Juha Mannerkorpi (1915–1989) and the metamorphosis of the self

Issue 2/1982 | Archives online, Authors

Juha Mannerkorpi. Photo: SKS Archives

Juha Mannerkorpi. Photo: SKS Archives

The chapter, entitled ‘About calendars and other documents’, is a section of Juha Mannerkorpi’s book, Sudenkorento eli erään pakaraisen esittävät seikkailut (‘The dragonfly, or the representative adventures of a certain buttocks’, 1970). The main character is a writer, Caleb Buttocks, a long-term diabetic who can get around only on crutches and spends most of his days sitting in his room smoking and drinking beer. Pain and depression are his daily companions.

In the beginning, Caleb Buttocks attempts a real adventure: lifting himself out of the swamp like Baron von Münchhausen and going on an outing with his wife. The adventure comes to a bad end; he is not up to it. Thereafter, he has to be content with ‘representative adventures’: dreams, memories, and nightmares which are interwoven with the present time.

Sudenkorento is largely a first-person narrative which operates on many levels and the language of which is exceptionally rich. The narrator makes use of many different elements: fairy tales, poems, fantasies realistic narratives, and reminiscences. Sudekorento can be considered the most important book by Juha Mannerkorpi (1915-1980), and represents a synthesis of his earlier writing, which includes some twenty works since 1946: poems, plays, radio-plays, novels, and short stories. After the publication of Sudenkorento Mannerkorpi wrote a short diary-like work, Päivänsinet (‘Heavenly blue’, 1979), a study of the will to live in the shadow of a serious illness, diabetes, which is a subject he often dealt with in his work. Characteristic of Mannerkorpi’s writing are his analyses of the relationship of the self with the world and his explication of existential questions. In the European literary milieu, he is closest to Camus, Sartre and Beckett, all of whom he has translated into Finnish.

Retrospective trilogy

The author considered Sudenkorento and the preceding two novels, Jälkikuva (‘Afterimage’, 1965) and Matkalippuja kaikkiin Juniin (‘Tickets to all trains’, 1967).a trilogy. This claim may, at first sight, seem strange since the novels are far apart, move in different worlds and call the character by different names. Yet there are similarities, and, what’s most important, connecting threads among the three. The memory of his deceased first wife dominates all three novels. She is the same person in all of them.

In the first novel, his observations are objective, the memories are concrete, still tangible. In the second novel, there is a shift to writing about older memories; the immediate connection with the deceased wife is broken. In Sudenkorento, there is a shift still further back in the memories, but these are brought into contact with the present time. Although the trilogy is retrospective, it is not a flight to the past since there is a movement forward in each of the novels. These shifts in point of view represent metamorphoses, and the change of the main character’s name is a part of this process. In Sudenkorento the metamorphosis culminates in the key chapter in which Caleb Buttocks simply turns into a dragonfly because he embarks on adventures and undergoes several metamorphoses of the self. At the same time, the writer, Caleb Buttocks, grows physically weaker; his diabetes becomes worse and finally destroys him as all activity becomes slower and more difficult. Sometimes it takes him hours just to change a typewriter ribbon.

Freedom and constraint

Mannerkorpi said that Sudenkorento is a study of freedom. The novel repeats the themes of freedom and constraint, of fate and the possibility of transcending it, themes that appear again and again elsewhere in his work.

The subtitle, ‘The representative adventures of a certain Buttocks’, leads us to an issue essential to the book: Buttocks is able to distinguish the representational world from the real, or physical, world. Since he cannot have adventures in the real world, he compensates for the limitations imposed by his illness by risking adventures all the more bravely in the representational, or symbolic, world. Representation is a blessing and a curse for a human being. For Caleb Buttocks, it means a life still independent of the physical world. But humankind has often elevated symbols – art, religion, all that is written – to an overvalued position, made them into demigods, and at the same time, neglected genuine life. This is only a short step away from creating pseudo-contacts which represent togetherness and communication even though the innermost core is missing. This is often the case with relatives: people are together but cannot talk to each other. The contacts are broken. People become alienated from each other and lead pseudo-lives.

Caleb Buttocks has real contact with his wife and thus he can have adventures with language; he can try to dream about something he has decided on: about mushrooms, which give him a great deal of pleasure, while pseudo-contacts with other people bring him only pain.

Unique humour

One might assume that Sudenkorento would be a serious and thoroughly gloomy work; it is, on the contrary, most cheerful. Its unique humour is heightened by Mannerkorpi’s use of language, which changes the comic flavour of the book from moment to moment. The excerpt, printed below, ‘About calendars and other documents’, is a parody of the language of an interview and here the satire is black and sharp. The farther away the writer moves from standard language, the harsher the satire. The closer he gets to normal language, the warmer the humour.

While there are constant shifts and changes in the language, all the same; Caleb Buttocks is suspicious of the possibilities of language. Language can lead a person astray: it can draw one on to new adventures or delude one into searching for accuracy to the extent that it creates an illusion. That is why Caleb writes the way the typewriter types: he doesn’t take the trouble to correct the typographical errors. He takes off for his adventures on tattered wings but he manages, nonetheless, to fly.

Translated by Aili and Austin Flint


No comments for this entry yet

Leave a comment