A greater solitude

30 December 2004 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Runoilijan talossa (‘In the house of the poet’, Tammi, 2004)

Images of love

The double door to the patio is tightly swollen into the framework, so tight I’m chary of using force to prize it open. The windows might break. The lower part remains stuck, as if screwed to a carpenter’s bench, while the upper part gapes – leans out as if longing to liberate itself from its lintel. That’s an image of love: one part longs to be free, the other part holds on fast. I get a toolbox from the cleaning cupboard and try to hammer a chisel into the space between the bottom edge and the threshold. I succeed, but the chisel marks the door, defacing it. That’s an image of love too.

Finally the doors swing open and I step out on to the patio. The little garden and dazzling view of the mountains have a tremendous effect on me, as if I were seeing the place for the first time. I remember how I rejoiced when I’d settled into the house and the plumbers had got the taps working. Dama de la noche grows here, a type of bougainvillaea, cypresses, and many other plants whose names I don’t yet know. A banana-tree, a species of grass, has burst through the sun-roof.

A traveller abroad is aware she’s in a foreign country, dealing with a foreign language and a foreign people. But the core of her alienation only strikes her when she notices that what’s growing in the garden isn’t ribwort, or sorrel, but some plant whose name is unknown to her in any language on earth. In another person too – even one’s nearest and dearest – there are places that are just as foreign, bewitching and frightening: items you encounter, not knowing whether their leaves and roots are poisonous, or if their bitter taste is just a sign of wholesomeness.

The experience of foreignness, in a person or environment, purifies expression of everything fuzzy, because even to communicate with yourself you have to picture things clearly.

Here on the patio I’ve been admiring the hills, especially on cloudy days. The view gave the house its name, El Mirador – The Prospect. This is where I wrote Kirjoitettu kivi [‘Inscribed stone’], Fahrenheit 121, and Jos suru savuaisi [‘If grief smokes]. Slowly the clouds wander over the slopes, at once casually and carefully, like nomads, proud as nomads. Nothing impedes their advance, but you can see the hems of their robes sticking to the stunted bushes. That’s an image of love too.

There’s rubbish of all sorts in the garden: dried twigs, half-rotten desiccated cypress leaves, and leaves from the bushes. There’s a litter of paper too, though I don’t know where it’s come from. I have the feeling I’m burnt out, that nothing viable and green will ever germinate from me again. I rake a huge pile of rubbish into the middle of the stone patio. I set it alight. A rough wind sends the sparks flying far off, burning bits of paper flitter all over the place. I stamp the fire out and go inside.

I’ve emptied the desk drawers of photographs, letters and their copies. I unhook from a nail some large, sharp nineteenth-century tailor’s scissors. I bought them in Tangier from a young lad who was selling everything from delousing combs to meat cleavers, including milk cans fashioned out of petrol canisters. In those parts inventive little lads provide for whole families. Miss Manner only provides for herself, and the flue of her El Mirador oven doesn’t draw. The chimney used to be swept by a cat, who went out that way and came in by the door. But now what may be a bat has built its nest there, as the cat no longer guards the house. I sit on the third-room floor and use the scissors to snip personal papers to pieces, like Struwwelpeter. Snip-snap go the scissors.

Eros and Psyche

Eros would lead us to believe that in the adult world co-existence is fulfilled through physical love. Anyone who has even once been completely possessed by desire believes it. But Eros seeks only his own enjoyment, switches his object of desire, is always seeking the new, with no feelings of guilt at rejecting the old. There’s no question of morality or guilt when desire will no longer stay put but flees.

The body too insists on its share, the belly for the belly, the thighs for the thighs, the hands and fingers for the hands. And what’s the share of the labyrinthine helix of the ear in that physically manifested fulfilment? Or of the nose? Or the tongue? Sometimes another person comes so close you can scent and savour all the curves and concavities of the ear. What a particularised, slightly acrid smell and taste there is!

