Mothers and sons

Issue 1/2008 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from Helvi Hämäläinen’s novel Raakileet (‘Unripe’, 1950. WSOY, 2007)

In front of the house grew a large old elm and a maple. The crown of the elm had been destroyed in the bombing and there was a large split in the trunk, revealing the grey, rotting wood. But every spring strong, verdant foliage sprouted from the thick trunk and branches; the tree lived its own powerful life. Its roots penetrated under the cement of the grey pavement and found rich soil; they wound their way under the pavement like strong, dark brown forearms. Cars rumbled over them, people walked, children played. On the cement of the pavement the brightly coloured litter of sweet papers, cigarette stubs and apple cores played; in the gutter or even in the street a pale rubber prophylactic might flourish, thrown from some window or dropped by some careless passer-by.

The sky arched blue over the six-and seven-storey buildings; in the evenings a glimmer could be seen at its edges, the reflection of the lights of the city. A group of large stone buildings, streets filled with vehicles, a small area filled with four hundred thousand people, an area in which they were born, died, owned something, earned their daily bread: the city – it lived, breathed….

Six springs had passed since the war…. Ilmari’s eyes gleamed yellow as a snake’s back, he took a dance step or two and bent over Kauko, pretending to stab him with a knife.

Pekka slapped his knees with his hands and howled: ‘My God… may I present the star of our new ballet…. Hahhahhaa….’

‘I got three hundred markkas a night there,’ said Ilmari, beating his chest impressively. ‘It keeps the body supple, grows and develops the muscles, gives me the opportunity to get free opera tickets…. I know all the operas, I want to educate myself, you go and do the same!’

‘No… listen to that,’ shouted Kauko, ‘the dirty devil, listen to the smug bastard….’ ‘Make him shut his trap, damn it…,’ shouted Pekka, somewhere between laughter and rage, standing in the middle of the floor and swaying his body as if in the grip of extreme stomach pain. His hair was tousled, his cheeks glowed like flames.

‘What a hypocrite, the conceited, dirty devil, let’s throw him out,’ screamed Erkki, too. His short, wide nose showed his irritation – its sensitive tip seemed to harden with excitement, narrowing and sharpening as a malicious look came into his eyes.

‘Why do we put up with him,’ shouted Pekka, red as a beetroot, ‘he makes me ill with laughter.’ The object of the laughter and aggravation sat, with an air of self-satisfaction, on the edge of the sofa. He did not generally comprehend his companions’ rage, which he considered a childish reaction on their part. All at once he said in a contented voice: ‘Now I’m going to go and phone Raija…’. Ilmari got up, stretched his thickish, sacklike trunk, looked at the others with his brown eyes as if drinking in from their expressions all the envy he supposed they were feeling.

He made his way into the hallway, lightly, with short steps as the others fell silent for a moment. Pekka inclined his curly head forward, his back curved and his big, childish, blue eyes gazed after his friend, wide with rage. He bit his fingernails: ‘Bloody hell, does he still have that girl…. But you’ll see, in two weeks’ time she’ll be gone….’

‘How can that girl spend time… with a dog like that,’ muttered Kauko. ‘She’ll soon leave him, get fed up of him like all the rest. She’s a beautiful girl, that blonde hair, blonde skin, those legs! That figure! She’ll soon grow tired of that dog.’

Kauko sat at the head of the table with a tense expression on his serious, calm face; he tensed himself to listen to the telephone conversation.

‘Yes, so I’ll come at half past six,’ came Ilmari’s low voice.

‘I did it… last time I met them together, ha ha ha… I asked Ilmari….’ Erkki uttered an obscenity.

The others burst out laughing: ‘What did that devil say? Turned his back…’

Pekka bit his nails with increasing enthusiasm, his eyes shining as if half asleep: ‘Bugger, now he’s going out with her again….’

‘But that doesn’t… hey, they’re only going out together…,’ Kauko’s eyes were half closed, his face muscles taut. He was the oldest of them.

Ilmari appeared in the doorway dressed in his overcoat, at his neck a liver-red scarf, in his hand a hat which he had just bought for twenty markkas from Joppe. It was quite new, but his friend had not been able to bear it; it made him look like a bastard, the others said.

‘Go and see Swan Lake, boys, the Tchaikovsky ballet,’ Ilmari said in a didactic voice.

‘Throw something at the old devil,’ roared Pekka. ‘Bloody hell, he doesn’t understand a thing about music…. I certainly know Tchaikovsky better than he does….’

‘Yes, it’s a good ballet, learn, educate yourselves….’

