On subterranean spaces

30 August 2013 | Authors, Reviews

Zinaida Lindén. Photo: Janne Aaltonen

Zinaida Lindén. Photo: Janne Aaltonen

A melancholic diplomat’s wife in Turku recalls her childhood in 1970s Leningrad. This is how one might describe the new novel by Zinaida Lindén – then one might be surprised encountering nuance after nuance that challenge our expectations.

The melancholy in Lindén’s novel isn’t soft and misty; it is sharp and metallic. The life of the protagonist Galina, a diplomat’s wife, is far from glamorous, and consists mostly of standing over the ironing board in the family’s one-bedroom flat, ironing shirts for her conscientious and overworked husband at the consulate. The 1970s Leningrad of her memories is not an arena for ideology or culture, but serves as the backdrop for an intimate familial drama, in which the child always remained on the outside and was eventually left alone after the death of her parents.

Zinaida Lindén’s perspective is unusual in its sheer diversity. She was born in Leningrad in 1963 and grew up in the Soviet Union, but now lives in Finland with a career as a Swedish-language writer. She has seen the land she left behind undergo violent convulsions, a change of name, while she also indulges a fascination for Japanese culture. This diversity is reflected in her literary output which, including her new novel För många länder sedan (‘Many lands ago’, Schildts & Söderströms, 2013) comprises three novels and two collections of short stories.

Lindén’s prose tends to display a distanced, ironically self-reflective quality, but all of a sudden it may dive, like a tern, deep into the world of emotions, at once violent and precise. ‘Did I love him?’ Galina asks herself when she thinks of Igor, her husband, the man who saved her from the loneliness of childhood. ‘If a stranger had asked me that, I would have replied with something rather brusque. Whoever said that marriage was made in heaven alone? And what of us that end up in hell, what shall we do? Turn to a life of celibacy?’

The novel is meticulously constructed around the notion of vertical movement. For the most part, the narrator succeeds in remaining above ground through a bittersweet commentary on contemporary phenomena from her family life to the differences between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Russians.

However, the reader is constantly reminded of elements from the underworld: the vaults beneath the small church where eleven-year-old Galina encounters a bizarre ‘flasher’; the imaginary dungeons in the Carceri suite by 18th-century artist and architect Giovanni Battista Piranesi, with which Galina becomes fascinated during her studies; Yerebatan, the enormous underground cistern beneath Istanbul where, as a middle-aged tourist, she immediately feels at home.

It becomes apparent that beneath Galina’s understanding of her parents’ happy marriage as one of carefree equality, in a time before ‘sexism became fashionable under Khrushchev’s Thaw’, there ran deep complications.

Despite the novel’s geographical reference points, the nomadic diplomatic lifestyle as a symbol of contemporary society’s compulsion for change and assimilation, vertical motion is nonetheless paramount. För många länder sedan is not a dark book. The tern, as the symbol of the style, both dives deep down and rises up again. So does Galina, who is drawn, on the one hand, to Piranesi’s fantastic subterranean spaces and to her parents’ grave, but to the street on the other, a space that is home to sparrows, signposts, trams and pedestrians.

Perhaps this novel ends somewhat abruptly, before it has time to examine its subject thoroughly. As I reached the final pages I found myself wanting to follow Galina a while longer, both higher up and further down.

Translated by David Hackston

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