Breton without tears

Issue 1/1994 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from Euroopan reuna (‘The edge of Europe’, Otava, 1982). Introduction by H. K. Riikonen

I am reading a book, it says pour l’homme latin ou grec, un forme correspond à un être; pour le Celte, tout est metamorphose, un même individu peut prendre des apparences diverses, so it says in the book. A strange claim, considering that the word metamorphosis is Greek, and that the best-known book about metamorphoses, Ovid’s Metamorphoseon libri XV was written in Latin. In the myths of all peoples, at least the ones whose oral poetry was recorded in time, such as the Greeks, Serbs, Slavs, Finns, or Aztecs, metamorphoses play a very important part, the Celts are not an exceptional tribe in this respect. The author must mean that the Celts still live in mythical time, the time of metamorphoses when the human being assumed shapes, was able to fly as a bird, swim as a fish, howl as a wolf, and to crown his career by rising up into the sky as a constellation. Brittany is part of the Armorica Joyce tells us about in Finnegans Wake, that book is incomprehensible if one does not know Ireland, and now I see that Brittany is the key to one of the book’s locked rooms. I thought I already had keys to all the rooms after Dublin, the Vatican, and Athens, but one door was and remained closed, the key is here now, in my hand, I can get into all the rooms in the book, and I am home even if I should happen to get lost. The room creates the person, she becomes another when she goes from one room to another, this is metamorphosis, and when she leaves the house she disappears, she no longer exists. The legend on the temple at Delphi, gnothi seauton, know thyself, has led Occidentals onto the false track that is now becoming a dead end, polytheistic religions correspond to the order of nature, but as soon as the human starts to imagine that she knows herself, as soon as the metamorphic era ends, monotheism is born, the human being creates god in her own image, and that is the source of all evil. Planted like traffic signs at the far end of this cul-de-sac stand the hitlers and brezhnevs and reagans and thatchers, new leaves are appearing on the trees, the sun is shining. Landet som icke är* är en paradox: landet blev befintligt därigenom att Edith Södergran sade att det icke är. On the sea sailed a silent ship*, as I tracked my shoeprints across the sand on the beach, it was like walking on a street made out of salty raw sugar, I felt desolate. The wind bent the grasses, the sun warmed the back of my sweater, of course the sun always has the last word, I thought, things should be as they are, this thought gave me peace of mind. I walked past the cows, two of them already chewing the cud, the others still grazing, they stood in a line and raised their heads, stood at attention, as it were, as I walked past. I was not entirely sure that I was heading in the right direction, but then I saw the boucherie and knew that there was a café nearby. Madame greeted me in a friendly fashion, brought me a calvados and a beer and sat down for a chat, wanted to know if I liked the countryside here. I said that things looked the same here as in Ireland, she said that was true, but she had never been to Ireland. I finished my drinks and paid, left, decided to walk along the beach. I saw gun emplacements and two bunkers. I crawled into a bunker. Inside, it was dark and damp. I looked through the embrasure at the sea. I thought of the boys who had been incarcerated here. They had been given a death sentence. I examined a rusty object, what was it, I looked at it more closely, it was an axle from a gun’s undercarriage. As I arrive in my home yard, I note that the lilacs are beginning to bloom.

At the fishermen’s wharf I bought some plump fish, a little larger than perch. I sat on the pier and looked at the water. There was something familiar about this sitting on the pier, drinking beer, and looking at the water, it was three or four meters deep but the bottom was clearly visible. There wasn’t much to see, everything disappears quickly with the water’s rise and fall, I felt the urge to be in the water, to take a swim, but did not feel up to it. I went to Madame’s for coffee and brandy, the café was doing a brisk midday trade, and I arranged my face into an expression that indicated I had something important to think about, which was true, even though I wasn’t thinking about it. Thinking about important things, such as for instance this Falkland Islands crisis is just a pain in the butt, trying to think about it gets you nowhere. The cows are already finding things to eat, they are getting their cloven hooves muddy in the wetlands by the beach, plucking the grass. When you see how little they manage to pull out each time, and how large they are, and see them chewing the cud, you realize what hard-working creatures they are, they have no time for leisure at all. Getting milked must be their only joy in life, if that’s much of a joy anymore now that it is done by a machine, they have no sex lives either, here comes the artificial inseminator in his little car, his rag-top Citroën, a handy vehicle on country roads. I leaned against a rough boulder, its surface was like the skin of a thousand-year-old elephant, it even had a trunk, a horn played by the wind, not pompously but in a manner suited to the calm nature of the countryside. For a moment I felt as if I were close to what I had been sent out to look for in this world. The feeling passed. I walked home. In the large white building a party was going on, there were many carloads of visitors, and the din could be heard far and wide. The real time of a book is the time it takes to write it, as I am now writing this, sitting by my hearth. I am reading a book called Breiz atao, then I am writing again, now I am writing about Lenin and what he once said, he said we will set all of Europe on fire and on its ruins we’ll build a temple, our temple, the likes of which has never been seen before. Such a thought is incomprehensible to a Celt. Every house is inhabited by its spirit, a tiny goblin who must not be rendered homeless, because if he is, he will take revenge. This is not whimsy, it is something every grown-up person knows.

I walked through three kers on my way to St. Philibert. My book informs me that ker in French is la ville:

Pa vo beuzet Paris
Ec'tha adsavo Ker Is.
       Quand sera noyé Paris
       Renaitra la ville d'Is.

But these kers, through which my road took me as I went to St. Philibert to do some shopping, weren’t towns but country estates, and after I had been on the road to the point of exhaustion I thought, surely there will be a fourth ker, Ker Ouac, but then saw the church spire, and when all is said and done, the trek was no more than four kilometers. Courageously I entered the alimentation*, I had no problem picking out a loaf of bread, but when I asked for cocoa powder, Madame did not understand, I pronounced it so strangely that she did not understand: kaakkao pulverisee. I mimed sleeping, waking up, boiling water, spooning powder into a mug, petit dejeuner Madame, I said, and after this performance it finally dawned on her that I mean Poulain, and to her mind a package labeled Poulain contains poulain, not cocoa. Since this initial transaction had turned out to be so strenuous, I decided to look for a larger store, a self-service store, where I would not have so much trouble with the language. The town consisted of the church and an intersection. I knew that on the street I had been on there was nothing but locked doors, here and there someone sitting by a window looking out, or busy in the garden, raking. So passeth the time that unto us is given. I decided to explore the three remaining directions. I walked down each one in turn, and in each case there was, after two hundred meters, a sign that said St. Philibert with a diagonal red line across the name, I did not find any shops. I began to feel tired and irritable. I went back to the alimentation, it, too, had a small café at the back, and I went there to calm down, to be calm the way trees and bushes are, to hide in this book, which I am writing. I would not need a whole lot of space, just a room, the upper floor of a capital letter A would be enough, but they won’t let me in, you are drunk says the doorman, grabs me by the hair, kicks my ass, and says you better not show up here anymore. I entered the café of the alimentation. Now it was clear Madame had retired upstairs for lunch and an afternoon siesta, well-deserved, of course, she seemed to be running the shop all by herself from dawn to dusk, and now the patrons were served by her underage daughter, whose head was round and pretty as an unripe cowberry, she came and said to me, if I understood her correctly, now what do you want? I asked her for a shot of calvados. She was not allowed to serve me that. I did a slow burn, pissed off I started out for home, made a detour into the cemetery, sat on the edge of a grave and gnawed on a piece of bread. The crosses on the graves were not the same as in Ireland, these were flowers with four petals and did not have confining circle of the Irish cross, the convulsive mouth of the vagina, the orgasm that is a prohibition. Against the white-washed headstone cross leaned a crucifix, half a meter high, its cross carved out of black marble or perhaps felspar, the sufferer himself some white stone, I thought that if one shouldered one of these, one might be more acceptable to the Lord than Simon of Cyrene, since one would be carrying both the cross and the crucified, it annoyed me that I did not know the names of all the trees. The unsuccessful outcome of my shopping trip had upped the adrenalin level in my blood, I strode with a swagger and did not look around. After I got home, I continued reading an article I had started: ‘The Power and Mystery of the Subatomic World’. I held a cigarette between my fingers, then I stuck it between my teeth, and before I lit it I decided that I would never again go shopping in Holy Shitville.

