Stars above

30 December 1998 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Benjamins bok (‘Benjamin’s book’, Schildts, 1997)

There are people who feel they are in contact with the stars. Among those who carry their secret knowledge around with them are both the healthy and the ‘sick’. Now I remember Olli stretching his arm out towards the evening star and seeming to greet it. For others, for me, the starry heavens are a form of distant vertigo. All those milky ways and galaxies, how could they not be inhabited, have developed a culture far older than our own. Perhaps they have watched the development of our planet with distaste, and are waiting for its ruin, which according to their calculation of time will take place in a few years or days from now. If I listen closely I seem to be faintly approached by a celestial choir, composed of indistinct sounds; if I stand on a lonely road in the country, and look up at the sky, the light and faint murmur from a nearby town emerge, and can be separated from the faint voices of the starry heavens. It is probably just my imagination. Perhaps it is an extension of that voice – anonymous, quiet – that I hear when I read a book. A good book is audio-visual. And no harm is done if it gives the reader a mild sense of vertigo.

As soon as my first, not great, but none the less ardent love had stepped into my room she sat down on the edge of the bed – there was only one chair – and hauled out a large bunch of knitting from the shopping bag she had with her. It was a half-finished sweater with a pattern of what I interpreted as dying elks in rows (cross-wise over the chest). She came straight towards me and measured my shoulder width. I was affected by a certain frigidity, and after that our relationship was never what it had been before. How little importance one attaches when young to nice big warm sweaters! It’s something else one is looking for, obviously.

Am increasingly uncomfortable with suspect pieces of wisdom such as ‘He can’t see the wood for the trees’ or ‘Each man is the architect of his own happiness’. Stupidity and cruelty. Whoever can see the tree, the detail, the individual, also has the ability to see the wood, the whole, the human. Respect for the solitary individual is the starting-point for broad and deep empathy. That beautiful individual glass in my hand provides the key to true design. If I understand the solitary, I understand the shared. And as for those architects: those who were born in the sunshine have a brighter point of departure than those who were born in the shadow. One’s own happiness: one’s own egoism, one’s own repellent peace. Of course we can formulate fine-sounding clichés about mankind; if we ignore the sufferings of the individual we belong to the rabble. And then no ‘global’ smoke-screens are of any help.

Perhaps when one is close to death one begins to resemble oneself, a mass of superfluous features falls away, and the inessential finally makes place for the mercilessly universal: Helene Schjerfbeck’s last self-portrait, to take one example. Something in Olli’s tense features reminds me of the approaching, the irrevocable; and the eyes look yonder. Kaisa writes that his silences and upsets are becoming ever more acute; troubled days alternate with days when he merely lies in silence, she does not know if he is asleep or awake; when he speaks stars and trees pass through him, he says Beni on siellä (‘Beni is there’) and points in some direction, whether towards the stars or the edge of the forest is unclear, I have entered his organism and it is my visit that has triggered all this: there is no accusation on Kaisa’s part, she merely talks about the problems, and it is as if I heard Olli’s voice mingle with grandmother’s ‘BenJAmin! Listen!’

Of course, I try to listen, but I am still a novice, have much to learn. One must learn to listen to the badly injured, to Woyzeck, Lenz, Gregor Samsa, Klien; see the dreams of Prince Myshkin, the deaths of Chekhov and Aleksis Kivi, dig more deeply into their will to life and their distress, burrow like a mole under the words, under the earth, be the companion of the silent, the perceiving interpreter of the suffering, the rehabilitator of the dead. Oh yes! One can always puff oneself up!

Olli’s funeral. The old wooden church, the breath like smoke from us four, Kaisa, Matti, Lena and I. And the priest, about thirty-five, spoke softly and well and naturally. He had met Olli by chance at the Nursing Home one warm June day ten years ago, Olli had been anxious and wanted to show him something, taken his hand, he had to admit that at the time he had found it a little difficult, embarrassing, even. Olli had pulled him out to the garden, there was a beautiful old lime tree there, and Olli had led him over to it, stopped with a transfigured look on his face and said: Kuuntele! Kaunista! Listen! Lovely! It was a day of overflowing, honey-yellow sunshine, the grass wonderfully green and gleaming, and the whole of the top of the lime tree filled with bees, a radiant, intense choir of high notes, a song of praise to all created things. They stood there and listened, in listening’s shared communion.

And then the priest – his name was Pauli Lehti – read the wonderful Psalm 104, the song of praise to the world’s creator – ‘Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain: Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters: who maketh the clouds his chariot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind.’ And later: ‘He sendeth the springs into the valleys, which run among the hills. They give drink to every beast of the field: the wild asses quench their thirst. By them shall the fowls of the heaven have their habitation, which sing among the branches.’ Tree and moon, darkness and sunlight, sea and earth were here, enclosed in the text of the psalm, and imparted a strange joy to Olli’s burial.

After the funeral we sat for a while on the promontory, and talked. There was a kinship between us that is hard to explain. A loneliness, too. When Matti drove us home the cold had increased, we waved to Kaisa for as long as we could see her. The wind was getting up. The priest sat in front, Lena and I behind. We passed Olli’s tree, it stood black, indistinct in the falling darkness. No stars were visible in the sky. Perhaps we all carry the thought of death like an invisible seed within us, it grows, cracks our shells, unfolds, branches extend, birds find their way to them with song, it becomes a tree that overshadows us all. It makes a nice image, anyway. We left the parson at his parsonage, said our farewells, drove onwards, towards the city where the bus home waited. It has been a long journey home. In the bus Lena falls asleep. I see her features in Marina, Marina’s features in her. I think of the children, of Olli, of the year that will soon be over, something stirs indistinctly within me, hard to write down in my morning diary.

Translated by David McDuff

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