Displaced persons

Issue 2/2002 | Archives online, Authors, Interviews

The novels of Asko Sahlberg (born 1964) have introduced a new kind of existential narrative cum thriller to Finnish literature. Interview (2002) by Markus Määttänen

Asko Sahlberg survived a real test of his skills as a writer in the year 2000 in the shape of his novel Eksyneet (‘The lost’). It almost killed him.

‘When I finally finished it, I went on a binge for about a month. A terrible depression, almost as if a child had died. Such a deep low that my private life, too, went to hell, and I split up with the Swedish woman I’d been living with. It was perhaps the most difficult process I’ve been through in my entire life. But it made a damn good book.’

Asko Sahlberg was the literary phenomenon of autumn 2000. A Finn who had lived the life of an outsider in Gothenburg, Sweden, for four years and had deliberately set out to be a writer gave voice to the Scandinavian darkness.

Sahlberg’s first work, Pimeän ääni (‘The voice of darkness’, 1999) is a survival story about a man in the strange city of Gothenburg. The man has himself chosen his outsiderdom; he is driven by the same force as the main character in Knut Hamsun’s classic novel Hunger, or Paul Auster’s heroes. All of them are on a journey. Where they are going is of less interest to them. Observing the organic whole called the city and its other outcasts is more important.

Sahlberg is still surprised by the positive reception of his first book, three years ago. ‘In my opinion it didn’t really deserve all that praise. It was a practice version, after all. I’m pretty much of a perfectionist, and I’m generally dissatisfied with my own texts.’

Eksyneet continues in the same dark vein. Although the country it is set in is Finland, the same note of outsiderdom is sounded in its protagonist as in his Gothenburg predecessor. When the main character, Joel, commits a crime, right at the beginning of the book, it is not a climax of alienation, but a conscious departure on the way to somewhere.

‘Eksyneet is clearly a more mature work. I am much happier with it than with my first novel. It’s gradually beginning to grow toward the standard I’d like to aim for, but of course it’s not completely there yet.’

Sahlberg generally writes for half the year, and for the rest of the time reads new Finnish literature and allows himself some free time. A third work is also due to appear this spring, a novella called Höyhen (‘The feather’). It describes a day in the life of a handicapped young man. This autumn, Sahlberg will publish Hämärän jäljet (‘The tracks of twilight’), a sequel to Pimeän ääni. He has decided to write the story of the Gothenburg man in the form of a trilogy, whose third part will be called Valon huokaus (‘The sigh of light’).

‘When you’re at the beginning of your career as a writer, you have to try to show what you can do, and then hope and trust that you will get a little recognition so that you can concentrate on one work for the next two or three years.’

For other beginner writers, Sahlberg has just one tip on the matter of the writing of a second novel: ‘Absolute indifference. To publishers, critics, everything. You have to be able to concentrate completely on your own artistic work, without caring about anything else.’

Distance from Finland has been of help to Sahlberg in finding his voice. Taking distance is a long project. A couple of months suffice only to confuse. Sahlberg lived for a longtime on his savings and with occasional jobs before he was able to write. Before his departure from Finland he worked as a reporter and finally as a partner on the same newspaper.

‘In Gothenburg it was a couple of years before I was able to internalise this need of distance. It is perhaps precisely because of this that my first book is set in Gothenburg: I did not dare describe a Finnish environment.’ Sahlberg comments that there is, in the end, no great difference between Finland and Sweden; the differences are just sufficient to sharpen perspectives on each Nordic society. ‘In writing, a certain distance is needed for depth of field.’

The main character of Eksyneet, Joel, is not merely a synthesis of all the outsiders of world literature; he is something more racking, more bitter.

Joel is a manifestation of the Finnish economic recession and the icy existence it gave rise to. If Joel has some goal in mind, it is to retreat into himself, to fade into invisibility, to soak away completely, to achieve a self-caused spiritual hypothermia. It is not a question of suicide, but of a poor man’s pantheism, an equalisation of every atom in his body with the universe. Joel commits a crime and flees, or thinks he flees. In reality he has already fled to a space in which time and place have no meaning. Places are all one and the same postcard, whose picture side is impersonal and whose text side is empty. There is no address, either, but the stamp and postmark are discernible; the card must move, after all.

On the empty seaside promenade of a small town Joel encounters the young Laura, a soul who has, like him, fallen a short distance into greyness, in whom, since her birth, a dull, silent adulthood has resided, like a parasite. Together they are like a solitary sea gull and the gray, empty sky. Creatures older than the world, both of them.

Joel and Laura meet Big, a small-time criminal who has patiently nurtured the superman within him. All of them are, in their emptiness, frightening, panic-inspiring figures. Not everyone can become a film star or Madonna, and even they who do succeed find themselves  confronting the same question: did it really matter? Does it ease my existence? Does it make me more whole?

This is an edited version of an interview published in the Aamulehti newspaper 4 August 2001.

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