The working-class writer Toivo Pekkanen (1902–1957) broke sharply from the idealism of his contemporaries. In the short story Kaukainen saari (‘The faraway island’, 1945) he gives poetic voice to the sense of disillusion that the traumatic events of the first half of the 20th century engendered in him. Introduction by Juhani Niemi
An ever-shining, sun-blushed island on the horizon draws two brothers instinctively toward it; it offers a projection of their fantasies and an embodiment of their ideals. They must go there, but they don’t have their parents’ permission to use the rowing boat. Finally winter and a frozen sea make the journey to this version of earthly paradise possible.
Toivo Pekkanen’s story ‘The faraway island’ (from the collection Elämän ja kuoleman pidot, ‘The feast of life and death’, 1945) is the story of two schoolboys and the distant landscape that is the object of their infatuation. From its layered symbolism it is possible to draw connections with the writer’s own life as well as the condition of Finnish society in the 1940s. After the war, amid the pressure of changing political realities and movements for literary reform, Pekkanen followed his own personal path. His break-through novel was the autobiographical working-class novel Tehtaan varjossa (‘In the shadow of the factory’, 1932), but the traditional image of the people, the workers, which he began with in the 1920s didn’t satisfy him for long; in his later works there is a kinship with European modernists such as Franz Kafka and Albert Camus.
The late autobiographical novel Lapsuuteni (1953, published in English under the title My Childhood in 1966) provides the most thematically nuanced and objective background for Pekkanen’s pessimism. He wrote it after recovering from a serious stroke.
The floundering of his idealism was the result of the artist’s own childhood experiences of the turmoil of poverty, hunger, and the brutal 1918 Finnish Civil War. The novel’s restrained style shares a kinship with Anton Chekhov’s work. In addition to the similarity in expression, there was in Pekkanen’s Chekhovism a kinship of thought: the writer as utopianist who, in the end, rejects utopias. With Chekhov as his model, Pekkanen found himself pondering the ways of distancing oneself from passions, of cooling the feelings brought on by the suffering that history generates.
In spite of the experience of war, visions of a better world were a part of the zeitgeist of Pekkanen’s generation of writers, the so-called Torch Bearers who began to import European influences into Finnish literature. In the novel Lapsuuteni, the narrator refers to the significance of a chance reading of August Strindberg’s story from the 1880s, ‘De lycksaliges ö’ (‘The island of the blissful’). Like Strindberg, and unlike the general cultural optimists among the Torch Bearers, Pekkanen ultimately did not believe in the possibility of utopias. Because of his working-class background, neither could he embrace the enthusiasm for the machine aesthetic that was typical of the Torch Bearers and European modernists. When Pekkanen broke away from the habits of thought of his generation, he was following his own inner tendencies: sceptically observing from the sidelines, a searcher for truth who positioned himself in opposition to programmatic faith.
Individualistic motifs grounded in a separation from the world can be found in Pekkanen’s writing from his earliest stories to his very last works. The thread of these motifs is built on dreams and desires, but the thematic narrative turns again and again to a vision of a world that is ‘a great deception’. That which on the surface seems beautiful and enticing, like the longed-for place in ‘The faraway island’ or a future free of work in the fantasy story ‘Konehallitsijat eli tuhatvuotinen valtakunta’ (‘Machine rulers or the thousand-year realm’, published in the Torch Bearers’ magazine in 1929), is revealed to be mere illusion.
The Second World War seems to have caused the final collapse of the potential for idealism that can be glimpsed briefly in Pekkanen’s novel Ne menneet vuodet (‘Those years gone by’, 1940), in which he describes the unity of the nation just before the 1939 Winter War, when the Soviet Union threatened Finland’s independence. He experienced a depression so severe that he considered giving up writing. Symptoms of depression took many forms in his later work, which frequently express a sense of emptiness.
In ‘The faraway island’ Pekkanen’s style is revealed at its most vivid. It grows from observations of nature and takes its expressions from the boys’ obsession with obtaining the object of their desire. The island’s magnetic attraction is fused with the language of the story, which reflects its shades of light and colour. With the utopian enchantment of his descriptions, Pekkanen shows how easily a person can be caught up in an illusion or – interpreting the story in the context of the time when it was written – in following ideologies, and how violently one can be thrown from these castles in the air. Those travellers who found shelter on Strindberg’s ‘island of the blissful’, enjoyed a moment of freedom in nature, but ultimately returned to normal society.
The myth of Atlantis sinking below the ocean, familiar in world literature, is symbolically repeated in Pekkanen’s story. The loss of an imagined paradise is also comparable to the story of the Fall from Eden in the Bible. The boys in ‘The faraway island’ taste of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and that knowledge leads to suffering.
Translated by Lola Rogers
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About the writer
Juhani Niemi (born 1947) is a literary scholar, critic and author. He lives in Hämeenlinna.
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