Totalitarian tendencies

Issue 4/2003 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Olli Jalonen is a master at creating a sense of dystopia, alienation and what it feels like to end up in the wrong place. He skilfully homes in on aspects of our everyday reality which resemble totalitarian tendencies, underlining them and their deadly implications through understatement, and by setting them in environments which are either utopian or skilfully alienated, seemingly realistic and neutral.

Jalonen is not a true satirist, but he has a flair for depicting people’s motives and changes in their identities in situations exploring the boundaries of ‘the normal’. Circumstances which unwittingly uphold repulsive social control, modifying human values, circumstances in which people die, into which they are forced, or against which they lamely revolt, are at the heart of Jalonen’s work. Equally important is the documentary-style reportage of the lives of people who are in danger of being forgotten about by history.

Olli Jalonen (born 1954) is a prosaist, whose novel Isäksi ja tyttäreksi (‘Becoming father and daughter’, 1990) was awarded the Finlandia Prize for literature. In addition to novels and short fiction he has also written a number of radio plays.

Control, be it social or the kind that is exerted by institutions, is present in all the stories in Jalonen’s new collection of short fiction, Värjättyä rakkautta (‘Dyed love’, Otava, 2003). As the framework for his stories all he needs is an obstacle in the face of love, marital conformism – as in the case of a Finnish family on holiday in Spain where the family is, symbolically, living in the shadow of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia church – a cramped student flat or the exceptional conditions surrounding a hospital or a school camping trip. By employing a neutral narrative and giving the subtlest of hints, Jalonen succeeds in arousing great disgust in his readers at the objectification and the mechanics of the life which he reveals, and sometimes also the double moral standards of his characters.

The stories let us understand true totalitarianism on a completely different scale. In one of the short stories it is shown as an internalised sense of supremacy in the form of a woman whose husband has tried to escape to the west and is later executed. This leads to the woman informing the authorities on her daughter, after she also tries to escape.

The psychology of totalitarianism is marvellously depicted in the story in which a Finn investigating the viability of commercial transportation in North Korea discovers paranoia in an encounter with his attractive female guide. The same occurs in the story about Finnish school children on a camp in the Soviet Union, in which Karelian members of the secret police take voice samples of the Finnish schoolchildren for later identification. The story Korea is one of the best in this collection, perhaps because it succeeds in reopening Rudyard Kipling’s old question as to whether the West can ever truly understand the East; can one culture understand the semiotics of an entirely different culture? The sadistically technocratic breeding of dogs for food reveals the utilitarian tendencies of the present in the story Kohti hyvää hoitokäsittelyä (‘Towards good management practice’).

‘There is little love in such a large country,’ the Finnish biology teacher Zetter proclaims to his colleague Raisa whom he cunningly seduces on their camping trip to the Soviet Union. Their relationship is not a loving one. What remains small amid great economical and political tendencies are the seeds of human values and perhaps human failings too, even crime. In the short story Koon aikakirjat (‘The annals of K’) a reporter who becomes a hero for his truthful reporting during a nuclear disaster undergoes an inevitable change as political power turns him into a totalitarian censor.


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