A writer like himself

Issue 4/1998 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

I first got to know Jari Tervo in the early 1980s, when we were both studying to be journalists at the same college. He had already, at that time, published a volume of poetry, but he did not seem to me in the least like a poet. No anaemic appearance, dark, floating hair or incipient beard. Instead, resolutely curly flaxen hair, a good deal of body mass, a grey jacket and funny boots.

Tervo became a good general reporter, particularly fond of the early morning shift on evening newspapers, the ones where you have to wake up at three in the morning. On those shifts you ring round the police stations and ask what criminal homicides have been committed during the night. Another common job is to wake a celebrity or politician up with an early morning call and demand a statement on some issue or another.

It may be that it was this kind of hard work that caused Tervo’s poetic inspiration to dry up; his collection published in 1990 already contained prose poems. After that, Tervo shifted entirely to prose, and at the same time devoted himself finally to the masculine narrative tradition of his home in the north of Finland, its anecdotes and stories.

Tervo is often considered a rather coarse writer. I wonder why. It is true that he describes hard drinking, criminals, marginal groups and unhappy human relationships. But he does it with an extremely sure and style-conscious linguistic touch. Oafs are never described oanshly, but always in sentences polished to the last millimetre, with accurate and measured description.

And besides, Tervo is, I believe, one of the best Finnish male writers about women. In the novels Poliisin poika (‘The policeman’s son’, 1993) and Pyhiesi yhteyteen (‘Numbered among your saints’, 1995), just as in the new collection of short stories Taksirengin rakkaus (‘The love of the taxi-driver’), the strong women characters are startling. They do not cringe before the main male characters, or consent to be one-dimensional minor characters. They inhabit, it is true, quite separate world of their own, which in the last resort remains strange to the men, but this does not, according to Tervo, in any sense reduce its value quite the reverse, in fact.

In recent years Finns have become acquainted with the public, as well as the literary, face of Jari Tervo. In a television quiz programme he competes every week with a popular poet to see which remembers more about the week’s news headlines.

As a columnist, he describes his work as a writer, of calm mornings crowned by a couple of pages of good prose. As a reward, he drinks a couple of pints in a local pub before his wife comes home in the afternoon. He is also apt to give his readers his best bread recipe or to ponder the secrets of a successful love-life.

Such pieces seem like a complete contrast to the descriptions of criminal and psychotic life which fill his novels and his short stories. But they are from the same storyteller.

And in the end they paint a fairly comprehensive portrait of the man. Half softy, half macho. Half bohemian, half conscientious hard-worker. And although the storyteller and quiz-show guest predominates from time to time, one can still recognise the young, dreaming and idealistic poet.

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