Two men in a boat

25 June 2014 | Fiction, Prose

The meaning of life, Bob Dylan, the broken thermostat of the Earth, the authors Ambrose Bierce and Aleksis Kivi…. Two severely culturally-inclined men set out to row a boat some 700 kilometres along the Finnish coastline, and there is no shortage of things to discuss. Extracts from the novel Nyljetyt ajatukset (‘Fleeced thoughts’, Teos, 2014)

The red sphere of the sun plopped into the sea.

At 23.09 official summertime Köpi announced the reading from his wind-up pocket-watch.

‘There she goes,’ commented Aimo, gazing at the sunken red of the horizon, ‘but don’t you think it’ll pop back up again in another quarter of an hour, unless something absolutely amazing and new happens in the universe and the solar system tonight!’

Aimo pulled long, accelerating sweeps with his oars, slurped the phlegm in his throat, spat a gob overboard, smacked his lips and adjusted his tongue on its marks behind his teeth. There’s a respectable amount of talk about to come out of there, thought Köpi about his old friend’s gestures, and he was right.

‘Sure thing,’ was Aimo’s opening move, ‘darkness. Darkness, that’s the thing. I want to talk about it and on its behalf just now, now in particular, while we’re rowing on the shimmering sea at the lightest point of the summer.

‘A good 4.5 billion years ago there was a massive jolt in the Milky Way in roughly these regions. A lump of space-matter about the size of Mars – an asteroid – had strayed into the orbit of a planet-in-formation called Earth, driving towards it full speed ahead, slap-bang-wallop. The collision was so huge that the cores of both participants melted together in the heat it generated, after which they gradually cooled down and solidified into the core of the Earth, upon which, some considerable time later, the pyramids, the Uusimaa Bonk Centre and the Isokari lighthouse were built.

‘Fragments and other loose stuff was thrown into space to orbit the Earth in a disc. Gradually they came together as a result of the laws of gravity and formed a little ball, the Moon.

‘It’s this cosmic shock we have to thank for both our existence and the length of our days and our months.

‘The collision also slanted our revised planet’s axis of rotation to a slant of 23.5 degrees. And it’s like this, individually rotating on our tilted axis, that we still roll our orbit around the Sun, and the Moon does its own trustworthy work around us. And our speed has remained constant for billions of years: a full orbit takes exactly a year.

‘The seasons are the result of the fact that the Earth’s axis was permanently stuck in a slant, however much we orbit the nuclear power station of the Sun along our beautiful elliptical spatial track. So at different points on the track the rays from this hydrogen generating plant hit the surface of our globe at different angles. A large angle means long days and heat waves, a small one long nights, darkness and cold.

‘In what relation and what intervals these occur depends on what part of the globe you happen to live on. For us, living near the north pole, the radiation of the Sun’s nuclear reactor reaches us, on average, at a small angle. And just as well!

‘It is the climates generated by the annual variation in this radiation angle that have offered the possibility for the development of life on our planet. We must be grateful for light and heat, but just as grateful for darkness and the essential cooling it allows.

‘More than once, in the process of evolution, darkness and cold have turned out to be saviours of our developing species. The dinosaurs celebrated tens of millions fo years as autocrats of our spherical plot in entirely tropical conditions, until, 65 million years ago, Mexico was hit by a sufficiently large object from space to raise a cloud of dust that obscured the Sun. Plants died and the food-chain of the gluttonousdinosaurs was severed at the stem. So they, too, kicked the bucket, in hunger and cold.

‘Rat-like small mammals, our grandparents, coped better with these cold, dark conditions, feasting on the carcasses of the dinosaurs, multiplying and covering the Earth. In 50 million years, evolution rattled on, making apes from primal rats.

‘The present day began five million years ago, when humankind got up on its back feet near the Great Rift Valley of Africa. The cooler climates played tricks, bringing about every now and then – at least once in a hundred thousand years – ice ages an other irritations. We big-brained, dexterous swots had a good chance of doing well in the savannah’s battle for survival in these varying, difficult surroundings, these chilly, dim mists.

‘And after many exciting and sometimes hairy adventures, we conquered all our competitors and invented fire, the combustion engine, industry, the pocket computer, reality TV and insatiable markets. This gave the dinosaurs the opportunity for revenge from beyond the grave.

‘In our factories and in our cars, we’ve burned so many of the hydrocarbons that condensed out their carcasses in the bowels of the earth that the carbon cycle of our space garden, rotating on its tilted axis, has been disturbed. The carbon that was locked away in the earth has been sprinkled on the winds to clog the system’s natural ventilation. The thermostat is broken and the greenhouse is getting hotter.

‘We shall have to see what happens.

