Head first into literary stardom

Issue 1/2002 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Reidar Palmgren has described his first novel as ‘a story about father and son, swimming, cycling, hi-fi electronics and ghosts’.

Palmgren has had frequent opportunities to talk about his definition, as Jalat edellä (‘Feet first’). He has become a popular guest in libraries, book shops and on television programmes, the novel was awarded the Helsingin Sanomat Literary Prize for the best first work in 2001, it has been selling well and the rights have already been sold for a translation into Swedish.

Reidar Palmgren (born 1966) is clearly not just a ‘one-book wonder’ as, in November 2001, his television synopsis Afrikan tähti (‘Star of Africa’) was awarded the first prize in a European Broadcasting Union competition. However, Palmgren did not study to be a writer, but trained in the theatre: he graduated in 1993 in drama from Tampere University. He says that although acting has certainly helped his writing, writing has so far not been of much use on the stage.

Palmgren’s description does indeed reveal some of the elements in the novel, but Jalat edellä is, more than anything, the headlong, tragicomic story of the collapse of modern man. The central character is Risto Jokinen, a lawyer approaching middle age, who lives his life arrogantly and selfishly. He cheats on his wife, hates his workmates, neglects to go swimming with his son Tero, and believes himself to be entirely superior to all the ‘losers’ in the swimming pool. Risto is a thoroughly unpleasant man who deals with the dents in his own self-confidence, for example, by humiliating the shop assistant in a home appliance store: even reading it for the third time, this scene feels as sadistic as pulling the wings off a living fly.

Palmgren also carefully depicts the disintegration of this constructed selfishness: it is partly Risto’s fault that Tero is run over by a car and that this bursts open a dam behind which Risto has bottled up all this unpleasantness. After this we go, full speed, feet first towards the bottom quite literally in the scene in which Risto, who has gone out of his mind, jumps into the swimming pool, wishing never to return to the surface.

Jalat edellä grows like a fairytale into a story of ‘justness’, in which Risto battles with the definition of masculinity. He has to accept that he is not ‘a nice person in the slightest’ after which he must try to correct the mistakes he has made. He even buys a stereo from the shop assistant he had previously humiliated and is forced to accept that the ‘losers’ he despised at the swimming pool are in fact people, too. As he is pulled from the bottom of the pool in his mouldy swimming trunks he becomes a failure and a clown, something for which he had previously ridiculed everyone else.

Elements of fairytale, science fiction and magic realism are joined in the story by ghosts and stuffed birds which come to life. Palmgren uses these supernatural elements as a way of giving Risto another chance: he may have visited the bottom, but, if on the way he has successfully managed to redefine his idea of masculinity, it is still possible to put right the mistakes of the past and return home.

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