The novelist Pirjo Hassinen’s subjects are men, women and death. Particularly, in her novel Viimeinen syli (‘The last embrance’, Otava, 1998), death. Interview by Leena Härkönen
The blizzard to end all blizzards is tearing Finland apart. The railway system is in a mess, and the heating system in our building has stopped working. There is no way I can leave Helsinki for Jyväskylä, the town in central Finland, 300 kilometres away, where Pirjo Hassinen lives. I am obliged to interview her on the telephone, although she says she loathes talking on the phone, and I too would prefer to meet her face to face.
The day I ring Hassinen, Lapland achieves a record low of -51 Celsius. Even on the south coast the mercury sinks well below -20°C, and a freezing wind makes the frost almost unbearable. The entire country is as white and cold as – death. It is an easy comparison, for it is death that is the theme of Pirjo Hassinen’s latest novel. The main character of Viimeinen syli is an undertaker, transporting bodies. There is a lot of death in the book: two suicides plus an accidental one. According to Hassinen, her subject matter is the conclusion of a logical development.
‘I deal with whatever concerns me most at a given moment and whatever I feel I can say something about.’
In her first novel, Joel (1991), Hassinen depicted a new man, a handsome body-builder, whom a woman takes as her lover. In Yön kentät (‘In the fields of night’, 1992), a wife and her sister remember a dead man. The sister returns to the experiences of her childhood, while the wife kills her grief by exploiting men. In Voimanaiset (‘Power-women’, 1996), a thirty-something woman liberates herself from her mother and, despite her protests, chooses a man for herself.
Hassinen has generally been praised by the critics. She has been called a chronicler of women’s history and development, as well as of eroticism, a hypnotic writer who grasps phenomena labelled as superficial and uses them skilfully and to serious purpose. Voimanaiset was shortlisted for Finland’s biggest literary award, the Finlandia Prize. Viimeinen syli was on the shortlist for the Runeberg Prize.
Woman and man, woman and mother, woman and love. Why these themes?
‘Even as a child I always drew children, never, for example, landscapes. In particular I drew female forms, trying to make them better and better. I have always gravitated toward people. People are at the centre of everything,’ Hassinen says.
But woman and death? When one reads Hassinen’s novels one after another, one realises that death is always present in one form or another. It’s like the children’s game of blind man’s buff. For Hassinen, the dancers in the ring are contemporary people seeking their place in the world, and the blind man in the centre, groping for them, is death. In Viimeinen syli, he has finally attained the central role.
For Hassinen, the idea is interesting, although she does not see the trend quite so clearly. She suspects it is because she does not like to read her own books or remember them afterward. For her, that would be as dull as looking at old photographs.
‘Of course I do know and remember that death has always been in some way present. And of course it’s the most terrible thing there is, just as love is the most beautiful.’
I ask more about death, because the subject is close to me, too. I had dealings with it last year when I wrote a magazine article about what happens to the dead on earth. For me, as a journalist, death was a commission, a brief, but Hassinen has chosen her subject herself. It becomes clear that the reason is a mid-life crisis. Hassinen turned forty a year and a half ago, and her crisis was real and profound.
‘It was terrible to realise that bloody hell, half of life is lived already. And even if there is still another half to go, who is to say it will be the better half?’
I am about the same age, and do not remember having experienced any such crisis, but when Hassinen begins to describe how aging (or slow death) is visible physically, I know what she is talking about. We begin a kind of competition in comparing how ugly our hands, in particular, look and how horrible it is to peer into the mirror in the mornings. At such moment it isn’t much help trying to persuade yourself of the power of experience and perspective on the world.
‘In an existential sense, a change takes place at this age,’ Hassinen continues, when we have finished talking about hands. ‘I’m certainly not young, but I still feel greedy for life. When you’re younger, you don’t think about your limitations. Now you realise them, but you can’t accept them.’
When I was writing the magazine article, I realised that death really is taboo for us. We do not wish to speak about it, and in writing for the general public one must be careful not to hurt one’s readers. The creative writer has greater freedom, and Hassinen dives straight into the core of the taboo. In her novel, she describes a body as it is: blue-green, sewn up, the scalp crooked after a post-mortem examination. In the crematorium, flesh glows and skin boils. There are sex scenes in the hearse, and an erection is compared to rigor mortis. Some critics have asked whether less might have been enough.
