Male parole

30 June 2006 | Authors, Interviews

Hannu Luntiala

Hannu Luntiala. Photo: Jukka Uotila

In his first collection of short stories Hannu Luntiala reinvents the form to examine the lives of 16 men. One story consists of just one long sentence; another is written in the made-up ‘Katalanian’ language; a third omits all the commas

A successful IT boss; a humble Greek Orthodox monk; an old man lying like a vegetable hooked up to a life-support machine. Hannu Luntiala’s collection of short stories presents us with sixteen men’s emotional landscapes. Entitled Hommes, the collection is the debut by Hannu Luntiala (born 1952).

Variety is to be found not only in the characters themselves, but in the language and style of each of Luntiala’s stories. For him language is an integral part of the story; it can open up new perspectives that a simple plot cannot.

‘I’ve tried to step into the characters’ skin, as it were, and speak the way they would speak. I wanted to explore various new ways of writing. One of the stories contains just one long sentence. The story ‘Musta’ (‘Black’) is written from the perspective of an African immigrant. I entered this text in a competition under the pseudonym Ahmed. When I heard I had won the competition I initially thought that the jury had actually selected a real immigrant as a winner, though apparently they had guessed that the writer was a Finn,’ Luntiala recalls.

Luntiala is a linguistic wizard who can shape language at will. The writer’s occasional lack of attention to the rules of punctuation stems perhaps from his day job. For over half his life Luntiala has worked at the Registry of Births and Deaths, and for the last few years has been its senior director.

‘I find that writing is one of the most effective ways of detaching myself from work. The further I stray from official gobbledygook the more dramatic this detachment is. For instance, while writing the story ‘En ole mikään luontoihminen’ (‘Nature’s not my thing’, see page 98) I noticed that leaving out all the commas lent the story a new dimension that suited well the idea of an urbanite venturing out into the wilderness,’ he explains.

The man in the short story has been in the forest barely an hour when already he feels that he is ‘[losing] weight with every moment that passes’. Does urban Mr Luntiala feel the call of the spruce grove too?

‘For ten years I owned a summer cottage on the outskirts of Helsinki. For ten years I sat on its terrace staring out at the forest. I didn’t understand the essence of cottage life and ended up selling the place. I’m sure spending time out in the woods is very nice, just as long as you can get away again quickly.’

A trait common to many of Luntiala’s characters is the fear of death — or of life. ‘Death comes knocking on the door in quite a few of these stories. This obsession of probably typical of men and women once they reach middle age. Now I no longer think about it every day the way I did a couple of years ago. Sometimes I can go for days at a time without it crossing my mind. But eventually it always returns, that same fear of death.’

Luntiala claims that his stories can be divided into two categories: traditional stories with a clear plot and a familiar structure, and stories that, as he puts it, ‘simply write themselves’.

‘They often start with a single word or a sentence that begins to grow out of itself — and that’s when the text starts to lead its writer. Writing texts like these I often find myself in a sort of verbal stupor, an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction,’ he explains and says that he hopes this is something readers will be able to experience too.

Luntiala describes the particularly profound verbal stupor he experienced in writing the story ‘Hombres’, which he tongue-in-cheek informs me he has written in the ‘Katalanian’ language.

(To understand it the reader requires some knowledge of at least English, Swedish, Latin, Spanish, French as well as Finnish. The story begins like this: ‘Mi closo accentura “Advanced Bookkeeping Ltd.” for quattro wecos. Calendra pois plocka [‘dispose of’], informae la Posta, no lettros, windows o dooros alla ferme, no criminale insido, an message ona wall: On Holiday!’)

‘There were many occasions while writing “Hombres” when I would laugh to myself out loud. People in my old apartment block must have though I was a lunatic, so I had to move out. My new apartment has such good sound-proofing that I no longer need worry about ruining my reputation. But people still wonder what I’m doing when I sit on my windowsill — on the inside, of course — looking down at the people walking past, searching for ideas for new stories. As “Hombres” progressed even I was surprised that the text ended up questioning ideas of morality and sexuality. Perhaps using a “foreign” language like this frees a writer of their inhibitions,’ ponders Luntiala.

His next book is already finished. Luntiala is currently nervous about his publishers’ reactions.

‘A book like this has never been published in Finland, or anywhere else in the world. It could be a breakthrough and become a bestseller. Or then again, maybe not. Who knows?’

Translated by David Hackston


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