Business as usual

Issue 2/1994 | Archives online, Authors

The writing of Juha Vakkuri has never really belonged in the same category as Finnish agrarian prose or the tradition of prosaic realism. Vakkuri’s novels do, indeed, describe Finland and the country’s slow processes of change, but the changes are mirrored in other parts of the world: Europe, Africa and often elsewhere.

Vakkuri (born 1946) is head of programmes at the Finnish Broadcasting Company, and he has also worked as a development worker in Africa. His work on development projects and in the media appears in his novels as a jigsaw whose pieces, as they fit together, reveal to the reader a corner of the global village. Perhaps the clearest and, in the opinion of some critics, the best of Vakkuri’s international Finnish novels is  Paratiisitango (‘Paradise tango’, 1993). In it, Vakkuri deals with situations familiar from the media world, in which the central problem is the conflict between power and morality. The book contains many frauds and their disclosures: nothing is as it seems. People who consider themselves moral commit crimes, and a victim of terrorism turns out himself to be a terrorist. Everything belongs to one and the same world, which the media both describe and conceal.

In his novels of the 1970s, Vakkuri was still using his novels to ponder social questions, often centring them around his experiences in Africa. Mustavalkoinen Afrikka (‘Black-and-white Africa’, 1973) analysed the racial policies of South Africa, Muutoksen tuuli (‘The wind of change’, 1979) the present-day state of Africa, and and Kulta, islam ja pyhä käärme (‘Gold, Islam and the holy serpent’, 1983). Vakkuri’s novel Neljän polven puu (‘Tree of four generations’, 1980) is considered his breakthrough work: in it, missionary work lends perspective to the experiences of a journalist in today’s Africa.

In the early 1980s, the structure of Vakkuri’s novels condensed, his dialogue became laconic, latent. His characters became pawns and players in a power game. In Mies, joka muuttui puuksi (‘The man who changed into a tree’, 1982), Vakkuri uses his pared-down style to paint the portrait of an opportunistic businessman playing his games in a totalitarian state. Jään kääntöpiiri (‘Tropic of ice’, 1984) shifts the same approach to the business world, whose characters attempt to reveal as little as possible but to get as much as they can for themselves. For the novel’s main character, everything in international business is commerce. Coldly and ironically, Vakkuri shows how deception and profit are stronger than morality.

In addition to the global village and Africa, Juha Vakkuri’s work shows an enduring passion for Hungary. The Hungarians made a film out of Mies, joka muuttui puuksi. In his book Yhden miehen Unkari (‘One man’s Hungary’, 1986), Vakkuri portrayed Janos Kádär’s Hungary a moment before the great European changes. Tonavalla tuulee (‘A wind on the Danube’), published six years later, rapidly consigns to history the men who, shortly before, were still considered significant reformers. Instead, the new Hungary is paying a high price for freedom: economic difficulties, strikes, party strife and the commercialisation of culture – Vakkuri’s survey of the situation remains the truth today.

In the novels Päiväntasaaja (‘The equator’, 1985) and Ikaros (1989), Vakkuri shifts his perspective from politics and business to culture. Päiväntasaaja deals with the difficulties of anthropology in crossing the threshhold of African culture, while in Ikaros the human longing for self- transcendence is revealed as the result of deception. Perhaps the key to Vakkuri’s work is, indeed, deception. It is present in almost ali of his works, and it may be that, as the years have passed, the world-view of Juha Vakkuri’s novels has become increasingly cynical.

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