On a magic carpet

Issue 3/1990 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

‘Tulavall is not large, but it is old and on the coast, just where the River Tatel runs into the sea.’ That is how the Finland-Swedish writer, Irmelin Sandman Lilius, starts her first book on the town of Tulavall, a place which has become her own universe in which she combines saga and realism with fantasy and history.

Tulavall and its inhabitants have become known and loved in ten languages. Last year, for instance the fourth edition of Bonadea, the book quoted above, was brought out in Spanish. The founder of Tulavall, King Tulle, can be read about in English, German, Danish, Finnish and, of course, Swedish. The three books about the magical Mistress Sola are to be published in Japanese.

Irmelin Sandman Lilius herself lives, just as do the girl Bonadea, King Tulle and Mistress Sola, in a small coastal town called Hangö [Hanko], where Irmelin and her husband Carl-Gustaf paint pictures and write books in a heavenly stone house by the sea.

‘I grew up in Helsinki and then in various small towns, so I have memories and experiences of small town life as well as city life. But when I married and moved to Hangö, it seemed quite natural that the setting of what I wrote about became a small town, and I started writing stories about a little girl called Bonadea – I quite simply felt I had come home It was like building a nest – you collect up all kinds of things from all over the place and gradually it expands. At first Tulavall was a haven of refuge, and then it became a starting point,’ says Irmelin Sandman Lilius. The she adds: ‘But, of course, it does happen that readers and critics are not at all pleased when I try to distance myself from Tulavall, and they keep trying to push me back there’.

From many readers, the ‘real’ Tulavall is the small town where Bonadea, the Halter family and the Apelman family all lived at the end of the 19th century. It is a setting Irmelin Sandman Lilius has drawn with great precision, in a wealth of detail and with a strong sense of social injustice.

‘When I started with Tulavall and Bonadea, the 19th century was simply a way of making the world a little more beautiful – the sailing ships I like better than motor-boats, and horses which I like much better than cars. It was also fun to research into the real 19th century, which were sufficiently close for one to be able to distinguish details and sufficiently distant to give one that freedom.’

But the world of Tulavall is also the world of early historic times in which King Tulle establishes his kingdom and marries the beautiful Libite, who is half-fox. Mistress Sola also rules in this realistic 19th century. Bonadea and many others with her are fundamentally half spirits, half people. The trolls, the elves and the spirits of the past of Tulavall are always lying in wait. For Irmelin Sandman Lilius, it is quite natural to write in this way, for that is how she sees reality.

‘When I was a child, I believed without question in trolls and elves. What I now think is difficult to express truly… in one story I have put it like this… that it is the forces of nature which are greater than oneself and which one cannot control. These “double-people”, like Queen Libite or Bonadea, are perhaps manifestations of one’s thinking. Though for me, they always seem quite real.’

Irmelin Sandman Lilius’s most recent book is called Mattan från Kars (‘The carpet from Kars’). In it, she does exactly what has made some critics wag their fingers warningly – she distances herself from Tulavall. Every other chapter is enacted in the Apelman family in the Tulavall of 19th century, and in the alternate chapters, the girl, Anna Lina Apelman, escapes from the weighty responsibilities of her small brothers and sisters, and goes to Kars in the Caucasus with the help of a magic carpet. The carpet from Kars exists in the mind, and hangs on the wall of Irmelin Sandman Lilius’s work room.

‘In 1974, I had a book published about Captain Grunnstedt, in which he tells the Apelman children about his youth in the Caucasus and how the Russians conquered kars. At the time, I was writing the first chapter of a sequel about the Apelman family. Then a great many years went by and one day we found this very old carpet in a forgotten comer of our house, blue and brown and clearly made of sheep’s wool and camel-hair. We were told that it is undoubtedly Kurdish.

‘The carpet began to live a life of its own here in our house. I suddenly started writing the story of the adventures of Anna Lina and her friend Bemyun, a book called Hästen hemma (‘The horse at home’). I have sent the manuscript to my publisher. For the moment, the carpet is silent.’

Mattan från Kars will be be published in Finnish in the autumn of 1991, and this autumn another book is coming out in both Sweden and Finland. The book is called Främlingsbilden (‘Picture of a stranger’), the fourth volume of Irmelin Sandman Lilius’s ‘adult books’ about Ellen Skärvmark, a painter, and Rudolf Aronius, a poet. Their destinies are enacted in 19th-century Tulavall, in Helsinki and in Karelia, in Italy — and in the Paris of today. Through Ellen, Irmelin Sandman Lilius provides words for visual creation, which is at least as important a part of her life as her writing. She has illustrated nearly all the author and the nogic carpet her books herself. The dreamy melancholy poet, Rudolf, is another alter ego, and through him, Irmelin Sandman Lilius writes poetry.

‘When Ellen Skärvmark came into my stories for the first time, she was making a bow or a curtsey to he three great Finland-Swedish women painters: Helene Schjerfbeck, Ellen Thesleff and Helena Westermark. Then she became a totally living person to me.’

Irmelin Sandman Lilius writes across all age boundaries and she herself never knows whether she is writing for children or adults. A few years ago, she did a wonderful little picture book about death, called Förvandlingstrappan (‘The stairs of change’, or, literally, ‘The transformation staircase’), which was primarily aimed at adults and greatly confused her publisher, Bonniers of Stockholm.

‘But then it turned out thet quite small children understood it perfectly well. I have no definite “target group”, as they call it. I write each story as best I can, to suit myself. For those who like to put things into pigeonholes, I now seem to have been assigned to the one called Tulavall.’

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