Manmother

Issue 4/2002 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Granaattiomena (‘Pomegranate’, WSOY, 2002). Introduction by Kristina Carlson

The journey

Mother had sent her son to the island of Rome.

She’d sent him for pleasure and recreation, and also to have a little time by herself. Even though their life together was on an even keel, it was sensible to have some time away from each other. She herself was sixty-eight, and her son an unmarried hermit in his thirties, on sickness allowance for the last couple of years. He was afflicted with chronic depression. The doctors had been unable to identify the cause. The origin of a disorder of that sort was often looked for in some infant trauma; but the boy’s childhood, from all appearances, had been harmonious. One doctor suspected the time of his father’s terminal illness, when the boy had had to nurse his father for a long while.

There was no need for anyone to experience any futile guilt feelings, not about the father’s death anyway. The son had wished no ill on his father, though he didn’t esteem him, once he noticed his great weakness. The elder sons revered their father, but the youngest said that a lackey never reverenced his warlord. Contrariwise, he did say he’d always give the word Mother a capital M.

The son had emphasised how extremely grateful he was for the gift of the journey, but soon after his Mother had pressed the money for his expenses in his hand, he came back and thanked her effusively.

She said in reply:

‘If ever I’ve brought any harm into your life, this is my way of making up for it.’

Tears were about to come to the Mother’s eyes, and her son was moved as well. It was absolute trust in the truth, the only thing one ought to aspire to.

Rome wasn’t actually an island – the Mother knew that of course. When she was fifty, they had visited Rome together. Her husband, the son’s father, was still alive then, though poorly. The trip had been wonderful: the sun hadn’t been cruelly hot, and they hadn’t even considered seeking beaches for a swim. A competent guide had shown them round the city sights: exhibitions and museums, whose mouldy green cellars and sunny copper brilliance revealed wonderful statues and images of bodies whose souls had become treasures long before their burial. The guide had showed them fountains shimmering with rainbows, and they had seen the whole brilliance of the Vatican, including St Peter’s – though hardly any other churches.

She herself would have been eager to visit other churches, would very much have liked to look at the images of saints, at whose feet people left flowers, along with their prayers and petitions. The Mother too had something she’d like to petition about. The guide had told of miraculous healings, and it had left her secretly hoping she too might return some day to offer thanks….

The son’s journey was set up as follows: in Rome he’d put up in a cheap hotel for the first couple of weeks, and thereafter he’d knock about on his own, until the money ran out.

Once the Mother had absorbed that her son was finding it difficult to deal with life’s complications, and that sometimes he considered departing voluntarily, she had made up her mind to send him off for self-examination – to face his own father, say, at his agreeable last resting place, where sacred trees stood, softly whispering of what is no longer. For her son, though, neither woodland, sea, fire nor humanity held anything agreeable. All he could see was the fearful, everywhere: in every corner a mishap lurked. Since he didn’t want to go to his father’s grave, ever – nor to anyone’s last resting place, in fact – she hit on the idea of catacombs. Her son could call in on those, listen to the bones’ hollow speech – their tale of whether they were better off now than before. The passage into the catacomb was confined: it didn’t lead out into the light; no moon shone there, nor daylight. If his morning of life was dreary, he should release himself from his yearning. And when someone quoted, à propos of her son, ‘what avails an idle man’, she straightway urged him to visit the catacombs.

She herself was chronically ill, and seriously. For fourteen years now she’d been afflicted by a neuropathic disease, the aftermath of diabetes. The nerves caused her to feel that her ankles were in shackles. It had led her son to call her Oedipus Regina.

The illness began about a year after her husband’s death. It had started as an irritation in two of her toes, as if mice had slipped inside them and then worked their way up close to her ankles. When she finally reported it to the doctor, he sent her to a neurological clinic, where tests revealed that the disease was neuropathic. No analgesic or other medicine had any effect on it, not even morphine. The itchings and nervous tremors gradually developed into pains and soon extended up to her knees. The prognosis had been that if the tremors reached her knees they’d spread to her hands as well. And, after her brain and eyes, her hands had been, at least sometimes, her most important tools. The only things that made life possible were certain standard antidepressants, which raised her pain threshold.

