Still alive

31 March 2000 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Maa ilman vettä (‘A world without water’, Tammi, 1999)

The window opened on to a sunny street. Nevertheless, there was a pungent, sickbed smell in the room. There were blue roses on a white background on the wallpaper and, on the long wall, three landscape watercolours of identical size: a sea-shore with cliffs, a mountain stream, mountaintops. The room was equipped with white furniture and a massive wooden table. The television had been lifted on to a stool so that it could be seen from the bed.

The bed had been shifted to the centre of the room with its head against the rose-wall, as in a hospital. Between white sheets, supported by a large pillow, Sofia Elena lay awake in a half-sitting position.Her formerly lovely, warm eyes in her shrunken face recognised Kristiina immediately. And Kristiina knew Sofia Elena’s mouth, open with joy, although she had lost some teeth and her former brilliance was dimmed.

Roses in their hands, chocolate in their guts, in their arms the exhaustion of demonstration, faces reflected in the Landwehrkanal, laughter and giggling all around as they ran into the Dahlem underground station.

‘Die Schneehäsin!’

Sofia Elena’s powerful voice grated as she called Kristiina across the room and the years to her bedside for an embrace. Her dark cheeks were hot with the salt of sweat and tears; all her remaining strength poured into her arms to hug her friend, who sank into Sofia Elena’s softness, the scent from which arose the smell of spirits from a photocopying machine. Laughter filled both their bodies and melted them into a shaking experience. Their sudden presence shrank the intervening time to nothing. It had always been like this. They were to one another a demand and a response to that. Nothing much was asked when they told everything to one another or laughed together.

‘You’re alive!’ Kristiina exclaimed, and pressed herself against Sofia Elena. ‘Alive, alive, alive!’

‘Schneehäsin, you’re alive yourself, too,’ Sofia Elena said tenderly.

‘Both of us – alive!’ Kristiina exclaimed again.

‘What an achievement – we are not dead,’ Sofia Elena burst out laughing.

‘Still alive,’ Kristiina became serious suddenly. No one could achieve more. Survival was the basic task of life. One had to achieve it again and again. Until one no longer had the energy, but failed. But until then, one succeeded….

Sofia Elena fell silent, but not for long.

‘Before, good and evil were unconditional. When you are old, you can set conditions for them. You can begin to pursue evil with virtue, even if you do not intend to do good. But dreams come true distorted, petrified, as disappointments. And then, in the midst of all, you become a killer. You and me.’

‘I have never become a killer,’ Kristiina said.

Sofia Elena’s laugh broke off as she coughed and brought up phlegm. ‘Only a European can say, I have never killed!’ she hissed. ‘They know their own country’s criminal code does not threaten punishment.’

‘Are you starting on that again?’ Kristiina prepared to protect herself from the torrent of accusations.

‘I shall go on starting again and again until you agree to stop!’ Sofia Elena’s croaking only increased.

‘Stop what?’

‘Your hypocrisy. You’re killing us the whole time. The children first, with hunger and disease.’

‘Yes yes,’ Kristiina said, seeing before her eyes all the the pitiful faces of the black children in charity appeals. A smile comes to the huge eyes when a coin drops into the box. It is a bad investment which only increases problems, for every black boy who reaches adulthood is a threat. All that pops into his undernourished head is the idea of going to Europe. The barefoot Europeans do not wish to have barefoot Africans among them. It’s quite enough that all kinds of people from Lieksa move to the capital and pretend to be from Helsinki. Hunger and disease were the scourge of humankind until the white industrial states conquered them. Their citizens were to have the right to enjoy their achievements, which others had not been able to attain.

‘If you’d bothered to read those books then,’ Sofia Elena groaned, ‘you would know that as late as the middle ages the secular leaders of Europe behaved like bandit chiefs, robbing and killing without scruple.’

‘Why dwell on times past.’ Kristiina was angry. ‘You yourself have an assault rifle on your flag. Tell me you’re not a robber state!’

‘And what about you?’ Sofia Elena roared. ‘Your government is in the sway of the IMF gang. It treats the gang humbly, lets it inspect places that are never shown to its own citizens. The gang forces it to share its last secrets and the government humbly accepts its orders, even if it has promised the opposite to its voters. You are being robbed, now and in the future.’

