From Bosnia with love

31 March 2002 | Authors, Reviews

Daniel Katz

Photo: Pertti Nisonen

Daniel Katz’s new novel Laituri matkalla mereen (‘A jetty to the sea’, WSOY, 2001), tells the story of the impossible romance between the Bosnian wife of a blind Finnish colonel and a history teacher. Introduction by Tuva Korsström

At some point 250 years ago, a Swedish monarch decided to grant town status to some villages in the estuary of Kuhnusjoki (‘Sluggish river’) on the south-west coast of Finland.

There the little town lies today and is, with its environs, the setting for Daniel Katz’s novel Laituri matkalla mereen (‘A jetty to the sea’). It’s the late 1990s, early autumn, and this year the autumn gales come early. The history teacher Henry Loimu goes down to the bank of the river to repair his jetty in the gusts of wind.

Suddenly he finds himself, like another Buster Keaton, sitting astride the end of the jetty, which has come loose from its moorings. Henry and the jetty are off at full speed down the river towards the sea. In a bend of the river he gets a fleeting glimpse of a strange, seductive young woman who is watching him quizzically – until with a bang he bumps into the neighbour’s jetty, grabbing hold of it as his own vessel hurtles onwards.

Thus begins the romance between the beautiful Mavra from war-ravaged Bosnia and the young Finn Henry. Mavra is entrenched in the mysterious neighbouring house on the lower reaches of the river. She is married to a vigorous but elderly Finnish colonel who has been a peacekeeper in Bosnia. The odd couple are constantly watched and attended by the Bosnian Serb Jovan, who is also an import from the ex-Yugoslavian conflict. Later the former horse-breeder turns out to be Mavra’s father.

Henry’s love for the mysterious Mavra opens Henry’s eyes to Europe’s tragic recent history, both on a personal and a more general plane. In the war in Bosnia Mavra has been subjected to group rape by former schoolmates, Jovan has lost everything he owns and the colonel has lost his eyesight. The threads of the narrative go back to the history of the Balkans and also to the Second World War in Finland. And yet Daniel Katz’s thirteenth book is a funny one, characterised by the colonel’s and Jovan’s grim verbal humour, Mavra’s whimsical ideas, and Henry’s perpetual irresolution, whether in love affairs or social behaviour.

Katz (born 1938) made his debut and also his breakthrough with the novel Kun isoisä Suomeen hiihti (‘When grandfather skied to Finland’, 1969), in which he combined the history of his Jewish family with that of Finland. His narrative art is characterised by gallows humour and a black comedy of the absurd. In Finnish prose he is a foreign voice because of his anchoring in Eastern Europe and the Orient, but he nonetheless always succeeds in binding the threads to Finland.

In the 1990s Katz proved to be one of the few authors who, with lightning swiftness, were able to comprehend and describe the changes in Europe without losing contact with history. His novel Saksalainen sikakoira (‘Schweinehund’, 1992; translated into Dutch, Estonian, French, German, Hungarian and Slovak) is an example of this, as is Laituri matkalla mereen – one of the few fictional interpretations to date of the crisis in ex-Yugoslavia by a Nordic writer.

At the end of the novel the action takes a surprising turn, and the inexperienced history teacher suddenly finds himself in the midst of history. It is his turn to be a peacekeeper, in a Bosnia that is with difficulty recovering from the war. In the legendary town of Visegrad on the banks of the river Drina he gathers material for a dissertation about the Nobel prize-winning author Ivo Andric, at the same time pessimistically declaring that the suspicion and bitterness from the war still hovers over the piles of ruins. The peace may only be a brief lull before ethnic conflicts flare up again.

In spite of everything, Laituri matkalla mereen is less a political portrayal of contemporary reality than the depiction of a love affair and a love triangle. In the following extract, the colonel and Henry openly confront each other for the first time in their rivalry for Mavra’s favour.

It all develops into something that resembles an old-fashioned duel à la Pushkin, but the battle takes unexpected forms. As so often in Daniel Katz’s work, the battle is fought with words: the two conflicting parties attack each other by the edge of the gravel pit mainly with ironic phrases and black wisdom about life.

Translated by David McDuff

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