Far from the world

Issue 1/1989 | Archives online, Authors

The narrow, icy road winds its way up to the small village. There are just a few houses, and scarcely two dozen inhabitants, all of them Swedish-speaking. It is many hundred kilometres to Helsinki, but nearby are a few very small, Swedish-speaking towns.

This is a Finland that Finns themselves do not know. Only a few travel here – and the people who live here do not like to go anywhere.

The poet Gösta Ågren, 52, is one of the villagers. All the other inhabitants are his childhood friends. Gösta Ågren is no different from the others. Even his house is just as unassuming as the rest, for this is not prosperous country. He built his house himself, painted it yellow and red and decorated its interior timbers with inscriptions of a kind generally found in Dalecarlia in Sweden. Gösta Ågren was born in the place where he built his house.

From this house Gösta Ågren set off one day in January for Helsinki to collect Finland’s biggest literary prize, worth Fmk 100,000. He stayed away for just a day and hurried back to his own village, Lippjärv, on the shores of the Gulf of Bothnia.

In the course of that day Gösta Ågren experienced something extraordinary: he became famous in his own country.

He could, of course, have become famous much earlier: he has written over 30 books, but in Finland they have remained the province of the Swedish­ speaking minority. In order to understand this slighty peculiar situation, it is important to appreciate that Gösta Ågren’s home region in Ostrobothnia differs in many ways from the prosperous Swedish-speaking areas located to the south, near the cities of Helsinki and Turku. But no matter: few Finns have made this discovery – Finns have always loved their own majority culture most.

It has, indeed, been said of Gösta Ågren that he is engaged in constant guerrilla warfare against the Swedish­-speakers of southern Finland. He believes that the northerners represent ‘real people’, while southerners in Helsinki and elsewhere are feudal lords, enslavers. Gösta Ågren has not relinquished this opinion, even though he no longer claims to be waging war.

All the same, in his own, remote village Gösta Ågren is no hermit. He has seen a great deal of the world and done a great many jobs. As a young man he worked on building sites and did other manual labour. He studied film in Stockholm, directed television films and became a doctor of philosophy at Stockholm University.

In Gösta Ågren‘s yard is an Allis-Chalmers tractor of 1955 and an 11-year-old red Moskvitch car. The tractor is the same age as the writer’s career. The old Soviet-manufactured car, too, has its symbolic function: it is a reminder that in a rich consumer economy like Finland’s only a poet can afford to drive such an old car.

The external picture of Gösta Ågren includes ordinary, rather rustic apparel and an old-fashioned church kantele. Gösta Ågren uses this folk instrument to accompany himself when he sings, for instance, Robert Burns’s ancient Scottish ballads.

There is now no great distance left to the logical conclusion: such a peculiar person, living in such a remote place, must be a slightly comical combination of patriarch and village idiot.

Wrong! Gösta Ågren’s home district is his global village. Gösta Ågren is a demanding and ambitious critic who is particularly severe when it comes to his own work. He would like to destroy all the many volumes of poetry he published before 1978. That year saw the publication of Molnsommar (‘Cloud summer’) and the extensive, polemic Vår historia (‘Our history’). Covering hundreds of pages, this book described Finland’s history from a polemic, Marxist perspective, but Finnish-speaking Finns were not interested. Among Swedish-speakers it attracted a great deal of attention and sparked some debate.

A Marxist! Now that we have a hold on what the man really is, it begins to become clear why he is so different and so isolated…

Gösta Ågren says he uses history in studying and interpreting Marxist methods, but that the social prescriptions of Marxism themselves are foreign to him. But he has never disputed the fact that he is on the political Left.

In the small house that he has built himself Gösta Ågren writes poems carefully, taking plenty of time and trouble.

It is hard work, he says. Sometimes he writes a column for the Vasabladet newspaper. He says he could not go for even a day without writing. It is the most important thing, it excludes everything else.

Even if the reading public in Finland has not yet discovered Gösta Ågren, the critics have been speaking of him as a master for a long time: ‘A rare combination is producing important poetry, monuments to eternity and the present day, shapes that impress themselves on the winds of time like Henry Moore’s sculptures,’ wrote the critic Pekka Tarkka of the prize-winning collection Jär (‘Here’).

When the news of the award broke, Jär sold out immediately. That was how a single day made an unknown poet famous.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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