Survival games

9 October 2009 | Authors, Reviews

Sari Malkamäki

Sari Malkamäki. - Photo: Irmeli Jung

Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters in Sari Malkamäki’s new short stories

The relationship between parents and children is the central theme of Sari Malkamäki’s fifteen new short stories. She published her first collection in 1994; in Jälkikasvu (‘Offspring’, Otava, 2009), her tenth book, the few stories in which children don’t appear nevertheless allude to childhood experiences or to a child who sets the narrative in motion.

The point of view may be that of the child or of the parent, the focus of description some moment that forms a turning point in the characters’ circumstances, or even in their lives. Malkamäki’s children are often touchingly resourceful and brave, even when their adults fail them.

Families are a perennial favorite of fiction writers (not rarely to the point of reader fatigue…). Childhood experiences stay with one for life, whether for good or ill. Primary relationships are of course a reliable, inexhaustible source of drama, capable of running the gamut from the sublime to the melodramatic.In Malkamäki’s prose, the pasts that characters or those around them think they know thoroughly are revealed, often half by accident, in a completely new light: a classic short story method perhaps sometimes considered old-fashioned, now that a piece of ‘short prose’ could be practically anything. But when it works, it works.

Julius, in the short story ‘A long dream’, is a middle-aged man whose wife, after a short formal briefing, leaves him. Astonished by this and unable to sleep, he counts the days, hours and minutes. ‘There is nothing to disturb his life now that his wife is gone.’ He finally falls into a deep sleep, returning to a childhood dream of losing his own name, and as he wakes, his wife is back. With a gentle irony, Malkamäki charts Julius’s thoughts about his life, lived and unlived.

‘Offspring’, a long story of 47 pages, portrays a retired woman, Vuokko, whose son barricades himself menacingly in his ex-wife’s house with his little twin girls following their divorce. Vuokko’s assistance is needed in the police response; she is forced to review her own past quickly, assess all the love and lovelessness in her life, while talking her son (successfully) out of the dangerous situation.

Malkamäki favours dramatic turns in her stories that arise from contemporary people’s ordinary lives. The world may be cruel, and human relationships may betray, disappoint and frighten us, but by no means does she point at tragedy only. Nor does she ever verge on the melodramatic.

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