Eye of the storm

Issue 4/1993 | Archives online, Authors

In Urwind (Schildts; Finnish translation Otava, 1993), Bo Carpelan has written a poetic novel of strange depth and self-revelatory intensity. In this – on the surface – extremely simple story of a Helsinki secondhand bookseller whose wife leaves him for a year in order to do research at Harvard, there is a complex layering and criss-crossing of experience, past and present, that makes the narrative a matter more of inner than of outer experience: the fabric of the narrators life, his childhood, youth and earlier years is the subject of most of the 240 pages.

In his name, Daniel Urwind, a host of associations is contained, and this is also the generating point for a great deal of the novel’s thematic material. In the ‘ur-vind’, or ‘primordial attic’, are stored not only inanimate relics of the narrator’s past, but also memories of the people, the neighbours, friends and relatives who inhabited the apartment house in which he was brought up. Some of this material is already familiar from Carpelan’s Gården (‘The courtyard’) and his collection of prose poems Jag minns att jag drömde (‘I remember I dreamt’), but here it is linked to an intense and at times Ingmar Bergman-like meditation on the entire span of a man’s life, brought on by a crisis of loneliness and ultimate desertion.

The ‘ur-vind’ is also the cosmic, primordial wind, blowing from beyond the comforting, reassuring walls of houses and apartments, and sweeping the faces, places, memories and impressions of life, the loves, the successes and failures, triumphs and defeats, into a chaotic vortex that brings giddiness and oblivion. Although the narrator is only 53, he possesses an acute sensitivity to the closeness of death, and it is from there that the ‘ur-vind’ blows, imparting a chill to the short chapters that is sometimes reminiscent of Poe or Baudelaire.

Literary antecedents and allusions are indeed many throughout the novel – the books in the secondhand bookshop have a way of coming alive and inspiring passages of text. Thus, for example, the narrator’s Aunt Viktoria, an important character who in many ways represents the focal point of the novel’s philosophical direction, creates from her life a ‘blue cathedral’ that has physical reality and exists in the same way as the ‘Merz-Bau’ devised by Kurt Schwitters. Each person must build his or her life as if it were a house or a ship, and the process is not metaphorical but actual. This reference to Schwitters is in fact quite moving, as are many of the novel’s other references to Kafka (‘When he himself talked he thought he sounded like a complaining cat’), Sperber (‘We must be the walking graveyards of murdered friends’), Paul Klee, Hermann Broch, Robert Musil, Guy de Maupassant.

Urwind is in many ways a new departure for Bo Carpelan. It combines the techniques of poetry and narrative writing in a fruitful and imaginative tension. Although its predominant themes are melancholy, anxiety and death, it speaks of and out of the human condition with a voice that is in the end one of stoical and ironic serenity:

‘Perhaps, when we lie broken, a wind carries us? Each day is a little lighter than the last. In the air, in the wind I write my name.’


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