The price of success

31 December 2007 | Authors, Reviews

Tuomas Kyrö. Photo: Veikko Somerpuro/WSOY

Tuomas Kyrö. Photo: Veikko Somerpuro/WSOY

A Finnish novel – or any fictitious work – that contains inaccurate historical facts can evoke bafflement in its readers, and public disapproval can follow from these ‘errors’. Finnish readers are unaccustomed to postmodernist stylistic devices. The details connected with Finnish wars, in particular, are examined under a magnifying lens.

The fourth novel by Tuomas Kyrö (born 1974), Benjamin Kivi (WSOY, 2007), stretches the boundaries of realism with its tale of a 100-year-old adventurer, written in the style of a memoir. It encompasses changing identities, periods of societal crisis, and war, which protagonist Benjamin Kivi calls simply ‘the killing’. In Finland we’re accustomed to regarding the Winter War (1939–40) and the Continuation War (1941–44) as honourable efforts to defend the country from the Soviet Union.

The novel begins when 14-year-old Benjamin Kivi sees a man shot in the head at close range. The incident clearly takes place during the Finnish Civil War of 1918, although Kyrö’s novel is often rather broad-minded when it comes to the precise timing of other events.

The main character wants to be always on the winning side, which demands constant self-transformation and deception. The novel could be read as the story of the birth of capitalism, but in the style of Mario Puzo’s Godfather trilogy or Sergio Leone’s Westerns.

Benjamin Kivi is the lonely rider, always arriving in a new place with a new name. Around 1930 he works as a driver for a right-wing extremist, on violent errands reminiscent of the Mafia activites in the film Goodfellas. Later he is the successful owner of several movie theaters. The book’s film references are associative. Kivi (whose name means ‘rock’) works in a slaughterhouse, which is reminiscent of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky. The association is aided by the fact that boxing, violence, and sports are recurring themes, as in Kyrö’s earlier works. Everything is connected with financial success, a taboo in Finland.

On the other hand, Kivi is presented as a father concerned for his family and constantly working to overcome the trauma associated with his own father. He betrays his father at the beginning of the novel, and atones for it until the end. The daughters Inna and Feather particularly reveal the gentle, tender aspects of Kivi’s character. This image of love and family serves as a strong contrast to the violence and greed portrayed elsewhere in the novel.

Under the name Jasper Hauser, one of many pseudonyms, Benjamin Kivi participates in the opportunistic business activities that wars make possible. The name can be read as a reference to Kaspar Hauser, the hapless 19th-century German foundling, just as the character Pami Markera is reminiscent of Bam Margera, of the Jackass television show.

The novels teems with linguistic anachronisms, and expressions and characters from the wrong era. In Finland, with its staunch tradition of realism, postmodernistic fabulisms like these are rare.

Kyrö’s earlier novel, the prize-winning and much praised Liitto (‘The alliance’, 2005) also contained anachronisms, but it was more strongly anchored historically, so that they were accepted, or ignored.

Benjamin Kivi is an action-filled, intellectually challenging novel about a compulsive winner. At the same time, it is a history of 100 years of suffering, where family trauma and fateful moments in the history of Finland since independence Finland are wildly conflated.

In place of strict adherence to fact, Tuomas Kyrö offers an unusually innovative and individualistic point of view.

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