Our fellow creatures

30 June 2004 | Authors, Reviews

Hannele Huovi

Photo: Tiina Itkonen

Hannele Huovi is a compelling story-teller (see page 98) but, again and again, she makes us realise what a strange place our world is – how easily we can slip out of it into dream or psychosis, or cross some concealed frontier into a parallel universe.

Hers is a readable form of surrealism – the art of defamiliarising familiar things by putting them in anomalous environments. The results are absorbing for children but fascinating and entertaining for adults too, an essential of good children’s literature. Because it can be serious without being solemn and can expand consciousness, the genre has engaged very great wits from Jonathan Swift to Lewis Carroll. Eeva-Liisa Manner’s stories (see Books from Finland 1/2004) are another obvious point of contact, but Huovi is brilliantly inventive and completely original.

Huovi’s novel Höyhenketju (‘The feather chain’, Tammi, 2002) created an alternative world of birds, with its own coherent laws. Eleisa, who is not happy at home, has a special relationship to birds, but one day a hawk is unable to resist her magnetism, accidentally blinds her, and she crosses some obscure frontier. She meets a concerned Lord of the Birds, appears in an avian convocation and finds an advocate in Twoface, an actress who can pass between the human world and the bird-world. Her eyes in question, unable to return home because she now knows forbidden secrets, Eleisa is in a world of myth. This is engrossing storytelling, rich in characterisation and event, creating sympathy, concern, tension and the feeling of something seriously at stake. We don’t know where the tale’s going, what reversals and revelations there will be, but when we arrive, we arrive. Huovi seems to have anticipated Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials – the British children’s best-seller devoured by adults and dramatised at the National Theatre in London – and to have done so more poetically. A feast of imagery, it’s also about the sanctity of nature, the reality of our fellow creatures, the business of growing up, and knowing your own shadow.

Höyhenketju won the prestigious Topelius prize. Huovi (born 1949) has a long list of successful publications, including books for adults, poetry, short stories and translations.

The birds are not Disneyish caricatures. They’re allowed their own dignity, and the author lends articulation to what is convincingly their authentic consciousness. By a kind of anticipation mystique she enters into theirbeing. This is not true, however, of the animals in Gepardi katsoo peiliin (‘A cheetah looks into the mirror’, Tammi, 2003), from which four fables are selected here. This is the comedy of absurd juxtaposition: human consciousness in animal bodiliness. Huovi’s rhinoceros – what is she but every person’s nightmare of being unloved? It’s comic surrealism – a rhino in a beauty parlour – short-sightedly falling in love with buses. But the rhino is a bit more complex than that: she knows herself and her disadvantages and accepts she has a very small brain. Nevertheless, she’s brighter than she thinks: she knows what she wants and does her best to get it, though sadly in vain.

‘Shark’ points up Huovi’s inventiveness. It’s easy to imagine the banalities available – but not the situation she creates. Here Huovi is again closer to participation mystique than caricature, though the shark is a consciously superior ‘well-bred’ aristocrat. Evolution is more than touched on. The reporter hints at ‘teamwork’ – on which man depends for survival. The shark, with its millions of years of solitariness, shows which creature is the fittest for brute survival. I’m reminded of Ted Hughes’s evolved killer, ‘Hawk Roosting’, who says ‘My manners are tearing off heads’. In this incongruous encounter the well-observed shark is all the more chilling. This is poetry of a high order – disguised as entertainment!

But of course these are fables, funnier than Aesop’s, and even have a moral at the end – not necessarily the most obvious of the implicit ones. The imagery contains important lessons for children of all ages.

It goes without saying that Huovi’s books are full of intelligence and, more, wisdom – fuller than many less witty and more-serious-looking books. She chooses her words and concrete details as a poet, which isn’t surprising, for she is a shaman with vision.

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