Delirium into art

Issue 4/1991 | Archives online, Authors

Sometimes with fury, sometimes with delight, the Finnish reading public has followed Hannu Salama’s career with unflagging interest for almost 30 years. For the past ten years, the author has let it be known that he has been working on a novel about the Finnish traitor Otto Wille Kuusinen, a henchman of Stalin entrusted with high office in the Kremlin, who managed to survive the worst years of his mentor’s terror.

Ottopoika (‘Otto the adopted’, 1991) is a disappointment in that it is not, in fact, a political novel about the chameleon-like Kuusinen, but rather a story about a Finnish writer, Risto Mikkola, Hannu Salama’s alter ego, whose intention it is to write a book about Kuusinen. Neither is this Mikkola a Kremlinologist of any description, but, patently, a prisoner of his upbringing: he spent his childhood among the proletariat of Tampere, an industrial city in central Finland sometimes known as the Manchester of Finland, whose suburb, Pispala, was a hotbed of Finnish communism.

His description of the relationship between Stalin and Kuusinen, seen through a haze of suburban liquor fumes, is a kind of retaliation for Pispala’s former dependence on comintern directives.

Salminen’s alter ego considers the fate of the millions imprisoned or executed under communism, and writes in his diary, some time in the early 1980s, ‘That system needs to be changed so radically that it could mean its destruction.’ Not a bad prediction – based, nevertheless, not on political acumen, but on the view that the exercise of power is always founded on fantasy and delusion.

The Finnish-born communist chief Kuusinen enters the novel only, unfortunately, after a third of it has gone by in preparation of the main theme. He appears as a ladies’ man who is prepared to betray even his lover. Then Stalin looms up alongside him, an astonishingly grotesque figure who finds excrement in his boot and ransacks his medicine cupboard for aphrodisiacs.

Russian politics begin to seem like a cruel story, a dance of Petrushka, a drunken dream in which, as in the folk tale, a turnip is decorated with Lenin’s moustache. Political trials become carnival in Mikhail Bakhtins sense, with football, the sexual act and male voice choirs all contributing to the confusion. In the scenes set in the Kremlin, Salama succeeds in turning this delirium into art, and thus makes his own Rabelaisian rebellion.


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