Walking through a picture

Issue 2/2006 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

The short stories of a painter-author Joel Pettersson (1892-1937) were hardly known by his contemporaries. Juha Virkkunen introduces one of them

Finland, the ‘land of a thousand lakes’, is also the land of at least 120,000 islands. In the largest cluster of islands, Åland, between Finland and Sweden, people cherish their old Swedish-language roots.

Åland has given birth to a unique literature which transcends the bounds of regionalism. Its best-known contemporary authors include Anni Blomqvist (1909-1990) and Ulla-Leena Lundberg (born 1947). They have described not only the hard life of fishermen, but also the changing living conditions of shipowners.

Joel Pettersson was both a painter and a writer, but his stories were not made available in printed form until in the 1970s; translations into Finnish were published in the 1990s.

The director of the Åbo (Turku) Art School, Victor Westerholm, spent summers near Pettersson’s home village leading Finland’s first artist colony. The young Pettersson, on vacation from his hard agricultural labour, dragged his drawings there to show the professionals; his studies at the Art School in Turku had fallen by the wayside. His puritanical home area had scant interest in artistic pursuits. This depressed the artist, toiling away on his small farm, and in order to relieve his state of depression he participated energetically in community theatre.

When did he find time to write during all of this? No one knew of his literary activities during his lifetime. Countless hand-written pages found by change in the archives of the Mariehamn library in Åland point to the years 1915-1923, during which he did not lift his brush.

His short prose is written partly in dialect, partly in standard language, which is nonetheless evocative and natural. His short story ‘Landskap’ (‘Landscape’) is not merely a story about a landscape, but rather a dialogue between the author and a landscape. The fascinating aspect of the story is when the author puts the landscape into motion by walking through it, turning his cottage into a tugboat pulling the forest behind it.

Like a film director, Pettersson places sounds, colours, memories, and small real-life events into his spatial composition, and gives objects and animals new personifications and meanings. Frozen garments hanging on a clothes-line talk to each other; the sun’s last golden ray strikes the church’s weathercock, which becomes the pastor’s Amen; and a shadow slips into the cottage to prevent the flour bags from becoming too puffed-up in the sun. All of the associations are born out of the author’s experience of the landscape both in the present and in the past.

Reading Pettersson one comes to think about what it is to be oneself in this world, and, vice versa: what it means to have the world in oneself.

Translated by Owen Witesman

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