The colour of sadness

30 September 2005 | Authors, Reviews

Kreetta Onkeli

Photo: Pertti Nisonen

In her first novel in 1996, Kreetta Onkeli (born 1970) brought the municipality of Luhanka in central Finland – which had not hitherto attracted much attention – to readers’ awareness and the Finnish literary tradition. When Ilonen talo (‘The cheerful house’, WSOY) appeared, it became a prize-winning success and a bestseller.

The book will probably remain a minor classic among narratives of Finnish childhood. The ironic title is indicative of Onkeli’s naïvistic style and her multi-layered play with language. The house where the book’s pair of siblings grow up is anything but happy: the mother’s alcoholism and bad living habits make it more like a house of ill repute. (The title also contains a note of sarcasm: in Finnish, ilotalo is a euphemism for a brothel.)

The mother and her daughters are local pariahs, deviating from the small town’s rigidly structured behavioural pattern. Ilonen talo is a book that is characterised by a deep, personally experienced sorrow, but also by love of life and absurd comedy.

After experimenting with the short story form in Tervetuloa paratiisiin (‘Welcome to paradise’, Sammakko, 2003), Kreetta Onkeli has returned to the short novel and the portrayal of personal development. The central character of Beige. Eroottinen kesä Helsingissä (‘Beige. An erotic summer in Helsinki’, Sammakko, 2005) is the 18-year-old Vappu. She grows up in the inconsolably sad town of Hiekkakylä, Sandtown, raised by her well-meaning but ineffective teacher father. Of mother or siblings there is no trace.

Vappu and her father live in a limbo of sadness where everything is as absolutely ordinary as can be – except for Vappu, who deviates to the extent of being unusually big. She is always the tallest in the class, she is clumsy and walks with her feet turned inwards. She is anxious and lonely. Her greatest ambition is to become invisible, not to take up space – either physical or psychological. In her self-effacement and shyness she becomes a walking anomaly. Rapid progress is expected of such a big girl, and the irritation grows when she fails to meet expectations.

After passing her school leaving exams with average marks, Vappu leaves Sandtown. She arrives in Helsinki with her size complex, shyness and inexhaustible yearning for love. In the unfamiliar capital she acquires a rented apartment overlooking a rear courtyard and a summer job at a branch library.

Vappu’s body fixation, loneliness and erotic hunger assume new proportions. Her confrontations with the people in her new environment become a series of paranoid misunderstandings. Existential anguish, the ‘beige’ that is the characteristic colour of Sandtown and melancholy, increasingly takes over Vappu’s life until it finally takes possession of her entirely.

In her novel Onkeli presents a human type that is one of the most vulnerable in today’s society. Vappu is a crying contrast to the streamlined form and extrovert adaptability society demands. At the same time, under her shy armour, she is an incredibly acute and humorous social critic. Onkeli lets her heroine record everything, and with the naivistic irony from Ilonen talo she makes the clichéd behaviour patterns of both Sandtown and the capital emerge in all their silliness. Beige shows contemporary Finland in a tragic mirror of laughter.

Tags: