Into the animal kingdom

Issue 4/2000 | Archives online, Authors, Interviews, Reviews

In her first novel, Ennen päivänlaskua ei voi (‘Not before sundown’, Tammi, 2000), Johanna Sinisalo has developed a new science, that of trollology, discovering in the northern forests a new mammal species, the troll. The novel takes its readers into a world beyond taboo. where human beings may fall in love with non-human creatures – and mortal danger may ensue. Introduction and interview by Soila Lehtonen

There are still wild beasts in the forests of northern Europe. It is still not far from the cities to the forest -and the forest is no manicured parkland. where the mark of man is everywhere visible. A berry-picker may encounter a bear, a schoolchild see wolf-tracks in the snow. But the territory of wild creatures in shrinking, and it is becoming more difficult for them to find food; and so they are making inroads into the human landscape. There are a thousand bears in Finland, one for every five thousand people; more than one hundred licences to shoot bear were granted this autumn.

Like the bear. the troll hibernates; there are an estimated 400 trolls in Finland. ‘The carcass of a dead troll was delivered to the zoology and botany department of the Imperial Alexander University in Helsinki in 1907. The inaccessible habitats of the troll, its timidity and the fact that it is a nocturnal creature which hibernates explain the late discovery of the species. Science discovered the okapi only in 1900, and the giant panda in 1937’.

Hang on a minute: the troll? Is it the European Union’s inspectors who have estimated the numbers of this folkloric beast in Finland’s forests? The above quotation, with its mix of fact and fiction, is from Ennen päivän laskua ei voi (‘Not before sundown ‘), a first novel by Johanna Sinisalo (born 1958). In it, a young Felipithecus trollius, plucked from the safety of the night, finds itself in frightening daylight in a block of flats in the Finnish city of Tampere. The advertising photographer Mikael, who is known as Angel, rescues the half-grown troll, from his back yard. The black, furry beast changes the life of the blond­-curled Angel.

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Johanna, where did you find your troll? In folklore or hiking in the wild?

‘It’s certainly there in folklore. A particularly important part of the way the book originated lay in two discoveries: First, a characteristic that is to be found in the old Finnish folk-tales about trolls, in which the stupidity of trolls compared to humans is emphasized – to the extent that the stories have an almost propagandist tone, as if people were constantly needing to reassure themselves that they were superior to this other species.

‘Another fine discovery was that when Christianity arrived in Finland, Finnish troll stories began to merge with stories and myths about the devil: the demonic nature of the troll, and its fearfulness, are a very late development – as if it was somehow advantageous to Christianity to identify the troll with evil and sin. The relationship between people and trolls did not have a place in the Judaeo-Christian ethic.

‘It’s interesting that you mention hiking – I’m very keen on it, as well as on mountaineering. Maybe my hobby contributed something to the birth of the troll; when you walk in the forests or in the deserted mountains, it really is easy to believe that even quite a big animal species could conceal itself from human beings forever.’

Your troll, even though it is a beast, is not the ugly, coarse-boned, growling monster of the folk-tales, but a black, furry creature, agile as a cat, with a face a bit like a silk-monkey’s, young and even charming. How did it develop into the Felipithecus?

‘I wanted the creature to look like a hominid, so that the “pithecus” reference to the ape, or “handedness”, is very understandable. Also, of course, the troll is very similar to human beings in the folk literature, too; people are easily threatened or competed with by creatures that are rather like them. Felipithecus means “cat-ape”, and the troll has cat-like features because cats are mysteriously and physically superior to people in their agility –their jumping skills almost defy gravity.‘

The title of the novel refers to a very popular 1950S song by the song-writer Reino Helismaa and the composer Toivo Kärki, Päivänsäde ja menninkäinen (‘Sunbeam and the troll’), which almost every Finn knows and which is a standard of communal singing at all kinds of parties – its melancholy chorus offers the opportunity to be openly sentimental, particularly after a few beers. The troll, child of the night, could never stay above the ground after sunrise. But once he happened, at dusk, to bump into a late sunbeam and fell in love. The sunbeam, however, could not live in darkness, so their love-story came to nothing. As he wanders alone, the troll wonders why ‘one of us is a child of light while the other loves the night’.

Behind the popular song is Yrjö Kokko’s classic novel, Pessi ja Illusia (‘Pessi and Illusia’, 1945), which tells the same story; it has also been made into a ballet and a film. In it, the Finnish wilderness forest glows with fairy-tale colours, scents, diversity and life. Mikael calls his troll Pessi.

