Author: Hannu Väisänen

A walk on the West Side

16 March 2015 | Fiction, Prose

Hannu Väisänen

Hannu Väisänen. Photo: Jouni Harala

Just because you’re a Finnish author, you don’t have to write about Finland – do you?

Here’s a deliciously closely observed short story set in New York: Hannu Väisänen’s Eli Zebbahin voikeksit (‘Eli Zebbah’s shortbread biscuits’) from his new collection, Piisamiturkki (‘The musquash coat’, Otava, 2015).

Best known as a painter, Väisänen (born 1951) has also won large readerships and critical recognition for his series of autobiographical novels Vanikan palat (‘The pieces of crispbread’, 2004, Toiset kengät (‘The other shoes’, 2007, winner of that year’s Finlandia Prize) and Kuperat ja koverat (‘Convex and concave’, 2010). Here he launches into pure fiction with a tale that wouldn’t be out of place in Italo Calvino’s 1973 classic The Castle of Crossed Destinies…

Eli Zebbah’s shortbread biscuits

Eli Zebbah’s small but well-stocked grocery store is located on Amsterdam Avenue in New York, between two enormous florist’s shops. The shop is only a block and a half from the apartment that I had rented for the summer to write there.

The store is literally the breadth of its front door and it is not particularly easy to make out between the two-storey flower stands. The shop space is narrow but long, or maybe I should say deep. It recalls a tunnel or gullet whose walls are lined from floor to ceiling. In addition, hanging from the ceiling using a system of winches, is everything that hasn’t yet found a space on the shelves. In the shop movement is equally possible in a vertical and a horizontal direction. Rails run along both walls, two of them in fact, carrying ladders attached with rings up which the shop assistant scurries with astonishing agility, up and down. Before I have time to mention which particular kind of pasta I wanted, he climbs up, stuffs three packets in to his apron pocket, presents me with them and asks: ‘Will you take the eight-minute or the ten-minute penne?’ I never hear the brusque ‘we’re out of them’ response I’m used to at home. If I’m feeling nostalgic for home food, for example Balkan sausage, it is found for me, always of course under a couple of boxes. You can challenge the shop assistant with something you think is impossible, but I have never heard of anyone being successful. If I don’t fancy Ukrainian pickled cucumbers, I’m bound to find the Belorussian ones I prefer. More…

The three-minute redemption

28 March 2013 | Fiction, Prose

Artist and writer Hannu Väisänen’s alter ego, Antero – who has appeared in Väisänen’s earlier autobiographical novels – is a young artist in his new novel Taivaanvartijat (‘The guardians of heaven’, Otava, 2013). Antero is invited to create the altarpiece for a new church. He rejects conventional, ecclesiastical ‘Sunday art’ and uses  simple and versatile everyday symbols; his design contains an ordinary Finnish door key, familiar to everybody. The clergymen and laywomen are appalled: is this art, is it appropriate? In this extract the frustrated Antero takes a therapeutic break – on a roller-coaster

Now I need to get another beat into my head. What can help me forget those morose, curled up creatures, their strange commands and scents? I remember the roller-coaster. And I remember the ancient lore that it’s good to ride the roller-coaster with a lover before you attempt anything else. I go home quickly, throw down my sketch-book and my unnecessarily businesslike briefcase, exchange my suit, which was supposed to indicate devotion, for a windcheater, arrange my hair more carelessly, get on my bike and cycle to the funfair where I know the roller-coaster, the genuine, real, old-fashioned, clanking roller-coaster, to be.

Who could have been the first person to imagine the delights of the roller-coaster? Into whose happy capacity for daydreaming did it fall? Who saw those massive iron tentacles in their figure-eight shapes, those stretched and knotted rings of eternal joy? Who understood that on such a ride shame and anxiety would fall out of one’s pockets? It’s claimed that the first roller-coaster was invented by Catherine the Great. The monarch, with her multifarious patronage of culture, commissioned in Oranienbaum, St Petersburg, the first Montagne Russe amid the amusements of the wise: a Russian mountain with its ice-paths, raised into the air, which melted with the coming of spring. Who else could understand this organ-stirring amusement as deeply as the Great Wife with her hundreds of lovers. In the grip of mortal fear, I too always pray: before I am laid in earth, before the crematorium’s oven, take me once more to the roller-coaster. More…

Green thoughts

1 April 2010 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Kuperat ja koverat (‘Convex and concave’, Otava, 2010)

Hannu Väisänen: ‘Green and yellow in March’ (work in progress, oil on canvas, 130x193cm, 2010)

I decided to go to the Museum of Fine Arts.

