Lady into Bird

Issue 1/1991 | Archives online, Authors

One of the ways in which the comparative youth of Finland’s culture makes itself felt is in the fact that there is never any great distance between low and high culture. Finnish literature has always naturally mixed popular and high art elements: in dealing with the themes and traumas that define the national consciousness, it has proved possible to use folk tales, pop songs or jokes as a distancing mechanism.

The work of Aulikki Oksanen is characterised by just this kind of mix. She is not only a writer: since her literary debut in 1966, she has also been well-known for her work as an actress, a singer of radical political songs, and for her illustrations of her own children’s books.

Oksanen’s interest in the world of folk tales and myths, and their modern equivalents, popular song and cinema, can be partly explained by her generation and its political consciousness. Appearing in politically engaged plays and films, writing and singing political songs, Oksanen (born 1944) was one of the most prominent figures in the Finnish cultural life of the Sixties.

Like many of her contemporaries, she moved easily from the radicalism of the 1960s to the strict communism of the 1970s. The surrealist romanticism of her song lyrics gave way to agitprop which embraced, among other things, praise for the Soviet space programme and for the friendship and co-operation treaty between Finland and the Soviet Union. Along with the new political slant, a didactic note entered both her poems and her short stories: this is what is to be thought, this is how life is to be lived.

Like the majority of her contemporaries, too, Oksanen has in recent years distanced herself from the political orthodoxy of the early 1970s and, in her most recent work, subjects it to a bitterly cynical analysis. She has not abandoned her social ideals completely, however. In the latest edition of Finland’s Who’s Who, she is listed as still belonging to the Finnish Communist party. Some of the traumas of communism may, however, still need to be written out in work yet to come.

It may have been the fact that the programmatic nature of Finnish cultural Stalinism was in large part built on popular culture and familiar mythology that first attracted Oksanen: the aim was the creation of a genuine popular culture, easily accessible and available to everyone. In her own books, Oksanen has attempted to do just this. She has always written of the lives of the 
majority, in a simple, even naïve, style, avoiding the ostentation and experimentation of modernism. The young female narrators of her novels and short stories live deprived lives in which the structured violence of society is ever-present, even in personal relationships.

Oksanen cannot, however, be considered part of the tradition of Finnish realism – narratives that emphasise the greyness and misery of life are not, after all, to the taste of the majority of people (or readers). Melodramatic stories and satirical, humorous surrealism are closer both to Oksanen and to the man, or woman, in the street. But Oksanen does have her place in the Finnish literary tradition. Her work contains references to and echoes of the workers’ literature of the early part of the century, as well as of the unchanging themes of women’s literature. It has something in common with the novels of the communist writer Elvi Sinervo, who during the Second World War was kept in preventive detention: a certain optimistic fantasy that casts light on darkness.

The 1980s saw a change in Oksanen’s style and approach. The titles of her books, too, tell of some kind of depression, a growing sense of reality: Alumiinipaita (‘The aluminium shirt’; novel, 1984); Entiset vyötäröt (‘Former waistlines’; short stories, 1986). The approach of middle age forces her characters to come to terms with a harsh reality that struggle does not seem to be able to change for the better. The radicalism of the 1960s has evaporated, and the monotony of political bickering exhausts people. When realisation dawns, they have to face the fact that they have neglected 
themselves and those they care about; they are alone.

This is the nature of the characters in Oksanen’s most recent novel, Henkivartija (‘The bodyguard’, 1990): middle-aged people who have been mauled and cheated by life. In this book, however, Oksanen introduces a new element into her narrative, and abandons her regret for the illusions of youth and the failing of personal strength. The mythic and folk-tale elements of her early work are strongly present, with a heavy underlining of satire, elements which make it one of the best of last year’s Finnish novels.

The central character of Henkivartija is an ageing hippie, Ossi Lemponen, a failed tiling contractor, who is first seen on a journey with his buxom, respectable sister to a provincial town where their father is in hospital. Together the siblings make a splendid caricature of the fate of radicals: Ossi concentrates his energies on drinking beer, while his sister spends her time and money on solariums and slimming aids.

A completely different element in the novel is the pathetically croaking crow which, time after time, saves Ossi Lemponen from death. The bird is the soul of Ossi’s girlfriend, who has committed suicide and seeks peace by doing good deeds. Another fantastical element in the book is provided by the songs which constantly circulate in Ossi’s mind: in the midst of thought, he suddenly begins to sing old hymns, patriotic verses or naïve children’s songs.

Oksanen’s comic narrative demonstrates the sort of cultural baggage people carry with them. The apathetic nihilist Ossi Lemponen could not as a type be further from the fantasies of the 19th-century songs that plague him, written by people who believed they were creating the basis for Finnish culture, or from the single-mindedness of war propaganda; but he cannot escape their values, or their mental images. It is the same with the activists of the Sixties who wanted to create in Finland a completely different, ideal social order. Their ideas have disappeared; the cultural and national conditioning of childhood remains.

Henkivartija demonstrates this, but does not respect anything: not political orthodoxy, not Finnishness, not religion, not people’s good intentions. It is a farce of values, a picaresque novel, which uses many of the techniques of situation comedy. Let the crow that perches on the snowdrift be a suffering soul; let the forces of heaven and hell be let loose on each other – so what? In both Oksanen’s work and Finnish contemporary literature as a whole, Henkivartija is an unusual, interesting and important work.

The novel demonstrates how an established writer can go through an almost complete renewal, and use in a new way narrative techniques she has earlier rejected. At the same time it shows the diversity of ways in which the issue of society can be approached: how literature can step outside tradition to level criticism at society.

In her serious approach to the subject, Oksanen has, paradoxically, brought something rare and not easily nurtured into the writhing world of Finnish prose: an irresponsible, irreverent sense of humour.


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