A good day

Issue 2/2001 | Archives online, Fiction, poetry

From Juomarin päiväkirjat (’A drunkard’s journals’, edited by Pekka Tarkka, Otava, 1999). Introduction by Claes Andersson

Iceland, Summer 1968

I don’t know how to describe what I see,
           the lava’s colors; the afternoon green of the grass,
      and I can’t tell if that white is buildings or snow.
The mountains are fortresses of the gods, and if
      people’s construction projects irritate them
          too much, they let the ground shake, volcanos
erupt and tum everything upside down, assign new sites
      to houses and different routes for cars.
      The gods’ noses itch when their breath
          is caught in pipelines and
      channeled into radiators and greenhouses.
Sheep tear the grass but horses
                                             browse in a civilized manner.
Jónas does not believe in the gods, but he
                             is afraid of them, the gods are not pleased
      with the Americans, who do not know
          anything about the gods or history yet come here
                 and start interfering with the land
                                                            as if it were theirs.

***

The roads so poor it is hard to write on the bus.
But there is no point in building better ones
because the gods don’t like the smell of road tar,
     and the gods have nostrils
                                 all over their bodies.
Gradually, over millennia, these nostrils
     are worn away, and when there are only
two of them left, the gods have changed into
     animals and human beings, and then
when there are no nostrils left
         at all, there is only gravel and sand and stones.
Every spring, the sheep meadows have to be leveled again.
I tried to pick up the boulder Snorri
      carried around the cattle fence
          three times, I could not
      even budge it. This is
                             Snorri’s landscape
                             and his descendants still live here.
When the mountains grow old,
      they resemble a woman
         who lies on her back
            not thinking about anything.

***

    Back in the room the vodka bottle, half full, waits impatiently.
    This is how it was emptied:
At approximately 2304hrs,
                                                            we don’t have a watch,
    I pour myself a drink, 3/4 vodka, 1/4 tap water.
I check that everything in the room is the way it was
    as when we left,
the blue string bag full of books hangs on the door handle.
    I have disproved the claim that an alcoholic
                                      cannot drink in moderation,
    or else the claim that I am an alcoholic.
The sky is clear and it is bright outside,
                 but the light is not the same as daylight,
         these summer nights it is light enough to walk about
    but not to read very well.
Tomorrow we’ll go say goodbye
                      to Thorsteinn and Gudrun and Kjartan.
    In the port, the same ships as when we left, well
         we haven’t been gone all that long.
When you return, you feel as if
    you had been away for many days,
         and when you’ve been back for a while it feels
              as if you hadn’t gone away at all.
Read the paper on the bus, de Gaulle has announced
      either that he’ll resign or won’t resign,
   in any case, he has announced something
                                                                        very important.
Now I make myself another drink, vodka and tap water fifty-fifty,
   it has been approximately ten minutes,
                                             we do not have a watch.
Tomorrow I won’t drink at all, I probably will
  but no more than today,
     unless someone buys me a drink,
  after all, that will be our last evening
                                     in this small metropolis of the North.
Tomorrow, Helsinki’s Song Ensemble performs at the university
          presenting a variety of compositions.
Jónas has five children, a member of the Diet
                                       is paid 15,000, the Butcher at the sausage
      factory gets 20,000, no Butcher was to be seen in town
          as we walked back from the bus station.
The narrative bounced to Jónas because Jónas had said
     he found Sibelius boring, he said
that Sibelius in his old age
                                   was an equal drag on Finland’s music
                             as Laxness now was on Iceland’s literature.
There is nothing more horrifying than a sprightly geezer.
     It’s the same in the party: they worked, in difficult
         circumstances, unpaid, they did good work,
and now they demand an impossible recompense:
                                     the right to decide what should be done.
When The Geezers’ Council is allowed to decide, you’ll soon find
      they no longer have anything to decide
                                                      except for their own concerns.
Autumn is the season for founding new parties.
Jónas would like to organize the fishermen,
         this is hard since the fishermen are
                                                                 either at sea
                                                    or back in port and drunk,
at which time it would be unreasonable
                        to go and explain to them the importance
      of organizing. But the fishermen are smart,
no one has managed to manipulate them,
        they detest empty phrases but if one tells
them what it is one is really thinking
                         they will listen and consider things
   according to their own understanding and experience.
They have not been contaminated by propaganda.
It is possible to talk to them.
            I made a third drink, 4/5 vodka and 1/5 tap water,
                                now the bottle is empty, it is, I would guess,
since we don’t have a watch, 0010hrs, and when
                     I’ve drained the glass I’ll go to sleep
  next to my wife, it was a good day,
I felt happy as soon as I woke up in the morning.
  In the bus I wrote first, then pondered
        this book and books in general,
how the length of a line of poetry is determined
                                                                 by the width of the paper
       and the length of a novel determined
  by a kind of sum of the author’s, the publisher’s
                        and the reader’s powers of endurance.
Today is the last day of May.
Tomorrow it is summer.
In Helsinki, we’ll unpack things from our bags,
        pack them with other things, and off we go again.
I light a Camel, take a look to see how much is left in the glass
          and decide that this is my penultimate Camel.
The penultimate night on this island
                             the Atlantic holds like a flower on a palm.
The gods left caves in the lava
                                  for outlaws to hide in
           for years when the gods had appointed
       their own authority to keep the gate.
Go ahead, Jónas, paint that church.
What color will you paint it?
                                                    When I think about it
                I can’t come up with anything better than
       paint it in a way that won’t annoy the gods.
You know the gods and their color sense
                                                     better than I do.
     It was a pretty church. Small, the way
           the gods like them
built by intruders, small churches.
     But as for the colors, you are right,
                                          they are particular about those.
Now it is empty, we still don’t have a watch,
           0045hrs the estimated time.