After paying for my entrance ticket, I climbed the wide staircase to the first floor. There all I saw were dull paintings, the same heroic seed-sowers and floor-sanders as everywhere else. Why were so many art museums nothing more than collections of frames? Always national heroes making their horses dance, mud-coloured grumblers and overblown historical scenes. There was not a single museum in which a grandfather would not be sitting on a wobbly stool peering over his broken spectacles, interrogating a young man about to set off on his travels, cheeks burning with enthusiasm, behind them the entire village, complete with ear trumpets and balls of wool. The painting’s eternal title would be ‘Interrogation’ and it would be covered with shiny varnish, so that in the end all you would be able to see would be your own face.

I climbed up to the next floor. All I really felt was a pressing need to run away. No Flemish conversation piece acquired in the Habsburg era was able to erase a growing anxiety related to love. More…

True or false?

30 June 2007 | Fiction, Prose

An extract from the novel Toiset kengät (‘The other shoes’, Otava, 2007). Interview by Soila Lehtonen

‘What is Little Red Riding Hood’s basket like? And what is in it? You should conjure the basket up before you this very moment! If it will not come – that is, if the basket does not immediately give rise to images in your minds – let it be. Impressions or images should appear immediately, instinctively, without effort. So: Little Red Riding Hood’s basket. Who will start?’

Our psychology teacher, Sanni Karjanen, stood in the middle of the classroom between two rows of desks. Everyone knew she was a strict Laestadian. It was strange how much energy she devoted to the external, in other words clothes. God’s slightly unsuccessful creation, a plump figure with pockmarks, was only partially concealed by the large flower prints of her dresses, her complicatedly arranged scarves and collars. Her style was florid baroque and did not seem ideally suited to someone who had foresworn charm. Her hair was combed in the contemporary style, her thin hair backcombed into an eccentric mountain on top of her head and sprayed so that it could not be toppled even by the sinful wind that often blew from Toppila to Tuira. More…

Daddy dear

Issue 2/2004 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Vanikan palat (‘Pieces of crispbread’, Otava, 2004). Interview by Soila Lehtonen

Dad’s at the mess again. Comes back some time in the early hours. Clattering, blubbing, clinging to some poem, he collapses in the hall.

We pretend to sleep. It’s not a bad idea to take a little nap. After a quarter of an hour Dad wakes up. Comes to drag us from our beds. Crushes us four sobbing boys against his chest as if he were afraid that a creeping foe intended to steal us. We cry too, of course, but from pain. Four boys belted around a non-commissioned officer is too much. It hurts. And the grip only tightens. Dad whines:

‘Boys, I will never leave you. Dad will never give his boys away. There will be no one who can take you from me.’ More…

Taking a line for a walk

Issue 1/2000 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Paul Klee, who is often cited as a pioneer of abstract art, often gave his works names associated with literature. We do not know whether these names arose before he began work, or only as he looked at the finished painting. Probably both.

Klee was well-versed in literature and also wrote himself. In addition to his essays and diaries, he wrote music and theatre criticism. He was also a professional musician, playing the violin in various ensembles. His literary and musical background is clearly visible in all Klee’s work. It is difficult to consider him a purely abstract painter in the traditional sense of the word. Paradoxically, the pioneer of abstract art defies a strict categorisation as abstract or figurative. Behind almost all his works lies a figurative and literary development. And of course music, its transposition into painting.

Klee was in the habit of writing the name of the work, in his fine handwriting, along the bottom edge of the painting, and underlining it. This suggests that he did not consider the associative power of the name of the work trivial or insignificant. It was not, however, intended to direct the viewer, and often the name functions in counter-point to the content of the image. The viewer is both directed and led astray. He sets out to seek correspondences between image and title but finally uncovers his own imagination.

This is an invitation to play. Not so much with the associations and experiences of the artist, but with those of the viewer. Bo Carpelan has accepted the invitation. It is, to my knowledge, fairly rare for a poet to take as his muse the names of an artist’s works. And apparently without particularly examining the works. The wrapping-paper is recycled. Such recycling creates, in his book Namnet på tavlan Klee målade (‘The name of the picture Klee painted’, 1999), a frankly tropical atmosphere, although some of the names of Klee’ s works are transposed directly into Finland-Swedish surroundings. The tropical gaudiness of the poetic images is born with the help of continual metamorphoses. They recall, unbidden, the masterpieces of African recycling in which the renaissance of some worn-out object is celebrated – for example, an empty sardine tin is miraculously reborn as an oil lamp. More…