An adventurer in history

Issue 3/2008 | Archives online, Authors

The most popular Finnish writer of the 20th century, Mika Waltari (1908–1979), was a prolific author whose historical novels were best sellers in other languages, too. Sinuhe egyptiläinen, The Egyptian, (1945) was filmed in 1950s Hollywood. In these extracts from her book on Waltari, the Czech translator and publisher Markéta Hejkalova takes a look at his life and his famous novels.

For Mika Waltari, but not just for him, the early 1920s ushered in a beautiful, intoxicating and youthful world that promised freedom, love and adventure after the horrors of the First World War. And yet the writers of the 1920s are sometimes referred to as a lost generation – maybe because the world failed to fulfil all their dreams; ideal love no longer existed, and they were all too often aware of the dark side of free love: syphilis, still an incurable disease at that time.

Waltari was several years younger than the well-known authors associated with the First World War and the atmosphere of the 1920s (Ernest Hemingway was born in 1899, Erich Maria Remarque in 1898) and as a Finn, he was unaffected by the war. Nevertheless the spirit and mood of his early works are very reminiscent of Hemingway’s prose writings from his Paris period.

Finland, too, was young, confident and full of optimism. The political situation in his homeland was definitely not of primary interest to Waltari as an adolescent student and budding writer. By the 1930s the young Mika Waltari was a famous author. His readers would look forward eagerly to his next book. Films and screenplays were made from his books, and his plays were performed on stage. It is not easy to make a living from literature, even for a popular author, so Waltari not only wrote diligently and even feverishly, he also did translations and worked as an editor for a number of newspapers and magazines as well as for radio. But most of all he wrote – and not just to make a living. Mika Waltari became increasingly convinced that writing was his mission in life, his vocation.

Waltari started to write historical novels not only to escape from depressing reality into the splendid realm of fantasy but also to find parallels with present events in the distant and more recent past. The first and best known of them is Sinuhe egyptiläinen, The Egyptian (1945).

The story takes place during the rule of the Pharaoh Akhnaton, in the fourteenth century BC. At that time the pharaoh was attempting to introduce monotheism, belief in a single god, Aton. Akhnaton was unsuccessful, however, and his successors reverted to polytheism. It takes the form of fifteen books in which the main hero, Sinuhe, recounts his memoirs. Then came his two-part novel Mikael Karvajalka, Michael the Finn and Mikael Hakim, The Sultan’s Renegade (1948 and 1949, known in the US as The Adventurer and The Wanderer, respectively) set in 16th-­century Europe and Turkey. The novel Johannes Angelos, The Dark Angel, appeared in 1952.

Waltari then returned to ancient times: Turms, kuolematon, The Etruscan, (1955) takes place in the fifth century BC, while Valtakunnan salaisuus, The Secret of the Kingdom (1959) and his last novel Ihmiskunnan viholliset, The Roman (1964) take place in the early period of Christianity. Neljä päivänlaskua, A Nail Merchant at Nightfall, is a short ‘novel about a novel’ which is also connected with his historical fiction (1949). It deals with the period when Waltari was writing The Egyptian, his creative crisis and depression over the imminent completion of a new work. It is chiefly, however, about a troubled heart and an illicit love affair, but it ends with a happy return to the safety of home.

Waltari did not like the long, dark Finnish winter and studying material for his novels was a way of putting it to good use. He would read books he bought in secondhand bookshops or ordered from abroad (he disliked borrowing books from the library and seldom did so, oddly enough). He would study period documents, old maps and drawings. He would make trips, visiting museums as well as the sites of his future novels. Egypt was an exception: Waltari never went there, neither before writing the Egyptian nor after it was published – even when he received an invitation from the Egyptian president Nasser, who had taken a liking to the novel. Waltari politely declined; he truly had no need to see the real Egypt after the book was written, but nor had he needed to beforehand, because present-day Arab Egypt was a completely different country from Sinuhe’s ancient Egypt.

Waltari’s historical novels all deal with journeys and in many of them the main protagonist has a comic sidekick. The journey theme is also related to the fact that the hero has no home, but is a ‘foreigner’ in the world. Thus Sinuhe the Egyptian flees Egypt and travels through Babylonia, the Empire of the Hittites and Crete, and Michael, the hero of Michael the Finn and The Sultan’s Renegade discovers many European countries with his companion Antti: Sweden, Denmark. Germany, Switzerland, France, Spain, Italy and Hungary, as well as the Orient, Persia and Algiers.

