Local heroes

Issue 3/1998 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Two collections of short stories, two strong displays of a diverse literary talent. Two books: the first received the Helsingin Sanomat Literary Award for the best first book in 1995, the second the Savonia Prize; it was also shortlisted for the Runeberg Prize. Sari Mikkonen received the Suomi Prize for young artists in 1997. Those are the high points of the career of this 31-year-old writer to date. Not bad.

Born in Juankoski, in eastern Fin­land, Mikkonen is a writer who is exciting because she both continues and innovates a great tradition in Finnish literature. She is a latterday F.E. Sillanpää, the chronicler of the slow life of the Finnish countryside who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1939. Mikkonen describes remote districts with the boldness of the contemporary writer Rosa Liksom. In her short stories, she often describes people in traditional surroundings – people who are no longer countryfolk, but are not yet townspeople, either. To her, juxtaposition of things is more interesting that choosing one and rejecting the other. ‘You can’t be either–or; you have to be both–and. There are no absolute truths in the world,’ she has commented.

This ambivalence is also visible in Mikkonen’s skilful language, in which dialect expressions and slang are intertwined. Her language, too, is both–and, and her expression both poetic and rough. The core of Mikkonen’s first collection, Naistenpyörä (‘The ladies’ bicycle’), is a sequence of stories about sex changes on a small Savo farm. To begin with, the description is grimly realist: illness, cruelty, rage, but as time (and generations) progresses, the young farmer enters the farmhouse saying: ‘There’s a film starting. A Pasolini.’

They videotape it. One of them reads German, uses his calculator with ease and goes on to university and the city. Mikkonen absorbs these great differences in time and place into a natural whole in which people are part of nature even when they harm it.

Her second collection of short stories’ Pakkasyön odottaja (‘Waiting for a frosty night ‘), is also written with a sure hand, and makes a logical continuation of the young writer’s promising career. The stories are set in two different environments: in focus are both the countryside and the town, dialect and slang. Common to both environments is their severity toward the central character. Life goes on, but often differently from what one would wish.

An example. A small, godforsaken village somewhere in a remote part of Finland. The night is black and ‘the stars seek their places deep in the sky’. Tenho Hakkarainen, an adult man living with his dying father in an unkempt hovel, is carrying a bale of hay into the barn, where the air is thick with fumes. The same applies to his head, Life does not smile much on Tenho Hakkarainen – particularly not when the old women of the village turn up to clean the parlour and the kitchen and to exclaim over the state of the farmhouse. This is one of the everyday heroes of Sari Mikkonen’s second collection of stories, whose best intentions always go slightly wrong-since life is both–and. It is the title story of Pakkasyön odottaja (‘Waiting for a frosty night’), and it ends in a sadly beautiful climax. Tenho makes a ball out of electric leads and throws it on to the fire. He wants his home-made star to rise into the sky among the other stars. It rises, but then the wind catches it and blows it beyond the forest.

When, disappointed, Tenho goes back to the farmhouse, his father, too, has died. The new collection depicts the thwarting of dreams handsomely and with originality. It is full of a fine small greatness – both great and small.

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