Besotted with colour

30 June 2007 | Authors, Interviews

Hannu Väisänen

Photo: Otava/Petri Puromies

Colours, smells and sounds paint a vivid word-picture of a small, northern Finnish town in the 1950s in Hannu Väisänen’s first novel, Vanikan palat (‘The pieces of crispbread’, 2004; see Books from Finland 2/2004).

Little Antero, the novel’s protagonist, is an alter ego of the painter and graphic artist Hannu (born 1951). Antero has three brothers, a sister and an alcoholically inclined widower NCO father. The queue of potential stepmothers is a long and tragicomical one. The title of the novel refers to the stone-hard, thick rye crispbread produced for army consumption; the greyness of barracks life and a small town with incredibly harsh winters did not add up to a colourful life.

But Hannu became an artist to whom colour speaks.

In the sequel to the novel, Toiset kengät (‘The other shoes’, Otava, 2007, see page 90), Antero, now an adolescent, continues to dabble with colours and art. He attempts painting an icon to be given as a Christmas present to a friendly library lady, but his home-made emulsion of codliver oil, water and egg whites (stolen from the kitchen cupboard) turns out to be disastrously smelly, and the recipient has to return the gift, with apologies.

When the teenage Antero longs for a pair of fashionable suede shoes, dad won’t buy them. Most of us remember some intensely desirable object we were not allowed to have and without which life was sheer torture, for a couple of days at least.

S.L. Your book, Hannu, is not called ‘Suede shoes‘, but ‘The other shoes’ – is this also a reference to Antero’s otherness, his desire to go away, towards himself?

H.V. ‘The title could just as well be “other people’s shoes”. Shoes are a fairly accurate indicator of where, in terms of growth and wealth, a person is. Are the shoes one’s own, or still other people’s? Decided on by other people. When can you buy your own shoes and, through them, become your own self? I realised as I wrote that, since the book still did not have a name, the theme entered the text from a number of angles. Antero realises quite early on that his own shoes are not only a physical mark of the self, but also the thing that will help him escape. The youth’s desire for suede shoes is also naturally linked with mating displays and the need to integrate with society, but behind them there also lies a hope of selfhood. Toiset kengät became the title of the book without seeking. I also very much like the imposing nature of the plural form; I also used it in my previous book, Vanikan palat. The partitive would loosen the idea. Not “Other shoes”, then; not “Pieces of crispbread”!’

S.L. At the end of the novel, Antero is finally given permission to leave Oulu for another town to study in an art sixth-form college. Triumphantly departing, he dyes his blond hair black in the bus station toilet. ‘Perhaps it was all a question of the right colours and the right timing of colours,’ he thinks. Hannu, how has that ‘colour thinking’ influenced you in your later life, in your art? You have said that ‘in colour and the use of colour the question is above all of trust; colour emerges fully only when trust in it is complete.’ So, what happens when trust is complete?

H.V. ‘Without any higher metaphysics I can say that, after a long period of writing, it seems as if colours are dancing around me like children about to start a game, coming toward me, surrounding me, making demands. I don’t have a favourite; I would like to use them all at once. Spreading some bright yellow colour for hours with a small paintbrush is to me as lovely as singing is to someone who has a beautiful voice. It may be that the result is not immediately very prepossessing, but the colour causes a feeling to grow physically in front of one’s own body and that overtakes other demands for quality. Once more increases faith in colour, in colours.

‘A writing painter may have a particular perspective in describing in words phenomena in which colours play a central role. For me, at least, it is extremely pleasant to immerse myself in describing, for example, the hundreds of different shades of grey, their links with different materials and temperatures: the greys of military coats on a hot day in a cloudberry bog and on special guard duty in the frosts of Christmas Eve.

‘I have made a statistical analysis of the colours in my second novel. The most often recurring colour is red, in all sorts of weather conditions and materials, water, fire, clothes, veins etc. As accurately as I wish to describe the surface structure of things and materials, I try to depict the colours and particularly their effects on the characters in my book, especially of course Antero.

‘By trust in colours I believe I mean an unselfconscious, immediate, unpremeditated way of dealing with things through colour. My novel’s Antero acts as I wish to act myself. I can only compare it to a flower which, in the most natural way, ignoring any possible objects, opens its petals without asking whether the colour is suitable and what its value might be. Antero and I know that you must not associate values with colour. And as few moral and aesthetic questions as possible – you can deal with those questions elsewhere.

‘This “correct timing of colours” is really an ironic reference to calculation, a mode of working that I hope I will not be forced to use as an artist. Colours do not really have timing. They are not dressing gowns or evening jackets. The bourgeoisie and manuals of good taste paint interiors in correctly timed colours. But that is precisely what one should not agree to. Colours must be left their capacity to surprise. And a colour must not only be a bringer of pleasure. It must also be allowed to challenge.’

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