Like the ancient Chinese, Eros can name and care for the body’s spiritual pains by squeezing the ear’s or footsoles’ pressure points, touching the temples, or the meridians of the neural pathways. Eros heals and awakens the spirit. Therefore he governs Psyche, who can no longer find enjoyment alone.

Harmonies too, and counterpoint, melodic strains, and rhythms are felt like a massaging. I’ve transported my record player from the room that’s fallen in, and I’m sitting here with it, surrounded by books, scissors in hand. I’m listening to Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, and it’s as if I’m on a hot-air balloon: I’m floating up into the air. The record’s a poor affair, undulatory as Sahara sand-dunes, the stylus can scarcely cope. And nevertheless Wilhelm Friedemann is the saddest thing in the world. It’s as if his music were gauze round a wound, as light and transparent as a spider’s web left shining by the rain.

‘I fear you’ll consider me very strange, or perhaps excessively hardened,’ I wrote to Anna-Liisa. Could love conceivably be a hardening? Who or what was I trying to shy away from in writing those words?

Grandpa’s legacy

I shouldn’t want to be an artist, it’s too difficult and complicated for me. I’m a craftsman in whatever I do. I learned the trade in Grandpa’s workshop, which became my favourite spot as soon as it seemed my games wouldn’t disturb his work. Hour after hour I watched as Grandpa bent wood, cut hair-fine joints, lathed, carved, planed. He understood his material, knew how different kinds of wood behaved and how changes in humidity affected them. Similarly, I bend language and plane it, file down joints, remove unnecessary pronouns, possessives and copulas from the tongue. As if sandpapering a finished item, I slightly alter the word order, change a case and sharpen the expression.

The greatest satisfaction comes from a well-made object, whether a chair, trousers or a poem. And the best feeling of all comes from the doing – the filing and planing, the whole concatenation of little actions needed for estimating the object’s coherence: looking close up, then from further off, eyes narrowed, eyes wide open, shaving a little more off here and a little off there – till that’s it, now it looks good. It’s a therapy and costs nothing.

An artist has an ideal template, the critic hasn’t, but the artist doesn’t make the ideal, the ideal creates the artist. Is this comprehensible – can I give this reply to Anna-Liisa, who always asks such difficult questions? Is the artist’s template identical with her aesthetic aspirations? Researchers eagerly try to explicate the artist’s aspirations, though aspiration often takes an artist off course, into affectation, remote from true art.

The craftsman, on the other hand, never fails, if she does her work with care. The craftsman is a sort of mystic who never aspires to thrust herself forward or create something original or idiosyncratic. On the contrary, she effaces herself. It’s enough that her product is functional, its form serving its purpose.

The nature of genius

Why is it so seldom mentioned that for a long time Einstein’s success was rather modest? As a mathematician he was on some bureaucratic rung half-way up the civil service ladder, and his doctoral thesis too had been merely average. The young high-flyers, the cover-picture heroes of the tattle-magazines – as far as our sort of garishness existed then – would certainly have written him off as a complete nonentity, a mediocrity, supposing they even knew his name.

Genius – insofar as it does exist – is a product of leisure, since a vision is more at home in peace. There the germs of ideas can sprout, and even then their growth, through whatever obstructions and tangles, remains a side-effect. It’s no wonder that great insights come into being in idleness or a sheltered occupation. Society, as far as it wishes to create remarkable scientific or artistic inventions, wisely allows, in its arrangements, snoozing spots for gifted individuals, posts such as auditor or senior inspector, whose most central territory is the Land of Nod.

There’s no solid system of reference, Einstein realised. No absolute space, no absolute time, no absolute mass, since they change and change each other by their motions. The life and ideals of the spirit aren’t absolute either: they alter relative to each other and the self. The ‘I’ alters under their influence. A physicist might say the ‘I’ bends on its journey through the rooms of time.

Here in Spain I’m at peace. With no radio or newspapers, and the spoken words countable on your fingers, with human contact dependent on letters, the ‘I’ is at peace, and ‘the self’ comes into view, stealthily and mystically as a photograph in developing fluid.

When the ‘self’ emerges, you can preserve it apart. If it’s drowned in the world’s hullabaloo, the pandemonium of society, and the quotidian swapping of news, it can’t be sequestered: it shrieks with harassment under all the goings-on.

I’m sitting in the El Pinar morning room, with rolls and white coffee on the table before me. No one knows me here. The German tourists are lugging their new-fangled wheeled suitcases along. Here in Spain my lifespan’s been doubled, as if the time wasted in Finland were pouring into a receptacle here and swelling there like cooked grains of barley.

The air, with its velvet collar raised, caresses my skin as I set off, up the winding path to El Mirador. This house too has, many times, caused me more headaches than joy. I suddenly remember a letter I shredded yesterday evening. From October 1965. I was complaining to Anna-Liisa about my intestinal catarrh.

It had been raining cats and dogs for weeks and most of the gypsy village’s drains were blocked. I was staying at the Villa Pastora. The house was damp, the ground floor still stained from the deluge. My head was upset, my stomach even more so. I’d sent Kawabata’s A Thousand Cranes to my publisher, Tammi, and I was struggling with Vaclav Havel’s Garden Parties – political gardens, in a linguistically brilliant farce. I was late for the deadline as usual, and terrible stomach cramps had hurried me off to bed. I believed spinach would heal me: I’d often cured myself with that baby-food.

In the market place I asked a fat lady – apparently thrilled to milk a few Spanish words out of me – if she knew of a greengrocer or market garden that sold spinach. She didn’t, but she thought I might find it in some tourist centre. Take your bike to Torremolinos, she said, and ask at the hotel there. I rode down the hill to the sea and asked the same questions of the receptionists at the El Pinar and Alta Vista. Go to Málaga, they said, and you might find some there. I rode to Málaga, but didn’t find any spinach. When finally, in the dusk of the evening and at the end of my tether, I wheeled my bicycle back up to Churriana, I was so fagged out I no longer remembered the existence of my intestines.

Spinach, the dark object of my lust and longing – I had to do without it, as without rye bread and yellow butter, and, instead, spread white bread with sheep’s butter tasting of wool and tallow.

I had fantasies of growing spinach in the El Mirador patio when I’d finally settled down, but I didn’t do it. I hadn’t the time.


Deep depression is basically extreme anger that has been directed away from another person onto oneself. It can sometimes lead to suicide, but mostly that’s only after the worst is over, when the patient has sufficiently recovered from her melancholia to be able to raise a revolver to her temples.

How deeply I did hate my family: my mother, who died giving birth to me, the father who deserted us, Grandma, Grandpa, especially my mother. I shrouded myself in human disgrace and vomited from shame. I hated with all my might, and with so bitter a fury that the fiercest brutality couldn’t have expressed it: even murder would have paled into insignificance, as a poor substitute. Thus I’d no other outlet for my feelings but depression, spiritual paralysis. Even so, I haven’t the heart to destroy my mother’s photograph, which rests on a pile of books on the table before me, in a frame bought from a Tangier antique shop. Perhaps it’s a sign of the anger calming, abating.

After I was finally in touch with my father in Helsinki in the forties, he described how my mother went out of her mind during her pregnancy, soon after the wedding. She said otters were swimming in her bed at night and biting her stomach. Grandma knew about my mother’s madness though she didn’t tell. She forecast that I too would get into a black uninhabited house and get spooked. And I did get spooked.

Character is destiny, it’s said. Thus personae in a novel have to react to events according to their character. Marcos, in my novel Barrikadit [‘Barricades’], the victim of a political murder, is killed on the day his wife is burying her mother in a neighbouring village. The wife resembles my mother, or her picture – or does she more resemble myself, my character? She can’t endure the piled-up misfortunes she’s encountering and gets incarcerated in a mental hospital. But the seeds of madness are already in her: they’d germinated long ago in her child-mind, seeds of bottomless grief. They burst out when she sees a picture of herself as a child.

