Family mysteries

Issue 1/2003 | Archives online, Fiction, poetry

Extracts from Einen keittiö, Eines kök (‘Eine’s kitchen’, Tammi, 2002). Introduction by Satu Koskimies

This sort of detached block of flats is as much of a living organism
as the folk dwelling in it.
For above are the brains and below are the intestines and outlets.

The upper floors were flaunting their kitchen taps, sink-tops,
lion-clawed sofas, mahogany chests and
sapphire-pendant crystal chandeliers, flashing the violet-tones of sea and
rain.

Years later these very things, like the previous generation’s taps and
furniture, passed a ghostly underground life in the weird
chicken-wire-salons
of their storage-spaces, telling about their former life, inviting us to share
their phantasmal world of things and furniture, manifesting with moss¬
green faces like the faces the graveyard dead beckon with to the living.

We were alive.
But the boundary line was hairline thin.

They had their faces, their commanding looks, mouths and eyes – those
chests, cupboards, sofas, and that lone pair of ski-boots regarding us with
wrinkled foreheads and hundreds of eyeholes, their soles curled up
into a smile.

Certain lamps had a noble wax-pale muzzle, with a lead on, like a comment
on a sentence not said aloud.
The whole cellar was a silent, thronged Machiavellian stage, where the
loosening of a tooth in no way interrupted the dialogue.

Family histories lay lodged in things, abandoned and forgotten, the more
valuable paraphernalia cloaked in dust and green cloths ¬
stuffed owls, the too-vociferous wall-clocks of dead aunts.

Each in their own chicken-wire compartment, every family’s stuff stared
at the stuff of other families.

Mother was kaput.
Father was kaput.
The family was kaput.
My parents were shattered, broken to bits, crushed to pieces, ground down
to a coarse gravel, their delicate nervous systems had sprung apart in their
hands like the works of a Swiss watch.

Their parents had been through the civil war,
so my own parents were traumatised by three wars.
Trauma, triptych, trochee, tricot, truffle, trolley-bus, tractor.

An ardent love for literature, and farts, formed the spiritual salon
for enacting this so-called war-wound in our family.

Farting was our attempt to salve the spiritual and psychic wounds my
parents had inherited and, after enduring three wars, passed on to their
children.

We prumped those wounds out.
A fart was a sort of comment.
The exordium to a dialogue.
The opening lines of an interlocution, a premonition of speech.
We shook the walls as we trumped through the tubule of the trauma.

We believed that all families farted.

In our family we read literature and communicated through farts.
Mother responded to father’s fart with a smaller one, and if my brother
succeeded in out-trumping father’s fart with a still bigger one, he was
a national hero, he’d performed a mightier heroic task than if he’d got ten out
often for an essay.

Farts were neutral soil, farts released sincere joy
into the family’s tense atmosphere.
As counterweights to mother’s depressive disposition and father’s war¬
mangled nervous system they were an expression of genuine delight.

And besides you had to laugh when father farted, it was a signal, as good as a
command or invitation. Now we can laugh. Father’s in a good mood.

Mother wasn’t all that keen on farting.
She buried herself in literature.
She did it to please father.

We read books about a family that drank senna-pod tea and kept farting.
It put us in fits of laughter, the book’s lavatory scenes exalted us into ecstasy.

Areas connected with the rectum were a natural channel for letting off the
family’s tensions. After all, on the anatomical map, the rectum was an
organic extension of the mouth, like the other end of a rope – without teeth
of course. Round the rectum similar muscles to those round the mouth
puckered up pouted spluttered and sighed effs – FFFFFffff-letters.
Full of wind, the mouth and the rectum blew a FFFHUUUHHHHFIIII, and
that’s why the Swedish word for a fart is FIISA.
AnnFIISA Retsova.

Whenever I was staying at some friend’s house for longer than usual
I was astounded to find that no trump came from anywhere.

No one farted.
The force of this weird observation was diminished by the fact that they did
eat anyway, in other words I was sure they too, every one of them, had to go
to the 100 and no one could be in doubt about what went on there.

This was something of a comfort. Perhaps our family wasn’t some sort of
farting freak after all but just an ordinary family.

