s another geezer in checked pants setting up his gas grill and hollering friendly questions through the sparse alder trees, or else that neighbor’s teenagers start playing techno music on their boom boxes. They’ve bought the gas grill at some superstore on the highway because they don’t know how to start a fire in the woods or in their dreary wife who looks so bad at forty that you can’t stand to look at her for more than ten minutes in normal light conditions, so you invent a reason to go to the pond they call a lake, brandishing your rod so it looks like you’re fishing, but you’re really just escaping from the old coyote in curlers. Then you come back later that evening, with a little buzz on, and start a fight over who let the broiler legs get charred to a cinder, whose turn was it to check the grill, and the old bag incensed when she realizes that the guy is pissed off even though he’s spent a whole evening by the puddle with his stashed bottle. So they go on bitching all evening with their neighbors listening and enjoying the fact that their scene isn’t quite as bad as that, and all along there’s this Renault Laguna standing in the yard with enough power for a small village, but the guy won’t stomp on the gas the way he won’t stomp that bag, either, just lets her gnaw on the blackened broiler leg even though he knows that she’s so eager to fuck the juice is running down her legs. So, shit, that fatso’s treating his old lady exactly the way he’s treating his car, doesn’t use them for the purposes they were made for. And both of them just carbonize. The woman loses her smile and her twinkle, and the car loses its purpose. Both stand there in the cottage yard, gathering rust. And their value is going down even as you’re watching ….’

Pete finished like a cow that given its all and now stands, milkless, shaking in stall, waiting for the slaughterhouse truck. The fully opened-up Pete was now on own, he was in foreign territory, dependent and vulnerable. Besides his all, Pete also given what he hadn’t known he had in him.

For three long minutes, Nikander and Kummonen did not say a word. Both received a traditional upbringing according to which one opened one’s mouth only after it had accumulated sufficient and appropriate material. Three men sat in silence in the office of AutoMan. The atmosphere was expectant. The only sound was the conditioner’s muted hum.

Kummonen interlaced his fingers and cracked his knuckles. The sound roused and Nikander from their torpor. Pete got up, retrieved his jacket from the back of chair, put it on and walked to the door of the AutoMan office. He opened it disappeared into the summer evening. He did not stop to ask what the men of his presentation, which, from an outsider’s point of view, had taken on the dimensions of a lecture on the Nordic way of life, even though he had only wanted to explain the background of his repeated speed violations.

After Pete’s departure, Kummonen and Nikander tried to figure out what had been the point of Pete’s speech, but worn out from a day of testing, they gave up and went home, Kummonen in his Nissan Primera to his rowhouse, and Nikander in his Ford Escort to his one-bedroom apartment in an apartment building.

Kummonen explained to his wife what kind of person he had had to deal with today. His wife put her hand over her mouth, then verbally pigeonholed Pete and asked Kummonen how he would like his customary late night pie, with a golden brown or a bronze brown crust? Kummonen picked the golden brown. He liked winners.

Nikander, too, told his wife about Pete. He got so excited that his wife switched on their two-person sauna and calmed her husband by reminding him that he, too, occasionally exceeded the posted limit and made insulting remarks about people who drove too slowly. Nikander admitted that but was unable to rid himself or Pete even in the heat of the sauna that usually drives all depressing things out of one’s mind.

While Kummonen ate his pie and Nikander sat in the sauna, Pete floored the gas pedal of his Japanese-made car as if he was stomping a cockroach. Before it expired, the cockroach lit a fire storm in the engine room and the Toyota Corolla laid some rubber.

Translated by Anselm Hollo

Tags: