A sweep is as lucky as lucky can be

27 August 2009 | Authors, Reviews

Photo: Ville Palonen

Jari Järvelä. Photo: Ville Palonen

The heroine of Jari Järvelä’s new novel begins telling the story of her life from inside an oven, beneath which a murderer is stoking a fire: a gripping start.

The reader of Mistä on mustat tytöt tehty? (‘What are black girls made of?’) has to wait until the end of the novel to find out what happens to the captive female chimney sweep, Katariina or ‘Rööri’ (‘Pipey’). In those moments in the oven, Pipey’s life flashes before her eyes.

In his previous novels, Jari Järvelä (born 1966) has concentrated on exploring people on the margins of Finnish history; rather than portraying the lives of significant figures, he chooses instead to depict everyday people and their day-to-day lives.

In his recent trilogy, Järvelä gave an account of the years between Finland’s independence in 1917 and the beginning of the Second World War. (The final part of this trilogy, Kansallismaisema [‘National landscape’, 2006] was featured in Books from Finland 4/2006). Since 1995 his output has included seven novels, collections of short stories and radio plays.

In Mistä on mustat tytöt tehty?, Järvelä depicts the time from the war years until the beginning of the 1980s, and Helsinki and the most obnoxious years of punk rock and anarchy, which the novel’s protagonist and narrator Pipey enjoys to the full.

This time the grass-roots view of the world typical of Järvelä’s novels is swapped for a bird’s-eye perspective: at the centre of the novel, on the roofs high above the city, is the fast disappearing world of chimney sweeps, a profession that once enjoyed the respect of the nation, particularly that of women. The old saying goes that meeting a chimney sweep on the street brought you good luck – better still, if you managed to touch him. Järvelä also alludes to the sexual connotations of pipes, flues and chimney sweeping. The author makes use of the spectrum of humour and comedy, from naïve jokes and below-the-belt humour to dramatic irony and elements of satire.

Järvelä is a passionate storyteller who latches on to small anecdotes and extrapolates them to absurd dimensions. In his novels, comedy is always coupled with tragic destinies. In What are black girls made of?, Pipey’s father is crippled at a very young age: trapped in a collapsed chimney stack, the young chimney sweep is forced to saw off his own leg.

In addition to its often hilariously over-the-top anecdotes, other important elements in the novel are the characters, the people who have shaped Pipey’s life. Aside from her chimney-sweep father, this motley crew of vivid characters includes her father’s constantly changing lady-friends, Pipey’s ‘mothers’, her half-sister Karoliina, the complete opposite of Pipey and her eternal competitor, and the children from the yard, in particular Osku, who thinks of himself as Tarzan (‘Orzan’) and who later becomes Pipey’s fiancé. Pipey’s friends at work and in her punk circles are also very colourful personalities.

This tragicomic novel also gives rise to a variety of serious interpretations. The anarchic Pipey can be seen as a feminist figure crossing boundaries and subverting traditional gender roles. Järvelä is not usually considered a social critic, but this novel examines changes in the structure of society through its depiction of the changes in the cityscape and in everyday life. The novel can even be read from a psychoanalytical perspective.

Järvelä clearly has a firm grasp of the practical and technical aspects of working as a chimney sweep, as he does of the cultural phenomena that characterised the 1960s and 70s. With skill and devotion he describes both the lives of working people and a burgeoning youth underground culture. Järvelä paints a breathtaking and exhilarating canvas full of intricate details and unexpected turns.

Translated by David Hackston

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