In the shadow of the cathedral

6 November 2014 | Authors, Reviews

Satu Taskinen. Photo: Heini Lehväslaiho

Satu Taskinen. Photo: Heini Lehväslaiho

In recent years the Finnish novel has been refreshed by central European tones in the work of authors including Kristina Carlson, Katri Lipson and Sofi Oksanen. Among these reforming powers is Satu Taskinen, whose first novel, Täydellinen paisti (‘The perfect roast’, 2011), won the Helsingin Sanomat prize for a debut work.

The novel, set over a day and describing a Viennese family’s All Saints’ Day lunch and, in particular, its demanding preparations, aroused admiration, but also wonderment at its slow, thoughtful monologue, in which absurdist humour and irony mixed with a melancholy atmosphere.

Satu Taskinen, who studied philosophy and German philology at Helsinki University, has lived and worked in Vienna for a long time. Her second novel, Katedraali (‘The cathedral’), is also a one-day novel describing a Viennese family.

Taskinen (born 1970) examines the world of the European middle class: how to live in a world that is growing increasingly unequal without becoming anxious and without a sense of guilt; where do the limits of personal responsibility lie? The author’s style and the works’ intense world have been compared to Thomas Bernhard, Elfriede Jelinek or W.G. Sebald; Finnish critics have also placed a positive emphasis on the moral philosophical approach of the novels, which is felt to be un-Finnish.

The narrator of Katedraali is a lonely woman in her forties who is not quite all right; Tea’s internal disorganisation is also visible on the outside. She is clearly a compulsive hoarder, at least in the eyes of her family and her neighbours.

It is the day of the funeral of Tea’s younger sister: Kerstin has died at the age of only 37 after a long genetic illness. For years, Tea has been living in near isolation in her apartment among things and rubbish. Death has drawn the family together. Anxious, at her older sister Bea’s house, Tea gathers the guests’ serving plates into too-tall piles, the same as the yogurt-pot pyramids she makes at home.

The novel is an excellently told monologue which wanders from global catastrophe to intra-family trauma. How did the daughter of a bourgeois Viennese family, a doctor’s wife and the mother of a clever young man become a builder of yogurt-pot towers? As you might guess: there is no one reason for the depression of the human mind. Her childhood home and her mother’s loveless distance gradually emerge as the foundation for Tea’s powerlessness. The family’s attempts to make themselves look balanced to the outside world have resulted in Tea taking refuge in conserving solidity. She has become a chatelaine who has abandoned herself. ‘The best we can do is stay to one side, save and sort.’ Tea’s marriage has broken up and she retreated to her solitude.

The novel’s questions are big ones: what to do, how to live a good life. Tea has come to the conclusion that whatever a person does, the result is the end of the world. All great efforts, such as the Stephansdom in Vienna, which took centuries to build, are senseless projects. Nothing is redeemed by the knowledge that the cathedral was built to honour life.

Interleaved with the sombre sorting through of Kerstin’s estate are glimpses of the openness of the world: dissent, choice, passing by, letting go. Tea’s son Mark attempts, perhaps in vain, to open the sick woman’s locks: the collector becomes distraught when her rubbish dump is destroyed. It is her world; it is just that its organisation is incomplete.

Katedraali’s narrative, employing free associations and stream of consciousness, allows multiple interpretations. Even though Tea appears to end in despair, the centuries of building of the cathedral may also be interpreted as a person who is continually under construction: every family and every period leaves its own mark on the monument, for good or ill.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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