‘No,’ Hassinen replies, indicating the artistic and intrinsic demands of the novel. No, even though rummaging around in death has sometimes felt so repugnant that the writer sometimes wished she had chosen an easier subject. Among other things, she drove to hospital in a hearse to see how a corpse is prepared for the coffin. The experience was nightmarish and frightening, ‘as if I had sacrificed myself on behalf of the readers’.
In Viimeinen syli, physical death is juxtaposed with the death of love. The former wife, Erja, of the novel’s main character, Mikael, will not admit that love can die. She fastens herself to Mikael, takes a job with his funeral company and begins to write unusual memorial verses. In them, relatives say what they really think: ‘Someone said it is a journey to the stars. Stop and come back to my arms, darling! Or, resentfully, You died for me a long time ago….’ Mikael is irritated by Erja’s symbiotic need for closeness: after all, he married her out of sheer guilt. When they were younger, Mikael and his friends had enticed Erja to play a naked Virgin Mary in a Christmas tableau, although their ulterior motive was to exploit her. To atone for his deed, Mikael married Erja.
The opposite of dependent Erja is Mikael’s second wife, Rhea. For her husband, with his dislike of closeness, she is ideal: a successful career woman who is in control of her life and her feelings. The director of a social welfare office, Rhea is a Teflon person. She is not touched by anything, not even when a disturbed man takes some of her staff hostage, kills one of them before Rhea’s eyes and then commits suicide. Rhea seems like a typical contemporary survivor. She is like yet another member of the coven of power-women whom Hassinen is said to describe. Hassinen is of a different opinion.
‘Just as I have thought that in my next novel no one will die, after Voimanaiset I had enough of over-strong women. Even there, women are power-women in a very ironic sense: as if they don’t need a man. That way of thinking is a gaol. Rhea, too, is anything but a power-woman. She is s superficial person, a modernist, and stylishly of the present, but never in the grip of terror.’
Rhea takes as her lover Pauli, a successful television reporter with whom she moves through the surface of the urban jungle. Hassinen’s description of celebrity circles and the media world is giddy satire which, despite its exaggeration, feels both true and familiar. Hassinen mocks the media’s enthusiasm to grasp trends which are thrashed to death and then forgotten. In the novel, hypocrisy reaches its climax when Pauli interviews Rhea on television about the welfare office tragedy. The entire situation is a great preparation for an act – foreplay watched by an audience of a million.
‘Nothing, nothing gave rise to such delicious conversation as the media debate about the media’s guilt for the murder. Did we really have such power?!
Power to decide over human life and death? Am I a god?!’ In the novel, the reporters are excited by the idea that the media have caused a human death. That was the way, after all, that the media reacted to the death of Princess Diana, which was followed by unprecedented self-scourging and hypocrisy.
But, Hassinen comments, the leading commercial television channel in Finland can screen programmes such as a recent interview with the murderer of two policemen and, as if that were not enough, give voice to a paedophile convicted for the murder of two children. Hassinen did not watch either programme. ‘I boycott them, although it’s like clenching your fist in your pockets. But you have to draw the line somewhere.’
Hassinen’s novels are set in the present and make reference to current events, including social trends. In Viimeinen syli, one of these is unemployment. The novel’s Erja is out of work, although she does odd jobs at the funeral parlour. Encouraged by a friend, she joins an unemployed action group called the Red Army of the Heart, which harbours plans to murder the prime minister. Meetings of the group, its leader’s incendiary speeches and a ridiculous survival weekend in the forest make ironic comment on all sorts of salvation prophets in addition to the trendy survival games practised in big business.
Hassinen says she has no clear stance on unemployment. She is more interested in the hatred that irresponsible leaders can shamelessly channel for their own causes. The most loathsome demonstration of this is, according to Hassinen, the point where the group’s sadistic male leader praises his women: ‘You have a great, ennobled rage. You have the capacity for slaughter, girls.’
