Over the rainbow

Issue 2/2008 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Poet, novelist and dramatist Juhani Peltonen (1941–1998) wrote about love, loneliness and melancholy in a manner uniquely distinguished by a playful gloominess, a sense for deeply gripping-comic tragedy and a virtuosic ability to mould language into any shape he pleased.

In his novel Maanäären viinitarhurit (‘The vintners of the ends of the earth’, 1976), Juhani Peltonen tells of the ‘atheistic Orthodox’, who are afflicted by an incessant wanderlust, but who never go anywhere. The atheistic Orthodox do not believe in God themselves, but they are convinced that the painters of the icons that adorn their beautiful churches must have seen God, if even just a glimpse.

This sort of coincidentia oppositorum, in which the longing for faraway places and homesickness combine as a melancholy wanderlust, symbolises the whole of Juhani Peltonen’s output.

The author of seven collections of poetry and seven novels, four plays and four collections of short stories, Peltonen debuted as a poet. He is best known for his novels and short stories, though he wrote those with his poet’s pen as well; reckless lyricism in even his declarative statements became his trademark.

Juhani Peltonen’s first work Ihmisiät (’Ages of man’) appeared in 1964. Peltonen made his decision to become an author early on, when as a boy he heard that he could not become a captain due to his colour-blindness. After the publication of his poems, young idealist left the study of aesthetics, literature and art history at the University of Helsinki for others to bother about and decided that he would never return to the university except with a laurel wreath upon his head.

A year earlier, Peltonen had participated in the prestigious J.H. Erkko writing competition. He won the prose division with his short stories, published in 1965 under the titlee Vedenalainen melodia (‘Underwater melody’). Both the poems of the Ihmisiät collection and the short stories of Vedenalainen melodia departed from the mainstream of the 1960s with their romantic aestheticism, and as a stranger to the fashions of the time, Juhani Peltonen remained faithful to his idels.

After receiving recognition as an author, Juhani Peltonen now dared to play the fool. In addition to the Chekhov-loving pan-Slavic melancholic, he also had living within him a shameless verbal acrobat, and he felt no need to push one self aside as the other worked. Peltonen was a skilful romantic poet, who was able to avoid cheap sentimentalism – and at the same time he wrote rollicking ‘surpoetics in subverse’: playful’ nonsense-poetry intoxicated with the joy of using his mother tongue.

In his later collections of poetry, Välimatkakirja (‘A traveller’s guide to intervals’, 1984) and Näköisveistos ruumiskirstusta (‘An effigy of a coffin’, 1987), the mirth receded into the background, but still remained in the picture: ‘Me too it has got to, fast and thick. / I try to make tracks at night, / to the far side of perceptions. / Perfection is what makes death so attractive. / It won’t remain unfinished or in progress / like life, in which, as even in a good play / the best spots are, without question, / the intermission, and the fastest route to the cloakroom.’

Peltonen’s best known work – which was also adapted as a radio play – is his novel Elmo (1978) about a peerless athlete. On the surface it is a light-hearted parody of nationalistic sporting fervour, but at a deeper level it is a tale of man’s intense loneliness. Peltonen’s literary hand is generally rather difficult to interpret, but his work has been translated into Hungarian, German, Estonian and Russian, and the Elmo radio play has been translated into French, English, Swedish and Slovak.

Elmo is a person who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. He reigns supreme in an arena which to him is meaningless: the world’s best athlete hoovers up gold medals with his dazzling scores in both the summer and winter Olympics, but doesn’t care about sport or the celebrity it brings. He would rather be normal and live in peace, but for that he is given no chance.

Elmo unwillingly becomes the icon of a fanatical sporting mania. He is a pacifist, who is vexed by being forced to listen to twenty-one gun salutes fired in his honour. He cannot abide national anthems, so instead he instructs that Schubert and Finnish lullabies be played while he stands atop the Olympic medal platform. The young Elmo thinks that he ought to get on with normal life as quickly as possible; when he falls in love he dreams of building a home and a family. But normal life is not to be his lot, and an unfortunate love carries him to other solar systems literally.

Peltonen describes Elmo’s fate thusly: ‘Unknowingly he was already being tossed amidst the shipwrecks of his daydreams and childish imaginings, failing to discern in the least how, in the icon corner of his heart’s innermost chamber, someone was belting out triumphant dirge scales on a double bass, which, as the years flew quickly by, only a few close people would become sensitive enough to hear and understand – and with heavy hearts even then.’

Translated by Owen Witesman