Now that she was unable to travel anywhere because of her foot-pains, she had to be content with vicarious travel through her son. It was something that, as healthy woman, she could never have conceived.

Before her son’s journey, she had a strange dream: not precognitive – though she did have such. This one lacked the figure of her old father, who was always present in her so-called precognitive dreams. These dreams were usually connected to family events; and so far all of them had been fulfilled, sooner or later. She had as firma faith in them as in the lines of the hands, which, she knew, always smoothed out when a person died, becoming maps of a new potentiality – a marvel she’d noticed when she looked at her dead father’s palm. This dream was something different. More tremendous. More threatening.

Against a background of severe frost, an aeroplane was rising into the sky, and inside the plane there was a dark man with nothing but small white circles where his eyes should be. His sockets blazed sheer blindness. Dark-grey clouds of cawing jackdaws and black storks were circling round, framed by copper light.

The whiteness in her dream, she guessed, signified a revolution in her values; but nowadays where could any revolution lead? Could the dream plane portend an accident on her son’s journey!….

All that remained in life for her son was his Mother. After every journey he had always returned to her.

There had been a day in Oslo when her fourteen-year-old son stopped in the middle of their living-room and said: ‘I’m a homo.’

For a moment his parents went still as two perches in a reed bed. Then his father said: ‘It’s usual at your age. You’ll get over it all right.’

Homo, human being, man.

The son said nothing more.

She herself had in fact guessed already. At some point she had started studying her son. She remembered how, when they were back home in Finland, her son had gone tramping back and forth round the block as if to flaunt himself, and her daughter-in-law had said he must have a girl there. The Mother knew that it was a boy. But when the truth came from his own mouth, she got a shock. Not because of his homosexuality: she herself, in her girlhood, had experienced phases of similar feelings, and girls had had crushes on her. Human beings had features of both sexes in them. The Mother did understand homosexuals. But this son of hers being one, the one who was upset by the slightest thing. How would he endure the attendant stresses? This child, the most sensitive of her children from his birth, whom the slightest word pierced like a dagger-point! And the boy had never longed for hairstyles, a tattoo, or earrings, as she had stupidly expected. Nothing about him suggested homosexuality, or femininity, apart from his sensitivity. He was as masculine as could be, and proud of it.

The causes of homosexuality had not been sufficiently researched. Some claimed it was genetically inherited, and others that it was attributable to education, experience, and other such nurture. Nevertheless, it was a fact to be acknowledged by both the person in question and his environment. But being different, for such a sensitive, masculine boy, was going to be a problem.

He’d meet adversity. In fact, all his life up to now he had as it were gathered adversity to himself. How, for instance, would he put up with the discrimination that was bound to come? Indeed, his Mother, as a defender of minorities, was well aware of the wall of ostracism that would envelop him. Problems would flare up on all sides, like dangerous stars hurtling into an otherwise dark milieu. He’d always be alone with his own light, whichever way you looked at it.

The parents discussed it with each other. Neither of course wanted to object, and neither in fact could have. His father managed to go on at length about the vacillating and experimental minds of adolescents. He reiterated that this son of his had always been somehow a little alien to him. Not that he understood his firstborn either, who, with his recklessness, had inherited his mother’s characteristics.

The boy belonged to one of nature’s minorities: that was how he had been created, she believed. Such ought to be defended, and she had always been a pioneer in defending minorities. She considered writing a novel on the subject. She would do it next. But later, even after several attempts, she could not get inside the skin of a homosexual. In the past, young boys and girls on her writing courses had sometimes experienced difficulties because of their homosexuality or lesbianism. In some remote parish, say, a boy was not allowed to cultivate a long plait with a bow in it, or a nose jewel. She had urged them to work their problem up in a book, as a help to others. But all of them had replied that they had enough problems already. Her son would come up against the same difficulty.

