Heroes and villains of One and Twenty

Issue 3/2007 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

In his epic poem Kaksikymmentä ja yksi (One and Twenty, 1974) the poet Paavo Haavikko combines the imaginary ancient heroes of the national epic, the Kalevala, and the violent history of early second-millennium Byzantium, interpreting the mythical Sampo – a magical wealth-bringing device – of the Kalevala as the mint of the Byzantine empire. The American poet and critic Rachel Blau DuPlessis takes an outsider’s look at this metaphysical, capricious poetic chronicle

One and Twenty by Paavo Haavikko tells of a band of Northland adventurers who sail into the Black Sea to Byzantium via Russian lakes and portages and then return north. We do not know where the band of Twenty-One comes from precisely (are they from ‘Finland’ or from ‘Russia’)? We know only that their adventures propel them over a wide territory, from Novgorod to Byzantium. They are like nomadic mercenaries, and they witness a number of city-state and imperial power struggles in the 11th–13th centuries, well before the nation state consolidations of modernity that might call forth the idealising hero-creation of particular ‘national’ epics.

The action begins in the year 1041 but spans about 300 years. The timeframe is elongated and unrealistic because the issues of power, war, conquest, inheritance, manipulative cruelty, dynastic passage, strategic cunning, and kingdoms are the same across cultures – including now. Hence a rich political-historical didacticism marks this work.

Perhaps pure Clausewitz laced with an awareness of Machiavelli, Haavikko is eloquent and perceptive about the military strategy of trapping one’s enemy by faked weakness, deployed with real cunning. Yet all strategy ends in loss – no one ever fully wins, gains, or finishes anything. The history of the world is endless skirmishes. This is not so much a cynical vision as an implacable one. It sees world history as an open-ended, never-concluded tragedy.

This book draws on the epic, but it differs from the epic. Why? First, the action is decentered and even – deliberately – unfocused. And unlike the epic, Haavikko’s poem does not follow one hero, nor one consolidating action. Thus it does not idealise a nation-state by evoking the mythic past of one’s ancestors. It could be a little late in the day for that idea, of course, with Haavikko’s decisive ‘power [comes] from crimes’ observation in Canto 2. So this poem precisely does not make any national glorification claims; Haavikko refuses to do this kind of cultural-ideological task, and his refusal alludes to the work taken to be the Finnish national epic – the Kalevala (first published in printed form in 1835), a work collected, sutured, and sequenced by Elias Lönnrot from folk materials.

Haavikko gives at least one character, Crow’s Son, some heroic interest, yet in ways that resist conventional narrative investments in the hero. First, it is unclear whether Crow’s Son is alive or dead. It appears that he has died, falling impaled on stakes whilst stalking erotic adventure (analogous to the death of drunk, logy Elpenor in the Odyssey). But later, it looks like Crow’s Son is alive, even making moves parallel to actions of Odysseus – trying to trick the gods, that sort of thing. Yet the early incident of the character’s apparent death suggests that this whole book is written (as is true of several important modern epic-like works) in the nekuia position – referring to a journey to the underworld, a crucial feature of epics. Kaksikymmentä ja yksi is a journey to an underworld, like Book XI of the Odyssey, or the underworld ‘golden bough’ scene in the Aeneid (Book VI). In Haavikko’s work, the world itself is the underworld, and this whole story concerns ghosts, endlessly sailing under the grim sign of the sturgeon’s skull. This nekuia position is a measure of the degree to which we are trapped in a plundering, trickster history.

Crow’s Son is an unstable un-‘hero’ because he receives the fairy tale gift of three wishes, in three coins. This piece of luck usually comes to a character considered a hero, but this gift (given, of course, by the author) is also undermined and undercut by the author, who states, in an editorial burst of heartfelt advice:

    I'm not so crazy as to ever make a wish.
           Never. Ever.
    I wish for nothing.
Never wish, never, for anything,

(Canto 9)

This opinion fascinates by alluding to hope, as deluded, as a destructive force. Hope as destructive? This is frightening because somewhat hyper-realist or disdainful on Haavikko’s part. It is certainly a critique of mythography, fairy tales, and happy ending melodrama, certainly a resistance to ideologies of consolation and meliorism. The resistance to hope marks this work emotionally.

When Crow’s Son tries to undo the deaths of twin soldiers with the same name, Bent and Bent, his wish that they be alive has the unintended consequence of making time roll backwards, interfering with all narration and even upsetting the seasons and the stars. The second wish must be used to undo the first. This is quite normal as a learning curve in fairy tales. But what then happens next is not. Wishing is no good even when it is based in realism and not in magical thinking. The third wish is used to stop the Tartar invasion of Russia in the Cantos at the end, but since that takes a couple of hundred years, Haavikko shows us that the wish hardly affected history.

Viewed another way, this work is a patchwork of many epics and adventures. The Kalevala is of first importance for a variety of materials and the general style or tone. It is imitated in Haavikko’s recursive, repetitive and inferential style, repetition and anaphora (the repetition of initial words or phrases in a series of lines of poetry); this creates a pulse of action that is both lucid and oblique. The history of Byzantium is next in narrative importance. Then comes the Odyssey with explicit reminiscence of names and actions. Both Beowulf and the Iliad figure in the descriptions of warfare and individual death. When the band goes to find the source of the Nile (with an American action film Gee-Whiz-Why-Not attitude), African stories and narrations are alluded to. Then there is the Russian historical epic, struggles for hegemony around the rival cities and the Tartar invasion.

In this collage of narrative allusions to traditional epics and mythographic history, no story is completed, or rarely so. Each story has unintended consequences and collateral damage. Haavikko makes one adventure interrupt the next before it is done, or he gives a strange air of temporariness and incompleteness to adventures even when they appear finished. There seems to be no permanent gain anywhere. One adventure bubbles up and floods another. The narrative rhythm is therefore both very detailed (like the Kalevala-esquerepetitions) and very incomplete. It is like a whole book about ‘nothing’ – because no effect can ever be counted on to be final. In that sense this is a very nihilistic work. Human life is disposable unless you have power. And even if you do. Power is self-annihilating but so is lack of power. Far from ‘epic’ with its national idealising, this is a sceptically regarded plethora of adventurist adventures.

While this isn’t an epic, Haavikko’s work may be an epyllion – a little epic – in this case, a short, distracted epic, one characterised by plot digressions. Yet romance and the erotic, important to the epyllion, seem to be excluded here. In a superficial sense, there is very little erotic play in this work by Haavikko. One and Twenty maintains a monocular focus on male virtù (bravery, calculation, strategic planning, risk) but closes off of any path to the bi-ocular sense of gender. This differs from the Kalevala which has a rough-and-ready balanced attitude toward the skills and mutual interdependence of the genders. Male virtù is also tragic; you must use it, but sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and you die. Period.

Sexual desire happens (to men) and it often leads them to their deaths. Period.

Female characters are often very whorish. Period. So if this is an epyllion, where does eros reside?

This brings me to the Sampo. O the Sampo! When I randomly skimmed The Kalevala, I found allusions to the Sampo. ‘Hmmmm, what is a Sampo?’ I thought to myself, but then I figured that I had opened the book in the middle and somehow, someone would tell me if I read it from the beginning. Wrong. Turns out that the Sampo is an unclear item, subject of serious debate. It might be called the McGuffin of Finnish literature. The McGuffin, a serious term from the film narrative, was defined by its master, Alfred Hitchcock in 1939 as a mechanical element driving the plot. It is that motivating item in an adventure, often wealth or a ‘treasure,’ that everyone is chasing after for reasons that are possibly obscure. Thus it is the pretext for narrative adventures, like the Maltese Falcon in the film of the same name.

Here is my interim report on the Sampo. It appears to be a mill operating on many potential scales – as small as a coffee grinder, as large as a flour mill. It is also a vast piece of mysterious machinery with the magical property of changing sizes when necessary. The Sampo, for some reason, has a lid – one might think of the box of Pandora whose lid it is temptingly forbidden to open. One might say that the Sampo masquerades as ego, but in fact it is pure id. The Road to Prosperity: An Economic History of Finland (2006) states that the Sampo was ‘a magic device that brought wealth, nourishment and good fortune to the people.’ Is it amusing or ironic for economic historians to call attention to something magic and mythological that creates wealth?

In One and Twenty the Sampo is a money-coining machine, indeed, the famous Mint at Byzantium, metaphorically gendered female:

    the place where money is born,
    where the money womb extrudes its golden bees.
            It must have an enormous pelvis, a terrifying waistline!
    A terrible birthing apparatus.

(Canto 8)

Haavikko thereupon writes a sustained passage about coinage and power making a numismatic romance of high rhetorical splendor – a terrific and maybe terrifying sense of ‘follow the money’ in establishing narrative and historical cause and effect. Therefore, the ‘romance’ aspect of this epyllion is not the sexuality of people, but the coinage of gold, the eros of money. Desire, eros, yearning are all focused on the Sampo.

The Sampo in this book is very valuable, heavy, large, guarded by soldiers. Having a Sampo is power, not having it is wanting it yearning for it. Thus – of course, the band of Twenty-One steals the Sampo, using their various talents of engineering, ingenuity, strength and trickiness. Needless to say, they are pursued through the sea. To get out of danger, they throw the thing overboard, where it lurks under the ocean just waiting to make trouble in the future. As they watch the Sampo sink, the poet reminds us that the Sampo is a meta-form that creates the potential for more action.

So what is a Sampo, really? It is pure desirable Making – it makes something that you want. It is a mini-factory that churns out powerful product. It also makes things happen; it makes action occur, with all the potential for loss and gain, triumph and wreckage. Thus in two ways the Sampo makes the potential for plot: it generates the desire, and it represents the machinery. The Sampo is therefore both the engine of narration and the engine of history. It creates wealth, and therefore it creates trouble. It is pure desire, pure manufacture, pure urge. And it is also like poesis, as poets know. It wants to be Making.

Note: The author would like to thank Leevi Lehto for his invitation to participate in the Helsinki Poetics conference (2006) for which these remarks on Haavikko were prepared.

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