This is Finistère, Finis Terrae, the end of the world. But there still is oil, chainsaws and lawnmowers sputter along and cars whoosh by as in a pinball game, three minutes for one franc. Once again, I set out to attempt the purchase of things, and now I must succeed, I go to Point, the village, where they know me and I am not afraid to talk. By the bunkers I stop for a smoke, read Le Monde and notice that they have started spelling Koivisto’s name Koïvisto, otherwise he would sound something like Kwah­Vis-Toh, some kind of Vietnamese name, not that there is anything wrong with Vietnamese names, or the Vietnamese language, but Le Monde surely is the only newspaper in the world that comprehends that Finnish, too, is a language. The news item said that Messrs. Mitterrand and Koivisto had exchanged views on current international matters, at the Helsinki airport. I have never understood the exchange, of tradings, of views. Postage stamps and matchbox labels get traded, but how do you trade views? I took a shortcut, a snake wriggled across the path, about half a meter long but weirdly slender, the thickness of a laborer’s finger. There would have been time, but I did not want to do it. As little as I care for the rest of the advice and the commandments contained in the Bible, why should I have complied with the one that says one should crush the serpent’s head? It would be the same thing as crushing the ear of a passer-by, calmly the snake pulled itself into the grass, I arrived at the main road, walked on and looked at the houses, the lady at the grocery store gave me a friendly greeting, this time the most important purchase was paper towels, I managed to convey that, then I bought some wine and smokes and les galettes de Pont-Aven, I considered going to Madame’s café in Point to write this, but then it occurred to me, that I could write what I was thinking about as I was walking along when I got home, just as well, that the world is capable of keeping alive the number of people who now live in it, but that there is not enough room for the opinions of all those people, there isn’t, under this heaven’s lid, I shuffled through the sand as the sun was setting, and there were some insects wandering around in the grass, as well.

I bought a book titled Le Breton sans peine*, it promises that I’ll be able to learn Breton in three months if I study every day, ten minutes in the morning and ten minutes at night, that is a total of 1,800 minutes if my calculation is correct. This sounds easy but the method is not congenial to me, it is exactly the same as when my dentist told me that if I brushed my teeth for ten minutes every day, in the morning and at night, I would not have to come see her every two months. But Annika, I said, I like coming here, for me this is like a visit to the hairdresser is for a woman, it relaxes me, she did not care for the analogy, perhaps it hurt her professional pride. They say that one may master a language, but it is impossible to master languages, they are your masters. You have one language, one wife, and one master, and he is a shape changer. I say kenavo to the lady at the bar and walk outside, my hands swing in the air but my feet are attached to the ground, the port is full of small blue boats, they look like stained glass in church windows, the boats of the disciples. I stop to watch a man who has trouble mooring his boat, getting two ropes so tight his boat will stay put, should I go help him, I don’t, he looks at me and I see how he is inside his own story the way I am inside mine and a story will always remain a stranger to another story. All people inhabit their own story, they look out and holler to each other, that is how the world is constructed, to consist of discrete stories, it has been chambered into individuals with limited elbow room, if that were not the case the world would burst. The world could not breathe if there were only one language, languages are the pores of its skin, no language should be told to shut up.

I went to collect cow dung from the pasture by the shore, to heat up the compost, it was a pretty evening, now I sit in the kitchen and study the language, undoubtedly a silly thing to do, but no sillier than jogging. I’ll never have any use for the Breton language, but neither do joggers jog so they’ll be able to run away if they have stolen something and people are trying to catch them, or so they’ll be able to catch a thief if they themselves have become victims of crimes against property. After my evening homework, I’ll tend the fire and read Whitman’s poems, I have always been afraid to read Whitman because I have always known that I should not read him until I was sure of myself and trusted my own sentence. He has white hair and a white beard, he rests his chin on his fist and looks at me out of the corner of his eye, not askance, not sarcastically, but just as if to say all right, take care of your fire, enjoy your evening, get tired. Write poems, work for the realization of democracy, but don’t imagine that writing will ever make you happy, or that democracy will ever be realized. The fire does not want to burn, it curls up between the logs and goes out. I sit here for a while so I won’t wake up while it is still dark. On the chocolate wrapper there was a picture of a statue of Rodolphe Lindt, the inventor of milk chocolate. The statue is made out of chocolate. Ma grwek zo e-brazhe an ti. In his poem ‘Beginning My Studies’, Whitman says that one should never pursue studies past their beginning. I remember how after everybody else had gone to bed I sat up in the kitchen late at night drinking black coffee and smoking and studying languages, composing word lists, constructing sentences, once I stayed up all night and wrote an incomprehensible essay in Latin, its subject was Hebrew loan words in Latin. I turned the pages of a Hebrew-Latin dictionary I had bought in a used book store, looking for words that resembled each other. It was not a wasted night, because when I went for a morning walk, I was proud of my essay, and it became a happy day as I walked around town and kept noticing new things, buildings and people’s faces wore different expressions than they had the previous day. Once studying has become serious work, one no longer gets that feeling, all later experiences are just remembrances, as when an athlete who wins an Olympic gold medal finds that this is not what makes him happy, what makes him happy is his memory of the moment he stood on the winner’s podium as a regional champion. This is what Whitman means when he says that studies should end with their beginning: beginning my studies the first step pleas’d me so much, The mere fact, consciousness, these forms, the power of motion, The least insect or animal, the senses, eyesight, love, The first step I saw awed and pleas’d me so much, I have hardly gone and hardly wish’d to go any farther, But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs. I once had a friend who drew pictures and also wrote poems. His pictures were wild, they showed trees that had torn themselves loose from their roots, horses galloping in the air, people looking for limbs that had gotten away from them, all kinds of weird creatures. The poems, on the other hand, were extremely disciplined, he was, as it were, a jailer of words. The number of key strokes in each line equaled that of the number of lines in the poem. Spaces between stanzas were counted as lines, and spaces between words were counted as key strokes. Despite this straitjacket, the text did not violate the rules of grammar. He discovered, however, that when one of these poems was printed, it was no longer perfect, because in the printed text a narrow letter, such as i, takes up less space than a wide letter, such as k, and thus the lines were no longer of equal length. Unable to resolve this problem, he gave up poetry, concluding that it was an impossible art form. Who knows why Whitman brought to mind this friend from the days of my youth.

