Automotive

Issue 4/1999 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Among Finnish writers of the younger generation, Jyrki Kiiskinen (born 1963) has wasted no time becoming a prominent figure, both admired and disparaged. While his entry in the new three-volume literary history of Finland is allotted as much space as one of our classics, it does not grant him the status of an innovator. Reviewing his new book of poems, Kun elän (‘As I live’, 1999), for my newspaper, I proposed that it introduces, for the first time in Finnish poetry, the automobile as a metaphor for our entire motorised life style. The president of the Finnish Writers’ Union, poet Jarkko Laine, responded by presenting a list of all the Cadillacs, Renaults and Volvos that can be glimpsed in the pages of Finnish poetry books.

After his first three collections of poems, Kiiskinen turned to prose works framed within the genres of the thriller and speculative fiction. However, he programmatically avoided the typical plot lines and characters found in commercially successful versions of those genres. The omniscient narrator is replaced by a series of points of view, and the perceptions, understandings, and information shared by the latter are far from complete. In his novel Suomies (‘The bog man’, 1994), the narrator is blind. Kaamos (‘Polar night’, 1997) also deals with diminished consciousness: in it, a member of a new and fairly primitive civilisation built on the ruins of our present one tries to interpret a past with cars, nuclear energy, and big cities on the basis of the fragments it has left behind.

Kiiskinen seems to have been bothered by his inability to establish a satisfactory rapport with his readers. This unease led him to write, in 1996, that his generation, the radical rear guard of modernism, needed a ‘politics that refuses to be pigeonholed as politics’. His plea was for a departure from overly refined estheticism and for a stronger grip on the reader, which would allow the reader to gain insights into the ‘analysis of life’s conflicts.’ The writer was urged to prove his usefulness as an interpreter of his community.

Kun elän  is a surprisingly successful realisation of that programme. It consists of two poem sequences. The first one, ‘Landscape behind a broken windshield’, grounds its 18 parts in our common experience of traffic and connects Kiiskinen’s poetry with the consciousness of a motorised society. Speed can be achieved by turning a key, without bodily effort, the mind shifts from one perception to the next at the speed of a lane change, ‘the car is another climate.’ Kiiskinen writes in the narcotised and trance-like state created by the speed of driving, alternates short staccato lines with others that hum seductively, sometimes falling into the rhythm of folkloristic chains of spells, to reflect a ‘automotive nation’s’ deepest fears of death.

The books second long sequence operates in a more intimate setting. In it, the poet stays awake all night, and while the climate of insomnia is not the same as the one in a speeding car, it too exists on the far side of what we consider normal. In a vessel riding the waves and dunes of sheets and bedding, consciousness wanders as if sleepwalking. The automobile’s entry into the night world as a crushing apparition finally connects the two sequences.

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