It is not surprising that Waltari had a liking for the picaresque novel format. He himself was an avid traveller, and would make trips abroad whenever he had the time and money to do so. As a young man he formed an attachment to Paris and Istanbul. He wrote two travelogues Yksinäisen miehen juna (‘A lonely man’s train’, 1929), and Lähdin Istanbuliin (‘Journey to Istanbul, 1948) – but the theme of journeys, travel and foreign lands recurs in many of his works. Waltari is very good at capturing the atmosphere of places. the ‘genia loci’. and not only abroad but also in Helsinki, the setting of several of his books. Waltari’s wanderlust was an escape from an ordered, hardworking and almost tedious lifestyle into distant lands, an escape from exhausting work, an escape certainly from the Finnish winter and darkness, a yearning to transcend the isolation of a small country on the edge of Europe.

The chief protagonist of his novels is often an orphan, a child of unknown parents, or one born out of wedlock. His actual origin is shrouded in mystery and there are hints that he comes from the highest ranks of society. Sinuhe is brought to his adoptive parents in a basket floating down the Nile, and his features suggest that he is of noble origins. Eventually the hero, with surprising ease, starts to rub shoulders with the powerful of this world, becoming their adviser and their sole confidant, and often their admirer. The hero acquires property and elevated status.

In all of the novels there appears the theme of a turning point, engendering wide-ranging changes. In The Egyptian, it is the belief in the new god, Aton, established by the new Pharaoh, Akhnaton (this belief is very reminiscent of Christianity. being monotheistic in contrast to the previous polytheism). In Michael the Finn and The Sultan’s Renegade, Michael accepts Islam, and the things that are viewed in the first part from the point of view of Christian Europe are described in the second part from the position of the Islamic Ottoman Empire. The inspiration here chiefly comes from the period when the novel was written, when the situation in Finland radically changed in many respects as a result of being on the losing side in the Second World War – overnight yesterday’s ally (Germany) became the enemy and the ancient enemy (Russia/the Soviet Union) was now officially the beloved friend, altering both Finnish foreign policy and the atmosphere of Finnish society for years to come.

Turning points do not always mean a change for the worse, but by and large small nations have no great influence on them and have to learn to survive in all circumstances. That, too, is the conclusion that emerges from Waltari’s historical novels; be it pessimistic, cynical or realistic, it is one of the possible explanations for Waltari’s fame and popularity.

Conflict features in all of the novels, in the form of major military campaigns, border clashes, rebellions and uprisings, battles, etc. Interestingly, no single specific war is featured, let alone one in which one side is definitely in the right and the other in the wrong. Here, too, it is not hard to see what the inspiration was. The novels were written after the Second World War, which, at least from the Finnish standpoint, was a free-for-all and it was not altogether clear which side was justified or entirely in the right. Moreover, as a child, Waltari had witnessed the Finnish Civil War of 1918, in which the main victims were innocent people.

All the novels include an explicit and distinct criticism of all ideologies that manipulate the lives of ordinary people in the name of so-called higher goals, including sending them into battle and to their death. The disseminators of such apparently noble ideals are often members of secret brotherhoods who feel themselves superior to ordinary people. Waltari was familiar with Soviet totalitarianism and harboured no illusions about it, as witness, for instance, his wartime reportage on Soviet espionage and the fate of the Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Finnish criticism discerns two contradictory types in Waltari’s historical novels: the idealist and the realist. The idealist is often driven by the best of intentions – and for that very reason he does evil, causing disruption and ruin. The realist is not particularly admirable, morally speaking, and he is often driven by a thirst for power and wealth, but he is the one that establishes order and peace. In The Egyptian, the new pharaoh Akhnaton is the idealist, while his military: commander Horemheb is the realist. Similarly, at a different level, Sinuhe may be regarded as the idealist and his servant Kaptah the realist.

All the novels feature both a good woman and a wicked woman as the hero’s partner. The good woman has a sorry fate – she dies, often in a fairly dramatic way and the hero’s love for her is unfulfilled. However, in most cases even the good women have their negative side. The wicked woman is beautiful, but she is a femme fatale. In The Egyptian the wicked woman is the beautiful Nefernefernefer. Because of her embrace (which he scarcely gets a chance to enjoy anyway), Sinuhe repudiates his adoptive parents, sells their house and grave and is obliged to flee Egypt.

