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A respectable tragedy

30 June 1988 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An extract from the novel Säädyllinen murhenäytelmä (‘A respectable tragedy’, 1941). Introduction by Kaija Valkonen. The central theme of the novel is love: young, old, passionate, innocent, proper, improper. The main characters are a middle-aged couple, the doctor and his wife Elisabet, his sister Naimi and the love of her youth, Artur. Hämäläinen’s fine irony, careful and thoughtful psychology and colourful language have made the novel a bestseller. Naimi, an aesthete and an uncompromising character, has left her husband Artur twenty years ago because of his infidelity. But slowly she begins to forgive: this tragic but compassionately told love story, not without tragicomedy and humour, ends in reconciliation

Embalmed passion

In that new Helsinki of the ‘thirties, which had opened like a garden flower, gaily coloured, sunlit, practical and impractical, in love with every novelty of the moment, which it thought astonishing, lived Naimi Saarinen, back from her exile, where she had been driven by wounded passion twenty years before. More…

The Cheap Contractor

30 June 1986 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

From Kauan kukkineet omenapuut (‘Long-blossoming apple trees’, 1982). Introduction by Arto Seppälä 

The men who delivered the hot-water cylinder offered to do the installation as well. I asked how much it would be. They lolled about a bit, exchanged a few private looks, pretended to be thinking. Then one of them fired off a sum. It was three times the quotation I’d already had. They didn’t even look at the location. I told myself I wouldn’t even go to the end of the road with big-dealers like these.

The same evening I rang up ‘a little man’ and told him he could get started as soon as it suited him.

The cheap contractor turned up a couple of days later, driving an elderly van into the yard. I went out. He’d sat himself down in a garden chair near the white lilacs. The morning sun only partially reached there; so half his body was in shade, looking colder than the sunny half. More…

The last glass of champagne

30 June 2005 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Anton Chekhov, at Yalta on the Black Sea to treat his tuberculosis, travels to Moscow in spring to meet his wife Olga, who is working as an actress in Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre. They have long had to maintain their relationship by letter. Now the doctors believe the patient must be sent to Germany for treatment at a spa. He himself does not want to acknowledge his condition, although as a doctor he cannot be unaware of the signs of approaching death. Olga accompanies him with mixed feelings, for she does not wish to interrupt her career.

Raine Mäkinen (born 1938) has been a rather unfamiliar name in literary circles. His novel Kuuma syksy (‘Hot autumn’) was selected as the best first Finnish-language novel of the year 1974, and in his long, rather than productive, career as a writer he published a few more novels before retiring from his position as chemist and industrial hygienist. Voin ja paljon paremmin (‘I already feel much better’, Loki, 2004), a novel about Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper, is the work of a mature writer: biographical facts, understanding of human nature and imagination are well balanced. Mäkinen’s novel seems to have grown out of a virtually lifelong admiration and love for Chekhov. He does not try to write about Chekhov using Chekhov’s own style, of course – but his text breathes a simplicity, naturalness and purity impossible to achieve without hard work and humility. He does not try for pretty words, but he writes beautiful text. More…

Dinner with Marie

30 June 2008 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Marie (WSOY, 2008). Introduction by Tuomas Juntunen

For once, Marie decided to plan a dinner without the same old roast beef, boiled potatoes, peas, red wine and berry kissel. And particularly no game. The thought of rabbit reminded her of the hunting trip to Porpakka, the hounds puking up rabbit skins onto the parquet floor, the smell of singed birds, the feathers that turned up even weeks later in a corner of the kitchen, the buckshot in the goose that broke her tooth. Mind you, she had to admit that brown sauce was quite good, especially as an aspic. She had tasted a spoonful once the morning after it was made, when Martta had gone out to buy milk and Marja was cleaning the drawing room, and then Martta had come back quite suddenly, and Marie had panicked and swallowed it the wrong way and had a fit of coughing. ‘Good heavens,’ Martta had said, ‘what’s the matter? I just came back to get my purse. I forgot it on the sideboard.’