She would like to talk with him about it, but he was as inaccessible as the handshake of an amputee. And all this was happening in a foreign country.

‘Legally, in Finland, homosexuality is classified as an illness,’ her husband said.

‘Our son sick? He’s healthy as can be.’

‘Well, I agree: I myself think classifying it as an illness is wrong.’

‘What section does it come under?’

‘Don’t remember. Never had to deal with it.’

‘The law should be altered.’

‘Bound to be. Finland’s among the world’s most progressive countries.’

She burst into tears, and whisky intensified the flow. The tears poured down her cheeks like monsoon rains, hot, unending; the drops formed brooks of pain that trickled towards her ears, deepening like a mountain spring into a river that swelled into bottomless lakes, and so on and on into a loud billowing sea, which became their grave. She longed for home, for her own mother’s lap, which had scarcely ever been available to her; and her own lap longed for her son, who was as lonely and distinct as a cloudberry flower.

Oh gods, help me. For only now, here, far from home, do I see the truth. The fault may well be in me. Without realising it, I may have been too overwhelming a mother. Sophocles caught it in Oedipus Rex:

Many a man has made his mother his bride
in dreams. None but he who knows the vanity
of his vision carries lightly his load here.

She couldn’t take her eyes off the scenes of her son’s childhood. And did her memory serve her right? Had she tried to be too much in control? Tried to direct her son’s life? Should she have required his father to be more of a role-model, a father-figure, such as every boy needed?

It was in the genes. But how much else of life’s junk was in the genes? How much was due to the gods not doing what they didn’t want? Or due to man’s free will, when man so easily chose deviant routes – and much worse routes than this, which, when you faced it and admitted it, was in fact rather a minor matter. And then again: the gods, in spite of not doing what they didn’t want, hung over all existence with their inordinate power. That they didn’t go against their will enabled them to make their will reality.

Some called that fate.

Many people’s moral notions were profaned by the boy’s confession – moral notions they didn’t want to evaluate. That was why so many people, often unwillingly too, were severe and unsympathetic, judged facilely. If you tried to explain your own notions to them, they turned away. In those days, in the Seventies, it was best to keep as silent as in a Norwegian divine service, which was often described as ‘rolig’ (tranquil), while, in Swedish, the word means ‘funny’.

As long as the boy himself never referred to his homosexuality, real enough though it was, they couldn’t speak about it to others. No question, the word couldn’t come out of their mouths. And if the topic did arise, they immediately had to face some such word as ‘abnormal’.

Years went by with only the nearest and dearest knowing about it. Only when her son was badly hurt by a newspaper article, goading him into wanting to reply, did he ask his Mother for help. The article demeaned homosexuals by mocking their hairstyles and accessories and, worst of all, was written by one of the period’s trend-setting couples. The Mother had written defences of homosexuals before. Together they drafted a reply and both signed it. It meant they were admitting what they should have admitted years ago. They cited the case of a remote village, where a homosexual boy was not even allowed to don ruffles. But, of course, the paper, after its lengthy attack, could only spare a line or two for the defence.

And ‘the Bible says’ – this, on many lips, was a heavy sentence. Bible experts referred to Paul’s words; but Paul had also ordained that women should be silent in the assembly, and that was considered out of date nowadays. Even in Finland there was talk of women priests. Paul didn’t like women and was undoubtedly against homosexuals. He seemed otherwise to be a bit of a blunderer on the paths of love, however well he might warble with the tongues of angels. But in fact, through the sayings of Jesus, the Bible advocated loving. And who knew what Jesus was? Was he in love with John?

