In the backwoods

Issue 2/2005 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

A solitary writer who spent all his life in the Finnish wilderness, Pentti Haanpää (1905–1955) wrote hundreds of short stories, often using ambitious male characters to shine a satirical beam on Finnish society. Vesa Karonen introduces two of Haanpää’s short stories, ‘The Schoolmaster’s bicycle trip’ and ‘Saikansalo the racing cyclist’ from Heta Rahko korkeassa iässä (‘Heta Rahko at a great age’, Otava, 1947)

Piippola is a village in the precise middle of Finland on a boggy forest terrain, with meagre fields, far out in the wilds. The writer Pentti Haanpää’s parents had emigrated to the United States but returned in 1904; he was born in Piippola in 1905 and lived there until he drowned in a lake during an autumn storm.

Haanpää wrote ten novels and hundreds of short stories about people living surrounded by forest. His stories, often about lumbermen, vagabonds and ‘backwoods philosophers’ blend gloomy primordial backwoods life with satirical comedy and philosophical wisdom.

Athletic sports were one of the modern phenomena that captured the Finnish imagination, even in the countryside, with remarkable speed in the first half of the 20th century. Haanpää practised athletics himself, sharing the enthusiasm for cycling that possessed people like G.B.Shaw, H.G.Wells and Bertrand Russell a hundred years ago. Haanpää read Shaw and Wells in English, a language he was studying by correspondence course.

He also read Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde and D.H.Lawrence – whose vitalistic life-affirming mystique of nature fascinated him: something evident in the stories published here for the first time in English translation, about the passions of two sporting cyclists.

D.H. Lawrence, it’s true, knew nothing of the sauna, whereas Haanpää linked cycling with that ancient, sacred Ugrian institution, preserved unchanged for millennia. Elsewhere he creates a confrontation between the traditional Finnish work ethic and modern athleticism’s mindless, useless mobility.

The absurdity of the world is not lamented but laughed at. Yet Haanpää’s laughter throws out serious questions. What drives a human being? Is he mad, or ‘on the loose because they’ve run out of rope’ and only happy for that reason. As a brilliant satirist Haanpää poked fun at the church, the army – ‘the religion of the gun’ – and state power. His more critical writings were not published until after his death.

Haanpää’s reputation only began to recover after the Soviet Union’s assault on Finland in 1939, when Haanpää the pacifist became a soldier of the line on the Arctic front and wrote about it in his moving novel Korpisotaa (‘War in the wilderness’, 1940) In the 1950s it was proposed to award him a prestigious membership in the Academy of Finland, but the publicity-hating writer smiled at the suggestion. As a solitary forest intellectual, he made the wilds take a central place in Finnish literature.

Translated by Herbert Lomas


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