Waltari’s problematical relationship with women is possibly related to religion and its tendency to regard women as either saints or harlots, and possibly to the times as well. Apparently, however, it is not directly related to his marriage. Waltari had a long and happy marriage and he always spoke about his wife and his marriage with love and respect. That does not mean, however, that all the other women were complete fictions.

The novels also feature the super­natural, mysticism and witchcraft, but also a deep relationship with God (or, in works that take place before the Christian era, to something transcendental governing human life). Waltari had a lasting interest in mysticism and ecstasy, ever since his youth and his student thesis on ‘divine and worldly love’. This interest attracted him to other religions apart from strict Lutheranism – such as Catholicism and Islam. Waltari adopted an ecumenical approach. He dreamed of a merging of all religions and the abandonment of all disagreements. Although it probably sounds paradoxical, Waltari’s novels are optimistic, which possibly explains their great popularity. The author is convinced that every ordinary human life is of value, that people feel good among ‘people like themselves’ and that slowly, almost imperceptibly and by devious routes, humankind is headed towards goodness.

Thanks to the fees he received for foreign editions of The Egyptian and other books, Waltari could afford to stop ‘writing to live’ and could write purely ‘as a vocation’. His fees were almost staggering – The Egyptian alone ran to several editions in Great Britain and the US, even in Australia. In the United States the novels The Egyptian and Michael the Finn topped the bestseller lists for many weeks, but the critics also praised the novels Vieras tuli taloon / A Stranger Came to the Farm, (1937) and A Nail Merchant At Nightfall. After the former was published, an American critic described Waltari as a minor Dostoyevsky and his historical novels were compared to those of Victor Hugo and Alexander Dumas. The literary supplement of the New York Herald Tribune introduced the major authors of autumn 1950, or rather it allowed them to introduce themselves in their own words. Waltari featured there as the only non-Anglo-Saxon in the company of such writers as Ernest Hemingway, William Somerset Maugham and Betty MacDonald.

Waltari’s books were translated into foreign languages from the very beginning, starting with his debut work Suuri illusioni (‘The grand illusion’, 1928). He was first translated into the Scandinavian languages and Estonian. The first major success at a European level was the novel A Stranger Came to the Farm. His international success and the translation boom dated from The Egyptian, however. The fees for the translated editions were enormous but not as high as his contemporaries imagined. Waltari’s income was high but it meant that he paid high taxes. Moreover, he was represented in America by a literary agent named Marion Saunders, who simply ‘disappeared’ one day, taking with her part of his American fees. Ever modest, Waltari apparently passed over the matter in silence.

In a newspaper interview in the 1950s, Waltari explained that people were under a misapprehension: he did not own chateaux, villas or houses abroad, just an apartment in Helsinki and a share in a country house.

When Waltari had said everything he wanted to say, he made a dreadful discovery: he had less and less energy and he found writing more and more difficult. At the beginning of the 1950s Waltari was forty-two years old and leading a contented and ordered life with a kind and tolerant wife and a daughter who was almost grown up.

He had many jolly friends in the world of the arts, particularly actors, because he was active in the theatre and film. He had reached the summit of his creative success or more correctly it was now behind him; it was hard to imagine that he would write another book more successful than The Egyptian. In 1950, the New York Herald Tribune asked him for an autobiographical essay or a confession, and Waltari wrote that he felt exhausted. He had experienced too much: ‘too much work, too much reading, too much writing, too much travelling and experience of too many wars’. And he continues: ‘As a writer I have probably achieved greater outward success than I deserve in reality. However, I try to accept it with modesty, aware that everything is relative. I’m no preacher, nor am I a fighter or a prophet. If, after all my experience and disappointments, I am trying to present some program or vision between the lines of my books, then it can be summed up in the words: individual freedom, humanity and tolerance. In addition, one also needs a bit of beautiful pointlessness in order to go on living. Admittedly in the present day it’s a hopeless program, but I think it’s essential.’

Marketa Hejkalova:
Mika Waltari the Finn
Translated from the Czech by Gerald Turner
Helsinki: WSOY, 2008

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