Portraits and bagatelles

30 September 2008 | Fiction, Prose

Kaarina Valoaalto

Kaarina Valoaalto. Photo: Tammi.

Soila Lehtonen on Kaarina Valoaalto’s new collection of short prose

In Kaarina Valoaalto’s prose ‘the river, made wild by a storm, gallops, foaming at the mouth, down between the stays of the street banks and into the sea’ and ‘the fly is a classic’: ‘its buzz sounds the cycle of the year and all of the scales of feeling. A fly brings together agrarian and urban culture…. When I hear it, I believe I’m alone in the cabin of a sailboat, anchored to the bottom of a bay where terns and seagulls call out on the gleaming blue of the open sea and no there is no coffee because no one has bothered to make it’.

Valoaalto (born 1948; her surname is a pseudonym, meaning ‘lightwave’) has written about twenty works of poetry and prose. She gathers observations about everyday life into short prose in her new book, Avantgarderob ja muuta irtaimistoa (‘Avantgarderobe and other moveables’, Tammi, 2008). The gallery of characters includes car salesmen’s wives, Finnish teachers, dog owners, old folks, couples and Pipaluk Yksoksa (‘One-branch’) whose love life is the subject of a series of texts entitled ‘Bagatelle’.

Many of Valoaalto’s texts escape genre definitions; they could be called prose poems or poetical prose. The short prose in Avantgarderob contains philosophical, linguistically capricious ruminations on life, people and animals. These texts are not polished ‘short stories’ with a beginning and an end — rather, they are beginnings or endings, short extracts from everyday life. More essential than complete stories are the turning points and changes, albeit small ones, in the characters’ lives, the surprising, absurd things that suddenly take place. Valoaalto kneads words and sentences like dough, moulding them into spontaneous forms; her improvised cookies may occasionally come out of the oven slightly burned at the edges but nevertheless nicely spiced.

She is at her best with animal characters, dogs in particular. Her previous book, a novel called Nooakan parkki (‘Noahannah’s barque’, 2005), portrays the narrator’s relationship with her chickens, geese, goats, cats and dogs with a mixture of humour and sharp behavioural observations.

The heroine of ‘A portrait of an old dog’ is an elderly reindeer shepherd who’s getting a bit long in the tooth but who is still unconditionally dedicated to her job as mistress of the yard, guarding the household. Anyone who has had canine friends knows exactly what Valoaalto is talking about when she describes the welcoming ceremonies of the faithful family retainer: after the official loud barking, it’s your turn: ‘You must say “Hello”, and wait until the dog puts her muzzle into your hand and, with her tail wagging in perfect cadence, brings her visitor, like a trophy, to the front door.’

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