A short story from Himokone (‘Lust machine’, WSOY, 2012). Interview by Anna-Leena Ekroos
Karoliina wondered whether her name was suitable for a famous poet.
Her first name was alright – four syllables, and a bit old-fashioned. But Järvi didn’t inspire any passion. Should she change her name before her first collection came out? Was there still time? She had four months until September.
Even if The flower of my secret was the name of some old movie, Karoliina clung to the title she’d chosen. It described the book’s multifaceted, erotically-tinged sensory world and the essential place of nature in the poems. Karoliina loved to take long walks in the woods. Sometimes she talked to the trees.
She had been meeting new people. At the writer’s evening organised by her publisher, she’d been seated next to Märta Fagerlund, in the flesh. Karoliina had read Fagerlund’s poems since her teens, and seen her charisma light up the stage on cultural television shows.
At first Karoliina couldn’t get a word out of her mouth. She just blushed and dripped gravy on her lap. But the longer the evening went on, the more ordinary Märta seemed. She was even calling her Märta, and telling her about a new friend on Facebook who said how ‘awfully funny’ Märta was. In fact, the squeaky-voiced Märta, with her enthusiasm for Greece, was a bit dry, and, after three glasses of white wine, tedious. But Karoliina never mentioned it to anyone, because she wasn’t a spiteful person.
The publisher’s editor Iiris Suvanto wanted to make Karoliina a star. ‘You have a timeless light blazing within you,’ Iiris said at the end of their editorial meeting, at a corner table at Kosmos. Karoliina would always remember that moment. She wanted to remember those very words, the spring evening light that illuminated the silver forks and the sides of their glasses of cognac. What she wanted to forget was that there were four empty cognac glasses in front of Iiris, and a slight slur in her voice.
Her, Karoliina Järvi, from Iisalmi, sitting in Kosmos Restaurant with a publishing editor enjoying a dessert of vanilla mousse in a nest of cloudberries. As she looked at the dish, she wondered if a picture of herself naked in a bed of cloudberries might be a good idea for the book cover. She didn’t suggest such a thing, of course.
Karoliina had a collection of representative photos on her web page. There would, of course, be requests for photos and interviews once her book was published. She had deleted unnecessary friends and the silly, shallow photos taken with them – after all, she didn’t really know if people like that were her real friends. Instead she bestowed some black and white shots of herself in a lovely fitted top she bought in Barcelona. She had an inscrutable, perhaps slightly melancholy look in them.
She wrote diligently on her blog, which was also a countdown to the release date for The flower of my secret. She commented on current events and made clever remarks about them, but not too provocative, so as not to label herself a political person ahead of time.
Besides, politics didn’t interest her terribly. She would much rather comment on artistic questions, and sometimes fashion, and any old wonderful thing that made her poet’s heart beat faster. Sometimes it was just the morning sun, its rays announcing one less day left to wait until September.
September arrived and Karoliina’s web page read THE BIG BANG. It referred to her book’s publication date, which had already been preceded by a few little bangs: first, sending the final manuscript to the publisher – Ta-daa!!! : ) : ) – then, receiving the galleys for review – HELP!!! – and, lastly, mailing it for the printing – Phew!
On the morning of the big day Karoliina turned off her phone and went for a long walk in the woods – she didn’t want to think about all the inevitable inquiries and demands right away. Still, as she walked along the trail she couldn’t help pondering her nature-lover’s image and what kind of magazines she would grant interviews to. The yellowing trees nodded their approval, her step light over the tufts of moss. ‘The silky dimness of the birches,’ she wrote in her black notebook, then continued on, humming as she went.
When she got home and turned on her phone, there was a message from Anne: ‘CONGRATULATIONS on your book, Karo! How exciting! When can I get a copy?’
Karoliina didn’t bother to answer because a) Anne still lived in Iisalmi and wore sneakers, and b) she hated her childhood nickname, Karo.
No other messages. But she didn’t panic, she just hurried to report her most recent feelings on her blog. They were a combination of relief and excitement. For her Facebook update, she just wrote Finally out!
She kept her eye on her Facebook page while she wrote a draft of the poem inspired by her morning walk. No one commented on her Finally out! update right away.
Finally Petri Papunen commented: ‘Who’s out of where?’
Karoliina got up so fast she almost knocked her chair over. She had to pace back and forth on the rug to calm herself down. First off, who could really have a name like that? And second, why did he have to make such a stupid, clueless comment about her happy news?
Karoliina took a deep breath and wrote: ‘The flower of my secret, that’s all! : )’
She couldn’t concentrate on the half-finished poem, she kept glancing instinctively to see if any comments had arrived. Several minutes passed, half an hour. Then from Petri: ‘???’
Karoliina bit her lip and wrote: It’s a collection of poems, my first, entitled The flower of my secret. I already have my head in the clouds contemplating the next one!’
To which Petri, again after several minutes, wrote: ‘Ahh. Wow. Sounds kinda pornographic!’
Karoliina deleted Petri’s comments from her wall. She checked her phone and took it with her when she went to take a shower, just in case. She tried writing, but nothing came of it. As evening fell, she picked up the tea kettle, then put it down again and opened a bottle of white wine. It was a day to celebrate, after all.
November arrived. An arctic wind moved through the streets. Seven copies of her collection had been sold, and of those, three went to Karoliina’s mother, her grandma, and Anne. There were two reviews. One of them, the more positive one, was in the local Pohjois-Savon Sanomat newspaper, and the other one she didn’t like to think about. Risto Heikkuri’s stinging words nevertheless haunted her nights. They bubbled up one by one full of thinly veiled misogyny.
That’s what it was about, Karoliina wrote on her blog, pure misogyny! ‘Heikkuri’s lack of expertise in contemporary poetry is glaringly evident in this piece, which is less a review than a pitiful wannabe writer’s desperate act of vengeance.’
‘Can’t wait to read it!’ Petri Papunen commented. ‘That misogyny crack is so not cool. Maybe he’s just horny!’
Karoliina thought for a moment and then answered: ‘I don’t recommend reading the review, but the book is available from Academic Bookstore for 23 euros!’
Petri: ‘Awfully expensive!?! I guess I’ll have to wait to get it from the library.’
Karoliina hadn’t heard from Iiris Suvanto in weeks. She didn’t answer Karoliina’s emails, and the encouraging comments had dried up with Risto Heikkuri’s review. Karoliina went to visit the publishing house unannounced and didn’t recognise a single face in the clatter of the hallways – it seemed almost everything old had been exchanged for new in just a few months. Iiris Suvanto’s office door was shut. A muffled conversation could be heard within. Karoliina pushed the door open to reveal the young writer Suvi-Kukka Salin (formerly Hytönen) with a glass of champagne in her hand. Iiris also had a glass in her hand, and a sensuous look on her face. Suvi-Kukka’s glow was reflected in Iiris’s horn-rimmed glasses – the two of them were celebrating her book’s fifth printing. Pigbitches was selling like hotcakes, though Karoliina thought the book had a hint of desperation in it.
When she got home, Karoliina looked at the clipping from the Pohjois-Savon Sanomat on the wall. There was a black and white photo of her in her fitted top and the caption: ‘Karoliina Järvi, our local girl in the wide world. We believe in you!’
She had at first thought the review was a tad homespun and clumsily written, but the more she read it, the more she saw in it. She sent a text message to Anne and said her phone had been on the fritz and her messages had arrived late but it was really nice to hear from her and had she got a copy of The flower of my secret yet?
Anne answered immediately. ‘Oh, yes, and it was exactly like you!’
That had to be a positive comment. She decided to confirm Anne’s now-ancient Facebook friend request.
By December, Karoliina had developed a worsening inability to sleep. She forgot to eat, laid in the dark all day looking at Facebook. She sat staring at it at night as well, even though no one communicated on Facebook at that hour except for a couple of old pen pals in Brazil. She wondered if she should unfriend Juan, who mostly just asked her about what she wore to bed.
The shimmering hum of the computer felt safer than the deep silence that descended on her studio apartment when she shut it off, as if the silence disassociated her from the world. So she kept the computer on even as she sank into fitful sleep.
Her new friends wrote updates about the magazine articles written about them, the prizes they had pocketed, and the surprising number of foreign publishers who’d bought translation rights to their work. ‘I guess those goofy Dutch just like me!’ wrote an authoress who had opened up about her career as a stripper in her novel.
Suvi-Kukka Salin’s blog had an eventful video diary of the Frankfurt Book Fair, where she recited her text in Salman Rushdie’s lap, in a particularly voluptuous outfit. The video had 385 likes and a pile of appreciative comments.
Karoliina wrote less and less on her blog. Her post on ‘A poet’s winter provisions’ got zero comments. The ‘November isn’t going to bring me down!’ post – same story. Her ‘Christmas is ruined by over-commercialisation’ post, on the other hand, received long, voluble responses, but with a distinctly harassing tone. Apparently she was a retarded lespian atheist, among other things.
She reminded herself that at least someone had read it.
At the publisher’s Christmas reception she faced a wall of backs in corduroy jackets. It was a tight wall, impossible to penetrate. ‘That’s so hilarious!’ she said, tired, apropos of nothing, attempting to elbow her way into the conversation through a break in the wall.
