How many worlds?
Veronica Pimenoff’s novel Maa ilman vettä (‘A world without water’) recalls in a startling way the time when the founding father of Nordic literature, Georg Brandes, urged readers to ‘make problems a matter of debate’ and when Henrik Ibsen’s plays The Pillars of Society and A Doll’s House provoked widespread debate about money and property, gender and marriage.
The tradition of problem-centred literature in the Nordic countries from the end of the 19th century onward has hardly been studied, but it could certainly be made visible by tracing a line from Brandes to August Strindberg and thence via the working-class literature of Sweden and Finland to, for example, the feminist fiction of recent decades.
The starting point of the writing of Veronica Pimenoff (born 1949) lies in the ideals of the student rebellion of 1968, which she described in her novels of the 1970s. Now she addresses global crime, gene technology, the final location of nuclear waste and, more generally, the relationship between the natural sciences and capitalism. Her method of constructing a novel offers hope for the meaning of literature as an interpreter of its time.
At the core of Pimenoff’s intelligent and challenging novel is the conflict between two women. The dying doctor Sofia Elena, from Mozambique, and the Finnish biologist Kristiina – former radical comrades in the struggle in West Berlin in the early 1970s – meet in Lisbon and remember the time when there were three ‘worlds’: in addition to the power blocks of East and West, a ‘third world’, exploited by the North, whose plight provoked politically conscious young people into action. The ‘third world’ is no longer remembered, and the Soviet Union which courted it as a partner no longer exists.
The ruler of the world is global capitalism, whose only challenger is, according to the novel’s African doctor, the ‘fourth world’, organised crime. She says that the fourth world is already indelibly in Europe, ‘everywhere, in refugee centres, in stations, on the streets and gaming dens, at the airports, in the drug trade, in the weapons cargoes and the exchanges of women’. Everything that is good for the freedom of money and trade also benefits the criminals originating from poor countries and for their terror, which they use to attack the West’s computerised weapons and satellite power, its electronic money, its commercial centres and its children’s schools.
The conversation in Lisbon develops a historical image of the revenge of exploited continents: in earlier centuries, they sent Europe scourges such as tobacco, drugs, epidemic diseases. Now ‘we turn schools upside down and trash apartments’, ‘smuggle arms and drugs’. If an African book of revelations existed, it would pronounce that it is in vain for Europe to try to defend itself. Sofia Elena says that keeping the poor out will not succeed and that even to try means petrification and death, because ‘the forces of the fourth world are an arrow into the future’.
Sofia Elena’s brother Antonio is one of the leaders of the ‘fourth world’, and has contacts in South America. He knows about the Finnish biologist’s research projects, and takes her into the world of criminals. There, women are highly desirable, as whores. The Finnish lady doctor, ‘a small, white sofa-mouse’, finds herself drinking vintage champagne in the criminals’ stretch Mercedes, which ferries high-class prostitutes from one congress hotel to another along the Portuguese coast. She realises that she has made herself up to compete with them.
Pimenoff’s first novel, Pohjoiset pelit (‘Northern games’, 1979), follows through all the subjects of discussion born of the student rebellions of 1968, essentially in the spirit of Herbert Marcuse’s critical social theory. The main character detaches herself from bourgeois life and sets out to seek humanity in the rise of the oppressed of the ‘third world’ and the working class. Pimenoff gained a doctorate in social anthropology at the University of Hamburg in 1972 and qualified as a doctor at the Free University in Berlin in 1978, and her sojourn in West Germany brought her subsequent works fashionable material from Marxism and terrorism. She liberated herself from the wearisomely theoretical character of those books only in her novel Loistava Helena (‘Grandiose Helena’, 1984), until Maa ilman vettä exploited her experiences in West Berlin with superb artistry.