Jesus was a supporter of love in all its forms, even deviant love. He supported mother-love too, and that was one of the greatest loves the Mother knew. She loved this son of hers now, and would always love him, whatever he might say against her – even if he said his Mother had ruined his life.

He had, in fact, on one outstanding occasion, when a terrible row was battling down family sympathy, said something of the sort, which he would never say again. It could not be taken back.

Pointless to mention it. Words were just words.

There had been not the slightest murmur of this during the boy’s secondary school years, nor later. Everyone had kept silent. The boy was odd, and alien; and she herself, the Mother, had been numbed red, like a boiled crab.

The image of the son riding along as his mother’s bridegroom clarified much of human history and the evolution of religion and morality. Through her son, this Mother had fulfilled a secret aspiration of her own childhood. Seated on the rear carrier of her father’s bicycle, she’d been able to press her face up against his sweaty back and experience a sexual awakening when she was younger than her son had been with his. How easily she could have been a lesbian in her adolescent years! She could have been bisexual. Not now, as an adult. The gods couldn’t do what they didn’t wish to, and she had managed to pick a humanly easier way. She was seeking out roots of her feelings, as if plucking a willow bush from a stream. And ever deeper the plant reached down. Nature was absolute. It accepted its own mutations.

The Mother gladly accustomed herself to boys dropping in. They were hardly homosexual, but one dark, handsome Viking, at least, had succeeded in turning on his fair Finnish classmate. And from her son’s room there rang out utterly beautiful piano passages, incredibly romantic: songs of a love that was inviolable and sacred, lovely and pure as a lily. Misterioso. Lieder ohne Wörter. There it was, the boy’s flower, dazzled by the light and air of his own condition: silent, virginal, dimly glimmering, perfumed, perhaps going to wither on the morrow. Surely not.

They had been invited to the home of a Swedish colleague, and their son had been invited too, as the colleague had a daughter of the same age. But the son had other intentions. One of his classmates was also having a party, to which he was expecting to be invited. And there was this Erik, the young Viking: if he’d been, say, a mare, the son would have hoped he was on heat. The boy was no dud: he was extending a feeler. The son waited, like the moon waiting for the night, but the telephone call never came. So he rang them up himself and thus heard from the lady of the house that she’d already set the places: there was no room for the immigrant whom the chums weren’t all that close to anyway – though there was no mention of homosexuality. He paced back and forth up and down the street in the autumn rain, wearing his black velvet dinner jacket, with his bow tie under his chin, and waited for Erik in vain. The young stag didn’t come by. So the son was forced to turn up at the Swedish house with his parents, though he didn’t cast a glance in the gorgeous girl’s direction.

He was obviously seeking his place in society and he did find it. Later he told his mother that he’d finally caught up with a group of like-minded people, but he’d been disappointed from the start, and he probably wouldn’t let it happen again.

He hadn’t said it right out, but his Mother gathered that, though something that might be called innocence had been lost, he hadn’t experienced it as such. He was still a Virgin, under which star sign he had been forced to remain, though trying to be a Leo. Why hadn’t the constellations shifted a little from their places in the zodiac, since they decreed destinies from where they stood? Why had those cold bright splinters momentarily frozen into si1ence? Why had they forced that shy white snow flower of the cold – like the starry grass of Parnassus, Parnassia palustris – into a frozen longing.

Had something of Leo lingered on for a few birth-hours, in spite of everything?

Later, when her son – it was a time when he was still seeking solace in wine – behaved strangely, weeping out his longing to her, she said, ‘There now, you can always dream about it.’

‘How can you dream about something you’ve never experienced?’ he burst out in tears.

After that, not a word was spoken about it. It was the only time since his childhood that the Mother had seen her son crying.

