Happiness is a warm gun?
‘As a group, we’re prone to getting pissed-off’ sums up one interviewee in Petri Tamminen’s new book — his seventh — Mitä onni on (‘What happiness is’, Otava, 2008). And that is exactly what this story is about — an analysis of the causes and consequences of the blues inherent to true Finnishness.
What’s wrong with the Finns? A shared national penchant for playing in a minor key, difficult weather conditions, an excess amount of the protestant work ethic, or what? Two friends — an author and an artist — initiate a field research project with the intent of publishing a book. The episodic narrative takes them on a cruise ship to Sweden, through a university and an eco-commune and all the way to Denmark to interview people with one question: What is happiness?
The novel’s narrator is a father in his forties who suffers from insomnia, graphophobia and a general lack of joy in life. He is the third child of his kind, omnipotent wife Liisa, in constant need of support and attention. In order to generate a new spark in his life, he makes contact with the love of his youth from some 20 years back, the Danish Liselotte, who has ‘extremely large breasts’. He sets off to inspect them with his artist friend Hannu: perhaps the essence of a man’s happiness lies in sexual fulfilment after all.
In Copenhagen the author does not find his vision of the past — but what Hannu finds is the ‘sexuality of the Danish woman’ in Liselotte. The journey turns out to be a miscalculation in other ways as well; the author made the mistake of informing Liisa of his intentions to examine the ‘card he failed to turn over’ in his youth.
The conclusion of the novel, tinged with parody, does not promise any change in the author’s life, although he does seem to learn something or understand something of the joy and beauty of everyday life, at least for a moment. The world of this tale is pessimistic, as in Petri Tamminen’s previous works: a person (or at least a man) does not develop or change but rather walks his path resolutely to its end.
In his serial short prose collections (his debut Elämiä [‘Lives’], 1994; see Books from Finland 4/1994) and short episodic novels, Tamminen (born 1966) has depicted the anxiety of the Finnish man. His works have been translated into Swedish, German, Polish and English, among other languages. He often employs parody in the culmination of the story and creates caricatures of characters, but he has perhaps received the label of ‘masculinist’ writer on false grounds.
However, his portraits of men are brilliant, and friendship between men has never been portrayed more sensitively in Finland.
By contrast, Tamminen has repeatedly depicted the relationship between men and women as shockingly distant, as if reproductive biology were the only sporadic connection between them. In light of his work, this can be interpreted as a critique of excessively restricted cultural gender roles.
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About the writer
Mervi Kantokorpi is a literary scholar and critic and reviews books for, among other publications, the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat.
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