Humankind in disguise

30 September 2002 | Authors, Reviews

Thomas Warburton

Thomas Warburton

Thomas Warburton (born 1918) has for sixty years tossed off words, poems, narratives, translations, literary histories and articles. He transforms Finnish and English literature into Swedish (he has also has translated several of Tove Jansson’s Moomin stories into English) and writes about ancient Japanese culture.

It comes as no surprise that Thomas Warburton’s latest book is called Förklädnader (‘Disguises’). Having such a long experience he knows how to get under the skin of so many literary characters in order to draw forth their stories.

Förklädnader is a slim volume – yet it is also an extensive journey through time, spanning the whole world. In forty short narratives we meet the Minotaur, Hansel and Gretel, Aphrodite, the Sleeping Beauty, among others. We travel to Greece, to the United States, to Finnish wildernesses or to rainforests where there are child soldiers. Fairytales, legends, parables, newspaper cuttings and modern myths rub shoulders together, throwing light from forty different directions on a humankind that more frequently, it seems, opts for laziness, blindness and violence than for consideration and kindness.

Thomas Warburton makes room for man, for many human beings, without being pompous, but with a proper blend of irony and sympathy. Hans Christian Andersen’s little matchstick girl is like someone out of Marx’s Das Kapital: she is hungry and cold, and lights a phosphorous match to warm herself. The rest is history: the factory burns down but in his old age the factory owner receives an award from Queen Victoria. Archimedes is the heroic inventor who creates war and hostility but must himself finally submit to the sword. And deep in the primeval Finnish forests lives an old couple, until one day they are turned into trees that are cut down by the chainsaws of a big timber company, becoming sad history: logs in a sawmill pond, turned into capital.

In Warburton’s first collection of poetry, Du, människa (‘Thou, man’, published during the time of a great war in 1942), many dead people speak, above all soldiers from the battlefield. In the collection he also gives a voice to several Finnish-language poets. It is no surprise that Warburton later translated Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, or that almost sixty years later he published a book in which so many voices whisper and roar.

Förklädnader (or Valepukuja; the multi-lingual author has himself made the translation into Finnish) is an adventurous book that dares to remind the reader about how many narratives we live in – if we still remember them, if we have time to think of them and write about them, as usual with the fairytale material that dwells in man.

Occasionally I feel ashamed about not recognising the primal narrative that Warburton uses for his reinterpretation and satire – but there are also times when I am inspired by this conversation that passes straight through memory, time and space. For Warburton’s disguised characters live and talk in the same book, and so it cannot be impossible for one to carry on within oneself the conversation with tradition, that brutal but generous presence.

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