‘Hilarious how?’ a long-haired male writer with a piece of beet in his beard asked. ‘Are you being sarcastic?’
‘No,’ Karoliina muttered.
The man began a meandering monologue about the appalling gaps in the grant-making apparatus, and then burst unexpectedly into tears.
The mood at the reception was tense in other ways because Krista Uuspaavalnimi’s poet husband had stretched the limits of their relationship by also toying with a relationship with Saara Väkiparta, who in turn had long shared her bed with both Arto Mynämö, famous for his crime fiction, and a 76-year-old writer of war novels. ‘That’s where I draw the line!’ Krista said in an indisputably chill voice.
The snow covered the city, and Karoliina’s soul.
One colourless Wednesday night Karoliina was again staring at the messages zipping across her screen, comments and comments and comments to which she had no reply.
Suddenly the computer crashed.
Karoliina cried out. She pounded the keys, to no effect, chewed on her already gnawed fingernails, and felt like she had to get out of the house.
She wandered the streets, looking down at her snowy feet, directionless. All the streets looked the same, each street leading to another, alleyways all the same. There were no trees, but she didn’t feel like talking to them anyway. She continued on, and got lost in an outlying neighbourhood that she wasn’t familiar with. It was a dubious looking place, the abandoned buildings threatening. The windows were dark or broken, a rat the size of a dog ran out of a gate left ajar.
Karoliina stopped. The wind blew into her right ear. She was already turning back when she noticed a familiar name on a muddy wall: Trailer Alley. She’d heard it in the conversation at the writer’s evening, in connection with some club.
At the end of the alley she could make out a glimmer of light. The light seemed to be a reflection off a metal cellar door. Something made her approach the door – maybe it was the muffled shouts and curses she could just barely hear within.
She pressed her ear against the door. ‘Take that! And that!’ a woman’s voice shouted, almost choking. ‘Diletantte! Scribbler!’ another, deeper woman’s voice said. This was followed by a series of high-pitched moans and a clatter.
Karoliina had only slept a few hours over the past few weeks, so she imagined for a moment when she opened the door that she was experiencing hallucinations.
In the middle of a bare cement floor stood Märta Fagerlund, her jiggling breasts bare. She wore dirty leather pants and steel-toed boots. A thin, bruised woman stood facing her, also without a shirt – Karoliina recognised her as a short story writer of a rival publishing company.
‘Who the hell left the door unlocked?’ the thin woman said, and spit out a front tooth.
‘She’s harmless,’ Märta Fagerlund said, wiping the sweat from her blood-streaked brow. ‘Let her watch.’
The women continued their battle. ‘Amateur!’ Märta roared, looking nothing at all like the squeaky classics enthusiast that Karoliina had met last spring. Märta held the skinny woman with one muscular hand and plugged her in the face with the other. ‘Half-baked realist!’ The story writer had two black eyes and bruises on her cheeks, but if Karoliina wasn’t mistaken, she was smiling.
Now Karoliina noticed that a whole crowd of shirtless women were standing around the edges of the the poorly-lit, steamy room. All of them had black, red, and yellow bruises. There was Ilona Suurimo, a star novelist, or rather a shooting star, since her last work, The truth of this, was a flop, and with good reason. Next to her, shaking her fist, was Eila Aarneva, an established essayist of the previous generation, well-known for her uncompromising analyses of matter and being. Her thirty-seventh essay collection, Hate won’t fade, had received deserved praise. What was she doing here?
The women writers panted and let out muffled and irrepressible curses as they watched the bashing. ‘Crush her!’ shouted Lilja, a young, red-haired poet from Turku. Karoliina had thought that Lilja loved large hats, Baudelaire and Rilke, but here she was hopping up and down like a real boxer, her sweaty breasts bouncing, throwing blind punches into the air. ‘Government leech! Grant glutton!’ she screeched, the veins in her neck bulging.
From the ceiling hung a frayed and tattered sack which had, Karoliina spotted a naked picture of Risto Heikkuri painted on its side. It was stabbed full of holes and covered in spreading bloodstains.
Märta had knocked out the novelist, whose swollen face could no longer be clearly seen. But as she loosened her grip, the skinny woman sprang up like a gazelle. ‘You won this round, you hack. You hit harder than you write!’ she said, and let out a strange, heartfelt laugh.
‘My turn!’ Eila Aarneva yelled, and came toward the middle of the floor, her full breasts swinging. ‘Who’s up for the challenge?’
‘I am,’ Karoliina answered.
She tore her shirt open, the buttons flying.
All eyes turned toward her. She didn’t feel sleepy anymore. In fact, she saw everything clearly now.
The first blow to her cheek made the warm blood spurt, and made Karoliina laugh with joy.
Translated by Lola Rogers
Tags: short story