The Turku Decameron

30 March 2004 | Authors, Reviews

Riku Korhonen

Photo: Ari Kasanen

It was in the 1960s that Finns began to move en masse from the countryside to the town, but literature has not urbanised itself at quite the same pace. The majority of new literature is set in the countryside, amid nature, and even urban stories tend to shy away from city centres. After the countryside, the suburb has become one of the most fundamental backdrops in new Finnish literature.

Kahden ja yhden yön tarinoita (‘Tales from two and one nights’, Sammakko, 2003) by Riku Korhonen (born 1972) is typical of suburban novels in that it demonstrates how the sense of community found in small villages continues in the lives of children living in the suburbs. Children play together, form tribes and know everybody else’s business. However, Korhonen is not content simply to describe what goes on inside the Turku suburbs, but through the various stories in the novel he takes us from flat to flat, introducing us to the many adult tenants, whose lonely, oppressive existence is a far cry from village life. People in the suburbs live physically very close together, but the spiritual distance between neighbours can be enormous.

The book’s cover defines it as a novel; despite this, it is difficult to categorise this work in any genre. There is no single central character and no unity arises between the various events. These short accounts are nonetheless linked by a common setting and a gallery of people who appear as main or minor characters in different stories.

What does bring a sense of unity is the individual accounts, told from different characters’ perspectives. One of the characters flashes himself out of a window in the high-rise flats, whilst another is shocked at this behaviour, and a third is writing a letter about it to the flasher’s wife. There are also more abstract connections between these stories; the theme of falling, for example, runs from one story to the next. Many of the characters feel as if they are falling into a deep ravine inside their heads, whilst one person takes a literal, desperate leap from the balcony. The end of the novel is overshadowed by the fate of an unlucky young man injured after diving into the swimming pool.

Death and despair are prominent features of Korhonen’s novels, but sex and joie de vivre also have an important place. His characters have a strong desire to play tricks on each other, and many of them gain pleasure at the expense of others. When the book was awarded the Helsingin Sanomat Prize for a first work in 2003, the jury compared it to Boccaccio’s Decameron. The best of these stories can most certainly be considered worthy of Boccaccio: like 13th-century Florence, Turku in the 1970s was also full of multifarious characters and destinies.

As well as the Decameron, the book has also been compared to Tales from a Thousand and One Nights and the American poet Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. The reason for this is not to place a debut Finnish writer at the forefront of world literature, but to underline the book’s special form: it is a multi-faceted fabric of stories; each is fascinating read on its own, but they only truly live and breathe as part of a whole.

Translated by David Hackston

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