In the woods

30 June 2008 | Authors, Reviews

Riina Katajavuori

The tale of Hansel and Gretel is an ancient one, woven around the themes of abandonment, cannibalism, and the terrors of dark forests in those forests’ ancient heyday. Told, edited and retold by the German Brothers Grimm in the early 19th century, the tale’s archetypal magic has inspired composers, writers and artists for hundreds of years.

Riina Katajavuori’s new book of poems, Kerttu ja Hannu (‘Gretel and Hansel’, Tammi, 2007), is an imaginative de-and reconstruction of it. By reversing the traditional order of the names, Katajavuori (born 1968) gives notice that her poems are a her-not-his version of the story, a retelling from Gretel’s perspective.

The first two poems in my set of translations, ‘In the emptiness’ and ‘Beslan’, come from the book’s opening section; the first one foreshadows the fourth section (‘Gretel and Hansel’):

‘There was a lot of chocolate and sharing, shopmobiles and tall spruce trees that father, when he was young, climbed all the way to the top of, because he was unable to fall, then. / Now I enter that forest and don’t give names to anything. Invisible, I walk on the pine needle carpet, shouting now and again to see if someone here would recognise me as their own.’

‘Beslan’ is a requiem for one of the 186 children reported killed in the school siege of 2004 in Beslan, Chechnya, when Russian government forces stormed the school after its takeover by terrorists protesting the second Chechen war. Six-year-old Dzherassa Gappoyeva, a truly lost child, is made to speak to her mother from the beyond.

Katajavuori’s authorial versatility, amply demonstrated in five collections of poems, two novels and two children’s books, has gone from strength to strength. As in her previous collections, she includes and runs variations on voices from the street, media, and books, framing them with her own laconic, ironic, yet sometimes surprisingly tender propositions.

Section three, ‘Noita syvän synkän metsän’ (‘The witch of the deep dark forest’) consists of three short riffs on Baba Yaga, the witch from the Russian folklore, and the last section, eponymous with the entire book, then proceeds to examine a contemporary sibling relationship within the shimmering framework of the old tale:

‘A long time has passed since Gretel’s and Hansel’s childhood, epochs and views have changed, the great deep forest has been felled. Replaced, now, by radio towers, paved roads, ski lifts…. Gretel and Hansel seek out, separately, certain kinds of non-places, dead zones. Motorways, abandoned wastelands, construction sites, patches of natural growth, urban pastures.’

On the foundation, the metaphorical underpinning, of the old tale, Katajavuori has constructed a multifaceted serial poem around the themes of sibling affection, shared childhood memories, including traumatic ones; bonding, regrets, parallel yet divergent lives. It is also about survival, about who and what survives — inspiring and durable work.

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