Still lives

Issue 4/1999 | Archives online, Authors, Interviews, Reviews

The composition of Raija Siekkinen’s short stories is almost always the same: a woman, a man, slowly developing understanding or alienation, a resolution. In her new, book-length story, Se tapahtui täällä (‘It happened here’), the motivating events take place before the narrative begins, and the journey is toward emergence from grief.

‘One must listen to one’s own voice, and cultivate it. I am no moralist, except in the relation to myself. The persona and voice of the writer must be on the same lines, otherwise one cannot be honest, and writes only for entertainment. One has to live with what one writes,’ says Raija Siekkinen, rolling a cigarette at home in the small coastal town of Kotka, a 120 kilometres from Helsinki, near the church, in her picturesque wooden house. She says she was sensitive and shy as a child, but somehow realised that she had to defend her own words and manner. ‘And in literature honesty is one of the most essential things.’

Throughout her literary career, in more than ten books, Siekkinen has polished her voice, which diverges from the epic and realist tradition of Finnish prose. The eternal themes of death, relationships between the sexes, fear, alienation, death, Siekkinen writes forth unaffectedly in her texts. Realisations take place within the reader’s head: yes, that’s how it is, that’s exactly how it felt.

In her new novel, Se tapahtui täällä (‘It happened here’), the main characters, a man and a woman, have both experienced something very difficult, which is hard for them to bear; they protect themselves.

The woman and the man are both middle-aged; the man is an estate agent whose job it is to sell the summer cottage to which the woman comes to fetch her belongings. But the woman settles down in the house, and the man becomes uncommonly curious. What is the woman really looking for in the house; what is she doing there? Even to the woman, this becomes clear only gradually: ‘Perhaps the woman falls asleep for a second; but when she awakes, she immediately remembers what she has forgotten, and then, slowly, like someone who has come to a long-empty house to look for something that belongs to her, gone through the rooms, seen what is in them in the way in which one who seeks sees, slowly begins to remember: begun to find what she has come to find.’

Their only means of communication seems to be wordless and fumbling. The man drives to the house time after time, observes the woman and is caught. It is as if he is the prisoner of his own role, desires the woman, desiring to confess that he has observed her with curiosity, but unable to.

The woman has gradually set to work on the house: cleaned it, ventilated it, sowed seeds, organised. And she has certainly noticed that the estate agent drives up to the house from time to time in his red car. She, however, has more certainty than the man. ‘The art of living’, Siekkinen remarks. As so often in Siekkinen’s books, the genders are opposed to each other in a fairly schematic way, but this time with a gentler hand than, for example, in the collection of short stories entitled Metallin maku (‘The taste of metal’), in which woman and man often spoke entirely past one another. Now both lie to themselves as if under some compulsion, nevertheless proceeding toward a recognition of their greater honesty and thus also of one another.

‘The estate agent is almost a tragicomic figure,’ Siekkinen says. ‘He is not very career-directed; there are more important things in his life. He is between 40 and 50; many of the men of my generation are entirely lacking in household skills, and they need a woman to look after them.’

But the man is sympathetic, isn’t he, a good person?

‘Indeed he is, and there is even some humour in his habit of hiding in the bushes. You just have to find it. And it all turns out right for him, after all.’

Raija Siekkinen writes about things with no name; fumbling, movements, glimpses and fragments give rise to atmospheres and images that are nevertheless recognisable without difficulty – recognisable as one’s own. It is as if, twisting and turning, her language makes visible the invisible, that which has not been admitted until now. Siekkinen herself recognises that there is something unconscious beneath the surface of the text.

In Siekkinen’s books, the characters do not necessarily have names, at least not all of them. ‘I am always in difficulties with names.’ In her new novel, there is not a single proper name. ‘It is not conscious minimalism, but if the characters are too individualised, they become merely individuals, and people can read without empathy. My aim is for every woman to be able to find aspects of herself in that woman.’

She writes her texts only twice, and says she is always impatient. As soon as she begins, she wants to reach the end, and not agonise endlessly over the same text. For this reason, her most characteristic genre is the short story, with which she made her debut in 1978 and, among other things, won the Runeberg Prize with her collection Metallin maku (‘The taste of metal’) in 1994.

‘I can write two or even three short stories simultaneously. If I grow tired of one, I can move on to another. With a novel, one has to mess about with the same people; in the case of this novel, I spent two years with the same two people. From time to time I became really angry with myself and wrote to my publisher to say that the novel was short, the characters few and, what is more, stupid. But what can you do; the book chooses the characters.’

