In search of an identity

Issue 3/1999 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

‘You will be sorry, at least by the time you reach the gates of the Underworld, if you do not read this book,’ threatened the critic of the science-fiction and fantasy magazine Tähtivaeltaja (‘Star-traveller’) in his review of Maarit Verronen’s novel Pimeä maa (‘Out of the Land of Darkness’) in 1995. Verronen’s writing lies somewhere on the borderland between fantasy and science-fiction, the events of Pimeä maa are set in an unrecognisable primal time, in some unrecognisable and barren tundra landscape.

Verronen (born 1965) herself, however, does not wish to be put in any ‘category’, and does not wish to be regarded merely as a fantasy writer. She is an astronomer by training and a writer by profession, author of three novels and four collections of short stories, and winner of several literary prizes. For the writer, it was important that the gender of the main character of Pimeä maa remained undefined; the reader was forced to ponder it constantly. When Books from Finland published an extract in 1995, the English language demanded a decision as to gender, and Ulthyraja Tharabereghist became a ‘she’. ‘I don’t deny that gender has both a biological and a social basis, but I believe that the social aspect is much stronger than we generally wish to believe,’ Verronen said in agreeing to the translator’s choice.

Her next novel Luolavuodet (‘Cave years’, 1998), describes a young spelaeologist who discovers an unnaturally large cave network and begins to penetrate even deeper – into the lives of people who lived 24,000 years ago, her own family’s past and contemporary society’s structures of corruption.

For Verronen, identity is a variable which she keeps setting in different positions in her writing.

Her collection of short stories Löytöretkeilijä ja muita eksyneitä (‘The explorer and other stories’) contains 20 stories whose characters are often nameless, referred to by an epithet: observer, survivor, explorer, adventurer – or even merely man or woman. Their surroundings are cities or towns, also nameless. Verronen’s matter-of-fact, almost brusque way of depicting the events of her timeless and placeless people results in cool reports which are difficult to leave unread: this is our world, but why is it different? The reader is forced to ask the same question in every story.

In Delina, a stranger returns to a poor village which he has visited two decades ago at a work-camp, and looks for a girl he met then whom he promised to help find a place as a student in his own country. The stranger experiences considerable feelings of alienation; the place is the same, and at the same time different; people seem the same, yet are different. Time has passed; who is Delina now – and who was she then? And, ultimately, why is the stranger strange to himself?

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