‘As we wait for the thrilling finale, it’s worth enjoying the cold, dark season whenever we have it. Nothing is more refreshing than horizontal hail on a slippery road on the way to work in the pitch dark! You really feel you’re alive – la condition humaine!

‘And what about dark literature,’ interjected Köpi at the helm, refreshed by the mental image of late autumn. ‘Who do you think is the world’s darkest writer?’

Aimo rested his oars and thought for a moment before answering. ‘The American Ambrose Bierce. He is such a dark writer that he sheds a clear light from more than one hundred years ago. Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary is a colourful smear campaign of civilisation, one of a kind. This work has even been translated into Finnish, but so messily and modestly that I have left it be and translated it from the original as much as I’ve been able. It has a great definition of November: NOVEMBER (noun) The eleventh twelfth of a weariness.’

‘I remember those too,’ said Köpi delightedly. ‘That book is one of my favourites.’

The oarsman and the helmsman began to remember Bierce’s dictionary entries and definitions. A considerable hullaballoo and tumult of laughter spread over the calm waters of Hamskerinaukko, but never mind – the nearest human habitation was kilometres away. The following Bierce definitions, at least, were recalled through two-headed collaboration and collective fraternal effort:

MARRIAGE (noun): the state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress, and two slaves, making, in all, two.

LIFE (noun): a spiritual pickle preserving the body from decay.

PHILOSOPHY (noun): a route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.

TRUTHFUL (adjective): dumb and illiterate.

‘To read a good book is a work of art,’ said Köpi, ‘A good book turns its reader into an artist. If you can’t read well, enthusiastically and fearlessly even when the text happens to be strange, you will never learn to write, in other words to live. Without readers there would be no literary texts. The text itself is a bunch of clues offered to the reader, enticing him or her to form a chain of black marks into meaning.

‘Modern physics shows us that the world is empty.

‘Modern aesthetics shows us that literature consists of gaps.

‘The masterworks of world literature are really strange, shapeless, uneven, scabby and feral: Don Quijote, Oblomov, Huckleberry Finn, Pride and Prejudice! A good reader and citizen trains over the course of his lifetime in the capacity to encounter strangeness fearlessly.

‘In Finnish, the root of the most important doing word of our lives, tietää, to know, is tie, road. The word entered the Finnish language at a time when the road was not a four-lane asphalt canyon dug out of the ground, signposted and lit, but a route through virgin forest and swamp that you had to know in order to follow. True knowledge, tietäminen, is independent wandering, route-finding, rambling, continual travelling to new, often unknown destinations.

‘Everyone is a traveller, a writer, an eternal student, an eternal writer, an eternal sceptic.

‘The terrain is difficult.

‘We live in a cultural space in which anything can be anything. Things only have exchange value. Whatever is on top at a given moment is true. Our production institutions do not produce things that are good to use, but things that generate the most profit.

‘The artist, in other words the poet, in other words the human being, makes cracks in this mass delusion, cracks through which the world flows into our lives. True knowledge flows. Unknowedge, the lack of true knowledge, is the root of all evil. Wise laughter is the source of all good.

‘The funniest Finnish plays, Nummisuutarit [Heath Cobblers] and its little sister, Kihlaus [The engagement], are made up of tragic materials, unsuccessful love and final loneliness. Aleksis Kivi’s laughter, however, is not mocking but comforting. The first laughter in the universe came from a cavewoman who laughed at her self-important caveman, the tribe’s Great Hunter; she taught him to laugh, even at himself.

‘In the beginning was Error. Life is a matter of stumbling and wandering. The world isn’t complete until the day we die. Until then all we can do is row bravely on. The destination, however, is fixed: our own grave. It is comforting to think that we will find our way there and that even the weaker oarsman will find it and have the energy to reach it. Everyone will get there! The reindeer herder of Lake Sevettijärvi, Sofi Oksanen and the former Communist Björn ‘Nalle’ Wahlroos are all on their way to the same place.

‘In America there are apparently some rich materialists who do not consent to this, but have instead given instructions for their bodies to be frozen at the moment of death, in order that future science should bring them back to life. There is the risk that the world will end first. If I were God, in other words the Greatest Humorist, I would, wilfully, bring everyone back to life, the most drunken Sevetti reindeer herdsman and the most sinful person ever, but I would let the frozen ones stay frozen forever, as a monument to the greatest stupidity and selfishness, the denial of death. In a word: capitalism.’

The prow of the boat bumped against the jetty terrace of the Wild Rose restaurant. Aimo moored the boat to a stake and the oarsmen climbed onto the terrace and ordered some beers.

Köpi woke up on the morning of 17 July and, unusually, remembered his dream. He had dreamed an angel had appeared to him and given him a lecture on the sausage, the long jump and the work of art. Thus spake the angel:

‘In the case of the sausage you can cut a slice, weigh it, wrap it up, estimate the price per kilo as defined by the conjunctures of the market forces and laws of supply and demand, and sell it. In the same way, the long jump is a clear case, governed by agreed rules. You measure the distance between the front edge of the plank and the rear edge of the mark in the sand and obtain result measured in centimetres. The sausage becomes problematic when you begin to talk about what it tastes like. What is good, what is better, what is unacceptable. The long-jump debate rapidly becomes chaotic if you start to award points for style – whose performance was the most daring, the springiest, the most complete, the most organic leap from plank to sand?

‘A work of art has neither weight nor length. There is nothing measurable about it. It is a human creation, a cultural tool, an artefact like the sausage or the long jump, but it differs in one essential respect. The work of art is a shout. It is the opening of a conversation. It is the first term in a dialogue. After that, the conversation is continued by experiencers and experiencers’ experiencers. This conversation is articulated in many different ways and may continue for thousands of years. It is both in invisible and visible, conscious and unconscious. It takes the form of thought, speech, writing, criticism, scholarship, parody, interpretation, interpretation of interpretation and even interpretation of interpretation, which will eventually be examined by some future PhD student. The shout of a work of art brings echoes from other artists, who begin their own fields of conversation and echoes.

‘The role of the human being is to eat tofu sausage, do the long jump and participate in the unending conversation about art, which will never be complete. Time’s judgement is merciless. Ben Jonson was the cash cow of Shakespeare’s London. The poet V.A. Koskenniemi was feted in the 1930s; no one noticed Volter Kilpi. The ultimate truth is still unrecognised. It is known only by God the Mother.’

At this point Köpi woke up, happy. He awarded his dream, and his unconscious, an excellent grade. The transformation of sausage into tofu and God’s femininity were particularly charming details. The angel was also unforgettable: a sixtyish, stout, very short-sighted transvestite with thick glasses. He had wings on his back, and on his bottom was a long tail.

Progress was darkling. The nights had drawn in and summer had turned to autumn. Aimo’s nightlight glimmered in the prow as the boat progressed stroke by stroke, metre by metre, towards Raahe. A big tanker came towards them and they circled it humbly from a distance on the landward side. The harbour waters of Raahe concealed treacherous rocks, which they avoided and circled successfully. Aimo tricked the night wind into blowing a little, much needed help into the sail; Köpi put all the strength of his body into long, forward-moving strokes of the oars.

At three o’clock in the morning of 20 July the boat was moored in the centre of Raahe, at the Naval Museum’s jetty. Raahe was dreaming. The oarsmen had mattresses and sleeping bags in the boat and made their beds on the jetty, beneath the sky of space. Aimo fell asleep in a second; it took Köpi a minute….

The oarsmen were now ready for the last lap of the voyage…. Set-off at 1pm. They had noticed from the map, and confirmed through observation, that a short-cut canal had been dug from the city basin that would save them many a sweaty kilometre: it ran from the Pikkulahti swimming beach via an angle bend directly northwards. That’s the way they pointed their prow. Aimo rowed, Köpi steered.

‘It can’t be true,’ said Köpi. From the tone of his voice, Aimo understood immediately. A glance over the shoulder and the matter was clear. No words were needed. Köpi steered them to the swimming beach. Clothes off, swimming trunks on. A climb up the ten-metre diving platform. Aimo in front, Köpi behind. Dizziness, dive, flight, splash. Wild joy at daring to do it once more. The body and the body’s strangest part, the brain, refreshed, they continued on the last lap.

Popping through the canal and Kylmälahti bay, they found themselves on the open sea, and took a northerly course. A light following breeze helped them enough that they hoisted a sail, which gave the oarsman some background support. They had to circle Tauvonneimi peninsula, hooking a long way to the west to avoid fishing nets and shallows. Small disagreements as to course. Aimo thought he could see a sandbank ahead. Köpi thought Aimo was blind and lilylivered. The conflict was resolved tactfully and a compromise, which proved useful, made about direction….

They were already just a couple of kilometres away. Triumphant strokes with the oars, knowing exactly where they were going, heading there. Hailuoto was known territory for both of them. They had been hiking in this unique spot together and separately at all seasons. The only tree, a rowan, was a certain landmark. Nevertheless they came ashore on a sandbank when they tried enthusiastically to take a short cut. Never mind, they pushed the boat off into deeper waters, threading their way back into the channel demarcated by the buoys and whizzed into the lee of Pöllänlahti bay. And that is how, with celebratory strokes of the oar, they made land at Pöllä at 21.56 according to Köpi’s pocket watch. A recount gave the result of 20 days and 26 minutes. They reflected that no one could have rowed the distance between Kustavi and Hailuoto faster since the Vikings and Väinämöinen, and were satisfied.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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