Keeping the day job

30 September 2003 | Authors, Interviews

Matti Yrjänä Joensuu

Photo: Irmeli Jung

Finland’s most famous cop, Chief Superintendent Timo Harjunpää, is the fictional creation of another policeman, Matti Yrjänä Joensuu. The long-awaited eleventh novel in the Harjunpää series, Harjunpää ja pahan pappi (‘Harjunpää and the priest of evil’) appeared this autumn after a gap of a decade. Joensuu talks to Jarmo Papinniemi about crime, the creative process and the powers of darkness

Matti Yrjänä Joensuu (born 1948) is one of the best-known Finnish crime writers and is certainly one of the most respected. He writes novels about ordinary policemen and ordinary crimes; bleak tales of murder which do not pander to the reader with complicated plots, non-stop action or glamorous settings. Like the Swedish writers Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö or Henning Mankell, Joensuu’s narratives focus on social reality and expose the darker sides of society and the day-to-day misery and suffering which gives rise to crime.

Like the protagonist of his novels, Chief Superintendent Timo Harjunpää, Joensuu also works as a policeman in Helsinki. In addition to their common profession, author and hero also share a strong social conscience and a tendency towards melancholy. The world of the Harjunpää novels – the first of them was published in 1976 – is seemingly realistic, something which in Finland, at least, appeals to a very wide readership. The critics, too, have acclaimed Joensuu’s social criticism, his strong sense of drama, his logical narration and precise use of language.

Seven of the Harjunpää novels have been translated into a total of twelve languages; Harjunpää and the Stone Murders was published by Victor Gollancz in 1986.

Timo Harjunpää is one of the most well-known policemen in Finland. This is perhaps slightly odd, as there is nothing at all special about him – he is a conscientious officer who solves crimes committed by ordinary people. Harjunpää resembles his creator in many different ways. His colleagues, however, have sometimes not been very pleased that Joensuu chooses to write about problems rife within the police force. Prejudice, greed and abuse of power are a smear on the police as well as on the rest of society. The new Harjunpää novel, however, does not criticise the police quite as much as in the previous novels.

‘This is partly because most of the stern old dictators have left the force. This new generation of superintendents is a world apart; they’re highly trained and know how to do their job well,’ Joensuu comments on recent changes in the police force.

Ten years have elapsed since the last Harjunpää novel. For Joensuu, those years were very painful.

‘For the last ten years, I’ve been struggling with writing. I wrote hundreds if not thousands of pages, but you just can’t force creativity. There has to be a sort of ordered chaos in your mind in order for writing to flow properly, and my chaos was out of control.’

The result of this is perhaps the darkest of Joensuu’s novels to date, Harjunpää ja pahan pappi. In this – the tenth – Harjunpää story a disturbed clergyman worships a mythological goddess and sacrifices people to her by pushing his victims under metro trains. Thus the Chief Superintendent Harjunpää is faced with a very rare phenomenon in Finland – a serial killer.

Although the manner of these crimes is rare, Joensuu is very familiar with the perpetrator’s mental problems, as they are all too common in Finland. He works in the division responsible for fire and explosives, and he claims that as many as 90 per cent of crimes he deals with are committed by mental patients. Their numbers began to rise in the early 1990s, when Finland was in the grip of economic recession and spending cuts started to affect mental health wards.

‘Nowadays money is no longer spent on treating people; instead, it is used to pay the police to get them off the streets. It seems outrageous to be putting people in jail, when what they really need is treatment,’ says Joensuu.

However, the evil depicted in the novel is not only a result of society’s pressures, it is something deep within the individual. Joensuu paints a desperate picture in which evil keeps reappearing and repeating itself, and in which children are made to suffer as parents vent anger at their own traumatic experiences. Meanwhile, children often let out their despair through acts of violence.

‘People have recently been discussing why children from so-called “good families” end up committing terrible crimes. The relative “good” of a family doesn’t depend on their social status or income. Depraved and abusive hell, targeted particularly at children, could be hiding behind the façade of of respectability. Violence against women is something people are prepared to talk about, whereas children are simply forgotten.’

In his new novel there is a bullied little boy who shares a name with the writer. The boy tries to escape his tormentors by retreating into an imaginary world; Joensuu says that, in Matti, he has depicted his own experience of his creative reawakening. Things suddenly begin to look different, grains of sand become music, a green rug can become the jungle.

‘When my writing starts to flow, it’s the greatest source of pleasure I know. You can switch off from the real world, and the world of the novel suddenly becomes real. If you’re writing a night scene, and you’re really living that night, then you go out on to the balcony where the sun’s shining, it’s difficult to grasp how it can all be possible.’

One of the other characters in the novel is an author who is experiencing the same writers’ block which plagued Joensuu himself for a decade. Writing about his own experiences helped Joensuu forward with his writing, but in this novel, describing the process of writing also has a far deeper significance: Harjunpää ja pahan pappi is a novel about the power of the creative imagination, which can be both liberating and highly destructive.

The young boy Matti and the author experience the blissful power of the imagination, but the disturbed imaginary world of the ‘priest of evil’ ultimately threatens the safety of everyone in the city.

Joensuu still has a reputation as a very accurate realist, but with every novel he seems to be moving further into the inner worlds of his characters, into their dreams, their thoughts and delusions.

‘My sense of realism comes from what I’ve learnt in my work as a policeman. In describing the scene of a crime, you have to be extremely precise, so that your description is an accurate reflection of the truth. Still, writing about the evil priest was very enjoyable, because imagination allows you the freedom to depict this terrible person’s strange theology and what he wanted to achieve.’

Matti Yrjänä Joensuu has finally managed to sort out his inner chaos, but he is still concerned about the way the capital city is changing. All his novels are firmly rooted in Helsinki and its surrounding areas, but this is not as easy as it used to be.

‘The film director brothers Aki and Mika Kaurismäki have talked about how difficult it is to find places in Helsinki which are suitably untidy and disordered to be of interest to a director. Timber yards and old industrial warehouses have been disappearing around the city, and everywhere you look there are white-brick, Spanish style houses. The sorts of places which really spark the imagination are few and far between nowadays.’

Translated by David Hackston

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