There has been a hailstorm. I bought two garfish, not from the handsomest fisherman of the village but from another one, now I am drinking coffee in the café of the alimentation, it is very weak, I stop behind the counter to fortify it a little, thinking whatever, thinking that this journey, this sojourn will soon come to an end. Alcohol, C-2.,H-5.OH in the language of chemistry, is Arabic for powdered antimony, a substance with which women improved the beauty of their eyes, how the word acquired its present connotation is anybody’s guess. Alcohol boils at 78 degrees Centigrade and freezes at a temperature of 112 below, if I remember correctly, but it is, in any case, possible to produce booze by freezing as well as by boiling, in theory at least, I don’t know how practical or lucrative that would be. In Sweden, possession of distillation equipment is against the law, but they can’t prohibit freezers, that would lead to the collapse of everything. One might ban yeast, or ration it, and after purchasing yeast with their yeast card, persons would have to go to the Yeast Control Office to show the loaves and cakes and cinnamon rolls they had baked to prove that they had not used their yeast for illicit purposes. Some Swedish government minister noted with satisfaction that sales of yeast have gone up, which in his opinion indicated a renaissance of home-baking in his country. Then he noted, again with satisfaction, that alcohol consumption had decreased. If that minister had bothered to study those statistics a little further, he would have noticed that bread sales have remained at their former level. Why does the state try to stop people from drinking alcohol? This is a problem of political science, and political science is not my bailiwick, but you do think about all kinds of things when you feel sad. The lace-maker’s son, forty-eight years old, an invalid with bolts in his hips and knees, came in. His day consists of doing the rounds of all the cafés in the village and having a drink in each one of them. He leans on the bar and talks to some oldtimer in Breton. I hear him use the word deivas*, twice or three times. I invite him to my table. I ask him what deivas means. He indicates, by pointing at his wristwatch, that it is the time when people are awake, the day, when the sky can be seen.

Translated by Anselm Hollo

*) Notes:

pour l’homme latin ou grec… (French): ‘for Latin or Greek man, a form corresponds with a being; for the Celt, all is metamorphosis, the same individual may assume diverse appearances.’

Landet som icke är… (Swedish): The land that is not (the title of one of early 20th-century Finland­-Swedish poet Edith Södergran’s poems) is a paradox: that land came into being when Edith Södergran said that it did not exist.’

a silent ship: in English in the original.

LeBreton sans peine (French): ‘Breton without tears.’

alimentation (French): grocery store.

deivas (Breton): in Finnish, the word for both ‘sky’ and ‘heaven’ is taivas.

PS: Poems 1958-1980, edited and translated by Anselm Hollo (West Branch, Iowa: Toothpaste Press, 1983)
Dances of the Obscure, translated by Michael Cole & Karen Kimball (Durango: Logbndge-Rhodes, 1987)
Vid Europas rand: en kinetisk bild, translated by Antti Jalava (Stockholm: Raben & Sjögren, 1984)
Où que j’aille: choix de poèmes, translated by Olivier Descargues (Paris: jean Pierre Oswald, 1976)
Ich rede. Gedichte, translated by Manfred Peter Hein (Neuwied & Berlin: Luchterhand, 1965)

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