Portrait of the artist as a young boy

30 September 2010 | Reviews

Olli Jalonen. Photo: Katja Lösönen, 2008

Poikakirja (‘The boy’s own book’), Olli Jalonen’s 13th novel to date, continues an ongoing narrative often nominally examining the author’s own family history. In this novel the first-person narrator is the young ‘Olli’ in his first years at school, and his story is the present-tense monologue of a boy between the ages of 7 and 10. The choice of the present tense underlines a certain sense of ‘perpetual now’ in the intensive narrative of childhood.

Jalonen (born 1954) is one of the acknowledged masters of contemporary Finnish prose. His expansive novel Yksityiset tähtitaivaat (‘Private galaxies’, 1999) was an astonishing demonstration of the author’s desire to combine his cyclical understanding of history with a highly sensitive depiction of humanity. The work brought together three of his earlier novels and shaped them into an entirely new composition: at over 800 pages, it would be no exaggeration to call the resulting work a kind of symphony.

Jalonen himself has often likened his central work to a triptych tapestry, and the analogy says a great deal about the effect his narration has of slowly making the world visible to us. His narration avoids drama, concentrating instead on the wonderfully framed, indirect monologue and the reality of the narrator stretching right across the 20th century from beginning to end.

In 1990 Jalonen was awarded the Finlandia Prize for Fiction for his novel Isäksi ja tyttäreksi (‘As father and daughter’). His novel 14 solmua Greenwichiin (‘Fourteen knots to Greenwich’, 2008) was also shortlisted for the Finlandia Prize in 2008.

For Olli, the narrator of Poikakirja, the pillars in his life are home and school. The novel skilfully depicts the ideological schism that occurred in the 1960s between Finnish state schools and many working-class families. Olli’s teacher is a war veteran who hates Russians and Communists, and whose personal conflict, eventually ending in tragedy, is played out in the classroom. His military pedagogical methods are based on physical discipline, humiliation and group punishment. In his classroom, boys are not turned merely into men but men of war.

To counterbalance the harsh world of school, Olli’s home life offers a veritable safety net for both body and soul. As the only boy of five children, he is able to observe his elder sisters’ development from girls into women at a safe distance. Olli has an entirely different relationship with his little sister, Teeny, an autistic girl who lives in her own reality, wholly independent of the world around her.

The ‘normality’ of the depiction of family life in this book makes a big impression on the reader accustomed to contemporary Finnish fiction’s obsession with depicting the brutal realities of alcoholism and domestic violence, incest and foster care. Olli’s simple, bright home life is a daily sequence of playing, doing homework, sitting in the sauna, visiting relatives and eating together.

The significance of the boy’s father is immense, as he serves as the counterbalance to Olli’s teacher, who has become a frightening figure of authority. Originally a metal worker from the capital city, Olli’s father and the family have moved to Häme in southern Finland in search of work. The character of Olli’s father is one of a comfortingly benevolent man who seems able to do anything – and as such he often comes across as almost comic.

The father’s most idiosyncratic characteristic is his self-conscious working-class identity and the genuine sense of individual freedoms associated with this. The right-wing, patriotic values of the school make him repeat the phrase: ‘We’re not cast in that mould.’

The most important lesson at home is the atmosphere of warmth and loyalty; we all take care of each other, particularly the youngest in the family. It is this understanding that carries Olli through the hard-edged world of school.

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