The true reason for the plan was that she wanted to show them what a real French formal dinner was like, how much better it was. She planned the menu secretly for months, first in her mind, then in writing, at her bedroom dressing table – the only place she had to herself, although the door wouldn’t lock – at first on wrapping paper, which she later burnt in the tiled stove in the dining room when no one was home. More…

The net

30 June 2000 | Archives online, Fiction, poetry

 Poems from Verkko (‘The net’, WSOY, 1999). Introduction by Peter Mickwitz

The descent

Down the stairs, out through the gate into the street
and you wonder
what the cobblestones had in mind
with the waves that beat
and the rock that was humbled
smooth in the course of millennia.
Streetcars would rumble
toward them with ancient god force.
Now the stones lie there quietly like
fish blown ashore
petrified by the sun.
Their memory is short. Steel is mute.
The rails remember Kallio, remember Töölö.
Words are thinner than they used to be;
they’ve been walked over too many times.
The city. more glabrous, no longer stretches
algae-covered tentacles to the gates of Babylon.
Like an animal with a premonition, the city pulls its soft parts
inside a calcareous shell, does its work there in secret.
Much has disappeared: no more twitching tectonic plates
brought on by words, no electric storms in the bowels.
Coffee is the measure of violence: no more tobacco
in whose smoke one could heal loneliness and the world.
As before, you look through glass, just a thin glass,
at the sidewalk and trees facing the restaurant. A man
is pushing a baby carriage. The glass reflects your face very briefly.
Part of you is out there, part stumbles about again in some Yoldia
a mute stone and a worn hope in his pocket. still,
that the world’s mute stones would break down into song, give
voice, crumble a couple of notes here, and a key.

Vermeer: the kitchen maid

A great painting does not require a great subject,
kings in pantyhose, the Peace of Westphalia.
The kitchen maid pours milk in a bowl, and soon
the canvas brims with self-radiant liquid
in which the morning and chunks of bread float.
The trap is primed. No rat to be seen.
Bits of something white roll on the floor. Smelling salts?
Under the milky film of the wall there are things
going on that the maid has no inkling of
a cockroach makes its way through the sawdust,
enzymes dismantle compounds into smaller pieces.
Farther away, a star collapses
and begins to radiate darkness.
Its message  – a quantum of black light –
reaches Helsinki only today,
a city surrounded by ramparts of snow.
These, among other things, influence
my being what I am.
I wrap myself in darkness and wait
for the next whim, a tiny,
decisive mistake.

That’s why

The half-drowned
apartment building drifts.
Between the stuccoed ribs
disease blooms, sprouts tendrils.
punctures pulmonar alveoli. articular capsules.
Every night I could melt into the tub
until the water darkens to a hepatic dream.
One must protect oneself against the outside air.
The light draws boundaries that are too clear.
One must protect oneself against the brightness of skin.
That is why I travel deeper into your chest,
crave the tar from your lungs and the tracheae
into which I blow, a fanfare, when we are
heat and hunger,
grow vertically up from the ground toward
the fainted sun,
pull up rails, roots, traffic signs,
rusty legends,
rear up to the height of our withers, slop sweat and oil.

Aerial view

These wondrous mobiles
with which we can conquer distances.
Only the view always is the same heavenly
snow drift, nothing but condensing steam.
Icarus must have cooled his wings here,
the wax whose precise consistency is a mystery to us.
The higher he rose
the worse he froze
until the wax became too cold and melted.
By scientific means machines have been built
in which a human being can rise and fly to another
planetary phenomena in his belly
such as the direction of blood’s circulation. Loneliness
has rarely been a castle in whose cellar
philosophy was tinkered with or music distilled.
The horses were harnessed for death, the rest into museums,
cast in plastic.
The polar sea folds into a pocket
as a map that tells you where you should already
be, and how.