Siekkinen’s laughter is somehow as revealing and concealing as her text, I think: expressive and brief, shy and clear at the same time. She can make even the fateful nature of writing seem somehow voluntary, natural and even everyday – at any rate, she does not make it mysterious. What else could she do but write, how else could she get the things which circle round in her mind out of her? ‘A question of personality’ is her own explanation – or excuse – for why and how she does and writes as she does.

She wrote the beginning of her new novel a couple of years ago, in Greece, and said that she knew immediately, from half a page, that it would be longer than a short story. For her, the result is of secondary importance. The text drives the writer; the writer can never drive the text.

But Siekkinen certainly gives pace to her sentences, her own rhythm. She stresses how rhythm is, for her, like breathing. Whether she is influenced by the music which she always listens to as she writes – classical, Chopin, Smetana – is impossible to know.

‘My rhythm is my own, it comes into my sentences of its own accord, as it should; it is my own, personal rhythm. It may perhaps be discernible in the way I speak.’ Perhaps: her speech is, at any rate, rapid and unforced. The rhythm of her sentences is articulated by punctuation marks: many commas, semi-colons and colons. ‘A sentence is a stairway,’ the writer explains, drawing in the air with her slender fingers how the stairs rise and the sentence builds, rising upward with the help of semi-colons and colons.

The broadest theme in the novel. however, is that of death. Death is, for the writer, the culmination of the spiral of life. Death sets – or has set itself before the two people in the novel and taken one of them away just when they would have had much in common – much in common, in particular, to sort out. The man’s wife has died, the woman’s husband has died: ‘He sank, yielded, disappeared from view; it is called death. I tried to get a grip on him, as if I had dived after him, and he sank still lower , away from me. And I had to return to the surface, I had to go on looking at the sun, continue something which had remained unfinished; it is called life.’

Death stuns; after it, life is never the same – one does not recover. The woman in the novel withdraws during the period of her bereavement – although Siekkinen, with good reason, says she loathes the word – but functions. The man is unable to function or to admit to himself that not everything was right in his marriage, that he would in any case have been left alone. ‘Death can also be glorious, not frightening, but it does have that extreme individuality. Not even two people who have experienced the same loss can comfort one another. The experience cannot be shared, but grief and associated matters can of course be supported. But the old proverb that time heals wounds is also true. New situations arise in life. Life has a tendency to renew itself.’

Siekkinen says she circles questions that trouble her from many different angles ‘like a cat approaching a bowl of hot porridge’. She has to write about what her brain works with day in, day out. That is absolutely clear. And the fact that death is one of the fundamental questions of life.

Small news items in the newspaper may give an impetus: ‘They go on echoing in my head, if there is any point of contact at all.’ Ideas never come from the television, always from newspapers. She cites an example: she got the idea for the novel’s fateful car-crash after reading a newspaper report of a fatal accident involving the wife of an artist, in which two women perished. How did their spouses hear the news? The case went on troubling her, stimulated her imagination and wrote itself out, in a varied form, in the novel.

Just like an individual, a family, too. can fall ill. This novel, too, skirts the theme of family. Siekkinen does not believe in the family. She believes in the couple, but three is an unbalanced number. Even four is better. Nature, too, is important, and here, too, Siekkinen touches on some eternal Finnish values. ‘It is terribly important. When the woman in the book walks barefoot in the spring for the first time, she decides to stay.’

There are few descriptive passages in Siekkinen’s texts, and in her new novel those few concern nature. It is as if people are outside themselves; their link with themselves is lost. She says that she herself believes that knowledge is in the ground. ‘The snow had melted, the spring had come, in the morning, the birds sang in the birch coppice, in the evening the blackbird whistled; the air smelled of burnt leaves, and the buds on the trees grew day by day. Slowly, unnoticed, that which the woman had come here to find began to be discovered.’

No wonder that Siekkinen likes the Russian classics and their way of dealing with emotions. From French literature, Marguerite Duras is occasionally visible behind her text, as are the ‘cynical French writers’ Maupassant and Colette; the Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann is important and, among contemporary writers, the Italian Antonio Tabucchi. And Virgil, always Virgil, when she is writing.

‘Honesty is always important; that is always the conclusion,’ Siekkinen repeats, without pathos. I begin to understand what she means by this; the balance between ethics and aesthetics in her own life and creative work.

In a vase on the dark table is a chrysanthemum – which is, in many countries, a flower of mourning. It happens here.


No comments for this entry yet

Leave a comment