Surviving mammals

Issue 2/2003 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Arto Virtanen (born 1947) has written a couple of thousand reviews, including art reviews. His own career as a writer began in 1970 with the poetry collection Kaikki liikkeessä (‘Everything in motion’); it was followed by collections of short stories and novels. Virtanen, who trained at the Finnish Academy of Art, comes from a working-class background. His novels Tyhjä testamentti (‘Empty testament’, 1992,) and Koiran vuosi (‘The year of the dog’, 1995) deal with men’s mid-life crises through figures rather similar to their main characters. The same starting point is evident in his new collection of short stories, Vapiseva sydän (‘Tremulous heart’, Tammi,2002,).

In the new book, Virtanen’s writer protagonists have different surnames but share more or less the same ideas and fates. There is the sense of isolation of an artist surrounded by uncultured and vulgar bourgeois philistines. There is the terraced house, dearly bought, and the faithful long-term partner with whom he shares his solitude. Relationships with his former friends and aesthetic and political movements have been severed. The writer does not even read poetry any more. The couple’s two children died very young from a mysterious inherited illness, but the writer’s granddaughter from a previous marriage brings a belief in life, as does his interest in music ranging from progressive pop to classical. There are the interest in the Italian language and the visits to Rome.

Dead and distanced writer and artist friends, as well as former erotic partners, now inhabit only the main character’s world of thoughts. The neighbours consider the writer an oddity; even their children see him as comical and grotesque, and call him Smiler because the man smiles shyly and politely even though he is, according to his psychiatrist, living out his aggressions. The writer himself sees his study from outside as a bastion of helplessness.

It is as if what is at hand is a kind of strip cartoon, whose characters continue from one short story to the next under slightly different names. Nothing can remove the alienation of the main characters, even if they learn to live with emotion; perhaps this is merely a refined, more aesthetic version of the neighbours’, those reviled home-owners’, blunt survival mentality, centred on saving for a house and cars,

Virtanen’s main characters are forced to make sense of the world again and again in terms of their literary ideas in order to gain the strength to carry on, particularly since their immediate surroundings hold a great deal of tragedy, suicides and ugliness, even in a lower-middle-class suburb, and shortcomings do not disappear even after they have been explained. The writer’s mother has hanged herself, having threatened to do so for ten years. Therapy does not help, but feels tiresome, humiliating and comic.

Entropy, in other words, threatens: ‘Probably reality as we have learned to think of it does not exist. But there are factors which help the things we believe to be real to survive, to connect with each other.’ For Virtanen’s main characters, coherence is born of the accustomed methods already mentioned, but at their best in extreme situations and through paradoxes, aesthetically too. When alienation is at its greatest, in Italy, it is already becoming an aesthetic choice, a delicious way of life and something that recalls comedy, as with the prehistoric comparison with the struggle for survival of species and individuals that took place 50 million years ago after the fall of a giant meteor.

A palaeontological perspective on oneself and one’s neighbours creates a kind of extremely ironic feeling of community, of the linked destiny of oneself and distant members of one’s species. The language of Virtanen’s short or serial stories is cultivatedly and stylistically literary often almost to the point of pastiche, and in this way too ironic and highly skilled.

Tags: