The nearness of the past

30 March 2005 | Authors, Reviews

Kjell Westö.  Photo Ulla Montan

Kjell Westö. Photo Ulla Montan

Kjell Westö (born 1961) has to a large extent converted the needs and dilemmas of his own generation into material for his own writing.

It was a generation that came too late for the wave of politicisation of the 1970s, but it was strongly influenced by the reaction against it: individualism and postmodernism, the delirium of the ‘casino-economics’ of the 1980s and the crash that followed. True, Westö stood back from many of the currents of the time, but was clearly influenced by them nonetheless.

This tendency can already be seen in the volumes of poetry that launched his career (the first appeared in 1986) and becomes marked in his story collections Utslag (‘Verdict’, Söderströms, 1989) and Fallet Bruus (‘The Bruus case’, 1992). In the novels Drakarna över Helsingfors (‘Kites over Helsinki’, 1998 – also made into a play and film) and Vådan av att vara Skrake (‘The perils of being Skrake’, 2000; see Books from Finland 2/2000) Westö developed a broader historical framework and showed himself capable of functioning on an epic scale, but the experiences of his own generation continued to provide the kernel from which his themes extended. The same is true for the more contemporary Lang (2002; to be published in English by Harvill Press later this year).

But even if Westö’s books are deeply rooted in autobiography, they are anything but narrowly egocentric. On the contrary, they are sustained by a pronounced attempt to trace historical and social connections and demonstrate the many-faceted interplay of the macrocosm of the great world and the microcosm of personal life. The short story ‘1968’ is an interesting example of this. At its heart is a very modest narrative: a few scenes from the life of a Finland-Swedish boy in a Helsinki suburb. At the same time, the text effortlessly sets these scenes in the context of their historical situation and milieu, and the spirit of the time. But Westö also highlights factors other than those we usually associate with the fateful year 1968.

During the 1960s, Finland’s towns and cities underwent exceptionally fast expansion. Large areas of the countryside were left virtually empty by the departure of young people for Sweden or southern Finland. New suburbs were rapidly built, with high-rise tower blocks shooting up in the midst of the forest like mushrooms after rain.

This transformation left its mark and claimed its victims, as Westö’s narrative emphasises, with rootlessness, alienation and a growing generation gap, and with social unrest and the exclusion of ‘the lunatics and drunks and future suicides’.

This period of transition also affects the boy’s home life. His mother is ‘resting’ in hospital and the kitchen at home is ruled by an older woman who comes from ‘another world’. She speaks dialect and serves him traditional homely Finnish fare instead of Mother’s spaghetti with sauce and ketchup.

The story is presented as a double projection. Events are seen partly from the child’s limited point of view, partly from a later perspective which processes the images of memory through a filter coloured by the experiences of the intervening years.

This concept pinpoints an important factor in Westö’s writing and in his view of the world and humankind. In his prose the past is never final, but remains present and active on both public and private levels.