At the sand pit

Issue 3/1985 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Antti Tuuri

Antti Tuuri. Photo: Jouni Harala

‘After nearly 40 years of observing the Ostrobothnians, I am convinced that they have certain characteristics which explain the historical events that took place there and which also shed light on the region today. I do not know how these characteristics develop, but it appears that heredity, economic factors and even the landscape form the nature of people. Everywhere people who live in the plains are different from those who dwell in the mountains, and from those who fish the archipelagos,’ writes the author Antti Tuuri, himself an Ostrobothnian.

Antti Tuuri’s Pohjanmaa (‘Ostrobothnia’, 1982), which last January was awarded the Nordic Prize for Literature, has now been translated into each language of the Nordic countries. Tuuri’s novel describes the events of one summer day in Ostrobothnia, on the west coast of Finland, where a farming family, the Hakalas, has gathered for the reading of the will of a grandfather who emigrated to the United States in the 1920s.

The inheritance itself is insignificant, but it has brought together the four grandsons, with their wives and children. The story is narrated from the point of view of one of the brothers. The women of the family remain inside while the men take out an automatic pistol which has been kept hidden away since one of them smuggled it home from the Continuation War. The men go off to a sand pit to do some shooting and to drink some illegal home brew. There they meet their former schoolteacher, who joins in with their drinking and shooting. Some surprising events take place as the day’s action unfolds, and Tuuri’s narrator views them in an unsentimental way, describing them matter-of-factly and at times with ironic humour. The men recall the violent history of Ostrobothnia, the years of the Civil War and the right-wing Lapua movement of the 1930s.

The Nordic Prize jury commented that the novel ‘portrays the breaking up of the old society, and conflicts between generations as well as between men and women.’ Tuuri has constructed his novel on conflicts, and the result is a highly dramatic narrative.


An extract from Pohjanmaa (‘Ostrobothnia’)

A Finnish hound dog came out of the woods just beyond the sandpit, stopped at the edge of the pit and started to bark at us. The boys quickly began putting the weapon together. Veikko yelled that you were allowed to shoot a dog running loose in the woods out of hunting season. He kept asking me for cartridges; he’d shoot the dog right away, before it could tear to pieces the young game birds that couldn’t fly yet. I told him to shut up. Seppo finished putting the automatic pistol together and gave it to me. I ran to the car, put the gun down on the floor in front of the back seat and tossed a blanket over it.

When I got back, I saw the teacher coming out of the woods over by the pit. He snapped a leash on the dog and started towards us through the pine grove. The boys sat down around the campfire and began taking swigs of home brew from their cups.

Before he even reached us, the teacher asked whether we had been doing some shooting. We said we couldn’t shoot because we didn’t have a gun. The teacher said he’d heard a round of fire from an automatic and that’s why he’d taken a short cut over to the sand pit. He said he’d been out in the woods, taking his dog for a run. Veikko said you couldn’t let dogs run loose in the woods out of hunting season because they could cut down the number of gamebirds. The teacher took a long look at him, at the campfire and the home brew. He said there was a forest fire alert in that district and it was irresponsible to start an open fire, especially one the size of an Easter bonfire at the edge of a bone-dry pine barren, but he guessed you really couldn’t expect anything more from us, he’d gotten to know us well enough when we’d been in the local grade school, wearing down the school desks and carving nasty pictures in the outhouse walls.

Veikko said for the teacher to sit. The dog took a sniff at all of us and then went off to lie down as far from the campfire as the leash would let him. The teacher didn’t sit. Veikko asked if he felt like having some good old-time home brew. The teacher said he’d come out here by car. Veikko told him to leave the car in Lummukka and come pick it up tomorrow after he’d sobered up. He sure couldn’t be in a hurry now that he was on his long summer vacation, and maybe the sheriff wouldn’t consider it such a sin for the teacher to drive his car to the village slightly drunk with home brew. The teacher should just remember to drive carefully and not get out of control when he was all sloshed, and to slow down for the worst curves. Veikko said the teacher could warn people in the village by blowing his horn and turning on the flashers on both sides of the car, and he asked if the teacher’s car had the kind of button that would operate flashers on both sides of the car. The teacher told Veikko to shut up if he couldn’t come out with anything better than drunken babble. Veikko said the teacher no longer had any authority or power to tell him to do anything at all; it was now twenty-five years since the teacher had had that kind of power, and the teacher had better remember that he sure couldn’t come over and pull his hair or shove his old handkerchief into his mouth or rap his knuckles with a pointer.

The teacher couldn’t remember ever having mussed Veikko’s hair, but Veikko remembered it well. He reminded the teacher how he had once, in the upper grades, yanked him right out of the classroom and into the corridor and pummelled him with his fists, he a grown man and Veikko just a kid in his early teens.