‘In principle the Red Army people are terrorists, but their acts of terror are directed against themselves,’ Hassinen says. ‘They have been driven into a state of profound despair, and they have no other option but to sacrifice themselves.’ In this case the victim is one of the women in the group, Eeva, a person who is pitiable in every respect. Her legs are like the legs of an elephant, and, hungry for company, she gazes at the others ‘as if a great droopy breast were offering fatty milk to everyone who was thirsty’. Eeva is so pathetic that the reader feels compassion. What was the need for a woman character of that kind?
‘I thought about what the most rejected person might be like: an overweight, unemployed social sciences graduate. In describing Eeva I’m crueller than I am in real life. It was really painful to write like that.’ Eeva manacles herself to the wall of the welfare office and commits suicide by setting fire to herself; the act is not heroic, but desperate. Erja, on the other hand, has a childlike belief in her own omnipotence, which is nevertheless proved illusory. As a last resort, she tries to awaken Mikael’s pity and casts herself under the wheels of the hearse. Her intention is only to frighten him, but despite all her precautions Erja dies. She is buried just before the turn of the millennium.
‘There are women like Erja,’ Hassinen says. ‘Women who, after divorce, are bitter and withered. Erja felt that half of her had disappeared. She had no other possibility; there was no way that her life could be imagined to continue.’
‘All Rhea was wearing was her stockings, which were attached to her thighs with tight rubber kisses. For a moment the man was there like a ski-jumper leaning into the wind.’
Pirjo Hassinen writes in such a way that things can be smelled and tasted. She continually invents new words to describe, for example, intercourse; but she omits to say what sex feels like. She has almost nothing to say about her characters’ appearance. Hassinen says that when you have written countless romantic novels for young girls, as she has, you have to learn to describe the same old things in different ways.
‘I see human figures as existences or entities rather than characters. It would be hard to drag around adjectives describing people’s appearance. In sex, on the other hand, what you feel is so personal that when I write in the third person I prefer to allow the feeling to develop in the reader’s mind.’ Hassinen has sometimes wondered why she is considered a portrayer of eroticism. ‘My reputation might be to some extent justified for Joel. After the reviews of Ennustaja, I had to open the book and look to see whether there was anything erotic. And of course there was, even though I hadn’t realised it myself.’ She is amused: ‘All the same, I haven’t considered surprising my readers with a completely sexless novel. If I write about an intimate relationship, sex is always somehow present. And, after all, simply eating ice-cream can be a sensual experience.’
Hassinen says that every time she finishes a novel she feels she has succeeded, but that this does not mean anything. The reviews are decisive. ‘Waiting for the reviews in the country’s biggest newspaper is just as awful as what is supposed to be the worst thing in a woman’s life, waiting for the results of tests on the amniotic fluid during pregnancy. You have to wait for two weeks to know whether the child is handicapped, whether the pregnancy can continue or what will happen.’ Feedback from readers is also interesting. ‘When someone says they love the language in a novel, I am a little bit disappointed. I would like my readers almost to faint. The best feedback I had for Viimeinen syli was when one of my friends said it had induced a panic attack. I had conflicting feelings: I was terribly shocked, but happy.’
We have, without noticing it, been speaking for almost two hours. My mouth is dry and the telephone receiver is hot. As we are finishing our conversation, I remember something else. I do not bother Hassinen with it, but the same evening on my way home I stop in the hosiery section of a department store.
I have loathed tights for as long as I can remember. They are, I think, the most awkward and unsexy garment that has been invented for women, and I have not used them for a couple of decades. But I began to think of them in a new way after reading what Hassinen writes about them: ‘The knees of a grieving widow gleam through them on the front seat of the hearse. Ankles rub against each other in them under the dinner table. Undressing, a woman throws them at the man’s head, and the gusset is still warm. They squeak softly on the back seat of a taxi when a woman has picked up a man and is taking him home.’
I study deniers, choose from the shelves gloss and matt, fine and thicker, black and midnight blue. At home I try a pair on. What a pity that it is too cold to wear just them. Luckily a thaw is promised for next week.
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About the writer
Leena Härkönen is an editor at the leading daily paper in Finland, Helsingin Sanomat
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