Time is a landscape – now I understand that. Its trees are the things that happen in this landscape. When I take some path and meet a tree, I’d be foolish to think that it had sprung up there just as I was passing, or that it didn’t exist before me.

Madness is actually extreme clairvoyance, the experience of time as it is, without the supposed linearity. All time surrounds us. In its essence psychosis is splendid and relentless: it’s as if the human soul were shattered, scattered, until it envelops the whole landscape, the whole environing time.

The deeper meaning of El Mirador

How long has it been now since Anna-Liisa left – seven weeks? March was a sweltering springtime, and work was going well, but with April came storms and chilly nights, breeding nightmares. The wind whined in the corners of my cold cottage. Perhaps it was just that endless whining that drove me into a corrosive depression, worse than any I can remember.

I’m sitting in the little third room; the tailor’s scissors are still lying in the middle of the floor, though the shredded letters are rotting away on some tip. I’ve been chewing my pen for three days. I keep shifting Barricades this way and that – like the wind shifting the rubbish – but the half-ripe thing won’t ripen, only gets rawer. Maybe I should send it to my publisher – the only thing open to me now. If only I could find an adequate title for the half-baked thing. Varokaa, voittajat [‘Take care, conquerors’] – how would that sound?

A couple of days ago I popped into Pedro’s cellar to buy a bottle of booze to celebrate that I’d got my translation of The Sound of the Mountain onto my typewriter – my Remington, back from repair. The poor shopkeeper was just a shadow of his former self, sighed and trembled, yet managed to report the cultural news from the great world. Kawabata had committed seppuku, suicide. Probably to be expected – so deeply alienated from life as his last remaining book was. Perhaps translating it infected me and I caught his accidie, which whines pallidly around me.

Anna-Liisa had suggested in her long letter that we should refine and enliven the word ‘friendship’. Then she came up with another destination to lavish the word ‘love’ on. In Finnish the word ‘love’ generally means sexual love, Eros; there’s no equivalent for the word caritas. Notions of love have coarsened, thanks to the post-Freudian head-shrinking generations.

In ancient Chinese poetry parting from a friend is the most painful and at the same time most beautiful thing that can happen to a person. The farewells and reunions are inscribed in the poems. Had I been living in China a thousand years ago, as a man, such would have suited me.

Then, six years ago, I realised what El Mirador’s profounder meaning was: to prepare me for a greater solitude than before. At that time I thought my life had already been lived. The task now, in these days and years, was to arrive at a point of ever smaller, and less considerable events. A period and a situation had been reserved for me, I felt, at a difficult junction, though there was nothing overtly dramatic about that autumn. What I had to do was study ever more precisely and tenaciously the dark night of my soul, penetrate its furthest rooms, where its prime image, its frontispiece, was hidden.

What on earth does it matter whether one is healthy or sick: only the truth of being human matters. I wanted the truth to be revealed, and I still do, even if the revelation crushes me.

I wanted to recover from my beautiful psychosis, but I wasn’t, in the usual human way, looking for suitable medicines or adaptation. I was treating my wound by isolating myself. I was modelling myself on the wild animals and trees. While otherwise recovering, a tree is able to live on its leaves and roots, but in the case of a wound all its life gathers into the break in the bark: the sap will leak out until, like blood, it coagulates, the wound scars over, and finally a new skin grows. This requires absolute peace.

A human being cannot grow a new skin. The skinless unprotected area is always open to invasion, and it makes the whole being vulnerable. And, as if that were not enough, the afflicted person irritably folds herself round the trauma, becomes scabby, and more and more deeply ill.

El Mirador is the medicine for my wounds. Here I live like a trapped fox that’s had to bite its leg off. I’m forced to endure alone, find the healing in my own flesh and blood.

Translated by Herbert Lomas


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