Chill climates

Issue 2/1984 | Archives online, Authors, Interviews

Olli Jalonen. Photo: Pekka Nieminen.

Olli Jalonen. Photo: Pekka Nieminen.

Olli Jalonen was born in 1954 and lives in Hämeenlinna. His first work, a collection of short stories entitled Unien tausta (‘The background of dreams’, 1978) and two later novels, Sulkaturkki (‘Feather coat’, 1979) and Ilo ja häpeä (‘Joy and shame’, 1981) were reviewed with exceptional warmth by the critics. His latest novel, Hotelli eläville (‘Hotel for the living’, 1983) brought him a State Prize for Literature in 1984. The awarding committee commented that the novel is ‘a representative of that rare genre in Finnish literature, the grotesque novel’. Jalonen also received the ‘Spurs of Criticism’, the annual prize awarded by the Finnish Critics’ Association. The hotel for the living is the book’s ironic name for a nuclear shelter that is being quarried into the living rock of Finland; Jalonen sets up a situation that allows him to examine the crevices of his characters’ personalities. He studies their attitudes to life with cool satire – they live in the bleak climate of buying and selling, the struggle for power and material goods, the domination of others, and submission to their fates. Interview by Markku Huotari

‘Poetry in a world under threat’ was the headline for a survey of Finnish poetry by poet and critic Väinö Kirstina that appeared in the Tampere daily newspaper Aamulehti in 1981.

Two years later that headline is just as bitingly relevant. Only one alteration is necessary: to poetry must be added prose, for prose, too, is addressing itself to that future, difficult enough to imagine, in which the threat of nuclear war may involve Finland, living in the shadow of the super powers, in a conflict in which she wishes no part.

One of the scenes in Olli Jalonen’s novel Hotelli eläville (‘Hotel for the living’) is set in a nuclear shelter that is being built inside the living rock on which Helsinki stands. Even now the planners of that ‘shelter’ use the fear of other people to their own ends, and divide them into those who will be saved and those who will perish.

A sermon on the day of judgement? Cliche? Milking of a fashionable subject?

It might be any of these things but for Olli Jalonen’s insistence that his subject matter is the sober reality of human existence today.

In his novel Jalonen juxtaposes the international congress in Moscow of those who have the power to set destruction in motion, and the childhood of the researcher Kalervo, one of his protagonists, in a Finnish cottage in the wilderness among the clean white snows of Häme.

Olli Jalonen himself says that the novel grew out of his own feelings, fears and hopes. But as the novel progressed, the chill climate of today’s international politics blew a black cloud over the hotel for the living, and the author found it impossible to escape.

The middle-aged researcher Kalervo’s job is to calculate scientifically how people will be managed in the shelters when the time comes. He is in constant conflict with himself over the morality of his work, which is in opposition to all his earlier ideals. When Kalervo takes his sister Kukka-Maaria to visit the shelter in the rock, she tries to imagine it crammed with its allotted one thousand two hundred people. All she can hear in her mind is their anguished cries and she asks, horrified, how anyone can imagine such a situation. In the character of Kukka­Maaria the writer has strongly portrayed the uncertainty, the current of destruction that flows through the novel without any of the characters really knowing where it is taking them – or us.

While Kukka-Maaria is horrified and Kalervo fights with his conscience, his colleague Raisa is happy to exploit to the full any and every opportunity her work gives her. She is one of the self-confident entrepreneurs who knows how to work the system.

Raisa is making a fashionable study of ‘product aesthetics’, how advertising exploits women. But when she can use it, she turns the ‘reification of coquetry’ that she criticizes in her study to her own financial gain; she becomes a director of a western multinational corporation. Science, sex, motherhood, home and friends are swept from the path of the career of this model success story. When Raisa decides to have an abortion, she has her eyes opened to how people on the conveyor belt are treated. But even after her distressing personal experience of the operation, her path is clear: onwards and upwards.

The balance of fear

Among the critical works that appeared in the autumn of 1983, Hotelli eläville is a strong indicator of the times in which we live: it speaks from a Finnish perspective of those who make their livings broking and researching destruction – and it does so in their own language. Much of the narrative and dialogue is couched in the conceptual jargon that, with its plans and graphs, can sever the last connection with personal feelings. Jalonen’s novel examines that severed connection critically, and from many angles.

‘In sketching out the content of Raisa’s and Kalervo’s research work, the scientific community in which they work, the building of the nuclear shelter and all the externals of the novel, I tried for a believable and realistic picture,’ says Olli Jalonen. ‘If the scientific language sounds to the reader exaggerated, I certainly wasn’t aware of it in the writing. For instance, Raisa’s ambition reflects some of my own negative traits.’

Indeed, as he speaks of his novel Jalonen often interprets its contemporary themes on a personal level. ‘Despite its portrayal of today’s problems, Hotelli eläville is largely myself projected,’ Jalonen remarks.

In other words: behind the pompous cliches lies some much simpler human experience?

‘A person is always unsure about his or her future and easily comes to fear situations where he or she isn’t in control or those he doesn’t understand. Perhaps it’s just an extension of the child’s fear of the dark. Or the fear of violence. Or, like the novel’s Kukka­-Maaria, that one suspects that one’s living in a kind of aquarium, watched by someone one doesn’t know and whose reasons for watching us are also unknown,’ ponders the writer.

‘It’s the balance between fears and daring that, in some strange way, keeps us going. Kukka-Maaria can’t control her fear; Kalervo recognizes it, but is powerless all the same. Only Raisa is in control of the situation, but the price of her success is the loss of her own self. And continuing this train of thought, one can’t help but reflect that the international situation, too, is a balance of fear. Its connection with people’s ordinary lives isn’t simple or straightforward, but it’s there all the same.’

A point named Finland

Anti-Utopias, science fiction and the various pictures of life after a nuclear war are now common in literature throughout the world. The novel restricts itself to the present, but it touches on these same themes. Does Finland’s position between East and West give any special perspectives to the treatment of such a subject?

‘It’s difficult for me to assess that myself. The novel’s international perspectives perhaps derive from the fact that I’m preparing a licentiate thesis in which I’m trying to map the location among the world’s cultures of the point named Finland. We are familiar with one version of the truth from the Soviet Union, and another stream reaches us in Finland from the West. In the novel, Kalervo makes the startling discovery that the same matters are decided upon at the same time in different parts of the world. It may be that among writers it is only the Finns who still live in the country of a lost Utopia, an agrarian society. In scientific writing the corresponding place should be some distant planet. But in Finland a dream still lives: to return to the place from which we have come, to the forest, in the midst of the snows, to the cottage in which we spent our childhood, the cottage that Kalervo and Kukka-Maaria visit.’

But the visit to their childhood home reveals it as a broken dream, doesn’t it?

‘Perhaps I’ve communicated some of my own disappointment here. Through our own stupidity we’ve turned our back on our sanctuaries, our own wombs; the connection with the past has been severed quickly and roughly. Now we live only for the present. Even last year’s events seem distant; one of the characters in the book remembers the presidential election of the previous winter as something that happened long, long ago. When events that happened a year ago are already ancient history, it’s not possible to hope for more from the future than that tomorrow will be safe. But nevertheless, our uncertainty of the day after tomorrow remains a shadow over our minds – something that distresses us, but that we don’t know what we should do about.’

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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