Question time

Issue 2/2006 | Archives online, Authors

Ei. Siis kyllä (‘No. That is to say, yes’, WSOY, 2006) by Paavo Haavikko, the incredibly productive and versatile grand old man of Finnish letters, is a series of apothegms – ‘short, witty, instructive sayings,’ according to your basic dictionary definition. Formally, these may remind one of the Egyptian-born French writer Edmond Jabès’s works, Le Livre des Questions (The Book of Questions), but  is not so much a book of questions as it is a book of statements.

As the editor and translator of a number of Haavikko’s works over the past forty years, including two versions of a Selected Poems, two prose works, and, most recently, Kaksikymmentä ja yksi (One and Twenty), a wild mock epic of a band of Finnish Vikings travelling down to Constantinople and on to Africa, I have gained familiarity with the poet’s favourite images and strategies. He employs indirection and ambiguity with great skill:

‘There is no answer without a question, and without knowing the question you cannot understand the answer. But it has always been our habit to ask the question ourselves, then answer it ourselves. That is the only way to gain scientifically valid answers. Therefore, questions must be constructed with exactitude, to prevent their turning into answers.’

This could be irritating, and is undoubtedly found to be so by readers unfamiliar with the author’s particular talent for sarcasm.

Haavikko (1931–2008), one of a handful of Finnish poets who in the late 1950s brought a genuine sense of international modernism to their country’s literature, was, from the very beginning of his career, a master of a multitude of keys and tones in his work-ranging from heartbreaking elegiac lyricism to acerbic cultural critique, with elements of boys’ adventure fiction and universal mythologies in between those limits. He is, to my mind, absolutely sui generis.

One of American poetry’s grand old men, John Ashbery, has hailed Haavikko as one of our time’s greatest poets. I find it hard to think of anyone else from the mid 20th to the early 21st century who has been as able to engage critically in the life of his (and by extension, all of Western European) culture and society while pursuing an uncompromising, one might even say, ‘pure’ writing career as a poet: a poet who has also mastered the forms of drama, fiction, and journalistic polemical discourse.

The present selection manifests a number of themes recurrent in Haavikko’s life work: a deep concern for small tribes and nations (yes, such as Finland) in their struggle to survive against empires past and present; an equally deep concern for the non-human universe, as represented by trees and forests, in its parallel fight for survival, a fight against the egocentric imperialism of our animal species. Alliances, especially military ones, are also – and rightly – seen as destructive imperialistic snares, which they have indeed proved to be in the history of Finland.

‘Neutrality is my land of birth,’ Haavikko says, a statement that underlines his conviction that the small tribes of this world have always been ‘joiners’ only at their peril.


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