Ilmari succeeded in making his exit before the others could reach him. He ran downstairs. And the others returned unsatisfied, Pekka gnawing his fingernails, his face glowing red and fresh, Kauko, tense looking, clenching his beautiful white teeth, Erkki waving his arms, his dirty-blond hair flying, his nose thin and hard with tension, sitting down at the head of the table like a bird of prey sharpening its talons.

Erkki, Kauko and Pekka launched into the Horst Wessel song. They really were in the habit, in some public place, of singing: SA marschiert mit ruhig festem Schritt…. People cast angry looks in their direction, but the youths sang at full throttle and stamped their feet. However, they never managed to annoy anyone enough to make them ban or threaten them, and finally fell silent, looking around them with bright, dreamy eyes, and causing disapproval in both men and women.

At home sometimes, having read something about of the Second World War era, Erkki would scream: Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil, Heil Hitler, until his voice broke.

‘What a terrible plague,’ his mother would murmur, ‘You, too, have come in for your share of infection. How they managed to seduce young people, think of the murder of the Jews.’

But after this comment the youth frantically launched into an excerpt from the Horst Wessel song, and his mother said: ‘Consider how many terrible places, breaking every law of humanity, have echoed to that song…. Don’t sing it….’

All three, Erkki, Kauko and Pekka, occasionally used the same impossible throat sounds that they had heard national socialists using on the radio. They were overcome by a sudden admiration for that world of power and youth, and they bellowed its slogans with tears in their eyes.

Ilmari’s mother was the only war widow in their building. It had simply happened that almost no one from among them had been killed at the front; most of the inhabitants of the building were, coincidentally, of the generation whose sons, six years after the end of the war, were only just turning eighteen or nineteen and would therefore be called up now if war came. There was not even a single invalid… since it had not happened, it had not. ‘Even in war, not every man is killed or wounded,’ said the building’s residents when this was sometimes talked about in passing.

A fifty-year-old woman who lived on the fourth floor, a fashion shop owner, a tall, stout woman of youthful appearance who always dressed very tastefully, was, however, still waiting for her son, who had been lost in action… the boy had been twenty-four when he left home.

‘He would be thirty now,’ commented the fashion shop owner, just as, the previous year, she had commented that he would be twenty-nine, and the year before and the year before that that he would be twenty-eight or twenty-seven, and so on. ‘He may still be alive,’ the lady said emphatically; ‘prisoners of war are still coming back… they say that there are still some of them somewhere and that they will return gradually, some of them are lying in hospital there….’

After she had left, the loss adjuster’s wife, raising her white eyebrows – they looked snow white in her red face – said: ‘She keeps her big flat closed up…apparently she’s got a lodger, we know who that man is, I’ve heard it’s the love of her youth, they met each other after the lady was left a widow and her boy was lost at the front… why don’t they get married… we know they are living together as man and wife…. She doesn’t want to admit it to the pastor, who needs a bigger apartment, what with a new child being born every year, and that fashion lady won’t agree to swap flats with him, as she says she’s still expecting her son to come back… in fact she just wants to keep that man….’

The chauffeur’s wife stood with legs planted firmly apart and said defensively: ‘She really is waiting for her son…. She hasn’t even sold any of his civvies…. Or allowed the death to be announced, there was another long list of those that have been declared dead in the paper…. He can’t really come back any more… he must have taken a direct hit….’

The war had passed over them and crippled each of them, these people who had now reached middle age. They still retained their human nature, they were still pompous or vain, but the storm had shaken them and they could never regrow their broken branches, the stolen greenery of their foliage, let alone their flowers. The young people, their children, did not know what the world had been like when the war began, but they were different from their parents, as young people always are. These eighteen- to twenty-year-olds considered their parents ancient, faded. Only the men who had served at the front were such that the young men felt a link with themselves, particularly when they began to speak of the war and their war memories, and then the boys cursed: If only we could have been there, for Christ’s sake… why was I a puppy then. A wonderful time they had… if only I’d been born around 1924… then you wouldn’t have known anything about the misery in places like Germany that followed the First World War – there really wasn’t anything like it here, of course…. I would have been a man in 1938… just think….

All in all, the four companions, Ilmari, Erkki, Kauko and Pekka, were united by one thing: they were the sons of husbandless women. Ilmari’s father had been killed at the front and his mother was a war widow, Erkki’s father had also been killed at the front, but his parents had then been divorced for years; Pekka and Kauko’s destinies were similar in that each had a father who had been rendered impossible as a family member by alcoholism and whose wife had been forced to divorce him for the sake of the children.

Because of this shared fate, the youths had many traits in common – each of their experiences was exceptional, but nevertheless there was something about them that was characteristic of these broken times. Their mothers were typical solitary women of the war years; the world was full of them, and the youths themselves had each experienced a fate that was the same as the sons of those who had fallen in battle.

