Landscapes of the minds
Kristina Carlson’s novel Maan ääreen (‘To the end of the earth’, 1999) tells the story of a young man who seeks to escape himself by travelling to the most distant corner of 19th-century Russia. Interview by Hildi Hawkins and Soila Lehtonen
BfF We’d like to begin by asking you about the setting of your novel. Most people think of 19th-century Siberia as the place to which the undesirables of the Russian empire were deported – one imagines it full of petty criminals, violent brigands and political dissidents. It comes as quite a surprise to find your Nahodka peopled by civilised Europeans busily engaged in building their futures, with impressive houses, women in pretty lace dresses, social occasions with champagne, orchestras and whist drives. Could you say something about what led you to choose this setting for your novel, and the real historical circumstances on which it’s based?
KC From my own point of view, Maan ääreen is not so much a historical novel as a novel set in a historical context. The difference, I believe, lies in the fact that the latter attempts – in a sense like scholarship – to cast light on the past from a new perspective. In my book, Siberia is above all the mental landscape of the main character, although it is also of course a real and existing place.
The roots of Lennart’s story lie in the destiny of a distant relative of mine. He travelled to Siberia as a civil servant, like Lennart. That was why I began to explore that period. Russia wanted to secure its power at its borders; there were civil servants, soldiers and merchants. It was known that there were natural resources in the area: minerals, fur-bearing animals, coal. The coast was also important for trade with the east, even if the climatic conditions were difficult. (By the way, at present electronics are imported to Nahodka from the Far East and transported via Finland back to Russia!) Because the state promised privileges to pioneers and civil servants who moved to Siberia, it was advertised as a ‘land of plenty’, particularly the Amur region.
A restless mind, Lennart’s and my own, seeks a home for its dreams far away, wishes to discard the familiar and the secure. What was fascinating about Siberia was that it was not possible, in the then Russian empire, to travel farther. The associations of Siberia are remoteness, cold, poverty, primitiveness; and of course the fact that it was the place to which criminals and wrongdoers were exiled. In fact, Siberia is a gigantically large area with different areas.
The Russian civil servants, officers and merchants formed the same kind of upper class as the English or other colonial lords in the former colonies. They took their way of life into their new conditions. And it is precisely here that the paradox which interested me lies. These people travel a long way, to exotic conditions, and in this remote place they build a society which to a large extent recalls the former and the familiar – in Lennart’s case, in fact, everything that he set out to escape. How far does a person have to go to escape his own self – or to find himself. This is Lennart’s question, Siberia its stage.
BfF The novel takes the form of a kind of thriller, the search for the solution to a crime. The main, and palpably unreliable, narrator – also the victim of the crime – is the main character, Lennart Falk. He is attacked by an unknown assassin, but recovers, telling the reader his story. Falk’s story is framed by a narrative by his friend and doctor, Theodor Gantz. At the end of the book, yet another narrator reveals a letter which shows that Gantz is telling less than the truth. As this writer says, in a crime novel the truth about Falk’s death would be unacceptable. Whom are we to believe?
KC It is up to the reader, of course, to decide whether to believe all the narrators – or not. For me, as the writer, the different characters are different manifestations and tenses of the same person, all of them pondering the sense of their lives in relation to their environment, social and private, their own self.
Gantz does not tell the whole truth about Lennart because he, an aging man, wishes retrospectively to give Lennart the meaning and importance that he was seeking in the last months of his life, and thought he had achieved. Since there are still years to come, perhaps Gantz wishes, through Lennart, to give meaning to his own life. This is, of course, self-deception.
The third narrator (essentially myself) understands Gantz’s self-deception and reveals it. At the same time she nevertheless understands that she herself is reverting to escape and self-deception, just like Lennart in his search for his life elsewhere and far away.
BfF No one, in other words, holds all the pieces of the jigsaw – there is no omniscient narrator, and everyone must try to make sense of the picture as best they can. The final piece of the puzzle, offered by the third narrator, makes sense of the story, but at the same time consigns it to the sidelines of a quite different drama. You worked as a reporter for the weekly current affairs magazine Suomen Kuvalehti for 22 years – what bearing did your writing about the real world have on the way you approached your novel?
KC The book took its initial impulse from a true story, but is entirely fictional. What do the novel and reality in general have to do with one another…. Of course it was necessary for me to study the period etcetera, but for me writing was a journey into the mind, thoughts and feelings. My work as a reporter and my fiction do not, I think, have very much in common, except that both involve writing. The starting-points, the freedoms as well as the limitations, are completely different.
BfF You have been actively involved in literary debate in Finland and internationally for some time, as chairman of the Eino Leino Society and through your participation in the Lahti International Writers’ Reunion. Maan ääreen has been translated into German, and now you have been appointed editor-in-chief of Books from Finland, beginning next year. Do you feel closer to the work of other Finnish writers, or to foreign writers – or do you see that as a useful distinction? And what do you see as the limitations and possibilities of writing from a small country in the international context?
KC Finnish writers are undoubtedly always Finnish writers, wherever and however they write, as long as they continue to write in the Finnish language. Naturally writers from such a small country and such a small language area are in a different position from those writing in a majority language. At the moment I am in residence in an artists’ castle which also contains composers and visual artists. Their work is, in principle, immediately understandable to everyone.
Like me, Finnish writers certainly feel themselves to belong to the European tradition and contemporary writing. Nevertheless, we are bound to the Finnish language, and our culture in that language. I do not know whether there are any advantages to existence on the linguistic periphery. Perhaps there are, if the writer can, because of this, give something original which is of interest in other languages and in other countries. That is not easy in the current markets, which increasingly concentrate on the so-called big names – and big print-runs.
A German publisher’s editor told me that the publishing of poetry in Germany is unprofitable, even though the population base is large. In Finland, the situation is good in the sense that poetry is written and published, even though the sales figures are not exactly dizzying. I believe that poetry is, in a way, the measure of the vitality of literature as a whole.
Ins Land am Ender der Welt was translated by Stefan Moster and published by Alexander Fest Verlag of Berlin in 2000
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About the writer
Soila Lehtonen is a journalist and theatre critic, and currently Editor-in-Chief of Books from Finland. She has edited a collection of writings about the city of Helsinki together with Hildi Hawkins, Helsinki: a literary companion (The Finnish Literature Society, 2000). Hildi Hawkins is a writer and translator, and the London Editor of Books from Finland. She is also the co-editor of things, a journal of writings about objects, their pasts, presents and futures.
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