Formal logic

Issue 4/1995 | Archives online, Authors, Interviews, Reviews

Maarit Verronen’s novel, Pimeästä maasta (‘Out of the Land of Darkness’), inhabits the borderland between science fiction and fantasy. It is also a classic story of the demands of integrity in a harsh and prescriptive world. It is set daringly on the far side of time and place: the name of its main character is Ulthyraja Tharabereghist, from which one can already deduce that the novel does not deal with the real world. Pimeästä maasta is a cleverly constructed novel which surprises its reader in many different ways. The first surprise is that Verronen does not define her main character’s gender. The structure of the Finnish language, in which the personal pronoun does not reveal the gender of the person to whom it refers, makes this possible.

‘The gender of the main character was not of the least importance from the point of view of the story. It is, for me, in any case about as important as the size of shoe a person takes. With this novel I wanted to question why we generally have such strict roles – even when they are not necessary. People are too often forced into all kinds of moulds,’ says Verronen, 30. She made her breakthrough two years ago, when her previous novel, Yksinäinen vuori (The lonely mountain’), was listed for Finland’s most respected literary award, the Finlandia Prize. She made her debut in 1992 with a collection of short stories entitled Älä maksa lautturille (‘Don’t pay the ferryman’).

‘I don’t deny that gender has both a biological and a social basis, but I believe that the social aspect is much stronger than we generally wish to believe.’

In the translated extract that follows, the pronoun she is used of the main character – the decision was Verronen’s. ‘It was a good move in that calling the character a woman does as much violence to my main character as do the moulds in the novel itself,’ Verronen comments ironically. In this respect, as so often, truth imitates fiction.

Nevertheless, Verronen admits that the choice of the feminine pronoun is supported by the fact that she herself is a woman, for which reason there are undoubtedly more feminine than masculine features in the protagonist she has created. But she wishes to stress, once more, that from the point of view of the novel it is essential that the gender of the main character is not revealed.

One understands this extremely well when one examines the themes of the novel. For on one level, Pimeästä maasta is a morality play, strict but unemphatic. Verronen declines to define the gender of her protagonist for the simple reason that the novel is concerned to criticise the need of real life to compartmentalise peo­ ple as well as ideas. She ponders the problem of fathoming the limits of individual freedom the eternal question is: to what extent do people make their own lives, and to what extent does normative reality force people into a particular shape?

In this respect, Pimeästä maasta is a kind of Blade Runner of the tundra – the book version of the film. Verronen’s perspective and setting, it is true, are different from those of Ridley Scott. In Blade Runner, centre stage was taken by robots that people had made in their own image, while in Pimeästä maasta the narrative centres on normative reality, which forces people into certain moulds – what American writers would call the system. The setting of Blade Runner is a city torn apart by technology, while Pimeästä maasta is set in the midst of nature, in the tundra – the setting is a kind of updated pastoral landscape that also includes dark, oppressive shadows. In Blade Runner, technological progress has continued, while in Pimeästä maasta a certain regression has occurred, a return to the primal home.

Verronen hesitates to say that her new novel belongs in the class of science fiction – indeed, she almost denies it. She believes that this is yet another attempt to compartmentalise things that need no compartments. ‘In my first collection of short stories I wrote a couple of stories that could be called sci fi, but I don’t believe Pimeästä maasta is science fiction. If you want to classify it somehow, I think it is much more clearly anchored in the tradition of fantasy literature. But to me the most important thing is that I do not wish, in any way at least consciously – to follow any particular tradition or to place myself in the great continuum of any particular tradition. The truth is simple: different people write different kinds of stories,’ says Verronen, who studied astronomy and does not herself wish to analyse her novel. That would be like giving out instructions for use. I certainly don’t want to do that.’

Pimeästä maasta is not merely a fantasy novel, for it is at the same time a traditional development novel whose setting is just a little different from that of literature that is more closely connected to the realist tradition. Verronen describes Ulthyraja Tharabereghist’s road from darkness to light, and toward greater consciousness. Hence the novel’s name. The book’s dramatic tension comes from the question of whether the protagonist will be able to escape the brand-marks left on the skin by the Land of Darkness. The starting-point is cruel but true: according to social norms, Ulthyraja Tharabereghist is forced, from childhood, to adapt to fit a great mould. The tundra community places the child in a practice mould, after which the moulding continues and the inhabitant of the tundra is polished for his or her future task as a Hunter or a Carer.

‘The teaching of the new-born in the Communal Cabin was begun at the age of a few weeks, but it was the parents’ business to decide what was to be taught and what part-moulds were to be used. Most parents decided early on what their children were to become, but the result was sometimes a miserable failure.’

Ulthyraja Tharabereghist encounters moulds in three different settings: she is born in the Land of Darkness, the tundra. From there, she escapes to the Fishers’ Village, and sees the sea for the first time. Finally she reaches the City of Light. Each new environment means a step in her liberation. She breaks the mould and begins to take on her own, natural shape.

Verronen has embodied manipulation as a real, existing mould. When we look around us, we find such moulds everywhere-the only difference is that they are not called moulds.

In the tundra, Ulthyraja Tharabereghist took a negative attitude to the sex that was practised there in muddy pits, but in the City of Light she finally learns to accept pleasure.

The development story, too – like the description of the moulding – opens up allegorically and points to problems with which everyone is forced to wrestle in the real world – here and now. For this reason, the basic tone of the novel is strongly philosophical, even ontological. ‘Philosophy means a lot to me. In my books, I try to convey a certain kind of world view and to construct the setting I describe. This may derive from the time when I studied astronomy. Then I began to be really interested in how the world in general works. The exploration of this question involves the construction of a world view. Writing books is just the same thing, you just do it differently.’

In addition to a world view, Verronen constructs the settings in which the events of her novels take place with care. The task is a challenging one, for these settings do not exist:

‘Inner logic is the most important thing,’ Verronen says. ‘It is a jigsaw made out of very diverse materials. But it is not very sensible to try to say which element comes from where. Places mean a lot to me because they are part of a world view, an image of the world.’

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