It was Kauko who had thought of calling their parents’ generation the generation of the humiliated. This sobriquet encapsulated all the resistance they felt toward their predecessors. To them, it was odious that the performers of this brilliant play had suddenly turned into ordinary people – the men in their country had taken off their military uniforms just at the point when they themselves were turning into youths, and their fathers’ adoption of slightly worn, often shrunken men’s civilian clothes had symbolically represented what seemed to be taking place everywhere: the disowning of certain gestures, certain loudly and ceremonially proclaimed ideals. There were countless noble, brilliant matters that had a moment ago been loudly proclaimed and that were now suppressed and humbly acknowledged as mistakes… the humiliated generation had too many defeated ideals… too many flags that were quietly put away, without any passion, without any pride or fuss….

They were humble, submissive, mistaken… it was as if they all had lost a glorious fortune and they were surrounded by the atmosphere of people who had been removed from their place.

They were the generation of the humiliated; their world was different from that of the youths, who were just awakening as men.

They already feel themselves to be men, Erkki, Kauko and Pekka. Their mother has been good to each of them, their mother is still good to them, but none of them has any memory of his father. They laugh and look at one another: the entire group is made up of sons of bad men and decent women…. How can it be possible that they all share the same history as regards their fathers… it is, of course, a secret bond between them. But the matters that create that bond are such that they do not admit them to one another, and for that reason they speak, laughingly, of coincidence… a woman is generally a more social being than a man. It would be impossible to admit as their bond their longing for a father, small, searing memories, envy of those who have had a man close to them, not a solitary woman, but on the other hand it is easy to express their shared hatred towards their fathers; time and contempt are strong bonds.

The youths boast that they have hit their father, even if they have not, imagine, like Erkki, how pleasing it would be to attack him mercilessly, to show him his superior physical strength. They whose entire world is filled, in reality, by just one man, whose world so far contains no other woman but their mother and a sexual woman devoid of any personality, each of them passionately hates the one man in their world, their father. They mock and laugh hollowly and with malice as they describe their mothers’ talk about how everything has already been forgiven…. ‘That’s what women are like,’ they cry as one, bitterly, as if these women had betrayed them. God almighty to go and forgive that kind of swinish behaviour, isn’t that just like a woman….

They need to be able to hate, to insult these three men, they need to be able to shout obscenities about them, to express their implacability. Is it instinct that dictates their hatred, does it contain a sense of what they have lost, do they know that what happened to their mothers as women was not as dangerous as what happened to them as future men? Those men, the fathers whose flesh and blood they are, are the masculine world which should have been theirs in their boyhood. The boys lived in a world full of manly honour, manly death, manly sacrifice and worship, in which they were able to feel themselves to be flesh and blood only from a woman’s body. That sense that they are a man’s flesh and blood, that happy instinct that informs a leopard cub that it is the flesh of a leopard, the flesh concealed beneath the skin of that spotted beast, that had been torn away from them by those men.

This is something they cannot forgive. It is impossible to forgive such a thing, for the boys love manliness above all else, they are prepared for roles of heroism, adventure and hatred sought after by their fathers such a short time ago on the world stage…. Each of the boys harbours dreams of extreme manliness; they feel that these can be realised only through death. Kauko explains that he wishes to be allowed to step from a prison cell to be shot in order to demonstrate, with stoic heroism, the immortality of a sublime ethic… to him, it is the perfect expression of a man’s nature, just as, for some youths, the embrace of a woman is the realisation of manliness. Erkki needs to be able to send millions to their deaths for the sake of sublime or necessary reasons, or he needs to be able to submit to an ideal that does so… Nazism is dead, but surely there are still possibilities in the world for such a dream. It hovers in the air like poisonous dust whose particles will find their way into the waiting hands of a youth so that he too may die in realisation of his voluptuous ideal of the superman. Pekka, who is unable to take on the mantle offered by any grandiose philosophy, has decided on a simpler and less complex method of demonstrating his manhood, the fact that he too is the flesh of a spotted beast: he has decided, as soon as a new war starts – he talks about it as of a tender dream – to rush to the front, and there, boys…. He does not long for a hero’s death, he says, his cheeks flushed and his eyes glowing, but by God it’s a great thing… different from dying at a hundred like an old hag.

Ilmari listened to his mother’s stories about his father who had died on the front matter of factly, without emotion. He remembered a particular detail about the man. They had gone to the sauna together; he had been walking alongside his father and a few of his friends, who were playing in the street, had begun to tease him. He had dragged behind a little and hit his tormentors in the face and, without a word, continued on his way with his father. His father had said nothing, but they had had a strong sense of something shared, manly.