The troll of the song falls in love with an elf who is as beautiful as an angel; in the novel. Mikael – whose nickname is Angel – grows close to this troll as one grows attached to a pet. The troll recovers under his care and grows tame. As well as affection for the troll, Mikael, who is a homosexual, feels a strange erotic attraction for the creature. One of Mikael’s friends, a veterinary surgeon, theorises that the troll, which is an animal, secretes pheromones that transcend the barriers between the species. The troll smells strongly of juniper berries, which associate, in the mind of an urban male, most strongly with gin and Calvin Klein.

The relationship between animal and man in in your book is on one hand recognisable – what dog- or cat-owner has not felt the same inter-species tenderness? – although this creature. in his black mythic quality, is also somehow arousing to the senses. It is based on the folk-tales about the generally dangerous relationship between people and trolls? Is the pitch-black Pessi a frightening figure from human subconscious?

‘Science fiction addresses itself continually to relationships between different species, but as soon as you introduce the idea that there could be an erotically charged relationship between an human being and an earthly animal species, you step into a taboo area. I have read that dolphins sometimes approach people with clearly erotic intentions, but because they look so different from us, the matter can be dismissed as misplaced instinctive behavior – it doesn’t seem to pose a “real” threat. It’s also the case that it was only with the Judaeo-Christian ethic – in other words a very young hegemonic way of thinking – that sexually charged relationships between people and animals became taboo.

‘My story really is based to a large extent on mythological sources. What if it were “really” possible that there were interspecies relationships, even sexual relationships, which were only effectively suppressed with the arrival of Christianity? The Finnish folk tradition is full of stories about the human brides and bridegrooms of trolls and of changelings infiltrated into human homes. What if the roots of those stories lay in some kind of primitive cultural exchange? The troll also represents otherness and strangeness, fear of the unknown, which is reflected on other levels in man in suspicion of strange and different looking human races, and even in prejudices between the sexes.’

Let’s talk about literary definitions of genre…. Here beneath the North Star, the literary tradition is short and realist: literature has not produce the kind of mix of reality and fantasy cultivated by, for example, Marquez, Calvino or Bulgakov – although the Finnish recorded folk tradition is, apparently, one of the most extensive in the world. Leena Krohn is one of the few contemporary writers who unabashedly mixes truth and fiction and who also uses the latest science in addition to her own imagination. Before your first novel you wrote a great deal of what is known as sci-fi: stories, novellas – and won the Atorox sci-fi prize as many as six times. How would you pigeonhole your novel? Is it science fiction, or a fairy-tale? And what is the difference?

‘I have myself playfully called my book “socio-fantasy”. I have deliberately aimed to close the rift between the Finnish realist tradition and speculative fiction. If my book is to be classed as science fiction or fantasy, then it is definitely science fiction. It is based on biological facts and it could, in principle, be true without having to include any basic hypotheses about the structure of the world or belief systems beyond science or even everyday reality.

‘A fairy-tale generally consists of an allegorical story and is normally set in an anonymous time and place: “once upon a time … “. The characters. too, are anonymous – if they have a name, it is generally linked to their dress or another attribute: Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Cinderella, Puss in Boots. Anything at all can happen in a fairy-tale; fantasy, on the other hand, is a kind of exactly recorded fairy-tale. Instead of saying, “Long ago in a distant country there was a king who had three sons”, you say, “After the great famine, King Frodel ascended to the throne of the land of Munnaugh; his queen, princess Ledia of the neighbouring country, soon gave birth to three sons, who were called Deran, Praedor and Hirge.” An agreement is made with the reader that the world of the story recalls the exact world with its history, social structures and political rules. But just as in the fairy-tale, magic and dragons can also make their appearance in fantasy. Science fiction’s demand for exactitude is still higher. If you describe the land of Munnaugh, you must also specify whether it is on a strange planet or on Earth and in its future, whether it is part of alternate history and so on. If a dragon appears in science fiction, it cannot simply be a given creature in the world – instead, you have to say whether it is a product of genetic manipulation or the original fauna of a strange planet. Science fiction operates only and solely through today’s science or speculative extensions of it, and differs from both fairy-tale and fantasy.

‘It is not necessary to journey into the future or space to benefit from the operational rules of science fiction. Science fiction is based simply on the words, “what if?”: it is intelligent speculation as to what our world would look like if some familiar matter were different from what it is. Science fiction can operate. for example, like alternate history in demonstrating to us the regularities of history – what the world would look like if Germany had won the Second World War or electricity had never been invented. In my own book, the alternative factor is biological and evolutionary.’