Translated by Anselm Hollo

Teemu Keskisarja: Vihreän kullan kirous. G.A. Serlachiuksen elämä ja afäärit [The curse of green gold. The life and affairs of G.A. Serlachius]

17 March 2011 | Mini reviews, Reviews

Vihreän kullan kirous. G.A. Serlachiuksen elämä ja afäärit
[The curse of green gold. The life and affairs of G.A. Serlachius]
Helsinki: Kustannusosakeyhtiö Siltala, 2010. 350 p., ill.
ISBN 978-952-234-041-2
€ 35, hardback

In the famine years of the 1860s and with no inherited fortune to his name, G.A. Serlachius (1830–1901) built his industrial centre in the rural backwoods of Mänttä. His work laid the foundations for what would become one of Europe’s leading paper manufacturers. G.A. Serlachius was a Finnish self-made man whose education was cut short due to his family’s financial difficulties. The energetic Serlachius is considered to have pioneered contacts with Western European markets; he was responsible for bringing the first icebreaker ship to Finland. Serlachius was also known as a patron of the arts and a supporter of artists; the collection of the Serlachius Art Foundation is his best-known legacy. According to this biography, Serlachius suffered from ‘an extremely advanced megalomania’ in the opinion of his bankers, and his personality was ‘more aggressive than many Finnish-born generals of the Pax Russica’. The Association of the Friends of History selected this book as its History Book of the Year for 2010.
Translated by Ruth Urbom

Air, blue and gold

16 January 2014 | Fiction, poetry

Poems. Introduction by Tuula Hökkä

The arch bridge

From Ylitse vuoren lasisen (‘Over the glass mountain’, 1949)

And God said: to others I’ll give other tasks, but the task I’ll give to you
is to make a curving bridge, my child, with an arch that’s round and true.
For everywhere around the earth human beings are laden with gloom,
and they’ll come to cross an arching bridge in their anguish and their doom.
Make a bridge that spans the precipice, a bridge over the abyss,
one that shines to my glory with radiance, sparkling like this.
I said: They will come with heavy boots, and heels caked with clay –
how can my bridge withstand their weight, yet also shine this way,
not tarnish or break apart as their crowding presence nears?
And God said: well, it can only be done by means of blood and tears.
Your heart is stronger than mountain rock, the ore that’s buried there –
Put a piece of it into the bridge support, and you’ll get the bridge to bear.
Add a piece of the hearts of those you love, and I know they won’t condemn,
but will surely grant you forgiveness if you make a bridge for them.
Make a bridge to the glory of God, my child, make a bridge with arching light
that will span the depths and shine for ever, with radiance sparkling bright.
Don’t lock the sorrow out of your heart as the bridge you make appears.
Nothing gleams more beautifully than the brilliance of pure tears. More…

Hotel for the living

30 June 1984 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An extract from Hotelli eläville (‘Hotel for the living’, 1983). Introduction by Markku Huotari

Raisa and Pertti are a married couple with three children, Katrieli­na, Aripertti and Artomikko. When she discovers she is to have another, whom she names Katjaraisa, Raisa decides to have an abortion, because another child, even if welcome, would now jeopardise her career – she has been offered a job with an international company at the very top of the advertising world. Raisa is the successful entrepreneur of the novel – on the one hand coldly calculating, without feeling, on the other superficially sentimental, perhaps the most startlingly ironic of the characters in Jalonen’s novel. His image of the brave new woman?

During her lunch hour Raisa took a walk via the laboratory, asked reception for the envelope and thrust it unregarded into her handbag. She was aware of her already knowing, but short of the envelope, there would as yet be no restrictions, nor were there any decisions that would have to be made. She had called Tom Eriksson, discussed yet again the same points and particulars, and ended tracing a finger over the two beautiful pictures on her wall. ‘The loveliest of seas has yet to be sailed’ and ‘I am life! For Life’s sake.’

