Journeys to friendship

Issue 4/1983 | Archives online, Authors

Hannu Mäkelä

Hannu Mäkelä. Photo: Hannes Heikura

Hannu Mäkelä (born 1943) is known primarily in Finland as a noteworthy prose-writer, poet and dramatist; he also works as a department head for Otava, one of the leading publising houses. When, in 1973, Hannu Mäkelä published his first children’s book, Herra Huu (‘Mr Boo’), it came as a surprise to many people.

Luckily for Finnish children’s literature that was only the start; the book had two sequels. In 1974 Herra Huu saa naapurin (‘Mr Boo gets a neighbour’) appeared, followed in 1975 by Herra Huu muuttaa (‘Mr Boo moves house’). After that Mr Boo left his new flat to go on a long journey with a witch called Ernestiina, and hasn’t been heard of since. Hannu Mäkelä’s next books for children were Hevonen joka hukkasi silmälasinsa (‘The horse who lost his glasses’, 1977), Kalle-Juhani ja kaverit (‘Kalle-Juhani and the gang’, 1981) and Pekka Peloton (‘Pekka the brave’, 1982). With these six books, Hannu Mäkelä has come to be regarded as a classic children’s writer.

Despite the Finnish background of his stories, Hannu Mäkelä’s books have a relevance to the modern world readily understandable in other countries and cultures, and they have begun their colonization of the world. Among the languages into which they have been translated are Russian, Hungarian, Estonian and German.

In all good children’s literature, the world is peopled by fantastic characters, speaking dolls and animals; there are marvellous adventures and magical deliverances from the very brink of disaster. In the fight between good and evil good always wins in the end. Hannu Mäkelä’s books obey the laws of the classic fairy tale; the world is not black and white, however, but full of all kinds of subtle shades of colour.

Hannu Mäkelä reinterprets stories and myths in order to create a highly original artistic world. Many of his characters are derived from folk tales; the traditional qualities of the characters remain the same – the owl is wise, the hare fleet of foot, and so on, but they all have their personal quirks. No one is perfect, and crises show up weaknesses as well as strengths. The horse is patient, but can’t bear to lose at cards. The dog is faithful, but he is also a sculptor with the sensitive temperament of an artist. The ape incessantly smokes his pipe, to the annoyance of the other animals, as he writes his poetry, but nothing can be done to stop him. Admiral Beerbelly is an interesting character: his weakness is home-made beer, which he complains he can’t stop drinking – but probably he doesn’t really want to. In Hannu Mäkelä’s endearing descriptions of the strengths and foibles of his characters the reader encounters a deeply compassionate understanding of human life.

Heroic travels

Hannu Mäkelä also uses the world of myth as a structural element in his works. In all his books archetypal journeys are undertaken. Mr Boo embarks on various travels; with his neighbour, Admiral Beerbelly, and a group of children he goes to the depths of the earth to visit the kingdom of the powerful witches. The horse sets off with the hedgehog to find his glasses. Brave Pekka stumbles in his sleep upon adventure in the forest. The purpose of the journey is always to find something that has been lost. Admiral Beerbelly pines for his wife Emma and tries to recover his sense of reality, which he has tried to drown in his home-made beer and escapism. Brave Pekka seeks the key to Bear’s bravery; he conquers his own fear and becomes a hero. The journey represents the search for identity and its achievement, but it also tests the nature of friendship, the capacity to work together and the forebearance to tolerate differences in people. Group effort and decisions made communally ensure the victory of the travelling company. It happens on the journey of Mr Boo, Beerbelly and the children, and in the dairy commune founded by the horse who loses his spectacles, where life is organized in such a way that everyone may do as he wishes as long as the work gets done – the crow plays letter chess, the cows study and the dog sculpts; together the animals go skiing. It is all very reminiscent of Rabelais’ monastery of Thélème with its motto, ‘Do as you will.’

Adventure befalls Hannu Mäkelä’s heroes as the result of change. Dealing with change demands courage and inventiveness both from the characters in the stories and from real children who may undergo extensive changes in their lives. Even if the world looks strange and unwelcoming, it holds infinite possibilities for those who can see them and have friends with whom to put them into practice. That is the hopeful message of Hannu Mäkelä’s stories.

Alter ego of youth

Pekka Peloton examines, in the form of a story, the changes wrought in people’s lives by a political phenomenon that is terrifyingly real in our world as well as in the book – totalitarianism. In this book the tone of the narrative is suddenly more serious. There is no longer any attempt to place the events in surroundings that could be real: the happenings take place in the mythical forest of folk legend. The inhabitants of the forest, devoid of civil rights, are ruled by a dictator, the wolf, and his band of guardwolves.

One of the particular pleasures of reading Hannu Mäkelä’s children’s books lies in the richness of the language and the variety of styles – qualities that enable the storyteller to hold the interest of listeners of quite different age groups. The very smallest children probably relate most easily simply to familiar animals; children of school age enjoy an adventure in which they can identify with the children in the story; teenagers may appreciate the humour, and adults will enjoy the smilingly ironic musings on life and the literary references – rare in children’s literature. The literary references are not ends in themselves, however, but flow as naturally from the story as all the other amusing twists of plot and turns of phrase.

As a counterpoise to the comedy, there is the slow and lyrical progression of the Nordic seasons: snowy winters, the murmur of the coming of spring, and especially the rainy, thoughtful autumn evenings that seem to have inspired the writer and his characters to their philosophical musings.

Children’s books are not far from the literature Hannu Mäkelä has writ­ten for adults. In my imagination, at least, Mr Boo sets off from the house that, in the poetry collection Vanha talo (‘The old house’) is left alone to fend for itself over the winter. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Vanha talo appeared the same year as Herra Huu. Its lyrical identity clothed itself in the shape of Mr Boo and returned to the house in summer to make the acquaintance of the children of the book. The writer has, indeed, admitted that the ghost is the alter ego of his youth. In his books for adults the same thoughtful concern about life, the future, the environment and friends and relatives are evident; but in his children’s books the writer has found a greater freedom to criticize, parody and comment upon the conventions and habits of everyday life. In addition he has succeeded in leavening his pessimism with action, friendship and humour – with the effect that the reader, too, finds hope rising within him, as one of Mäkelä’s characters has it, ‘like water in a bathtub’.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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