Mystery and the imagination

30 December 1999 | Authors, Reviews

Jyrki Vainonen

Photo: Niko Aula

Jyrki Vainonen mixes reality with miracles: in his story ‘The pearl’ the central character is a living model in a department store. Introduction by Pekka Tarkka

The setting of Jyrki Vainonen’s short story ‘Helmi’ (‘The Pearl’) reminds me of the Finnish architect Sigurd Frosterus, who lived at the beginning of the 20th century. He wrote a brilliant essay on the Wertheim department store in Berlin, which he saw as a work of art of the age of capitalism, similar to the baths for Romans or the cathedral for the people of the mediaeval period. He realised his vision by designing a handsome building, the Stockmann department store, which has been a much-loved temple of goods for Helsinki people for 70 years.

Jyrki Vainonen captures the spirit of the contemporary department store elegantly, but at the same time he creates new dimensions and appears to be moving among old baths and cathedrals. The statue-like main character of the story, his metamorphoses and reflections, give rise to associations with the sacral figures of literature, from Pygmalion to Oscar Wilde’s A Portrait of Dorian Grey. Vainonen’s cultural borrowings recur densely but always receive an original realisation.

In Jyrki Vainonen’s short stories, rational man often finds himself in a situation taken from myth. Vainonen likes to juxtapose human beings and animals, and cheerfully changes scale, seeing adults as Lilliputians. This, of course, brings to mind a classic writer whom Vainonen has translated into Finnish, Jonathan Swift. He is, however, not a hurtful satirist in the Swiftian mould.

Closer to Vainonen appears to be the Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney, of whose work he has translated two selections. They share an interest in Celtic mythology. In his collection of short stories, Tutkimusmatkailija (‘The explorer’), this is visible above all in the short story ‘Linnustaja’ (‘The bird-hunter’), which contrives an encounter between a huntsman and a bathing nymph, a winged being from another reality.

The fantasy short story is a difficult genre, and I was not entirely persuaded by all the stories in the book. All the same, Vainonen’s collection contains half a dozen unerringly fine stories. He develops the spirit of place with the certainty of a dream, he has the capacity to astonish and to jolt required of a short-story writer, and his literary culture is visible in every line without seeming like imitation.

Doors open up from everyday reality into miracles. Short stories of this type are common from Edgar Allan Poe and Kafka onward, but they have not so far found a real home in Finnish literature. Toivo Pekkanen, otherwise a realist chronicler of the working-classes, experimented with a mixture of fantasy and realism in Mies ja punapartaiset herrat (‘The man and the red-bearded gentlemen’, 1950), in whose six double short stories the first part follows the rules of realism, while the second juxtaposes a fantastical variation. Pekkanen himself appears to have been slightly astonished by the result, and calls the reality of the ‘red-beards’ dream and error.

The Finnish fantasy novel progressed from Pekkanen’s programmatic experiment to enchantingly unruly fancies in Pentti Holappa’s collection of stories, Muodonmuutoksia (‘Metamorphoses’, 1958), which developed models of human daring, unlimited alternatives to everyday reality. Something of the same line has been followed by, for example, Maarit Verronen (see Books from Finland 3/1999).

Vainonen’s models are international rather than Finnish. He moves effortlessly between reality and fantasy in composing miniature prose masterpieces. He does not write in the flesh-and-blood manner of Kafka and company. He is closer to a storyteller such as Roald Dahl, that entertainer of intelligent surprises. Tutkimusmatkailija is a territorial conquest in Finnish literature, and at the same time a fascinating read.

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