True or false?

30 June 2007 | Fiction, Prose

An extract from the novel Toiset kengät (‘The other shoes’, Otava, 2007). Interview by Soila Lehtonen

‘What is Little Red Riding Hood’s basket like? And what is in it? You should conjure the basket up before you this very moment! If it will not come – that is, if the basket does not immediately give rise to images in your minds – let it be. Impressions or images should appear immediately, instinctively, without effort. So: Little Red Riding Hood’s basket. Who will start?’

Our psychology teacher, Sanni Karjanen, stood in the middle of the classroom between two rows of desks. Everyone knew she was a strict Laestadian. It was strange how much energy she devoted to the external, in other words clothes. God’s slightly unsuccessful creation, a plump figure with pockmarks, was only partially concealed by the large flower prints of her dresses, her complicatedly arranged scarves and collars. Her style was florid baroque and did not seem ideally suited to someone who had foresworn charm. Her hair was combed in the contemporary style, her thin hair backcombed into an eccentric mountain on top of her head and sprayed so that it could not be toppled even by the sinful wind that often blew from Toppila to Tuira.

Was this my moment? After all, I knew Little Red Riding Hood’s basket inside and out. I had never read about it or even seen one. I no longer read story books. And nevertheless one rose before my eyes like a raffle prize on a fishing pole. The vision, if it could be called a vision, was finely featured and extremely accurate, down to the smells. But would it nevertheless be best not to put my hand up? It might well be that it might conceal something worse than a harmless joke. But I really wanted to. I wanted to shine. The phrases tried to form themselves in my mouth and wanted out, however crooked. I put my hand up.

‘Antero. So you know what Little Red Riding Hood’s basket is like? You know what it contains? Well, I can’t see any other hands, so begin. Quiet there in the back row!’

‘First, the basket is made of woven willow. The handle is a triple plait. Probably woven last week, because it still creaks and squeaks like fresh willow. Maybe Little Red Riding Hood’s big brother – or even her uncle – had deliberately chosen fresher….’

‘Well, why not, if that’s how you see it. I would have thought of it as a chip basket, but this is your vision. Go on.’

I began to describe the contents of the basket in as much detail and as systematically as possible. Sometimes I felt the vision receding and I had to get it back, clawing the air. Then the words again flooded out of my mouth in a single torrent.

‘There are two lids like trapdoors, one on each side of the handle. If you were to lift the lid, the first thing you would notice would be a red-and-white checked cloth spread on top of the food, and although the cloth is quite sturdy, it does not prevent smells from penetrating through it. The basket is carefully packed in such a way that nothing can fall on top of anything else. Although the basket is full, rich in offerings in other words, it does not feel very heavy, so that even a little girl can carry it….’

‘It may well be that this is a question of eidetics. Let me say that now. For the subject of the lesson is eidetics. It is written like this. Copy it down in your exercise books.’ Sanni Karjanen wrote the word in large block capitals on the blackboard and underlined it in red chalk.

‘Eidetics is one of the most unusual phenomena of psychology, and there are not really any guarantees of its authenticity. Nevertheless it means the phenomenon… you girls in the back row, stop swapping mascaras immediately… it means a phenomenon in which some semblance of reality enters the sensory realm just like some real phenomenon.’

I put my hand up, because I still had plenty of details I wanted to relate. I had not even described the contents of the basket.

‘Yes, the basket’s contents,’ I continued. ‘Underneath the checked cloth there are, in order, a loaf of bread baked that morning, or more accurately half the loaf. Next to it is a large piece of hard cheese wrapped in another piece of cloth. Jam in an airtight container. At the very top, a berry pie, even though it is intended to be eaten last.’

‘I’m beginning to think that you really are an eideticist. The Greek word “eidos” means an image or shape. Eidetics is therefore sensory power based on imagery.’

My sensory power, of which I was unconscious, was particularly strong on that day. It penetrated through the cloths and willow baskets, wanted to feel, smell, see everything, and above all tell others about its perceptions. I could not help but go on. It was as if Little Red Riding Hood’s basket had become part of my own body and that I was therefore able to describe the style of weaving just as if I had been describing my forearms or a crack in my thumbnail.

‘I forgot the bottle,’ I hastened to add.

‘If describing the bottle is important to you….’

‘It is. The bottle is made of thick green glass, blown of course. The bottle has a stopper carved out of wood. It contains home-brewed beer….’

‘Beer! Did you say beer? In other words a little girl is taking beer to her grandmother, who is bedridden!’

‘I think it’s beer, but it could be wine too.’

‘So Little Red Riding Hood is some kind of bootlegger, is she? Secretly taking alcohol to her granny. Now I feel that you are getting things from home muddled with stories, or vice versa. I am not an eideticist and I am telling you, Antero, that in the bottle, if there is one in the basket, there is nothing more than juice, some kind of juice, and that juice is just as good.’

When my vision was corrected, it gave the whole class a chance to giggle. I did not care. I was still an eideticist, and I would still have had plenty more details to add, if I had been allowed to continue.