A family trying to live with a load of 848 traumas or so on their shoulders
still lives a comparatively normal life.
A life of whittling a piece of wood while waiting to go over the top.
A life in the trenches.

The deadlocked trenches of family life.
No one was ever the same again.

Everyone belonged to the defeated, and in this war the grenades went on
detonating in the family trenches, the artillery went on thundering over the
mine fields of everyday life.

Was it a case of regression, was the family arrested in its development?
Difficult to say: if individual development goes through certain phases, will
these manifest in the family as the sum of the individuals’ development, or
what?

If a punnet of strawberries contains a hundred strawberries and one of them
is rotten, it will contaminate the whole punnet.

But individual development is no infectious disease, no cholera, no plague.
Anyway, what about Mozart, who farted all the time, and, dammit,
farting doesn’t diminish genius an inch.

Though farting and genius are not in any way connected.

In the time of powdered wigs it probably formed a much more violent
contrast.

Was there any sense in this!

Was it possible to break the chain?

Does a hysterical mother turn her children into miniature hysterics?

The family reared not white doves but white lies.
Father stood behind the kitchen door and said he wasn’t at home.
Mother lay stretched out with twenty-two hair-curlers on like weird purple
tapeworm larvae; she said she wasn’t at home, but I saw she was at home.

White lies proliferated about woollen or cotton underpants, handbags,
nail-lacquer bottles; odd links were set up between white lies and toilet-
bowls, dressing-gowns, hair-curlers, generally on the grounds that one of
us wasn’t dressed, combed, made-up, or was in their long johns when the
doorbell rang.

Say father’s off on a trip.
Say mother’s at the hairdresser’s.
Say mother’s having a bath.

Like a little bellhop I hustled messages between the doorbell, the hall, the
sitting room, the kitchen and the bathroom.
At the flat door stood a man on wooden crutches, one trouser leg empty.
Downstairs at the entrance to the block there was a notice:
‘No peddlers, no beggars.’
That’s what it was.
I’d played horse with crutches, they had soft leather pads for the armpits.
There was a great ocean of crutches with limping hobbling blind cripples.

We didn’t talk about them. It wasn’t proper.
War’s ugly.
Passé once and for all.
Father and mother. What else could be expected of them.
It was enough that they’d lived through it.
Felt it in their own flesh.
Cultivated people didn’t refer to the war, didn’t discuss the war at home, in
mother’s opinion only drunks, labourers and peasants did.

Nevertheless their streets were haunted by war-ghosts, invalids, the
crippled and war-blind those 1950s streets with gleaming red new
Packards, harbingers of some future Eldorado.

‘Shall I put a slice of salt beef on your bread?’ mother asks.
The fridge snaps open and shut.
The whole family’s mobilised to waking and tending the tribal chieftain.
The whole family depends on the oiling of his machinery.

Father’s feeling of well-being was tethered to the care mother lavished on
him.
Father did brain work. The brain’s lobes, ventricles and synapses needed to be massaged, although
there was no hair on his head except at the sides.

Sandwiches had to be made, even late at night. So father’s brains would
work.
The brains had to have a varied diet, so father stood on his head and grew
cress on the windowsill and made buckwheat porridge himself.

Actually, though, the war doesn’t have a mouth or head,
to say nothing of teeth.
But still the war ate up father’s hair, a young man’s curly hair.
It fell off at the battle of Rukajärvi.

Mother knows what his hair was like.
Father’s head is circled by a thick tonsure.

Father’s head, the father who cracked our heads together, holding one of us
in one hand, another in the other. Walking beside father, we suddenly feel
our arms pushed.
Then father hurls us against each other like two conkers – bang go our
heads, cracking together, and father laughs.

In a village of burnt houses, surrounded by enemy troops, the first
personally killed soldier was shot by father – and now, as if a fruit of war
humour, as an aftertaste – there was this weird game.
With the fire-power of a bullet.
On our heads. Bang.

The ten commandments?

Just as you find no verdant strawberry fields in outer space,
no blue cumulus clouds, no groves or open meadows, you don’t hear
the twittering of birds, you’re faced by nothing but a lifeless landscape.