Sofia Elena breathed heavily as if she did not have the energy to go on, raised a knee and tried to support herself on her heel to improve her position. Once again, Kristiina wondered whether to go and help, but did not get up. Sofia Elena was so sweaty, too.

‘Of course, we have upped the ante with our fighting positions,’ Sofia Elena said. ‘We have begun killing your children.’

‘What on earth do you mean by that?’ Kristiina said wearily.

‘It’s just that you don’t see the connections. We systematically kill European and American children by infiltrating into them drugs from our own country.’

Linda lies with her eyes rolled back, the pupils like pinheads, her eyes closed, a spindleshanks trunk, on the floor a blackened spoon; there is foam at the corner of her mouth, as with the black woman. Linda has injected her chest because the veins in her arms are inflamed. A t-shirt round her neck, a syringe beside her, too much too soon too pure. Linda’s breathing slows, although the black woman is still breathing and shouting. Linda is quite silent now, a swelling in her lungs, a swelling in her white brain; the child is paralysed and no longer sees Mickey Mouse and the Little Mermaid, for the theatre is dark, the projector has stopped, the film has snapped in two and the sweets have been eaten. Linda, mummy’s little Sleeping Beauty, pierced by the cursed spike.

‘You monster!’ Kristiina cried, ‘you enjoy children dying.’

‘You kill our children, too.’

‘But not deliberately, not on purpose.’

‘Neither do we. A living customer is always better than a dead one, after all,’ Sofia Elena said calmly, as if nothing troubled her. ‘And the reason for killing, too, is the same as with you: we kill – or at least, we approve activities that lead to killing, or however it is put in the lying language of Europe – to get rich, of course. Sometimes we kill your important men, too. If necessary, someone is flown from the Caucasus or Africa to kill one of you. It is precision work. A man arrives on an aeroplane, does the deed and leaves on the next plane, and your police force searches and searches.’ Sofia Elena laughed shortly with gloomy enjoyment. It was evident that she had teeth missing.

‘Could you at least tell me who those “we” are. Sometimes Africans, sometimes Afghans and Colombians, is it, or Brazilians?’

‘We are the fourth world.’

‘Nice name.’

The television screen stared blankly; the roses pressed themselves tightly to the wallpaper; the oxygen bottle hummed as it cooked Sofia Elena’s life. Kristiina was longing for some coffee, but asking for it might incite Sofia Elena to a lecture on its Arabic origins and its new plantations in South America and Africa. Kristiina decided to go without coffee for the rest of Sofia Elena’s life, if that was what it took.

‘Do you remember the nursery rhyme about ten little niggerboys?’ Sofia Elena tried the tune, found it, and sang it aloud. ‘You teach your children that it is funny when black children die in strange ways and there are always fewer of them left.’

‘In Finland, there’s a song where there are always more travellers,’ Kristiina said. ‘Two little elephants walking in the sun, along a road on a lovely day; they liked it so much, it was so much fun, that they asked a friend along the way. Three little elephants….’

‘You even steal our elephants!’ Sofia Elena noticed before Kristiina, and the song died in her throat. The wrong song again; songs were peculiar when you thought about their words.

Sofia Elena licked her chapped lips. ‘We don’t have a common language, not even words. Or do the words “progress”, “liberation” or “third world” mean anything any more? They do not. They are no use. But war has a use on our soil and on your television screens. Here, war blows up homes. You have stolen it for the altars of your living-rooms, where you hope it will stay, as long as you worship it and nourish it correctly. The hors d’oeuvres are laid in the Congo and Ruanda, and the refined cocktail canapés in South Africa, since you have not yet reached the main course or the crown of everything, the dessert. But it has been ordered.’

‘I haven’t eaten anything all day,’ Kristiina said.

Sofia Elena raised her eyebrows and pressed a button, so that Maria rushed in.

‘Some coffee and a filled roll for this lady, and a blancmange.’

Maria disappeared and nothing was asked of Kristiina.

‘It’s saddening to meet you,’ Sofia Elena remarked. ‘You protested against napalm in Vietnam and the building of a power station in Cabora Bassa. But now you’re satisfied with everything as it is. Do you remember when you called President von Weizsäcker to account? The spreaders of Agent Orange have received their revenge, but it also affected the Vietnamese. Malformed children were born. In Vietnam, they canned the monster foetuses since no food grew to be canned. Our fields lie fallow because a perennial seed has been sown which kills at a touch.’

‘Don’t avoid the truth like a minefield,’ Kristiina said severely, when the coffee still had not arrived. ‘It is not only mines that kill there, whoever sowed them – perhaps you have forgotten. It was you who began killing. You became a subject of violence. You began spattering people yourself.’

‘It’s true, I became a subject and a person when I began to kill. Until then, I had been an expectant object.’

‘I cannot believe that you can speak like that. Far away in Lisbon, in a room with flowered wallpaper, living by courtesy of an oxygen bottle, and still killing makes you into a person.’

‘You do not understand how it happens,’ Sofia Elena said, and pushed her hair back on her head in a strange way. ‘You do not decide that tomorrow you’ll start. Suddenly you are just in a situation where you do it. You have to. We, too, had a peaceful camp. I had arrived in the morning, because I thought the situation was safe and that, as a doctor, I would be able to treat the wounded and the sick. The camp was close to a village where I still, in those days, held a small surgery. I had walked through the darkness of the night with my equipment and medicine to the camp. There was enough food, and everything was as it should be. Even the pump was working. The wounded had inflammations and temperatures. I made a good start on treating them. There was a liberated atmosphere in the camp; we talked about news and plans and tried to get the radio transmitter working. Then we found out that there was an informer among us. To this day, I do not know whether the information came by radio or whether it came with someone bringing food from the nearby village. The shock was severe, but it did not last long, for it changed to horror and the desire for revenge. I did not even try to prevent it when a man who protested his innocence was beaten and pushed into the camp-fire. When he tried to escape the flames, he was pushed back using sticks until he no longer tried.’

‘So you didn’t do any killing yourself,’ Kristiina tried to defend her.

‘Don’t try to split hairs. I approved the slaughter as the only possible way of removing the informer and teaching the others what would happen to traitors….’

Seeing that Kristiina had not yet left, Sofia Elena seemed to get new wind.

‘You should understand that terrorist groups have their utopias. No one else has utopias, only investment plans. Those in power do not have utopias because their use of power has ground it away to nothing. Only terror offers the opportunity and the power to tear the web of impoverishing globalisation.’

Kristiina was angry, since she was having to submit once again to these outpourings. Sofia Elena had always had the upper hand. She could not escape it even now, when her friend was a dying black woman and Kristiina herself a successful white scientist, at home wherever there was an airport and a congress hall with audiovisual equipment.

‘It is a wonderful movement because it gives many people money straight away. Influence and luxury immediately. Instantly. Give it all to me straight away, just as you like it, too. The boys drove comfortable cars; you saw that yourself. Part of utopia is realised for some people at once.’

What pleases a man more than his car. You can go places with it, you can show it off, you can make tracks and experience freedom. Road and destination merge in a car; a pity that it makes the world sizzle. But is that not a more splendid warming than that the old people of Europe live alone in their centrally heated apartments hands stuck to their own fridges.

Deep in thought, Sofia Elena licked her chapped lips. Her eyes had not been washed properly; there was sleep in her eyelashes.

‘The gang of the future will, of course, be much bigger. When all the poor boys get going, nothing will be able to stop them. Their dream will whip them onward; they will come on foot if necessary to the countries and cities of their dreams, across the Mediterranean and the Rio Grande to a ready-built world. There are a couple of million men on the move in China, too. Think about it. And the world is full of terrorist groups. They are the only alternative to the state of things at present, and its only threat.

‘Organised criminals are connected with globalisation in such a way that everything that is good for the freedom of money and trade is also good for these criminal men, their cars, refugees, drugs trade and movement of weapons. And for their acts of terrorism.’

Kristiina wondered how long she would have to go on listening to this talk. The foreigners who came to Helsinki spent so much money that they cleared the shelves of the shops. The British had built railways and organised states at the same time as they had emptied distant lands of their treasures. Everything was ready for today’s robbers. Sofia Elena continued with her lecture.

‘The real rulers of the world do not fear governments or workers or voters or the ordinary poor or foolish students and their political parties. But terrorists they do fear. And terrorists are indeed the only ones who appear on their game-board, who can strike at their computerised weapons and satellite power, their electronic money, their commercial centres and their children’s schools. Do you understand, these criminals are the only counterforce.

‘Criminals are the heralds of the new world, for they use efficient message to attack the core of this world. Only they can influence the state of things so that today’s legal life will be criminal tomorrow. Their criminality will lead to a new order.’

‘The only counterforce to the state of things today? Kristiina asked.

‘Can you put it any differently? The communist party and the states of the third world are helpless, even where they still exist,’ Sofia Elena continued in a monotonous voice.

‘That’s the end of the story. There is no longer anything that can explain why the majority of people should remain in misery without pulling everyone else down with them. Those who were born in misery do not intend to die in misery. They have seen on the television that it is possible to live differently. The television is their lighthouse; it represents luxury in their homes like Tupperware. It does not even occur to them to keep their aromas in a Tupperware box; they want to fart their aromas in your faces, wash in your showers and wash their dirt into your sewers before they sit down at your tables.’

If something still moves in this world, and if power somewhere glows so low, outside, it does so in wretchedness. And it demands liberation, even if it means self-destruction….

Sofia Elena’s breath began to come in pants again; ranting took energy, and it was only ill temper that kept her going. ‘You don’t want to give up anything you have. Your governments kill more people than any criminal gangs. The petrified politicians you elect want nothing more than to stay in power and to keep everything the same.’

‘You’re talking rubbish. It is in vain for you to try to defend your brother’s gang,’ Kristiina said, as if having the last word.

‘Your husband feeds weapons to terrorists by investing his dollars in international speculation. But it is a clean business. A highway greased with money works well.’

‘I don’t want to listen any more to what you have to say,’ Kristiina tried to sound threatening. ‘You just criticise me. I don’t understand why I wanted to meet you.’

‘Don’t you, really?’

‘At first I thought I did. Because of our former friendship. But now I don’t understand anything any more.’

‘You’re my only living friend. Everyone else is in a pile of bodies at the bottom of a communal grave. I went to identify them. Then I realised that there were only unknown faces among the morning’s corpses. I suddenly realised that I no longer had any friends who were alive. I no longer recognised any of the next morning’s bodies.’

Maria brought Sofia Elena something to drink and switched on the oxygen. She announced that Antonio was ready to take Kristiina to the hotel.

The women looked at one another. Kristiina’s relief turned to panic as all the good, old things attacked her and had changed into evil. Sofia Elena was silent and breathed rapidly. The horror that rose to her face brought tears to her eyes. Sofia Elena let out a strange, high-pitched wail and clung to Kristiina.

‘We shall never meet again,’ Sofia Elena faltered. ‘We are parting forever, we are parting as enemies, in hatred and bitterness, although we were dear to one another long ago….’

Kristiina pressed herself against the agitated Sofia Elena as if to calm their anger. Buried in this sweat-smelling body was the past laughter, the past long strides and the insolent defiance that had lent them wings as they walked on the eastern rails of the Spandauer Damm, between the cars of the West, under the Allied planes, in the rain, on the way to anywhere at all, because it was better everywhere.

Sofia Elena freed herself from her embrace and smiled, wiping away her tears.

‘Death does not unite what life has separated. We shall not meet again. Go home, now, Schneehäsin, hide behind your walls, behind your locks. Let your money blaze through the world; the dealers will shoot right when the time comes. I do not apologise for the fact that you are not as you were. You will take with you, inside your defensive walls, a wound that will not heal, because there was poison in the arrow. It will not kill at once, but little by little. Sometimes there will be pain, sometimes sweet illusions. I know how bad it feels, and I already hope for peace from it.’

Kristiina rose to her feet. A couple of white hairs stood up in Sofia Elena’s sweaty hair. Her bloated face was calm once more, and her breathing was easy. Her eyes glistened with tears. Her swollen stomach rose in a mound under the blue blanket and continued in a narrow bulge to her feet. Kristiina nodded her farewell and went to the door, unable to say anything.

Antonio was waiting in the lobby, helped her on with her coat and led her out. They did not speak; it was as if both of them were thinking of the dying Sofia Elena, and they had nothing else in common.

Drift away
Fade away
Little tin goddess

The last, oblique rays of the sun lit up the street, and the wind felt as if it came from the sea, although even the river was far away.

Oh… mar, ano passa tempo corré
Sol raià, lua sai
A mi ausente na terra longe, oh mar

Kristiina looked rapidly behind her. The door leading to the stairs up to the room in which Sofia Elena lay had closed.

Separaçao era soluçao.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins


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