***

I try not to think about Finland,
     it is raining outside, we sit in the Mokka Espresso, we have
just enough money, we have calculated it with the accuracy
     of a second: the plane takes off at 1520hrs –
        Copenhagen – Stockholm – Helsinki; at home
     unpaid bills and unfinished work.
I am nervous. No vodka bottle in the closet
                 today. Haven’t spent a day in three years
                               without a drink.

***

Now we must change cafes. I would like to write
   outside but it’s raining. Hard to write
      while walking, and the cops don’t like it.
Everything’s going to hell.
I read old newspapers in the reading room and I saw
                                                that everything’s going to hell.
Wherever you look, everything’s going to hell.
First it rains, then it’s sunny, everything’s going to hell.
No matter what kind of government,
                               everything’s going to hell anyway.
The guy who was not served a beer
                               because he was drunk grabbed a bottle
                               off the counter and threw it
down on the floor, that’s what one must do,
                               get blind drunk and make a scene,
because everything’s going to hell
                               and it can’t be helped.
The landlord hobbles past and nods,
he is doing well,
                      charges usurious rent, makes money,
has every reason to be content.
           I don’t.
The monkeys applaud when you call them monkeys.
     They might do better on a regional history
          excursion, they are quite useless
anyway. The avantgardists
                                   perfect their one-liners
    in anticipation of the Jyväskylä Summer and
           the Lahti Writers’ Conference and more minor
                                 events. Summer, in today’s Finland,
is a time for intellectual exchange and planning.
      In the fall, the panelists return bulging with new ideas,
fall is the season for intellectual threshing. In the winter
      the harvest is brought in.
Mr Cabinet Member,
we have called attention to the following systemic defects.
A list of the defects to which attention has been called.
Everything is going to hell.
Cars are going to hell.
Ships are going to hell.
This book is going to hell.
The food is inedible. The beer just piss. The wife is nagging.
As soon as the street has dried, it starts raining again. And she
     can’t go outside when it rains, her hair and eyeglasses get wet.

***

It had been hailing, when we went outside, a cold wind was blowing
                 and people hurried, away from somewhere, for in this town
 there are no places one wants to get to in a hurry.
Except for the bars, whose windows are covered
                                           so people in the street can’t see inside
(the poor would become jealous. For Iceland is a classless society).
‘Well, shall we go?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Don’t just stand there like an idiot. What’s the matter with you?’
‘Shut up.’
‘Why can’t you ever say what it is you want.’
‘Because I can’t. That’s the problem. That's the very foundation of my life, I never know what it is I want.’
‘But that’s so hopeless.’
‘Hopeless, for sure. That’s what it’s about.’
‘Do you want to go eat or not? I for one don’t feel like freezing out here in the rain all day. '
'Go back to the room and take a nap. '
'That's what I'll do. All you want to do is to give me a hard time. '
'It·s refreshing to walk in the rain. '
'Eat shit.'
'You expect me to write about nothing but sunshine? You don't know what the rain feels like if you stay 
inside.'
‘Oh stop it. '
They walked, the woman two meters ahead of him, her hands hanging down stiffly by her sides, he 
slowly on purpose, back to the hotel, in the stairway drunks leaned against the walls and each other, 
in a stench of cheap booze. they followed her with their eyes, grinned when they say the man's funny 
hat, their room was on the third floor, one had to put one's shoulder to the door against the wind 
blowing in through the open window, papers flew off the table onto the floor, the room had been
serviced, the man tossed his overcoat onto the bed, picked a newspaper off the floor and said: 
'I'm going to the reading room to check out this article. '
'All the better chairs have been taken. '
'I'll go there anyway. I don't mind sitting on a less comfortable chair.’
'On that bony ass. '
'It's the only ass I have, so don't make fun of it. '
'You don't care for me one bit. '
'Although there won't be anything sensible in this one either. '
'You promised. last night. '
'Just come and get me then. if we'll go eat. '
The woman stayed in the room to read a book. It was The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky. The man sat in
the reading room for a while and looked out at the rain, then turned his attention to the newspaper 
article. He was angry, but not at her, he just felt that everything was going to hell. Perhaps it was his 
craving for a drink that made him irritable. He read the article, an analysisof the student riots. He 
leafed through his notebook and found that he had often been self-contradictory and confused. This 
made him feel even more irritable. He went back to the room and asked the woman for a pill. Then they 
went to the coffee bar and had some coffee.

Translated by Anselm Hollo

Tags: