Veijo Meri’s errant heroes

Issue 3/1981 | Archives online, Authors

Veijo Meri. Photo: Irmeli Jung / Otava.

Veijo Meri. Photo: Irmeli Jung / Otava.

At the funeral of F. E. Sillanpää, the Nobel prize-winner, Veijo Meri was one of the pall-bearers, representing the younger generation of Finnish writers. The coffin was heavy and it suddenly began to slip the hands of the bearers just as they reached the church doors. A tiny stone in one of his shoes was causing Meri the most intense agony. It was a critical moment. Novels, short stories and plays by him are full of such situations. The characters stumble and are confused. The more difficult the situation, the more comic it often is.

Veiio Meri (born 1928) grew up in army barracks in the small town of Hämeenlinna. His childhood and youth were overshadowed by the war – as is reflected in many of his works. His first book, Ettei maa viheriöisi (‘Lest the land grow green’, 1954) is a collection of short stories about a lonely soldier wandering on both sides of the lines.

His novel Manillaköysi (1957) was translated into various languages (English translation The Manila Rope, 1967) and gained Meri an international reputation. It is the story of a soldier who decides to bring back from the front a piece of manila rope for his wife to use as a clothes line. He secretly winds the rope, which has allegorical significance, round his body under his clothes and begins the journey home to the accompaniment of impossible problems and complications. The grotesque plot is interspersed with a series of bitter war stories, full of black comedy, which the soldiers swap as the train takes them homewards.

The novel Sujut (‘Quits’, 1961) tells the story of a soldier who escapes from the front line to go home to help bring in the harvest. Again, the homeward trip is a series of surprising events. The war theme continues in many of Meri’s other works, particularly those written in the 1960s. However, it is not the war itself which is Meri’s main interest; it merely serves to provide a framework in which to reveal the absurdity of events. War engenders rapid change: man is simultaneously subject to both the violence of external circumstances and mercurial changes in his own mental state. Chance and the unexpected are daily events.

The new wave

Typical Meri characters are somehow off­-course. They are always on the move, travelling in cars or trains, flying, cycling, running, riding. If they are in one place, they soon leap into action or begin to tell stories about people who are constantly on the move and involved in complicated activities. Such characters are also found in Meri’s works set in peacetime, such as his novel Peiliin piirretty nainen (‘The woman in the mirror’, 1963) and Everstin autonkuljettaja (‘The Colonel’s driver’, 1966). In both novels, events are seen from a driver’s point of view: in the first of these the action takes place in the capital; in the second out in the country. Both are glimpsed from a moving car.

Meri’s technique has affinities with the cinematographic effects of Truffaut and the nouvelle vague: camera zooms, brief interludes, snatches of comic conversation, and unexpected tragedy. By the same token, Meri’s earlier works can be compared to an earlier cinematographic tradition: the films of Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

Everstin autonkuljettaja narrates the absolutely pointless journey made by the driver to his colonel’s summer cottage and back. The story, sporadically surrealistic, emerges through the driver’s stream of consciousness, always deeply modified by the influence of the unseen colonel. The reader experiences Meri’s world from the inside: putting down one of his books and going out into the street one encounters a world apparently designed by Meri.

The downtrodden, the meek and the lonely frequently appear in Meri’s works – not to elicit our pity, but rather to show their vitality, their will to survive, their trials and errors, their Odysseys. Meri suggests a world with no clear order or direction, a world in which people operate without any awareness of their motivations.

The pleasure of telling a tale

In the 1970s Meri wrote only one novel, Kersantin poika (‘The Sergeant’s son’, 1971), which received the Nordic Council’s prize for literature. His next novel, Jääkiekkoilijan kesä (‘The summer of the ice-hockey player’), set in a small town in 1954, appeared last year. As so often before, a rather thin plot is supplemented with a series of good tales: a group of men are remembering their war experiences. The central character is an ice-hockey player whose fortunes are suffering because it is summer. The characters are victims of their sexual drives, their hopes and fears; they are pushed by their subconscious motives at a pace too fast for their conscious minds to comprehend. Intrinsically, however, Meri is not writing from the angle of psychological analysis; nor is he trying to explain the causes of human behaviour.

Meri is undeniably a master of the short story. His first collection appeared in 1954, followed by Tilanteita (‘Situations’) in 1962 and Leiri (‘The camp’) in 1972, the latter containing ‘Choosing a play’, one of the two stories published below. In addition many of his novels provide a frame for a series of stories, a good example being Yhden yön tarinat (‘Tales of one night’, 1968). Like his characters, Meri clearly derives enormous pleasure from the ancient drive to yarn, to tell a good tale. He also sees this tradition as one of man’s most effective safety valves, as well as a method of revealing character obliquely, obviating the necessity for any comment from the storyteller himself. There is a particular piquancy when the tale starts off, as in the case of ‘The comb’, from a misunderstanding. ‘The comb’ is the other story printed here.

Veijo Meri has been preoccupied with a wide range of theoretical subjects, and has published poetry, plays and essays. In 1973 he brought out Aleksis Stenvallin elämä, a highly personal and controversial biography of the great Finnish nineteenth-century novelist, Aleksis Kivi. A new edition was published in 1975. He has also written a play on the same subject. An essay – abbreviated with the author’s permission – has been selected from his collection Goethen tammi (‘Goethe’s oak’, 1978) and is included in this issue to give a suggestion of the range and depth of Meri’s talent.

Translated by Mary Lomas

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