Endurance tests

Issue 3/2002 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Jari Järvelä (born 1966) puts his characters in extreme situations, making them victims of crime, wanderers in the desert, victims of car crashes as in the novel 66 luuta (‘66 bones’, 1998), or of torture and extortion as in the novel Lentäjän poika (‘The pilot’s son’, short-listed for the Finlandia Prize in 1999) and of war in the novel Veden paino (‘The weight of water’, 2001).

There are also plenty of problems to be found in difficult relations between men and women or at work. Järvelä’s themes also include power games originating in expert power and the shame that follows humiliation. These are also linked with a criticism of the Finnish culture of silence. This stops people not only from speaking, but also from analysing their traumatic experiences.

Järvelä’s works are generally set in contemporary Finland, but Veden paino describes a military campaign fought in Karelia by patriotic Finns in 1919 and of the desperate attempt to float a valuable consignment of logs from the middle of the fighting to the Finnish side. The work was praised for both its deliciously ironic depiction of the heroism of typically Finnish work and the value it placed on the generation that unquestioningly worked and warred itself to death, It brought its writer the respected Kalevi Jäntti prize.

In Järvelä’s novels, the narrative is internal in origin. In Veden paino the young, inexperienced narrator engages in an incessant inner debate with the dangerous world. However, Järvelä has the ability perspective – with the help of dialogue, among other things – to bring other people’s opinions into the internal debate, which prevents the narrative from becoming claustrophobic. It also makes possible a gently irony directed at the main character.

In his short stories, the writer generally examines situations from the outside, with laconically short sentences. The short stories in the collection Paljon on Afrikasta kertomatta (‘Much is still untold about Africa’, 2002) examine the struggle between strong and weak in social situations: couple relationships, the workers at a cemetery, shooting tests in a hunting society, in the midst of nature, at school.

The most shocking struggle between the weak and the strong takes place in the short story ‘Kuuma koira’ (‘Hot dog’; see page 187). This shows how unprotected a child is in relation to adults, including his own parents. The father’s hopeless care and his incapacity to understand his son’s feelings also make the novel tragi-comic; his stupidity leads to an action that is cruel from the point of view of the child. The short story is, unusually, written from the inner perspective of the child, respecting his modes of perception and expression.

The title story of the collection, ‘Much is still untold about Africa’, points up the unpredictability of nature – and of other people. Again, clumsy attempts are made to protect children; fox-droppings have rotted the foundations of the family’s summer house, and the father is afraid that his son has asthma. He imagines that he is as in control of the situation as Doctor Livingstone, who knew Africa through and through.

Livingstone realised, for example, that the most important mode of communication of hippopotamuses and rhinoceroses was dung. He also preserved the calm identity of an English gentleman, unlike, for example, Henry Stanley, who was completely covered in the communications of the big animals when he found the doctor…. The father is irritated by the mendacious picture Stanley gave of the meeting, as if he were able to control unpredictable Africa and had saved Doctor Livingstone. The real reason for his irritation is that the father senses that he himself is also, like Stanley, prone to make-believe.

In Järvelä’s short stories, woman is darkest Africa. According to the French feminist philosopher Hélène Cixous, man has colonised women’s language and body and thus made woman a patriarchally disparaged ‘other’. Why? Because he does not understand another, different kind of communication and existence and is therefore afraid. Such is the situation in Järvelä’s short story ‘Seitsemäntoista kyljystä’ (‘Seventeen chops’), in which a young man sustains an imaginary image of his wife: Annina is as genuine, uncalculating, helpful and healthy as his own mother. He discounts Annina’s critical comments by saying; ‘She’s teasing.’ He does not realise that Annina chooses to have an abortion after her parents in law force her, during a visit, to overeat.

Järvelä, who has a degree in teaching, became a full-time writer after the publication of his first novel. In Järvelä’s endurance tests, the endless project of survival leads to tragi-comedy, sometimes farce. He has a fine ability to tune his language: a child’s language is childish, that of robust men coarse. The accuracy and timing of his phrasing is masterly;  gives his readers the opportunity to use their imaginations.

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