She thought of Katjaraisa, her features, the palms the breadth of two fingers, just as Katrielina’s had been, and the same button-eyed gazing look as Katrielina. More…

Smart Moomins

27 June 2012 | This 'n' that

From page to screen: Tove Jansson's classic

‘Here’s little Moomintroll, none other,
Hurrying home with milk for Mother,’

are the opening lines of Tove Jansson’s classic 1952 illustrated children’s tale of a sister lost and found, The Book about Moomintroll, Mymble and Little My, in the English poet and novelist Sophie Hannah’s beguiling translation. (Swedish original: Hur gick det sen? Boken om Mymlan, Mumintrollet och Lilla My; illustration: the Finnish version.)

The book has now been released as a smartphone app by the London publisher Sort Of Books and Helsinki’s WSOY in collaboration with the Finnish developer Spinfy.

At the tap of a finger, birds fly, forest creatures crawl up and down tree-trunks, flowers open and close, fish jump and hattifatteners wiggle. Unlike in the Japanese animated cartoons that have done so much to make the Moomins well-known worldwide, this is achieved without doing any violence to Jansson’s original graphics.

The app can be played either in text or, for very small children, read-to mode, voiced by the actor Sam West. Three more Moomin apps are scheduled for release later this year.

We are the champions

25 March 2011 | Prose

Heroes are still in demand, in sports at least. In his new book author Tuomas Kyrö examines the glorious past and the slightly less glorious present of Finnish sports – as well as the meaning of sports in the contemporary world where it is ‘indispensable for the preservation of nation states’. And he poses a knotty question: what is the difference, in the end, between sports and arts? Are they merely two forms of entertainment?

Extracts from Urheilukirja (‘The book about sports’, WSOY, 2011; see also Mielensäpahoittaja [‘Taking offence’])

The whole idea of Finland has been sold to us based on Hannes Kolehmainen ‘running Finland onto the world map’. [c. 1912–1922; four Olympic gold medals]. Our existence has been defined by how we are known abroad. Sport, [the Nobel Prize -winning author] F. E. Sillanpää, forestry, [Ms Universe] Armi Kuusela, [another runner] Lasse Viren, Nokia, [rock bands] HIM and Lordi, Martti Ahtisaari.

The purpose of sport at the grass-roots level has been to tend to the health of the nation and at a higher level to take our boys out into the world to beat all the other countries’ boys. We may not know how to talk, but our running endurance is all the better for it. However, the most important message was directed inwards, at our self image: we are the best even though we’re poor; we can endure more than the rest. Finnish success during the interwar period projected an image of a healthy, tenacious and competitive nation; political division meant division into good and bad, the right-minded and traitors to the fatherland. More…

For love or money

30 June 1994 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Paratiisitango (‘Paradise tango’, WSOY, 1993). Introduction by Markku Huotari

The bishops’ dilemma

They are waiting for Blume in the front room of the office. On the sofa sits a man whom Blume has never learned to like. He himself chose and appointed the man, for a job not insignificant from the point of view of the company. Blume has good reasons for the appointment. If he employed only men he liked, the business would have gone bankrupt years ago.

Reinhard Kindermann gets up from the sofa and waits in silence while Blume hangs up his overcoat. Mrs Giesler stands next to Blume. She does not try to help her superior take off his coat, for she knows from experience that he would not tolerate it, but the old man does allow her to stand next to him and wait in silence, like a servant expressing submission. More…

Misery me

30 June 2010 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the collection of short prose, Mielensäpahoittaja (‘Taking offense’, WSOY, 2010)

Past pushing up daisies

Well, yeah, so I took offense when the doctor said that considering my age I’m in tip-top shape. His theory was that my 25-kilometre ski circuits would keep an old coot like me in shape, if they didn’t kill me first. He said if I were to start just sitting on the couch and waiting, then the Reaper would be on my back in no time.