The stars came hissing down, crystalline, raining an excruciating death: years and years. A silvery effervescence in the extinction of dreams. An enclosing drizzle, coldness, a distorting pain in the face of loneliness: youth’s infinite, unqualified germination ravaged once again. Is this a time now for singing of a frost-bitten snow flower? But something was burning on, as categorical as a warning sign: step across the icy bridge, cautiously, though you know there’s a sign. The arched bridge carries the message; and, in space, thousands of cold-edged stars are chiming like a sea of glass bells. Dear person unknown, who may not exist, accept this bonfire – once so burgeoning, now burning on. It will go out, this fire, as you will and I will. Your hands, so strong and hot, that will never caress me will become frozen charcoal in this icy whirl of hoar-frosted leaves. The arched bridge has a fracture, fine as a hair, smouldering, like the compulsion to grow, though the growing shoot is grafted onto a tree whose every scarred branch is denied springtime.

Return

The son slept through most of the day, occasionally getting something to eat and then vanishing back into his room again. The Mother was watching a long film she had taped one night.

Something was wrong. A flavour of concern was interrupting her joy at his return.

At about six o’clock the film stopped on the last ‘fuck’, or was it the murder? Yes it was, and the murderer had been discovered.

She switched to Channel Three.

The screen carried an announcement: Special News Flash.

‘Son! There’s a Special News Flash. Come here and look!’

Two familiar-looking towers. Something like smoke was cutting through one of them.

‘Come and look!’

‘It’s only the trailer for some old film.’

‘Listen! What’s that they’re saying? Look – a second plane.’

‘Can’t be. Is that really happening?’

‘What is that place? Not the World Trade Center in New York?’

‘They should have been expecting this,’ her son said.

‘You see – they’ve been messing about, the Americans, as if they owned the places. On the Palestinian borders, and in Africa. Now it’s the Muslims they’re getting going: the oppressed hitting back, and in the wrong way. Stinks of big money, this. Sheikhs’ oil, the US Central Bank.’

‘It’s that plane I dreamed of – but where’s the frost?’

‘Those dreams of yours, oh shut up about them!’

The frost came, and it was dreamlike. She was thrown into a whirl: it was November 30th, 1939, and the Finnish Winter War all over again. A little girl is in her yard, in the frost, waving her hands at an aeroplane that’s curving downwards. Father’s telling her to get into the cellar. The planes are sending black droppings sputtering and showering down from the sky. The planes have red stars on. And her mother’s away in Viipuri.

‘Viipuri’s on fire!’

‘War’s broken out,’ father says. Father doesn’t hold the little girl’s hand.

Where’s her son’s hand?

She’s afraid and cold. On the village roads soldiers are running. Someone’s shouting that the railway track’s been cut. There are no taxis anywhere. Showers of machine-gun fire are stopping the buses. Hide in the cellars! Frost. Her mother comes back in shock. The gunning’s driving the passengers out of the bus into the snow. Her galoshes are full of snow.

‘Viipuri’s on fire!’ she shouts – and in her confusion lays the table with strawberry jam, plates and the silver spoons, their best. There’ll be something for them when they come, she says, shaking like water in springtime. Father hasn’t time enough to clear away her silly table setting.

Their own home’s been set on fire, with Molotov cocktails. It’s Finnish soldiers that are doing it. The cat’s squealing like a piglet that’s up for castration.

At the station there’s a long line of trucks, but just cattle trucks. There are three railway engines, but the trains aren’t allowed to depart. They’d hardly be able to. And all the time enemy planes are raining bullets on the little village. The train can’t leave. The enemy soldiers are eight kilometres away. Everything around’s blazing like a pile of bloodstained rags.

War, it had come, as father had long been saying it would. He’d sent their most important things, books, to relatives in the west – sent her mother and herself too, for a short while, till the evacuation was cancelled. It wouldn’t be cancelled any more. Hiding away in the cellars of Viipuri station. Then a long, painful journey – several days and nights in a cattle truck – and at times, when the bombing came, you have to dive in the bushes or ditch bottoms, with your boots full of snow. Father’s travelling in an open coach. At stations in between, the Women’s Auxiliary Service are dishing out gruel for you.

