Alone together

Issue 2/2003 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

The novel Näiden seinien sisällä me emme näy (‘Within these walls we are invisible’, Tammi, 2002) depicts the experience of motherhood. When a child is born, the balance of power in Ellen and Tapani’s home, in which they have been alone together for ten years, shifts. Ellen’s relationship with her baby is so all-embracing that her husband inevitably becomes an interloper; Tapani continually leaves his teacup on the bookshelf and shatters the secret order Ellen has created. Washing-up, gumboots, dirty shirts shackle her thoughts to the material, which humiliates her.

Katri Tapola (born 1961) has, in earlier prose-works, cast light on women’s interior landscapes; Kalpeat tytöt (‘Pale girls’, Tammi, 1998), which followed a woman’s growth, received the Helsingin Sanomat prize for a first novel. Even then, the narrative ran much deeper than the psychological level, to the time before the developed self. Tapola’s children’s book, Kivikauppaa ja ketunleipää (‘Stone trade and wood sorrel’) received the Arvid Lydecken Prize for children’s literature in 2002.

According to French feminist scholarship, the period of symbiosis is for the child a time of overflowing happiness, full of presence and calm timelessness, without anxiety, absence, separation. Mother and child are one and the same. The mother, too, hears the drumbeat of her own golden childhood; Freud would say that the woman regresses to a pre-Oedipal phase. According to feminist scholars, she returns to the time before language and the Law of the Father. Ellen, too, is on the point of losing her capacity to communicate with the outside world.

It is seldom taken into account, in encomia of the ‘golden age’, how painful it is for an independent woman to lose the limits of self, let alone how greatly the situation perplexes the man who remains outside. Tapola’s story approaches both its main character and the feminist concept of the paradisal nature of the period of symbiosis with sly irony. Its loveliness from the point of view of the child is, of course, not questioned, but for the mother it is an enormous intellectual, emotional and physical upheaval.

Tapola also allows a moment’s communication to Tapani, who desperately tries to understand the change that has taken place in his wife. Tapani is, of course, not the cause of Ellen’s problems – and neither is Ellen herself. She knows very well that she is being unreasonable and petty, even cruel. Her husband does not force her to spend her time among saucepans, dirty clothes and overflowing rubbish bags, but the woman can demand the fulfilment of these roles of herself. Ellen builds herself a model of motherhood in which weakness and disintegration have no place, and imagines that the child will stay alive only while she is watching it.

The novel has a happy ending: the child grows up, learns to talk and begins to educate its mother. Ellen rediscovers words, which have been lost; she begins to write about the tribulations of her period of symbiosis. The path back to her husband also opens up. ‘The man was different… he existed only for loving.’

The drama also takes place in the book’s language, not only on the level of the story and the relationships between the characters. Tapani’s voice is pacifying, analytical and remains within the correct proportions. The new language learned by the child clatters within Ellen’s speech. Above all, Tapola succeeds in breaking through the level of everyday life and conjuring up within normal language another dimension, an invisible, wordless and timeless echo; the echo of the time when it was the body that wrote.

As the narrative progresses, the central metaphors develop, spread and intertwine into a network that expresses other dimensions and times. Sometimes, the warps of as many as three different levels of time weave simultaneously through Tapola’s narrative: when Ellen teaches her son to ski, she is at the same time a child skiing with her own mother and the mythic drum of ancestral mothers sounds.

The ‘golden age’ must end, but the relationship with the child continues as an echo. It receives its carrying power from the long backward chain of mothers. Ellen, too, becomes a slow echo inside her child.

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