Paavo said there was no point dwelling on the past, and he offered the teacher some home brew in a paper cup. The teacher took a sip and said it had a bad taste. Veikko started shouting that the teacher had never had anything good to say about his accomplishments in the old days, not about his clothes or behavior, not even about the taste of the home brew he had now offered. If it wasn’t good enough for the teacher he sure didn’t have to drink it; as far as he was concerned the teacher could drink his own piss, which is what he had in his head anyway. The dog got up, barked a few times at Veikko and bared his teeth. The teacher started to explain that as far as home brew went, this really wasn’t bad but that he had simply lost his taste for it.

The teacher started up again about how he had heard a short burst of fire from an automatic or from some kind of assault weapon and how we must have heard it too. Veikko said that out on the highway there had been a truck with a faulty exhaust pipe, or else the gas mixture had been exploding in the exhaust and made the kind of noise the teacher could have taken for a round from an automatic. The teacher said he’d listened intently to the rattle of automatic weapons, first in the Winter War and then in the Continuation War, and he could tell that sound from the noise of an exhaust pipe even in his sleep.

I went and got the automatic from the car and gave it to the teacher. He asked where we had found it and I told him. The teacher released the safety catch like someone who had done it before, then unscrewed the barrel and looked inside it. He wondered how well the gun had been preserved but he also remembered that our father had been a precise, careful man in everything he did. The teacher said that he and our father had gone through both wars together, in the same company, although our father was with an older age group. The teacher had volunteered for the Winter War because everyone supposed that those who went off to the war would be exempted from regular service, but right after the Winter War he had had to go into regular service anyway and had ended up staying on that joyride for years. He had even been ordered to chase the Germans up in Lapland. Now he recalled the talks he had with our father about this automatic pistol, but he’d forgotten about it in the years after our father’s death.

Paavo offered the teacher some more home brew, but he didn’t feel like having any more, and said he wanted to drive to the village today after all. The teacher asked if we still had any cartridges because he too felt like blasting off a few rounds for old time’s sake. I said we maybe could put our hands on some cartridges but it might be best not to shoot at the sand pits any more today. There could be other people letting their dogs have a run in the woods, people who’d begin wondering what kind of war had started up here on a Sunday. The teacher said he’d be happy to assume full responsibility. I wondered what sort of full responsibility that would be when the police pulled up there. Veikko said I should go get more cartridges right away, that is, if I had any more, and he added that he was telling me, not asking.

I went down to the sand pit and started swimming. The boys kept yelling from the shore that they would drown me if I didn’t come back and give them cartridges for the automatic. I told them to drive over to the Air Force school and pick up some ammunition from their buddies among the non-coms, the ones they would sit and drink with at the officers’ club. I sure wasn’t about to give them any more ammunition.

I swam to the middle of the pond, turned, and floated on my back without moving. The sun was hot on my face and I was floating so that my ears were under water and I couldn’t hear what the boys kept shouting and asking from the shore. I turned again and dove, stayed under water as long as I could.

When I rose to the surface I saw that Veikko had found my pants and was digging in the pockets for my car keys. He found them and started off toward my car. He was so drunk that he had to grab at the sand and the trees for support as he climbed up onto the heath. I shouted that I’d report him to the sheriff if he went rummaging through my car without permission, and Veikko shouted back that he’d give me full permission to do just that.

He found the automatic cartridges in the trunk and brought them down to the shore, put the car keys back into my pants pocket and started to load the cartridges into the magazine. He was picking them out of the cardboard box one by one, but kept dropping them and having to sift through the sand with his hands to find them.

I swam ashore and watched them load the magazine. It didn’t look as if Veikko’s loading would get anywhere, so the teacher took the magazine and cartridges from him, opened up the magazine and loaded it snappily, it didn’t take half a minute. He led the dog up onto the heath and tied him to one of the pines, ordered him to lie down, and the dog obediently stretched out on the ground and followed all the teacher’s and the boys’ movements with sad eyes.

The teacher put a clip into the automatic and set it to fire just once. He took a burning pine stump from the fire and tossed it into the water. The stump left a black ring in the water and it smoked and steamed, hissing. The teacher got into a kneeling position and shot once at the stump so that splinters were flying along the water. I said he was dirtying our good swimming hole but he didn’t hear. Veikko stood right behind the teacher and kept begging to shoot too. The teacher gave him the gun soon enough and Veikko turned the lever to one round and let go a long blast from the hip toward the tree stump. It hit the stump and the water around the stump. The bullets ricocheted from the surface of the water and flew whistling into the bank behind the pit and up into the alder bushes.

Translated by Aili and Austin Flint

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