Home and solitude

Issue 3/1984 | Archives online, Authors

Eeva Kilpi

Eeva Kilpi. Photo: Veikko Somerpuro

By Eeva Kilpi’s own admission, the genre of the short story seems best suited for her themes. But she has also gained recognition as a novelist and poet, both inside and outside Finland. Among the many Finnish authors who have read and traveled widely, Kilpi assumes a somewhat unique position: the wider contemporary world with its interlocking problems can be sensed as the broader context of her writing; yet the foreground actions of her stories, with a few notable exceptions, take place in Finland, often in the backwoods of the Eastern border districts. Likewise, her main characters are unmistakably Finnish, from teenagers spouting Helsinki slang to old folks lapsing into a colorful Karelian dialect.

Eeva Kilpi was born in 1928 in Hiitola on the Karelian isthmus. Her latest novel, Elämän evakkona (‘Life’s refugees’, 1983) demonstrates again the author’s capacity for casting into the foreground gripping individual life stories while opening up in the background the epic journey of Finnish Karelians, uprooted in the last war from home and village and sent wandering around Finland in search of new livelihoods, homes and roots. Kilpi’s story is poignantly Finnish and reflects the journey she herself at the age of eleven started with her family from Hiitola. But it fits into the larger context of our own time, which produces growing numbers of evacuees and refugees with stories largely untold.

The best delineated character in Kilpi’s work is without doubt the solitary middle-aged woman who is trying to create a mode of existence in a family-centered society. Several of the stories in Kesä ja keski-ikäinen nainen (‘Summer and the middle-aged woman’, 1979) give center stage to these women in their various relationships: with men, with women friends, with children – especially in the role of single parent – and finally with nature, which these women protect and befriend as living partner and source of renewed strength. The focus is on the individual woman, but the source of her problems creates a discernible background, a repeating pattern. Kilpi’s women say fundamentally ‘yes’ to home and all it represents, but they often feel incapable of sustaining the demands of the relationships involved. They have to depart, find sanity and new identity in solitude, often in nature, and yet they long for families and homes and the sense of belonging that they provide. ‘Homesickness’, a term Kilpi often uses, is an apt metaphor for their condition: they long intensely for homes and families, yet these homes themselves are literally a cause of sickness. In her stories there is a constant oscillation between two poles, home and solitude, with an inner aware­ ness of a simultaneous need for both.

The evocative word ‘home’ has several meanings in Kilpi’s writing. It can denote the deteriorating nuclear family where today’s unparalleled freedom and urge for individual fulfilment strain the basic man-­woman relationship beyond the breaking point. Or it can stand for the single-parent household, left in the wake of the divorce, mostly headed by the mother who has to cope simultaneously with several problems: the pain of the divorce, the difficulty of finding a new supportive man-woman relationship, the handling of her career and maintaining a non-destructive relationship with glowing children who take their problems out on her. ‘And a worried, exhausted single parent is the least lovable creature in the world. She doesn’t get sympathy from anyone… least of all from her children, who feel guilty when their mother is over-worked, and who must hide this guilt under cruelty’, says Kilpi in her essay collection Ihmisen ääni (‘The human voice’, 1976).

But Kilpi can use ‘home’ with yet another, even wider, connotation. The term can also refer to the larger extended families whose networks, comprising several generations, seem to have weathered what single families often can’t. Such is the Karelian family portrayed in the story Syntymäpäivillä (‘A birthday celebration’), the last story in Se mitä ei koskaan sanota (‘That which is never said’, 1979). It reveals the inner structure of the whole collection, for it is only in this final story that it becomes significant that the characters in the preceding, separate stories are sisters and brothers, all coping with their individual problems of isolation inside and outside their families. The mother’s and grandmother’s birthday celebration, which draws everyone together, has an almost ritual character. It culminates in gift-giving, nostalgic music and voluminous tears of relief and joy. ‘It was as if they had been waiting for this moment, as if they had lived the whole summer apart from each other, all with their individual trials, surrounded by the superficiality of life, only in order to experience this deep sense of belonging, which reached and shook the very roots of their being’. This still existing natural community provides the characters with Kilpi’s essential insight: that isolation and community, home and loneliness can become a simultaneous healing experience.

Kilpi knows why the short story is a good tool in her hand. It corresponds to the way in which she herself experiences life: in fragments, as if finding shards of an ancient broken bowl. She cannot envision the whole, the original pattern. Perhaps it is lost for good. Perhaps it only existed as a necessary dream of humanity. But ‘the pain of the fragments’, as she puts it, points toward this vision of wholeness.

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