Home alone?

30 June 2003 | Authors

Kari Hotakainen

Photo: Veikko Somerpuro

Kari Hotakainen’s novel Juoksuhaudantie (‘The Trench Road’, WSOY, 2002), has sold more than 100,000 copies, an enormous number in Finland, and more than any other Finlandia Prize-winning work since 1986. Why?

Matti Virtanen is close to being the most common man’s name in Finland. In Kari Hotakainen’s sixth novel, this on the one hand ordinary but on the other extraordinarily obsessive Virtanen chances, in a state of agitation, to hit his wife, as a result of which the wife and their daughter leave. Virtanen gets it into his head that the only way to win forgiveness and get his family back again is to get them a home of their own. Virtanen believes himself to be a blameless ‘home-front man’, the opposite of the wargoing generation of his father and grandfather:

‘A home veteran looks after all the housework and understands women. Throughout our marriage I have done everything that our fathers did not. I did the laundry, cooked the food, cleaned the flat, I gave her time to herself and protected the family from society…. I listened, I understood,I caressed, I foreplayed and kept the mood going after intercourse. I had had no education in any of this, nor was there any kind of example for me tofollow.’

Virtanen feels he has earned a house – and, more precisely, one of the kind that many of the war generation got for themselves during the period of Finland’s reconstruction in the 1950s, when the state gave grants to homebuilders. He wants to buy one of these, forcibly if necessary.

But such houses are, in today’s Helsinki, scarce, fashionable and expensive. In the end, Virtanen’s obsession grows to such an extent that the police are called in.

Hotakainen (born 1957) began his career as a poet in the 1980s and became a freelance writer, after working as a reporter and advertising copywriter, in 1995. One of his five earlier novels was shortlisted for the Finlandia Prize, but none of them has been anything like as big a seller as this one.

Buster Keaton, elämä ja teot (‘Buster Keaton, life and work’, 1991) is a fictive biography that has been translated into German, Czech and Slovakian; Bronks tells about those who are less fortunate in a society where sudden economic depressions may take place. Sydänkohtauksia (‘Heart attacks’, 1999; also translated into German) depicts the world of obsessive film buffs. Klassikko (‘Classic’, 1997; see Books from Finland 4/1997), a novel about cars and their selling, was made into a film. Hotakainen has also written children’s books and a collection of short stories for young people, stage and radio plays and television scripts.

Paradoxically enough, the excellence of Virtanen’s housekeeping is not enough to make things up when he unintentionally loses his temper. His wife and child leave. Tragicomic? Certainly. Among the money-spinning jobs that Virtanen, a warehouseman by profession, takes on, gritting his teeth, are, for example ‘supper-massaging’ women in the evenings, an unpleasant but relatively profitable sideline.

He spies out and ambushes a suitable house and torments the estate agents, particularly one that has a desirable war veteran’s home on his books. The merciless depiction of the agent’s everyday life of buying and selling also brought Hotakainen an annual prize awarded by an estate agent; it had hitherto been given only to professionals in the field. The company saw Juoksuhaudantie as the ‘first Finnish estate-agent novel’.

Divorce, a house of one’s own andobsession are probably all aspects of the novel that interest Finns agreat deal. Although what is at issue is a Finnish peculiarity, the veteran’s house , Hotakainen himself commented in a newspaper interview that the same things will certainly interest, for example, an electrician from London or Belgium.

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