During their student years in West Germany, Kristiina and Sofia Elena believed in the future. Socialism was to bring liberation and bring people closer to one another without subjugation or exploitation. In demonstrations, they carried the image of Che Guevara, and when that did not help, it was necessary to up the ante, in accordance with the slogan: high sein, frei sein, Terror muss dabei sein! All or nothing, freedom or death! And how wretched were the results – Maa ilman vettä is an illusionless depiction of the total collapse of the radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s.
Sofia Elena’s homeland, Mozambique, was to become the red star of Africa. She returned there from Berlin to found children’s hospitals, but everything collapsed in face of the blind violence of the anti-socialist guerrilla movement Renamo. Her fate was to some extent similar to those of Lenin and Pol Pot in their own countries: they returned from abroad, and when their homeland did not fit with their plans, they pruned it until it attained purity. The situation in Mozambique forced new sides of Sofia Elena into view: she became a soldier who was intoxicated by killing, like a man. She lost a leg and one of her breasts in torture. In addition to defeat, she experienced the humiliation of survival.
In Berlin, she and Kristiina were still sisters together, although the differences in race and background prepared them for conflict. Twenty-five years later, there is nothing left of their cheerful comradeship; they are as far from one another as Africa and Europe. Their hatred recalls the terrible gashes of Strindberg’s vivisections.
The second half of Pimenoff’s novel is a remorseless depiction of Kristiina, the debating partner who appears to have received a better lot in life than her mortally ill black sister. She lives in a rich welfare state. Her husband, a geologist, receives profitable commissions from power companies which need to develop the most durable possible stores for nuclear waste. Her husband is an expert who does not take moral stands but enthusiastically ponders his investments and dividends. ‘You haven’t done anything if you haven’t made a profit,’ is how Kristiina characterises the slogan of contemporary Finland. The obscenely mocking conclusion of the novel shows the couple in an ecstasy of world-embracing lust and greed.
Kristiina has been to Nevada, where her husband is studying the storage of power-station waste in the desert – a world without water. Both, separately, make the acquaintance of Mark Hunter, who is the most mysterious character in the book: simultaneously a representative of the Zen mysticism of American art and a mega-property mogul of the proportions of Citizen Kane. Unlike the character in Orson Welles’s film, however, he is not a lonely devil: Kristiina finds him to be a skilful lover and receives, as a memento, a totemic carving in the form of a frog. The frog is the novel’s Leitmotiv: as well as a Mayan work of art, it is a laboratory animal of pregnancy tests and biological vivisection, the subject of fairy-tale metamorphoses, the representative of moisture and of life, but there are also poisonous species, and it is these to which Kristiina’s scientific interest is directed.
The topicality of Pimenoff’s book is visible in one of its central concepts, biomimetics. The new printed edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica does not list it, but a search on the Internet yields a rich harvest. It is a question of the development of products that imitate nature. The Finnish scientists follows colleagues who are developing shell glue for human use or self-darning fabrics by imitating trees and nuts.
The mimesis of frogs’ production of poison would offer a frightening destructive weapon. The idea forces new aspects of Kristiina’s femininity into view, for example an interest in killing that recalls Sofia Elena’s experiences. As a scientist, she is torn: she has a token from Mark Hunter, a capitalist mogul, but also an agreement with Antonio, a fourth-world criminal. In this situation, the scientist’s ambition burns fiercely, and there is a terrible irony in the novel’s dedication to ‘women in the fields of honour’. Maa ilman vettä tears itself away from the shackles of everyday credibility and sets its course for revelations, hallucinations and visions.
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Also by Pekka Tarkka
In good company - 18 October 2013
Nationalism in war and peace - 3 May 2012
In memoriam Bo Carpelan 1926–2011 - 24 February 2011
Arne Nevanlinna: Hjalmar - 5 November 2010
About the writer
Pekka Tarkka (born 1934) is an author and literary critic. Among his works are an extensive biography of the poet and writer Pentti Saarikoski (1937–1983) and of the author Joel Lehtonen (1881–1934; first volume, 2009; the second volume, 2012).
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