Music of the heart

30 December 2003 | Authors

Raija Siekkinen

Photo: Irmeli Jung

The short stories of Raija Siekkinen (1953–2004) – she very rarely wrote long fiction – are almost always about women. Something has happened, or is about to happen, vague, unspecified. The change is all-engulfing, and often to do with men. Memories are summoned, or stirred, in the effort to face the future.

‘Throughout the day, memories re-entered her mind, densely, as if in a high fever, drifting from one image to the next, aimless, directionless,’ runs the narrative in the title story from her collection Kuinka rakkaus syntyy (‘How love begins’ 1991), ‘and somewhere behind the clear realisation that moments are long, endlessly expanding, and life is short.’ Resolution, if any is offered, often lies beyond the end of the story, beyond the printed page, in the mind and heart of the reader.

Siekkinen’s subject, like that of another short storyist, the Canadian writer Alice Munro, is the movement of women’s souls. Munro’s stories derive much of their irony and emotional charge from their setting against the prosaic minutiae of domestic life; but for Siekkinen, although her mises-en-scénes are very similar, everything is poetic.

In the story I have already quoted from, about a couple coming to terms with the decision to remain childless and the husband’s infidelity, the home is full of the latest domestic appliances: ‘They had bought… things… to make their lives easier: a dishwasher, and a washing machine that also dried the clothes, and a microwave oven, and a second telephone, because the flat was a big one.’ But Siekkinen continues without missing a beat: ‘Life went on; there was plenty of time to be, and to think about what had been, and what could have been, and what would come to be.’

Siekkinen’s stories have always been chronicles of the middle classes, where material goods are no proof against dark nights of the soul. But where, in earlier books, her characters met the pain in their lives with a retreat into meditative femininity, Kalliisti ostetut päivät (‘Dearly bought days’, 2003), shows an unfamiliar robustness of spirit. Many of the women have powerful careers, accompanied by considerable degree of self-determination in their private lives.

A story entitled ‘Yöllä kello kolme’ (‘Three o’clock in the morning’) begins in a recognisably plangent mode: ‘That night, once again, she woke suddenly and was immediately wide awake, and even without looking at the clock she knew that it was the darkest moment of the night, when death breathed her own breathing.’ But by the end, in a significant shift to the major key – a poignant tierce de picardie – the main character is left not ruminating over the sad fate that has overtaken her but inventing a subtle survival strategy, so subtle that it takes the reader a moment to catch up. The story we have selected, and which I have translated, too, chronicles not a mode of submission, but the overcoming of a phobia.

For me, as a translator, Siekkinen’s prose has an intriguingly soft landing in the English language. It is a phenomenon I have encountered before in other writers, and it can be troubling. It is as if the author had already envisaged the text in English; or, worse, it can seem as if the original was a kind of shadow version, a prefiguring that does not have an independent existence of its own. This can be true of ‘Euro-literature’, writing that has been conceived with an eye on wider markets and future translations. Here, though, the reason is different, and has to do with another troubling quality. Siekkinen’s voice, the periodisation of her phrases, separated by recurrent commas, reproduce the breathing, the heartbeat, the circling preoccupations of the women she describes. The troubling quality, of course, is universality, conveyed, astonishingly by Siekkinen not so much through inscription in a particular setting but through pitch-perfect delivery of the music of the heart.

Like it or not, in Siekkinen’s prose I hear the inner thoughts of everywoman – I hear my thoughts, and I wonder about those of my women friends, my sister, my mother. I remember the words of the gospel describing the mother of Christ: ‘But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart’, and feel that in every female human life there must be moments for the quiet turning over of experience that Siekkinen chronicles with such subtlety.

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