It seems that the writing that is classed as science fiction is located somewhere in the margins: it is read by enthusiasts and fans, but when I have sometimes asked people whether they read science fiction, most of them say they can’t be bothered with little green men and their amazing gadgets.

‘In the minds of many readers, particularly of the older generation, science fiction and fantasy are automatically consigned to the margins of literature. Some people say they never read science fiction, but when you press them further, they say either that a) they have never bothered acquainting themselves with it or b) they have read works that are classed as science fiction and liked them very much without knowing quite what it is they enjoy.

‘Many people dislike science fiction’s habit of setting events in the future or on a distant planet and imagine that this means that it is an escapist genre whose function is simply to depict imaginary and exotic settings. But science fiction examines and challenges our own world, using as its operating principle alienation, projection – to a different time, a different place – and abstraction of problems so that they can be approached from quite new directions. Good science fiction is in dialogue with today’s world – it questions values and value systems, political reality, social models and even gender roles.

‘Only science fiction can deal concretely with really big ideas, such as the definition of humanity – because we need the methods of science fiction in order to ponder, on a practical level, where to draw the line between man and machine, man and beast or, for example, human and other intelligence.’

When you said that science fiction ‘operates only and solely through today’s science or speculative extensions of it’, isn’t it the case that science-fiction writers can sometimes find themselves taking risks by operating on today’s knowledge – this is changing so fast that their books can rapidly seem childish or risible?

‘If a science-fiction work is good, the science it contains is only a tool for the telling of a good, deeply human story from a new perspective. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – which is considered to be the first modern work of science –fiction – has long been overtaken by science, but its basic story is not in the least childish or risible.’

On the other hand, the power of imagination can also give rise to prophecy: I am thinking of Aldous Huxley’s dystopia Brave New World, which was chillingly fresh and apt when I reread it recently…. Although I’m not sure whether it can be called science fiction.

‘Definitely – and other science-fiction classics include George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Or, among newer works, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Or Kurt Vonneguf s Slaughterhouse Five. They really are 24­-carat science fiction.’

Perhaps I have derived my prejudices from experiences of bad science fiction, where instead of vision and brave prophecy writers play around in the world of the techno-freak. Which writers do you most envy?

‘I´m definitely a fan of what’s known as “soft” science fiction – closest to me are the works which use the methods of science fiction to question the world and fathom human nature. For example, Ursula K. LeGuin’ s works (The Left Hand of Darkness. The Dispossessed) contain a fine critique of gender roles and the social system. Philip K. Dick is a tireless scourge of western society whose work, although uneven, includes strong stories such as A Scanner Darkly and the fine alternate history The Man in a High Castle, in which Germany has won the Second World War and the United States has been occupied by Japan. J.G. Ballard may also be a familiar name to those who do not think they read science fiction…. Lucius Shepard and Simon Ings are excellent writers, and Connie Willis writes first-class science-fiction short stories. At the moment my main object of envy is perhaps the British writer Jeff Noon, whose debut book, Vurt, is both linguistically and structurally experimental, a dreamlike and startling work.’

Let’s return to your troll. When Mikael’ s business associate Martes accidentally encounters the troll, which Mikael is hiding in his flat, he says: ‘It stands on two legs. It is a grinning demon. It is a monster from a sci-fi movie.’ But this troll, which you have added to the group of Finnish natural animals, can no longer be a science-fiction monster to your readers: because it is part of nature, it is a beast to human beings only when human beings threaten its existence.

‘Perhaps not for the book’s readers, but for Martes. In the book, Martes is the strongest representative of “culture” as opposed to nature – the super-urban culture that subjugates human beings and prostitutes nature. Martes is so alienated from nature that he experiences a natural creature as a terrible threat to his “own territory”, the urban environment. For Martes, a wild animal is a demon and a science-fiction monster; it represents all the otherness and the threatening unknown that Martes and people like him want to evict from the world.’

At the end of the novel, Mikael is forced to flee with his troll because it has killed when threatened. Mikael and the troll disappear into the woods: a door opens. Do you know what happens next?

‘I have deliberately left the ending open, so that readers can form their own relationship with “trolls”. It is perfectly possible that Mikael is taken to the mountain as a slave, an experimental animal or food, but the end can equally be interpreted to mean that Mikael is the first ambassador in a long time of the human race to another species.’

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