The three-minute redemption

28 March 2013 | Fiction, Prose

Artist and writer Hannu Väisänen’s alter ego, Antero – who has appeared in Väisänen’s earlier autobiographical novels – is a young artist in his new novel Taivaanvartijat (‘The guardians of heaven’, Otava, 2013). Antero is invited to create the altarpiece for a new church. He rejects conventional, ecclesiastical ‘Sunday art’ and uses  simple and versatile everyday symbols; his design contains an ordinary Finnish door key, familiar to everybody. The clergymen and laywomen are appalled: is this art, is it appropriate? In this extract the frustrated Antero takes a therapeutic break – on a roller-coaster

Now I need to get another beat into my head. What can help me forget those morose, curled up creatures, their strange commands and scents? I remember the roller-coaster. And I remember the ancient lore that it’s good to ride the roller-coaster with a lover before you attempt anything else. I go home quickly, throw down my sketch-book and my unnecessarily businesslike briefcase, exchange my suit, which was supposed to indicate devotion, for a windcheater, arrange my hair more carelessly, get on my bike and cycle to the funfair where I know the roller-coaster, the genuine, real, old-fashioned, clanking roller-coaster, to be.

Who could have been the first person to imagine the delights of the roller-coaster? Into whose happy capacity for daydreaming did it fall? Who saw those massive iron tentacles in their figure-eight shapes, those stretched and knotted rings of eternal joy? Who understood that on such a ride shame and anxiety would fall out of one’s pockets? It’s claimed that the first roller-coaster was invented by Catherine the Great. The monarch, with her multifarious patronage of culture, commissioned in Oranienbaum, St Petersburg, the first Montagne Russe amid the amusements of the wise: a Russian mountain with its ice-paths, raised into the air, which melted with the coming of spring. Who else could understand this organ-stirring amusement as deeply as the Great Wife with her hundreds of lovers. In the grip of mortal fear, I too always pray: before I am laid in earth, before the crematorium’s oven, take me once more to the roller-coaster.

When I arrive at the funfair entrance, the till-girl tells me that I won’t have time for many rides. The funfair will be closing in an hour. I say an hour will be plenty of time for me. Just five goes on the roller-coaster, that’s all. I try to hurry by the most direct route to the corner of the park where I know the roller-coaster to be. The winding alleyways with their twinkling lights slow my progress. I would like to free my path of every cone-like lamp construction, demolish all the ice-cream and candy-floss kiosks. Then I am at the roller-coaster’s tills. I ask for five tickets, but am sold only one. You have to go to the till for each ride. One ticket at the time, the till-girl says, one ticket at a time, they always check whether I am still in a fit state for the next turn. You will see, I say, lick the ticket and make a dash for the platform.

On the roller-coaster platform there is really no one but me. It is a beautiful early August evening, the sun already so low that the entire tight, elaborate wood-and-iron structure of the roller-coaster is bathed in reddish light and looks more enticing and more supple than the Golden Gate bridge in the camera’s panning shot of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. On top of the structure twists the track itself, like a capricious string of licorice lifted into the air. All the wooden components have clearly recently been treated with tar, for the lovely scent of tar floats in the warm air, making the roller-coaster even more enticing, like a newly completed boat for shooting the rapids. Behind the graphic pattern formed by the supporting structure a part of the city is visible. The iron obliques, planks, gratings and winding tracks form a great, fine abstraction which is reminiscent of early Pollock, and at the same time a stomach-churning image of exorcism on which, in a moment, I must ride.

Somewhere above a string of cars is travelling at full speed. Although I cannot see the faces of the people sitting in it, I can imagine what is happening there, and I smile. It is clanking beautifully, and there are, all mixed up, screaming mouths, loose wigs, handkerchiefs, berets, glasses cases, staring eyes, eyes squeezed tight shut, tears and spit. There are couples whom the rapid motion unites, and others for whom it is the last straw. There are young men, squaddies, who have arrived proudly, girlfriend on arm, intending to show their courage, who have slid to the bottom of the car, weeping, while the girl, supposedly fearful, lives deeply and heroically, her soul swelling with each bend and bump, waving happily to her girlfriends below…. I watch the cars arrive at the platform and see their human cargo leave, stumbling, seeking balance and direction, drunk with the whisking experience, heading toward other madnesses. Suddenly I remember my worries about the church. How I would have liked to bring the entire parish council with me to the roller-coaster, offer them a ride. I am sure that the negotiations about my paintings would proceed on a completely different basis.

I climb into the car, telling the driver that I would like to be alone. It is an unnecessary comment. Only three people get into the cars that could hold a couple of dozen: me and a middle-aged couple who, at the driver’s request, relinquish their candy-floss. They can have them back after the ride, the brake-man says. If they still want to fumble them with their lips.

Then I am on board, looking at the red and green curves of my car. What a wonderful thing the roller-coaster is! No one can do anything about physics, everyone is helpless when the laws of gravity take hold on the steep descents. Becoming helpless is very good for you, being forced into positions you would never otherwise take up. For the roller-coaster is not made with an eye only for costly terror, in fact it is not really a form of entertainment. It is ordinary everyday life, the bitterness of everyday life squeezed into a large lemonade-bottle which some fist more powerful than the human hand shakes, turns upside down and finally makes the contents froth.

My life is entirely in the hands of the brakeman. I would like to throw my passport and my bunch of keys into the air, abandon my name even. What other activity could bring about the same feelings of bliss and impersonality in stomach and head as a turn on the roller-coaster driven by the brakeman. You feel as if you have gone through purgatory and paradise in the space of three minutes. After a moment’s regrouping you want to go back to purgatory.

When the brakeman, a little man who looks like a jockey, a professional provider of joy dressed in the costume and tail of Lucifer, has taken the car to the top of the track, and when the car then rolls slowly along the upper curve, showing the capital as exceptionally beautiful, as if for the last time, I feel at the same time a little excited and extraordinarily calm. I know I will soon feel an ice-cold ball expanding in my diaphragm, I know the wind will strip tears from my eyes, I know I will shout louder than ever, I know my mouth and adenoids will rip once again and I know I will enjoy it like mad, enjoy every curve and swoop. The flashing lights gleam either side of the track, the city is putting on its street lights as it prepares to rest, and soon an enormous witch’s cauldron, with its tracks twisting inwards, on top of each other and in knots, will suck my cares away.

I grasp the locking bar of the seat like a treasure. I sit in the first car, as always, because I do not wish to see anyone’s neck in front of me. I want to rise alone, head heavy, legs cold in the ascent, to swoop downwards alone into the tar-scented tunnel. Here is the first hill, the first swoop. Quickly I thank every carpenter and welder who built this temple of experiences. I thank the brakeman and hope that he does not use his brake too often. I would like to make the sign of the cross, but it is impossible. It is forbidden to take your hands off the bar. If there is a God, I think, he must be amused, must enjoy seeing people, in their free time, screaming in those beautifully whining and shuddering cars, and even paying for it.

Some people pay to have themselves whipped, bound to equipment of a different sort, or crawl before their scourgers in a red room, dressed in collars and rubber overalls with a large hole at the buttocks, weep for joy and pay for that, too. I do not wish to whip or be whipped, but I skitter towards the roller-coaster as a circus seal scurries toward a Baltic herring.

Another hill, another swoop. What is my miserable Abloy key* in the altarpiece? That’s what they seem to be so worried about. The parish council is afraid it will cause dizziness. But what is the aim of art? You look at an image which you immediately delete from your mind since you know you are soon going to gossip about everything else while you drink your weak church coffee and hold a bun in your other hand. The roller-coaster, on the other hand, holds you and twists you in its grasp for three minutes, empties your mind and your heart and remains, pulsing, in your diaphragm, which it has expanded and contracted.

The car dashes into its last tunnel, warm and black. All I can hear is my own screaming, mixed with the screeching of the car. There is a strong smell of fresh tar, which the darkness seems to intensify. I know that I have no wish for Catherine the Great’s icy Russian mountains. In my mind, the roller-coaster is linked with eternal summer, a summer evening, and with solitude rather than company. For what can be better, on a beautiful summer evening, than experiencing your own gravity and the associated redemption from sins in all possible positions. Every time, as I come out of the dark wooden tunnel, I feel myself to be exactly the right weight, and I believe in the authenticity of the tears the wind rips from my eyes.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

*) The Abloy key was invented by Finnish Emil Henriksson (in 1907). The key eventually got into Väisänen’s altarpiece triptych of the new church in Kontula, Helsinki, in 1988.

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