There was a whole area of Erkki’s life in which his emotions were completely undeveloped, had barely even sprouted. His father and mother had split up a couple of months before the boy was born. To his mother’s guilt-filled questions, did the boy miss his father, his father’s companionship, friendship, the boy answered: ‘I cannot miss anything like that, I don’t feel there’s anything missing… I cannot stand that man… he gave me life accidentally, for his own pleasure….’

At such moments his mother murmured to herself: ‘A father’s love is a wonderful thing, but I cannot make it up to you that you did not receive it….’

‘But I’m alive,’ shouted the boy, full of pathos: ‘what do I care about anything else.’

When his father was killed at the front and Erkki read the death notice, in which his name was not mentioned, he was, all the same, hurt. Not because the family did not mention his name, but because among the mourners was a fiancée was mentioned, another woman…. The boy was hurt on his mother’s behalf.

Everything concerning his father had been so carefully eliminated from his life that he sometimes even thought that he did not feel as if he had been born from the embrace of a man and a woman, but that he had been born of a woman like a leaf of a tree trunk. There was nothing in his life that could have stepped into his father’s place: he was a woman’s child, and felt that he had been born into the world of men as an adult man; for him, no bestially helpless and touching emotional bonds formed a link between the unconscious state of childhood and the manly material of the world. Men would be and were his companions, his friends and his enemies, they would be to him everything which he respected in humanity and which he felt he needed in his own life from his human companions. Women, who had owned him as a child, women, from whose flesh he felt himself to have been born, were like a fertile field from which men, too, received their growth substance, but which had no other function in a man’s world. It was with joy that he felt himself to have grown free of womanly flesh, to have found his own species when he entered the world of men, and within him was concealed an unconscious hatred of women which could have encompassed him within its own sphere. He asked himself, horrified: What if I had not cast myself free of woman…. Womanly flesh glimmered like a red fairy mushroom in his world. It contained poison for man. His companion was a man; the thought that a woman might ever attempt to be his companion provoked a raw, angry resistance in him.

The feeling that he had been a woman’s child and that the feminine features he therefore bore made him emphasise his masculinity with a certain cynicism, hardness, even, from time to time, cruelty.

None of these four youths knew what the world would have been like if it had contained a man and their mother as that man’s wife rather than as a woman who tried, in order to comfort herself, to rob the essence of their child and youth of the love her man was not there to give her. Perhaps they would not have chosen to play with all that blood-stained debris of the war in those years, perhaps they would not have attempted to attach to their faces all the masks of the masculine world…. Perhaps they would not have been filled with so much more love of death than of women, if things had been different.

They were men of a strange world, a world with no fathers. They had been surrounded by maternity, like a warm, safe womb, but it was essential for them to sever the umbilical cord with a sword.

These children of the generation of the humiliated were vigorous, cheerful, volatile, crude, perhaps cruder and crueller than young people in general… they overflowed with vigour. There was nothing humiliated about them. They were new, the young green spring, which did not feel it had lost anything, but sometimes envied the role of the youth that had died in the war, because compared to their own peaceful, everyday lives war seemed like a feast, an adventure. So fast, six years after peace was signed, had the war that had filled their childhood been concealed by the glimmering veils of heroism and romanticism – they stared into the adults’ memories as, in one of the phases of their adolescence, they had stared in front of them as they announced to their parents that they were quitting school and going to sea… definitely to sea. War, that wondrous adventure, against anyone at all, they were not nationalists… their parents never spoke of certain ideals that had once prevailed, and some of the great names of the 1930s were completely unknown to them.

‘They can’t be in any way important, no one knows anything about them, after all,’ they shouted, ‘who’s that…. What did he do, rubbish… shit.’

They did not hate anyone at all, as the generation of the humiliated had hated. They had lived their childhood through the war years, had become young men during the miserable, cheerless post-war years and the war was like a great, extraordinary machine which had, in a mysterious way, formed them… courage, enthusiasm, crudeness, the joy of living, were certainly present in them, these boys, whose young bodies had come to manhood in the years in which men’s blood coloured the earth red in three continents, including their own fatherland. As all the mutilated strong forearms, legs of strong men, well carried heads, bright eyes were destroyed, becoming rotting corpses on battlefields and mass graves, their own boys’ limbs had grown into strong young men’s limbs; their bodies had become upright, as all the closing eyes of the previous generation of young men had dimmed their eyes had begun to shine with the joyful health, purity, enthusiasm of youth, they had become capable of fertilising women, just as the world had killed millions of men in the prime of their youth, they had received their manhood just as the manhood of millions had been buried…. And it was by the graves that life flowered most luxuriantly… they felt their masculine power more strongly, their appetite for life was more unbounded than that of those who had gone before, upon whose deaths their own lives were now bursting into flower.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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