Inventing reality

30 June 2001 | Authors

Pirkko SaisioChanges of self and perspective – and even of gender – fascinate the chameleon-like writer, dramatist and actress Pirkko Saisio. Set in Helsinki in the 1950s and 1960s, her autobiographical novel Pienin yhteinen jaettava (‘Lowest common multiple’, 1998) was on the shortlist for the Finlandia Prize. ‘We look into the mirror,’ she says in this introduction to her writing, ‘to wonder at the fact that we have the ability to divide in two, into she who looks and she who is looked at’.

Extracts from Miten kirjani ovat syntyneet (‘How my books have been born’, edited by Ritva Haavikko, WSOY, 2000)

On the top shelf of the bookshelf in my childhood home were about thirty volumes of the collected works of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. On the bottom shelf were the same number of the collected Stalin. Between them were A Young Woman’s Cookbook and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, which my father had had to study in order to graduate from correspondence school as a commercial technician.

My family, my relatives and my parents’ extensive network of friends, acquaintances and fellow members of organisations rambled in the countryside, raced bicycles, sang in choirs, practised athletics and wrestling in the Workers’ Sporting Association’s local championship competitions, played the mandolin, ciné filmed their family and their dogs, trained the Alsatians.

No one read books.

No one taught me to read, except for the Finnish primary school institution, for which I shall never cease to be grateful. I learned to read at eight, and the same winter the big girls of Fleminginkatu street took me to Kallio library.

I was given a library card and borrowed my first book. Unfortunately, it was not Chekhov, Cervantes, Aleksis Kivi or Dostoevsky.

It was a popular girls’ novel about a tomboy called Tiina. But the effect was the same as that of Dostoevsky and Chekhov was to be years later: the characters in the book were more real than the people among whom I lived. The world of the book was more real than the world I thought I knew.

The first book I read changed by conception of reality, permanently. I came down with a dangerous illness: the world of fiction became realer to me than the real world.

I decided to become a writer, someone who invents reality.

I was an only child, brought up by five adults.

My father, too, was an only child, so that for his parents I was the only grandchild. My mother had an unmarried sister, who from time to time lived with us.

I was paid a lot of attention.

According to the child-rearing principles of the time, the adults expressed their demands and wishes directly, and by the age of ten I knew that I was expected to be a physical education teacher, a member of parliament, a doctor of commerce, a good organisation person and a mining engineer. I was not a particularly quiet child, but I learned to keep my counsel over my own intentions and plans.

My home was communist and atheist. The Finnish educational institutions of the 1950s and 1960s upheld Christian, patriotic, bourgeois values. The value-conflict between home and the outside world widened into a chasm when, at five years old, I became passionately interested in a person to whom I had been introduced at play-school, someone who lived among us unseen but seeing, loving and interested in everything and everyone.

This was Jesus, whose entire existence, past, present and future, my home denied. Religion and prayer became, for pre-school me, a personal refuge. By the time I reached puberty, I knew how to use my religious ideas to rebel; I knew that when, at a relative’s confirmation, I went to kneel at the altar to take communion, I was doing it more to humiliate my father than out of a desire to participate in this strange metamorphosis of bread and wine, blood and flesh.
I had much to hide, things I could not talk about. In the years that followed there were more and more of them.

At home, no one knew that I prayed secretly, believed in Jesus, and as late as seventeen was still seriously considering a job as a Salvation Army officer. I spent six summers as a child-minder at the Salvation Army’s summer camp, and one summer in a Swiss children’s home. I participated in the Salvation Army’s devotional meetings, liked their spiritual music, which was and is defiant, compy and humorous. The decisive disincentive to my joining the Salvation Army was not religious conviction or any lack in my desire for self-sacrifice, but the bonnet which the women were supposed to wear, that awful, stone-hard cap which was tied under the chin with a giant bow, like a kitten. If women had been allowed to wear the handsome officer’s cap and epaulettes, my destiny would have been different: it would at least have made a detour via the Salvation Army.

In the playground and at school, no one knew I came from a communist home. The recent war and hatred of Russians and communists were visible in the daily life of the 1950s. Every family had a blue-striped, grey army blanket, suitable for use on picnics, and a nervous father, home from the front, who easily lost his temper and whom his secretly weeping wife understood. Communist children were tormented in the schools of Kallio, the working-class area of Helsinki, in which I lived throughout my schooldays, right up to the end of the 1960s.

I did not speak about my home background; I did not speak about my fervent religious feelings; I did not speak about my decision to become a writer because it was something that did not seem to interest anyone in my environment.

Before long, I also had to keep silence about my intentions to become a boy. This happened about the time when my green velvet cap disappeared, the one with the yellow plastic aeroplane I had got from Pappa, father’s father.

Pappa was the first and only innocent anarchist I have ever met in my life. According to him, people, and for him children were also people, should be allowed to do what they wanted; to eat even though it was not a meal-time, not to eat even though it was a meal-time, not to go to school, not to learn to read, to be a girl or a boy, according to their free-will.

I was perhaps five years old when those around me began to be disturbed by my spitting, my swearing, my cap, my plan to be a father when I grew up. I was forced to wear a skirt, plaits and an apron and to answer to a name which I have never felt to be mine: Pirkko.

Those who are forced to be silent learn to observe.

In the 1950s and 1960s, when I went to school, there was no collaboration between home and school. If a school contacted a pupil’s home, the reason was a serious breach of etiquette on the part of the pupil. Homes had no opportunity to influence the world-view taught by schools, to demand respect or consideration for the pupil’s social background or the parents’ political or religious beliefs.

The pupil lived two realities, had the opportunity of living them. What he or she thought of the paradox, decided through observation, remained his or her own business, often.

As a mother, I have tried to give my daughter the same privilege. I have not attended parents’ evenings or kept in touch with the school. I have not worried about the influence of teachers whose social, religious or ethical ideas in general differ sharply from mine. I have sometimes regretted that today’s teachers are evidently not permitted to show their political colours, prejudices or passions as openly as before. The softening of conflicts does not remove them, but blurs the vision of those living at their centre.

Living in conflict, observation, realisation, the concealment of the real self and its real aims, the fear of injury and revelation, keeping silence over all the most important things did not make me a quiet or lonely child.

I learned role-playing early.

All children love acting, most adults love masks, or at least dressing up, make-up, dyeing one’s hair, growing or cutting a beard or moustache – in other words, changing one’s outward appearance, which also offers an opportunity for inner movement.

We do not look into the mirror, many times a day, to see whether our tie is straight or our lipstick in place. We look into the mirror to see our life-partner, our only permanent companion, to wonder at the fact that we have the ability, and even the necessity, to divide in two: into she who looks and she who is looked at.

I made the decision to split in two when I was eight years old. That was the beginning of my career as a writer, and for that reason I now quote myself, an extract from my novel Pienin yhteinen jaettava (‘Lowest common multiple’):

I was eight when it first happened.

It was a November morning.
The road was black and shiny. It swelled behind the sleety, wet windows.
I saw myself through the window. I was plump and bad-tempered.
I pulled a pair of too-tight woollen socks on to my feet.
There was a button missing from my suspenders. Mother took a five-mark coin from her bag to replace it.

And that was when it first happened.
I wrote in my mind the sentence: She did not want to get up.
I altered the sentence: She did not want to get up yet.
I added another sentence: She was too tired to go to school.
I improved the second sentence: She was far, far too tired to go to school.

I looked triumphantly at my father, who was reading the Workers’ News in his shirtsleeves and drinking black coffee.
Mother was spreading red from her lips to her cheeks in front of the hall mirror, and humming.
No one noticed that I had become she, a subject of continual observation.

The she-form inner monologue, which thus began about forty years ago, has never paused. Its tone has changed, surprisingly enough, from the objective to the subjective. In the early days of my career as a writer, when there were still almost two decades to go before the publication of my first book, my inner voice still represented an omniscient, objective narrator who had no difficulty in moving, all-seeing, through time and space, and entering in anyone’s consciousness.

When I had to leave Kallio comprehensive school, although I really didn’t want to, just as I do not like to leave any place where I feel at home, for the simple reason that I matriculated, I had been persuaded that one could not study writing.

I ended up at Helsinki University, wandering and reading subjects that did not lead anywhere. I myself dealt the final blow to my academic studies myself, concretely, one Friday night when, probably by mistake, I flung my bag down on the base of the statue of the 19th-century writer Zacharias Topelius. In the bag were a bottle of red wine and my academic records book. The bottle broke and erased all the ink-written records.

A survivor from those times is a rather shapeless poem, which shocks me slightly after all these years. I complain that someone has placed a glass cheese-dome on top of the world, beneath which I sweat and cannot breathe.

My complaint was answered. In the colonnaded corridors of the university I met a red-haired girl who fell in love with me and snatched the dome from over me.

It was 1970, and homosexuality was, in Finland, both an illness and a crime for which one could be imprisoned. I fought against my feelings and their recognition for three days and nights in a high fever. When I relented, the fever vanished. I had found the key to myself, the answer to the question why I had always, for as long as I could remember, felt myself to be different, lonely in a way that had nothing to do with non-sociability.

In a fit of self-confidence induced by falling in love and being the object of love, I applied to the Theatre Academy. I got in at my second attempt.
I wanted to become something different; now I wanted to do it for a living. I wanted to find someone else, other people, inside myself.

I am a storyteller’s daughter. It could be claimed that my mother was a chronic liar, for she never allowed mere truth to spoil a good story….

Pienin yhteinen jaettava (‘Lowest common multiple’, 1998) tells of a fictive child named Pirkko Saisio whose life bears striking resemblances to and differences from my life. I have few living relatives; thus family stories are important to me.

After my father’s death, I inherited an envelope full of documents which I read with astonishment. The facts did not accord in the least with the detailed family stories on which I had unconsciously leaned for decades.

My grandmother, from whom I believed I had inherited my reckless courage, had not, after all, eloped from Karelia to Savo with her decorator sweetheart, but had legally married the same man at the age of 24 – and he was not an older seducer, but a lad five years younger than herself.

I see no difference between the family stories of Eva Wein [one of Saisio’s alter egos] and Pirkko Saisio; both are equally invented. Their truth value is not to measured by official documents and the author’s name as it is printed on the cover of a novel.

How is it to be measured, then?

I do not know. But I do know that if, in a year’s time, I were to be asked how my books are born, I would tell a completely different story about the influences, structures and subjects of my books from now. It would be true then, I hope; this is what looked true today.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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