Hiding the soul

30 September 2002 | Authors

Petri Tamminen

Photo Irmeli Jung

The world makes people anxious, is the thesis of the writer Petri Tamminen in his new book, Piiloutujan maa (‘The land of the hider’). Well, if this is true, what do you do then? Rage and fight – or go into hiding?

The people in Tamminen’s world choose a hiding place. Fortunately, the world is full of them, and they are not only places, but also states of mind and modes of behaviour.

The writer and freelance reporter Petri Tamminen (born 1966) made his debut with a volume of short prose entitled Elämiä (‘Lives’, see Books from Finland 3/1994), in which people’s life stories are presented in about 200 words; entire decadesflash by in a sentence, or lives are summed up in a single event, often an apparently insignificant one. The comic and the tragic lie side by side, and are often not reached by language, but what the author does not choose to say. Next came the short story book Miehen ikävä (‘Male blues’, 1997) and the novel Väärä asenne (‘The wrong attitude’, 2000), which described the nightmares of a new father, plagued with a horror of bacteria.

Piiloutujan maa is a series of descriptions in which the person oppressed by the anxiety of existence seeks a hiding place; it is both a real manual for a modern hider and an exploration of a hider’s attitude toward life.

Hiding places that are clear to everyone include, of course, the attic or mother’s lap, but libraries, airports or various vehicles also offer possibilities for hiding. But good hiding places can also be found in moments, insignificant-looking details: a tree seen in passing in the morning rush-hour or an air-vent in a social services office on which the gaze can be fixed.

It is easier, of course, to find hiding places in some professions than in others. ‘The labyrinths of large offices, provincial administrations and town halls offer excellent hiding places. For the people that work in them, these institutions offer this privilege every day: at any moment, a worker can slip into the untouched cavities of the archive wing. In the eternal smell of paper he can gaze at files, worn 1970s furniture and archive shelves seen through other archive shelves…. He knows the way to the cellars and the most remote lavatories. When he returns to his desk, he is full of energy and secretes peace.’

The active hider must have a strategy, Tamminen advises: ‘You will never find a hiding place of your own if you look for it only at a moment of real need. The wise person seeks hiding places all the time.’

If you, dear reader, are a choleric and determinedly pugilistic type, it may be that you are unable to enjoy Petri Tamminen’s interpretations of universal anxiety at a deeper level. You will not be able to accept his claim that ‘a sensible person does not get pissed off. He gets anxious. Anxiety is a hiding place. Anxiety is liberating. Everyday exhaustion and quotidian responsibilities do not exist there. In its recesses, the earthly is forgotten. It is replaced, it is true, by the bustle of consciousness and the feeling that all is lost, but you can stand it. Everything can go hang. This is how the anxious person rests, takes a holiday from the world and its rules. Faust sold his soul; the anxious person gives it away for nothing. ’

Tamminen’s highly original prose may not always open up immediately. The translator and I had to think hard what the first phrase in the description of the attic really means: ‘You can hide in cellar when a pounding bass and Chechnya are missing from your life….’ I rang the writer. What does it mean. ‘Well, I thought that when the necessary experiences of both power (the bass) and life’s harsh ugliness (Chechnya), are missing from a man’s life – and the narrator is, of course, a man – he longs for the cellar, which is the opposite of the attic,’ Tamminen explained. Aha…

His gravely meticulous narrator is a kind of knight of the Rueful Countenance, a Don Quixote, struggling in order to make the world realise the liberation of anxiety! If this is not tragicomical, I do not know what is.

I myself am the hider type. I have, however, sometimes persuaded myself that when I retreat from the bustle of the world into some mental hiding place, I have chosen my little absence just for the sake of change – not because I just can’t bear it any more.

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