On Erno Paasilinna

Issue 4/1978 | Archives online, Authors

Erno Paasilinna

Erno Paasilinna. Photo: Irmeli Jung

In one of his essays Erno Paasilinna speaks of a modern phenomenon, the ‘quasi-author’. A quasi-author is the kind of literary buff who writes for the papers, takes part in congresses, sits in panels and appears frequently on television. Wherever there is controversy, be it over the function of the President, the legality of strikes, the abortion laws, the evangelical movement or the present state of lyric poetry, the quasi-author is invariably to be found. Paasilinna atones for his irony by freely admitting that he is himself a typical specimen of the breed.

For the concept of the quasi-author Paasilinna refers us back to Ilya Ehrenburg, who noted in his memoirs that the profession of authorship had been undergoing a steady diminution of social and political influence ever since the early 30s. Since Ehrenburg’s day the process has accelerated: television, efficient communications, and the ceaseless output of ‘information’ by what amounts to a major modern industry, have finally toppled the novelist from the throne he successfully occupied for so long. The quasi-author has replaced him, availing himself of all the new media in the hope of achieving a more rapid and direct impact on the public – and perhaps also of preserving the traditional influence of the writing fraternity. Erno Paasilinna was born in 1935 near Petsamo (now Pechenga) on the Arctic coast: from 1922 till 1944 this region was part of Finland. Evacuated during the upheavals of the Second World War, the family was forced to lead the nomadic life of refugees, wandering across the Arctic wastes as far as Norway before they were able to find a settled home in Finland. Erno Paasilinna has not rejected the landscape or the traditions of his native area: he has edited four anthologies of extracts from early accounts of travel in Lapland. It was in Northern Finland, too, that Paasilinna completed his education (he attended the Lapland College of Further Education) and began his writing career. From 1964 till 1966 he edited a periodical in Oulu, a commercial and industrial town of some 90,000 inhabitants, with a university, situated close to the head of the Gulf of Bothnia. Paasilinna’s journal, which was called Pohjoinen (‘The North’), maintained a sceptical attitude to official hand-outs, flouted the authorities, and in general became a thorn in the flesh to the local pillars of society and a guiding star to many young radicals of the ’60s. Subsequently Paasilinna moved further south, becoming chief literary editor to the publishing firm of Karisto. This post he held until 1971, since when he has operated as a free-lance writer.

Ever since the early ’60s his output as a quasi-author has been prodigious. In newspaper columns, television debates, articles and essays he has aired his views on policemen and priests, business and politics, education and TV. At first he was optimistic enough to believe that in a democratic society important decisions would be taken only after exhaustive public discussion, in which errors could be pointed out and ways of avoiding them suggested. In the course of time he became less certain of the ability of the publicist to influence events by the mere provision of information; but he has remained as firm as ever in his opposition to any measure which might seem to restrict the intellectual or physical liberty of the individual. His passionate and often blasphemous diatribes, of which four collections have been published (e.g. Mainio vallankumous, ‘Splendid revolution’, Otava 1972; Siperialainen ‘Siberian aesthetics’, Otava 1978), may have won him more enemies than friends.

“A quasi-author can also be an author,” Paasilinna wrote in 1972. Once his faith in the power of the unofficial publicist had begun to waver, and he had learned by experience that the Establishment can absorb the heretic and put him to uses of its own, he began to venture occasionally into the territory of the ‘genuine’ author – fiction, aphorisms, satire; types of literature less closely involved in the topics of day-to-day controversy. Paasilinna calls his aphorisms ‘dry drops’. In these – for example in Musta aukko (‘Black hole’, Otava 1977) – he represents the world as a vale of tears, in which mighty overlords engage in commerce and wage their wars, while the little man (who will have to foot the bill) does not even realize what is going on. The same view of life is reflected in his novel Kadonnut armeija (‘The lost army’, Otava 1977), an allegory of a society that has ceased to function properly. Paasilinna’s withering sarcasm comes out most strongly in the satires. With Kylmät hypyt (‘Cold plunges’, Karisto 1967) it became plain that his deepest instincts were not those of a practical politician, but were more concerned with the examination of motives and ends. Frustrated in his radical aims, he turned from non-fiction to fantasy. Savage though it is, Kylmat hypyt, with its echoes of Russian humour, is a gentle and friendly work compared to Alamaisen kyyneleet (‘Tears of an underdog’, Karisto 1970), which depicts a world engulfed in a nightmare of tyranny. Sometimes Paasilinna allows himself a glimpse of a future not utterly intolerable – a kind of mild and humanized anarchy; more often reality seems to him a treacherous surface to walk on – at any moment it may crack open and then everything human and civilized will disappear into a hell of despotism and violence.

The grimness of Paasilinna’s satire in Alamaisen kyyneleet is reminiscent of Swift’s; often its purpose is not so much to point out evils and rectify them, as to wound and punish. Always in evidence is the satirist’s predilection for quickness of thought and perfection of expression. A pocket edition of some of Paasilinna’s satirical writings (Valitut satiirit, ‘Collected satires’) was published by Otava in 1976. ‘The Conference’ is taken from Alamaisen kyyneleet.

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