Inside and out

14 February 2011 | Reviews

Markku Pääskynen. Photo: Ville Palonen

It is typical of Markku Pääskynen’s fiction for horrible things to happen both in people’s internal worlds and what goes by the name of the objective reality around them, and you can’t always be sure which one they’re happening in – or they’re happening in both.

From his debut novel, Etanat (‘Snails’, 2002, Tammi), onwards Markku Pääskynen (born 1973) has created a highly original body of work. His special strengths are his linguistic and narrative virtuosity, which allow him to make surprising events and narrative solutions come off in a controlled manner.

Pääskynen’s third novel, Tämän maailman tärkeimmät asiat (‘The most important things of this world’, 2005, featured in Books from Finland 1/2006), was a description of a single day that focused on the relationship between an adult son and his mother. Pääskynen’s sixth book, Enkelten kirja (‘Book of Angels’, 2010), is constructed out of sensory perceptions, thoughts, feelings and memories. The reader has to stay on his toes in piecing together the course of events, gradually revealed from behind these elements, and to find the story behind the plot.

The protagonist in Enkelten kirja is Tuomas, single father of little Aino. Aino’s mother’s absence and fate remain an omnipresent yet unfocused fact for much of the book. A fire breaks out in the nursery, and Aino is sent to hospital, Tuomas is fired from his job; the novel contains a fair number of vicissitudes. Some of them, like Tuomas suddenly ending up the target of a violent assault, seem to emphasise the randomness of the world, with archetypally existential overtones.

The book focuses on the feelings of Tuomas’s internal world. He potters about at home with Aino, gets drunk with his friend Okko, tries to start up a relationship with a woman. Sometimes he goes – both in his memories and in reality – to Tallinn, which lends the novel historical perspective. In withdrawing into the world of his memory and imagination, Tuomas pulls away from the collective bustle of the rest of human society and its assumed rationality. When one examines people’s actions from a distance and inspects their priorities without identifying with them, normal life starts to look odd: a pack of people goes one way not carrying anything, a couple of hours later they go in a different direction with plastic bags. This method of representation could probably be called estrangement in the sense meant by the Russian Formalists. When some habit has become automatised, become ‘normal’, commonplace phenomena can be made new, strange, and fresh by looking at them from a distance.

Making the normal weird also extends to the language of the novel. The method is based to a significant extent on the surprising comparison, connection or serialising of everyday observations, creating a strange feeling of causality. This is a rather difficult yet peculiarly effective tool. Enkelten kirja usually operates using the third person, from Tuomas’s perspective, but now and then a first-person narrator shows up with his comments. And then, to boot, the narrator may suddenly turn omniscient and report on events like a police examination record: an idiosyncratic narrative solution, but it works convincingly.

Despite the dark overtones of arbitrariness, Enkelten kirja ends in a serene, sanguine mood. There is also light and warmth in life.

Translated by Owen Witesman


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