War. The Winter War. Then back once more to Karelia, and then another war, the Second Winter War, and then back again in retreat, on the highway this time. From train to train, from station to station, always on the go, always with full suitcases, always fearful. Bewilderment, people calling you ‘Russkis’, and forever a stranger everywhere, till you merge into the crowd. Always an evacuee, always would be, since the fact was stuffed into your six-year-old consciousness with iron fists.

The dream of an aeroplane, the frost, the pilot’s eyes white with hatred. The huge cloud of jackdaws and storks like a plague of locusts. Her premonitory dream had known what was coming, and she hadn’t dared to warn anyone. And whom could she have warned? And what of? The police would have recommended her to a psychiatrist. And there weren’t many people you could speak to about a dream like that, so vague and undetermined. She was altogether too late.

And so were many others, for others had had dreams too. Her own dream had come in the spring, but the only ones who’d believe her now were those s she’d told it to. Well, they’d believe what they wanted. What did believing in a dream mean? Naturally aeroplanes and blind pilots can be dreamed about by anyone you like…

A sleepless night. Luckily her son was at home. That made it easier to put up with, come what may. The support of family, a human relationship. That was what she needed just now. Bad luck for those who had no one, after such news.

The unluckiest were those who were going through the catastrophe. And all the others who were living in fear. Most likely ordinary Muslims, most of all. On the floor below lived a charming old Muslim lady, a Tartar. She’d sometimes chatted with the lady’s grandchildren in the lift. Would they soon be persecuted?

With her son’s support she recovered, exactly as he’d said. She needed her son, just as he needed her. And when he became a man, she too became a man. Even that thought – two men cohabiting – had been fulfilled. Manmother. In her time, she had had to be her own mother’s fifteen-year-old ‘father’, and her brother’s. Then, in her marriage, she was the Mother alongside the father for a long time, though later she became the ‘father’ again too. The world was full of all sorts of family mix-ups.

Come world-war, come what may, she’d cope, through this power of hers. Never again would she fall into war-panic.

The USA would go into the attack, as they’d long been wanting to. Against Afghanistan? The world’s richest country against the world’s poorest? NATO would join in. The West and East against each other. Or would it be the North against the South? Always against. Two cultures, and two strong faiths. The rich and the poor. The oppressed and the oppressors. Democracy and terrorism. Good and evil – and how could they even be distinguished?

Confession in the confessional, or in a court of law?

Within her own being, throughout her life, always, there’d been a conflict between two things: good and evil, the desire for purity and the yearning for spiritual degradation, unselfishness and selfishness, spirit and flesh; but not the desire for violence against anyone, not the desire to destroy anyone.

She had had no desire to be purer than anyone else.

She had complained about her own troubles, her painful feet, her difficulties as a parent, as a Mother, yet the world was filled with so much that was worse. From now on she’d endure without complaint….

Today a lot had happened. What in fact?

The Mother had sent her son on a journey to the island of Rome. And there was no such place. She’d thought of Rome as an island, but ‘no man is an island’, as the poet said. Complete in himself no one was….

The Mother had sent her son on a journey, and during the final phase of that journey the world had split in two, like a bloodstained piece of bark. War had broken out – for whom and against whom no one yet precisely knew. And did one need to know? – since, anyway, it would turn out as wars always turned out. And just as the bells always clanged out at the beginning of a war, the universe was also full of a stifled end-sound the sound of a blown-up bladder whose time had come to burst again.

From islands, as from continents, mothers sent their sons off to the wars, wars they never returned from – on jolly pleasure trips which ended with the hollow rumbling of funeral gun-carriages rolling by on iron wheels. On the continents and the islands handsome young people were covered over with soil, to dream about the laurels that only wars could reap.

The Mother had sent her son to the island of Rome, and from that island, which didn’t exist, he had, this time, returned as a slightly better boy.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

Tags: