Scenes from a marriage

Issue 4/2005 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Everything seems fine. A middle-class pastor’s family has found their place in the world. The holy family – husband, wife, and son – have been getting up for years without questioning the new day. But when the son leaves home, the coupIe’s thirty-year marriage soon goes flat like champagne left to stand in a glass overnight.

Pirkko Saisio’s novel Voimattomuus (‘Powerlessness’, WSOY, 2005) is not merely an ordinary family drama or love triangle story. It is an extraordinarily sharp analysis of the people of our time. Saisio (born 1949) is a writer and theatre professional who has no difficulty in building her various sets in such a way that the people she places in them have flesh and blood, and an economical dramaturgy courses through events.

Saisio’s autobiographical novel Punainen erokirja (‘The red farewell letter’), the third part of a trilogy, won the Finlandia Prize in 2003. In her prose as well as in her drama Saisio emphasises moral conflict. In 2005 the Finnish National Theatre staged her play Virhe (‘Error’), which she also directed, in which two businesswomen of mature age encounter not only each other in the service of international commerce but also their own moral life decisions.

Voimattomuus proceeds like a play, scene by scene. The events run from midsummer to midsummer. Along the way are scenes written in the form of dialogues. The longest of these is a mini-drama between the three central characters, at a traditional summer cottage, at midsummer.

Saisio gives each character a turn to speak from his or her own point of view and to analyse events from within their own frame of reference. In this kind of dramatic cross-light, the people lay themselves bare without any protective screen. Instead of explaining Saisio shows, by making her characters take full responsibility for their deeds, their indifference, their fears and desires.

A man, a woman and her young lover take their places in a triangle that becomes a purifying ritual for each of them. The spouses tear at each other, the wife and the young man become entangled, the disappointed husband grapples with his God, his faith, his wife, and with the young man’s virility. The wife’s solution is to reach out for youth, which Jokke lays before her; the young man shatters her petrification and awakens her numbed senses. The relationship is passionate and liberating. As Saisio undoes the bonds of the coupIe’s stagnant marriage one by one, she offers a resolution that diverges from tradition: a middle-aged woman and a young man can come together just as surely as an older man and a younger woman can.

It is not the husband’s struggle with his faith and the priesthood, but the relationship of Jokke and the Old Lady, as he calls her, that is the culmination of the novel. The young Jokke sees the couple and the rigidness of their generation clearly: ‘The baby boomers drag along like the mass of water behind a poorly designed boat.’

The Old Lady understands her situation: ‘I have too few regrets. I want to be a woman with at least some regrets… I know that there are only two obstacles to my happiness: chance and my own self.’ Chance walks into her house and offers regret, if there’s cause for it.

Voimattomuus isn’t merely an autopsy of a disintegrating family and its mutually exhausted members. It’s also a sparsely yet skilfully ironic generational novel, in which the baby boomers face a dilemma: should they remain adults, or try to reach out for another youth? Will they be satisfied with things as they are, or will they continue to look for something new?

Saisio doesn’t pity people who build their own life-lies. Instead she demands that we ask why a person would rather build a lie than take it apart.


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