Countryside revisited

Issue 1/2007 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

European philosophy and experiments with post-modern forms dominated Finnish literature in the 1990s. The cultural circles of the capital saw the long tradition of Finnish provincial prose as dull grey epic realism. At the same time, reformers of the tradition appeared, such as Sari Mikkonen. She is especially convincing as a master of the short form; her dialogues have a caustic edge and her narrative satiric eloquence.

Mikkonen won the Helsingin Sanomat literature prize with her debut collection Naistenpyörä (‘Woman’s bicycle’, WSOY, 1995). Yönseutuun (‘Around nighttime’, WSOY, 2006) updates the picture of the Finnish countryside for the 2000s. It shows how the ’empathetic blowflies’, the gossipy grannies of the village, enter the age of the mobile telephone, and smalltime entrepreneurs try their hand at mail-order businesses on the internet.

The short story ‘Yösisustaja’ (‘Night decorator’) can be read as an allegory of Nokia-Finland, which has made success its guiding light. Y, an obsessive do-it-yourselfer, renovates his girlfriend’s house while she, the story’s narrator, sleeps. This anaesthetist, ‘squeezed dry by her days’, is forced to admit that little by little her home is becoming unrecognisable.

Fatigue among medical staff is a subject of public debate in today’s Finland. But Y isn’t a success story either – a paperboy with a mountain bike and with vague plans to study something. Although there is more information than ever available in this society, lack of connection is flourishing; the couple live their lives at oblique angles to each other.

Mikkonen’s social critique and feminist overtones come across in the collection in an everyday, true-to-life, absolutely unpretentious manner. She empathises – and lashes out without mercy. The characters are often portrayed in a tragicomic double light.

The satire’s number one target is the cosmopolitanism that rides the newest trends. But there isn’t any way to cast Mikkonen as a provincialist. The author has a love-hate relationship with the eastern Finnish Savo landscape of her childhood. In the collection Pakkasyön odottaja (‘The one waiting in the frosty night’, 1997), skeletons are to be found in every potato cellar. Subjugation, exploitation and prejudices are rife.

In the Yönseutuun collection, Mikkonen writes of loneliness, ageing and existential doubt only just hidden by everyday routines. Still, the stories don’t dwell on misery. The author plunges into the skin of her colourful characters, whether a child of divorce or an octogenarian war veteran with a penchant for young women.

In a country of net-loss emigration, population is also lost to the chronic inpatient ward and the cemetery; in Mikkonen’s hands, the residents of Finnish backwaters go straight to heaven. The joy of narrative flows beneath the surface of these polished short stories.

Tags: