Sisko Istanmäki, 73, set out as a writer from a similar position to the Canadian Carol Shields: first, she lived an entire life as a wife and mother, and only in mature middle age was it the turn of her own writing. She herself remembers her beginnings as follows: ‘When I turned 60, one of my children brought me an electric typewriter as a present and asked me to write a novel.’
Although there is always something sad about a late debut, both Shields’ and Istanmäki’s works have demonstrated that good prose does not always take a great deal of practice.
Istanmäki made her breakthrough with her second novel, Liian paksu perhoseksi (‘Too fat to be a butterfly’, Tammi, 1995). It may well be one of the last Finnish novels to appeal to a true general readership – generally, after all, literary audiences are, as elsewhere in the West, declining. Set in the 1950s, this story about an unequal love affair nevertheless became a big Finnish hit. Although the small, slim novel at first appeared in danger of drowning in the flood of the book market, it was discovered, and received rave reviews. There followed a dramatisation first as a play, then as a highly popular television movie.
Istanmäki touched many tender nerves in her readership. The return to the 1950s was, first, a return to the childhood of the majority of her readers. On the other hand, the love story between the strong. big woman and the small, uncertain man was very modern. The role conflicts and relationship compromises felt completely of the 1990s.
The director Heidi Köngäs, who was behind the film success of Liian paksu perhoseksi, was also responsible for the filming of Istanmäki’s next novel. The subject of Viimeiset mitalit (‘The last medals’, 1997) was different: the life, rights and shortcomings of old people, the menage à trois between two sisters and the love of their youth was not nostalgic, but surreal. These old people could not be considered ennobled by age, gentle or well-mannered! On the other hand, care of old people and the ageing of the population in general were among the great subjects of debate in Finland in the late 1990s. So it is no wonder that Sisko Istanmäki succeeded once again in stirring her readers.
More recently, Istanmäki has written short stories. Some subjects could, according to her, in different conditions have developed into novels. On the other hand, the collection Peili (‘Mirror’, 2000), is to a large extent set in landscapes familiar from Viimeiset mitalit, among people worn down by age and living.
Has Sisko Istanmäki, then, finally taken up residence in the world of the old? Or is she fundamentally a social realist? Perhaps she is. The dismantling of the welfare state has already begun in Finland, and increasing numbers of people are finding it difficult to hold on in the wake of success. It is of them that Istanmäki writes.
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About the writer
Suvi Ahola (born 1959) is a journalist, critic and writer. She has edited books about diaries and women's literature and written books about food and cooking, literature and reading. She lives in Helsinki and works as an editor at the Helsingin Sanomat daily paper.
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