‘You have to remember that the basket has curved corners….’

‘Why doesn’t he shut up!’

‘Too angular a basket would of course tear Little Red Riding Hood’s dress and knees,’ I added rapidly, ‘and a round basket is easier to pass from one hand to the other, for Little Red Riding Hood’s path is bendy and the lower branches of the trees might tear….’

‘Good, Antero. That’s enough. Now we have enough evidence. In all probability, you are a real eideticist. Although you always need to qualify the word “real”. He is an eideticist, some kind of eideticist. Let us note here and now that eideticism is a kind of photographic memory. Not absolutely the same thing, for eideticism is always connected with imagination. Antero could not, of course, have seen Little Red Riding Hood’s basket in reality. That would be a lie.’

I had been imagining that eideticism, particularly as a public performance, would cause admiring murmurs, the description of the food licking of the lips, winks, all sorts of offers and commissions, even performances. Very soon I realised, however, that I had been lured into a trap. Soon a hook would lodge in my cheek. And I did not have long to wait:

‘Here we have a good example of how unintentional eideticism, which of course Antero cannot help, not yet at least, is also a weapon against one’s own grasp of reality.’

Sanni Karjanen had stepped on to the rostrum. She left long pauses, leaned forward, and gave the folder on the desk a few sharp flicks, although I felt them on my own temples. I felt my six-minute, successful career as an eideticist collapse like a puffball.

Sanni Karjanen began to wander up and down among the rows of desks and directed a burning look at each pupil through her magnifying spectacles. The torturing gaze was of course directed only at me, and I would pay for my teasing of the others very soon.

‘To conclude this performance, for it is a performance after all, we must of course ask what in what we heard was true. It may be that the eideticist, any eideticist, in this case Antero, builts another reality, a kind of false reality, on top of his consciousness. Then he conveys to us what has almost become a perception, and in such a way that we others feel the temptation to either add or subtract details from the eideticist’s vision. I said frankly that I saw the basket completely differently, and many of you were no doubt of a different opinion as to the basket’s contents, but that is a different matter. And as we all noticed, the eideticist drives himself into a kind of hypnosis. One could say that he is asleep. Many dangers are of course concealed here. Fortunately eidetic gifts, well gift is perhaps not the right word, let us say eidetic tendencies, decline with age and completely painlessly as we begin to grasp the surrounding reality more rationally. And this is a good thing, as excessive eideticism would merely drive us into some tropical jungle of lies.’

I realised that the temporary period of grace that had been offered to me was now at an end. I had believed I was better than the others, but now I had been proved dangerous. But nevertheless: wasn’t this about Little Red Riding Hood? How true could it be? It was pure invention, after all, nothing but lies. And I had therefore been asked to describe what a lie looked like. I could have exclaimed, in the midst of my performance: ‘But my dear teacher, Little Red Riding Hood is a fairy-tale, and everyone can put what they like into a story. Yes, instead of Little Red Riding Hood’s basket, you should have asked me what I think the mayor’s office looks like, and who knows, I might have given just as convincing an explanation.’ But it was too late to comment on the interaction between reality and stories.

‘All right, write in your exercise book, a summary of this strange phenomenon of psychology. As usual, I will ask you about today’s lesson next week. Next time the subject will be, just one moment, I must look at my papers so as not to speak like an eideticist, the subject will be the factors that influence a sense of guilt….’

My knees turned to jelly. My clothes could hardly stay on my body. I thought that I might have wetted myself slightly, something which had not happened for years. Why on earth had I not sensed danger? Why did I rush to offer my talents and jump into the foreground?

Sanni Karjanen’s delicately rustling floral dress left the room. The others left, too, stretching, for breaktime. I pretended to rummage for something in my desk. I needed a moment to myself.

When all the others had left the classroom, I looked at the blackboard. I was seeking new information. Suddenly I remembered the Heinonens and their followers, prophet siblings who had sent the town wild, and their adoring crowds. Generally they were mocked by young people, but just then, as I sat there at my desk, something attracted me to the fanatical Heinonens.

I was already very familiar with the conflict between the Heinonens and the Laestadians as to who in Oulu owned God. I decided to ally myself with the Heinonens against the Laestadians. They had, after all, seen the explosion of the type foundry right down to the tiniest spark, no doubt as some kind of eidetic vision, before it became a news item. Had Miss Karjanen’s people done anything at all about incipient destruction or future floods? No. If someone here was on the case of visions, on the case of intoxicating gas clouds that could suffocate cities, floods and political crises, it was the Heinonens and their followers. And me.

Having recognised this, I prayed in my own new way — not for Little Red Riding Hood or her grandmother, but of course for the handsomely disguised wolf. And I prayed that the red chalk, which had so recently been used in an attempt to thrash me, would one day no longer obey the headmaster’s hand, but would fragment and fly on its way in a fine, red cloud of dust, penetrate the headmaster’s nostrils, make him cough, sneeze, and drive him into an endless trance.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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