Bodies and souls

Issue 2/1999 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Åtta kroppar (‘Eight bodies’) contains eight stories: Susanne Ringell would really have liked to include the reader’s body in the title, but then the figure nine in the title would have perhaps been associated with the expression ‘nine lives’ – like the cat’s – and she did not want that.

Ringell is not one to fall for a cheerful, pedagogical optimism, and her consciousness of the physical is at the same time a consciousness of each person’s exposed vulnerability. Exposed in a literal sense is the ‘central character’ in Vara sten (‘Be stone’, 1996) which is a collection of statements by a stone which has lain in a cornfield since time immemorial. The stone has a fixed position, with a point of view that is given once and for all. The stone is also infertile; it has to make do with looking at the productive cornfield or with being a place for loving couples to lie.The child, including the unborn and longed-for one, is often at the centre of Susanne Ringell’s first literary work, the short story collection Det förlovade barnet (The promised child’, 1993). Before this her career had been dominated by the theatre. Ringell is a trained actress; she has been active invarious Finland-Swedish theatre groups and has also written a couple of plays as well as a collection of poems, Gall, eller Våra osynliga väntrum (‘Gall, or Our invisible waiting rooms’, 1994).

She seems to have left the stage; the radio play has instead become the genre in which she practises the art of acting – it may be a play she has written herself, as in Harriets hus (‘Harriet’s house’), which was broadcast in the spring of 1999 on the Finnish Broadcasting Company’s Swedish-language channel. It was the third play in an ‘aunt triptych’, preceded by Vendetta (1990), about a retired woman sci­entist, and Vestalen (The vestal, 1994), which has a female servant of art as the main character. Vestalen was awarded the Prix Italia in 1995.

In Susanne Ringell’s prose there is also a taste for details beyond tangible realism. In Åtta kroppar there is a story in which a man is informed that he has a life-threatening illness. The fateful words acquire substance before his eyes: he imagines them tumbling out of the doctor’s mouth like laboratory mice beginning to chase one another across the writing desk. The words acquire a body and much in Åtta kroppar is about the problems of the body.

In ‘Via Liljendal’ the main character enters into an organ donor contract. A form happens to be lying around at a petrol station, and the young woman signs an agreement that her corneas are available for transplant if they are still usable after her death. This hasty decision sets in motion a stormy process of thoughts and feelings: ‘Synnöve has heard that the main problem with transplants is that the host body rejects the alien organ. But if human being is all she consists of, may it not be supposed that it is not an organ but a person that the other person wants to reject?…. Not so long ago it was considered ugly and reprehensible to strip the dead of external objects, of things like gold fillings and rings, while today it is thought quite normal to cut apart and share out all the inner material a human being consists of. It’s not considered to be sacrilege at all. It is on the contrary something positive and sensitive, which is in the service of humanity and good development. But in a way it means that a human being’s body is no longer his dwelling place. He is a storeroom for valuable raw material which ought to be returned.’

Eyes and seeing become a special theme in Åtta kroppar – and the opposite is not necessarily blindness, but perhaps darkness, as in the suggestive final story. Paolo Cittadelli’s darkness’, where darkness is the structuralising principle: ‘It was the dark itself that was the picture’.

It has been said that Susanne Ringell’ s narrative style may at times be reminiscent of that of Tove Jansson’s adult short stories. In ‘Cause of death’ this may be so; the archipelago setting and the complicated relationship it depicts both point to it. But Ringell is both warmer and more hard-boiled than Jansson. The dead aspects of a thirty-year-old marriage seem in ordinary daily life to generate a real death. Both man and woman feel a mutual relief at not being suspected of having caused it. But the guilt feelings are individual, and the reader feels a great sympathy for both sides.

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