I don’t ski for my health. I ski because it’s pretty in the forest, and when a body is sweating he doesn’t think a whole lot. More…

Briefcase man

31 December 2000 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Aura (Otava, 2000). Introduction by Mervi Kantokorpi

He was born in the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland the year the world caught fire. He learned to read the year of the revolution, and spoke two languages as his mother tongue border – language and enemy language, as he often used to say. He was proud of only one of his languages; the other, he loved secretly. He spoke one loudly, the other softly, almost in a whisper.

At night, on the telephone, he spoke far away – you could see it, even in the dark, from his expression, his half-closed eyes sometimes breaking into song. It was so beautiful and soft that I wept under the blankets and hated myself because of the effect that language had on me.

Stinking tinker Karelian trickster Russian drinker, little Russky’s dancing in a leather skirt, skirt tears and oh! little Russky’s hurt.

Count to ten, he said. But count in Finnish. Or Swedish, that’ll baffle them. And if they call you a Swedish bastard, it’s not so bad. I’ve taught you the numbers in Arabic and Spanish, too, but I don’t think you’ll be able to remember them yet. More…

The Earth is a snowball

31 March 1995 | Archives online, Prose

A short story from Resa runt solen (‘Journey round the sun’, Schildts, 1994). Introduction by Ann-Christine Snickars

It is a day in August and even though I can sense that the end of the summer is nearer than the beginning, my hours are still as long as days. I am a child and live in the midst of summer’s eternity.

This morning I wake up earlier than anyone else. It isn’t usually that way. Usually Mårten is the first of us two to get up, but now he is asleep with his face turned to the wall. I stay in bed for a while, listening. It is also quiet in the other room, where Mama is asleep. Now I remember that it’s today Papa is coming out to see us after working in the town all week.

I open the curtain a little and see that the sky is blue and not grey with heavy rainclouds as it has been these past few days. I quickly put on my few clothes, a thin striped cotton sweater, my shorts and my brown plimsolls. I push the door open, stand on the steps and breathe a morning air that still smells more of summer than of autumn. I listen to the familiar sounds: twittering birds, the wind in the treetops and crying gulls over the bay. More…

Tchotchkes for the tsar

11 August 2011 | Reviews

Cornflower and ear of oats: one of the several Fabergé gemstone ornaments now owned by Queen Elizabeth of England (gold, rock crystal, diamonds, enamel, ca 18 cm)

Ulla Tillander-Godenhielm
Fabergén suomalaiset mestarit
[Fabergé’s Finnish masters]
Design: Jukka Aalto/Armadillo Graphics
Helsinki: Tammi, 2011. 271 p., ill.
ISBN 978-951-31-5878-1
€57, hardback

In its online shop, the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg sells a copy of a most delicate, enchanting little nephrite-and-opal lily of the valley that perfectly imitates nature, sitting in a vase made of rock crystal that looks like a glass of water.

These small flowers made of gold and gemstones were manufactured by the jeweller Fabergé a hundred years ago. The lily of the valley was the most frequently used floral motif in the Fabergé workshops ­–  it was the favourite flower of Empress Alexandra (1872–1918), and the imperial family was the the foremost client of the world’s foremost jeweller.

The replica (13.5 centimetres high) is available at the Hermitage as a ‘luxury gift’ for the price of mere  $3,300. (N.B. Since we published this review, the ‘luxury gift’ items seem to have disappeared from the Hermitage online shop selection, so we have removed the link. Several Fabergé egg replicas are available though, ranging in price from $200 upwards – link below.)

For those who feel the price is excessive, there is  also a rather modestly-priced little bay tree (original: gold, Siberian nephrite, diamonds, amethysts, pearls, citrines, agates and rubies as well as natural feathers, about 30 centimetres tall, featuring a little bird that emerges flapping its wings and singing when a small key is turned) at just $ 219,95. Despite its form, it is classified as one of the famous imperial Easter eggs. (However, as I write, this item is unfortunately sold out…) More…