2 December 2010 | Reviews
‘Knowledge enhances feeling’ is a motto that runs through the whole of Ulla-Lena Lundberg’s oeuvre – both her novels and her travel-writing, covering Åland, Siberia and Africa.
In her trilogy of maritime novels (Leo, Stora världen [‘The wide world’], Allt man kan önska sig [‘All you could wish for’], 1989–1995) she used the form of a family chronicle to depict the development of sea-faring on Åland over the course of a century or so. She gathered her material with historical and anthropological methodology and love of detail. The result was entirely a work of quality fiction, from the consciously old-fashioned rural realism of the first volume to the contradictory postmodern multiplicity of voices in the last – all of it in harmony with the times being depicted.
When Lundberg (born 1947) takes us underground or up onto cliff-faces in her new documentary book, Jägarens leende. Resor i hällkonstens rymd (‘Smile of the hunter. Travels in the space of rock art’), in order to consider cave- and rock-paintings in various parts of the world, she also reveals a little of the background to this attitude towards life that takes such delight in acquiring knowledge – an attitude that is familiar from many of the protagonists of her novels.
Jägarens leende is both an introduction to the subject by an extremely knowledgeable amateur and a loving memoir in honour of the author’s travelling companion in the world of this art, her sister Gunilla Lundberg–Kelly (1945–2005).
The book opens with a captivating portrait of two small girls, the victims of a family catastrophe. The younger one is a feeble, speechless little creature while the older one is determined to survive. ‘Come and look!’ is the big sister’s command to the feeble younger one, and eventually this would become a sort of leitmotif in the latter’s authorship.
In Siberien. Ett självporträtt med vingar (‘Siberia. A self-portrait with wings’) Lundberg successfully managed to tell a story of infatuation, using the richness of expression, the exaltation and reproduction rituals found in the world of birds as her main motifs. Jägarens leende depicts the story of two sisters through their shared journeys together: the reader follows the two women on numerous interesting trips, practically able to hear those eager voices, ‘Come and look!’
Gunilla Lundberg-Kelly was afflicted with a muscular sickness that proved fatal, and their last journeys were made to places accessible by wheelchair. Between her brief depictions of the beginning and end of her sister’s life, Ulla-Lena Lundberg opens up an engaging world of ancient artistry, magic, social communication – in Zimbabwe, Altamira, Bohuslän, Valcamonica…
We also learn a lot about the questions that occupy researchers into rock art, both professionals and laymen. On the disputed issue of whether or not the animal motifs of rock art – the eland antelope in Africa, the elk and bear in the north, mammoths in Ice-Age southern France – express a form of hunting magic or shamanism, Lundberg adopts a neutral position. Does one necessarily preclude the other? Art always has many meanings. Aesthetics and magic can be united in the same artistically inscribed line. Myths have a realistic dimension, realism a mythical one. Human beings are ‘communicative and secretive, never easy to pin down’. When you read Lundberg’s description of reindeer herding in Alta, you realise how multi-layered the narrative is, both documentary and imaginary.
And in spite of the long distance of time, and everything we can never know about the origins of the images, it is still possible to imagine a common denominator – the need to record your experience somehow – between the person who long ago made the painting or carving, and someone wanting to translate their sensory experiences into words.
One of Lundberg’s main concerns throughout her entire writing career has been to get us to see the differences and similarities between us, her readers, and the distant times and places she brings to life in her texts.
As so often in her writing, Lundberg also shows how the objective exterior and the subjective experience, with all its clutter of experiences, disappointments and needs, are always blurring into each other. Whose feelings, for instance, is she conveying to the reader when confronted with a few slapdash lines painted at the far end of a claustrophobic tunnel in Santian? ‘Never have I seen a painting that so strongly expresses loneliness and desperation…. I hope they express some sort of meaning. But to me they mean the end of the road,’ she writes.
And the clumsily depicted elk in Astuvansalmi, on a rock in Lake Saimaa, eastern Finland, speaks to her directly, through her engagement with it back through the centuries – the elk’s torso is decorated by a mark that represents the beast’s heart: ‘I am moved when I see it, perhaps because I myself have had to learn not to wear my heart on my sleeve.’
Encouraged by her big sister’s smart attempts at distraction, the little sister put her bleeding heart in her pocket, wiped her nose on her sleeve and set out to take a look and be enchanted. She became one of Finland-Swedish literature’s most important reminders of the fact that the world is interesting, multifaceted, and worth writing about.
And you can write about the heart, our loving, bleeding hearts, in so many different ways.
Translated by Neil Smith