In the blue of my father’s eyes there was no hint of blue lakescapes, forest
ridges, mild-weather clouds, no glint of sun, no warm light-refracting
beams,
just the crackle of frosted snowdrifts, moon-illumined ice-fields,
permafrosted ice plains; in the blue of my father’s eyes there was the
stillness of frozen killing fields; it was not just along his arms thati
something bloodcurdling flowed to me from my father, it was his look that
crucified me, petrified me with terror,
when it fixed me, that killer-of-a-thousand-men look in my father –

even though only one had been shot in the war,
1 speaking a foreign language, an enemy of course, who’d looked at my father
with a human eye, looked with the look of one who says: ‘Don’t shoot!’

Between that look and the shot there was, so to speak, this too,
all that was happening to us now, sketched for us, or written down,
the same script written all over again, or enacted again, in this little episode,
in the way father took his daughters for a stroll.

We heard the shot, saw that soldier’s look
– don’t shoot – and a bird was flying above us – father showed it to us – but
we only heard the shot – it hit the breast.

In father’s look there was nothing to demonstrate we were his children.

Father looked at us, you could say he saw us. No other feeling.
A biological affair.
He recognised us.

What lived and moved at the other end of those arms or between those
shoulders, in the hands that held me and held my sister’s hand and with no
warning suddenly yanked us together with all their muscle power banging
our heads together.

Funny that, or what?

What was there hidden behind father’s machine-gun look?

If behind those hands, those arms, those shoulders, behind the hidden
muscular power, behind the head balanced on the shoulders, a mental
world’s weird ghosts were hidden, skeletons in the mental cupboard,
horrors,
what was behind that highly-strung look that told us to look at something we
couldn’t see, that made father’s look flash out fire?

Father’s highly-strung look, his machine-gun eyes flashed, blazed fire.
The look our small frightened children’s eyes met
at the far end of the tunnel of terror cut a straight line between
our faces and father’s face,
War’s sustained fuel
Shrapnel rattling and whistling down, moans of wounded horses,
concentrated artillery
on a Sunday afternoon walk, with a father taking his daughters out,
nothing to suggest war, Eastertime’s ochre light, music, tulips,
and a plate we’d grown green grass on and decorated with yellow bunnies.

Shoes heavy from the trail home, head hanging as if to roll off.

If you get a shrapnel splinter in your head in the war, that’s a reason why.

As for me, I’ve no good reason why I’ve got so many holes in my memory.
A total breakdown in the film.

I’ve a cramp in my memory.
It twitches and gives me spasms.

Straightening it out, flexing it.
Stepping to one side.
Bending down.

Where were my sisters and my brother?
There were four of you, weren’t there?
A black hole’s swallowed them up.

They simply weren’t around.
They’d stopped existing.

Why were there no brothers or sisters?
No characters in the drama.

The city’s labyrinthine streets, the larded, salt-plastered façades of the city
blocks.

What, if father knew the city by heart, what is the state of his knowledge now?
How did it serve him?
That he’d walked these streets all his life.

Looking at the sky over every building’s top ribbon of windows, the eyes
in his ever-changing-with-age face had not once encountered opacity.

The sky over the city remained everlastingly the same.
Even though my father’s eyes no longer existed.

What use was it that my father could negotiate the tricky bits of every
one-way street while keeping his eyes firmly closed to the car park of his
fum’s head office?

What use was there in thinking about my father’s young man’s pad at seven
Sepänkatu Street?

The city lived on and offered its streets and its corners,
its houses’ sea-salt freshness, its city blocks’ symmetry and non-symmetry
for new eyes, new legs.
For the mind to sense the alternating currents of twenties’ and thirties’ folk.
They too had looked out from these same windows, they’d opened these
ornamented doors with the plaster dates above,
1878 or 1924…

The park trees, forming a melancholy cortege, were the only creatures left
alive in a besieged city.
A park like a floodlit postcard.

Looking out of the windows were the heads of a totally different age,
heads that had fallen from the shoulders of time,
fallen from their own shoes, thumped down behind time’s self-control…
and along with them all
that still hangs over the vicinity of the houses where they dwelt in their day.
It’s felt in the rhythms of the streets, the fussing in the city blocks.

The people had known their city, had felt its inner cavities,
through loving its salt wind, the scent born of the moist sea.

Translated by Herbert Lomas