Print Article

Legend as Historical Reflection

Written by: Elisabeth Nordgren |

Eeva Joenpelto (born 1921) made her debut in 1950 with the novel Kaakerholma (1950; Kaaker Holm), and had her breakthrough in 1955 with Neito kulkee vetten päällä (Eng. tr. Maiden Walks upon the Water), which takes the weaknesses and strengths of the gender roles as its theme.

Eeva Joenpelto’s second breakthrough came in 1974, when the first part of her novel series about life in a South Finland business from 1919 to the mid 1930s was published. A merchant family is at the centre of the four parts of the series: Vetää kaïkista ovista (1974; Servants and Enemies), Kuin kekäle kädessä, (1976; Seed Amongst Thorns), Sataa suolaista vettä, (1978; Like Sand in the Sea), and Eteisiin ja kynnyksille, (1980; Everything Has Its Time). Various constellations, political groups, and social classes come together around this centre, are mixed, and are faced with generational and class differences, worker’s conflicts, and new capitalism. The first part is about the bitterness between the two sides following the Finnish Civil War. In the following parts the young generation comes to the fore with new ideals and values. The country is run by a socialist minority government, the communists are an underground movement, and the newly rich are pressuring the middle class.

Eeva Joenpelto’s strengths as a writer are the depiction of the environment and the creation of psychologically convincing characters. The processes of transformation which society undergoes recur on the individual plane, where the characters of the series act as catalysts for social and political conflicts.

After the multitude of characters in the Lojo-series, Eeva Joenpelto concentrated on portraying individual destinies, such as in the novel Elämän Rouva, rouva Glad (1982; Mrs Glad, Married to Life), an entertaining and polysemous novel, in which a symbolic and ideal plane is woven into the traditional realistic plane of action, breaking it up.

Extending the symbolism a bit, Mrs Glad’s fate is analogous to Finland’s development from 1917 to the mid-1930s. The innocent “Maiden Finland”, Saara Heinonen, later Mrs Glad, falls victim to the hypocrisy of society, and is seduced and transformed into a ferocious man-eater and worshipper of mammon.

Apart from analogies to the present day (the 1980s), we find the roles from the previous books in this novel: strong women and useless men who are easy to fool, materialism and idealism, the static and the dynamic in connection with human development and scope for action, the city and the countryside, the individual and the environment, and the power of desire over human beings.

Kaira, Alice (1913-2006): Paradisbåden, 1972. Oil on canvas. Amos Andersons Konstmuseum, Helsinki

Throughout her works in the 1980s, Eeva Joenpelto continues to vary the themes of victim and guilt, and the generational conflicts and their implications. In both Rikas ja kunniallinen (1984; Rich and House-Trained; Eng. tr. Rich and Respected) and Jottei varjos haalistu (1986; So Your Shadow Will Not Pale), the reader will recognise the depiction of life as a struggle between materialism and idealism, and the unexplained but systematic brutality that affects idealistic, naive people. And the social, political, and ideological conflicts are ever-present in the background.

In the work of Eeva Joenpelto, it appears easier to fight against systems and organisations than against individual people. Evil is portrayed as a consequence of personal, individual terror and stupidity. In Ei ryppyä, ei tahraa (1989; Wrinkle-Free, Spotless), she once more attempts to create a classical entertaining novel about the dilemma of the middle class and their struggle to maintain a spotless facade, as indicated by the book’s ironic title.

With the novel Tuomari Müller, hieno mies (1994; Judge Müller, a Fine Man), Eeva Joenpelto repeats themes from previous books:, the effects of political power-play, intrigues, and the power of money on the individual and the environment, acts of revenge, and the character gallery of the class society. The book culminates in a shocking finale and a tragic, convincing, and multi-faceted image of thousands of snakes fleeing from bulldozers.

Anu Kaipainen (born 1933) has always been interested in letting myth, legend, and history mirror the present in a multi-faceted manner. In Arkkienkeli Oulussa, (1967; Archangel in Oulu), the events of the Finnish war of 1808-1809 are vividly depicted. And in Magdaleena ja maailman lapset (1969; Magdalene and the Children of the World), Anu Kaipainen has developed a strong commitment to the radical ideas of the time, with their eagerness to improve the world.

In the following novels, Surupukuinen nainen (1971, Woman in Mourning Dress), On neidolla punapaula (1973; And the Maiden Treads the Dance), Naistentanssit (1975; Ladies’ Dance), and above all Kellomorsian (1977; The Bell Bride) – which has a Jeanne d’Arc motif – she continues to use myths, mystique, and legends to shed light on and give perspective to present-day situations.

The biographical novel Poimisin heliät hiekat (1979; To Gather Glittering Grains of Sand) is about the female Finnish folksinger Larin Paraske, who got to sing for the gentlemen of the Finnish literary society of the 1890s and was portrayed by Albert Edelfelt and Eero Järnefelt, but who died penniless and forgotten in 1904. Freedom is the central theme of the book, and it includes both issues of women’s lives and a discussion about the creative individual’s difficulties in realising him- or herself under harsh outer circumstances. A culture-critical theme in the novel reveals the deep divide between the value-creating established culture and the folk culture.

In this novel, Anu Kaipainen creates a successful compositional whole that joins historic and fictitious events with folkloric effects, Larin Paraske’s own texts, the Karelian dialect, and the Finnish folk singers’ techniques of alliteration and refrain.

Anu Kaipainen uses visionary realism to demystify legends and history, and to uncover the original sources of fantasy in a manner both poetic and realistic. But it is not until the novel Kahdesti haudattu (1993; Twice Buried) that Anu Kaipainen, after several artistic attempts, finally retrieves the best traits of her writing – mystery, stylistic rigour, flexible language – and abstains from didactic moralising. In Kahdesti haudattu, she returns to the myths and legends by modernising the romantic ballad “Inkeri’s Song”, a Finnish version in Kalevala measure of the Danish-Norwegian folksong about the noble maiden Inkeri, who waits for her betrothed and is finally engaged to another man after hearing of her fiancé’s death.

Anu Kaipainen’s Inkeri is called Irene and lives on an island in Greece. She is the daughter of a rich wine farmer, and while young she is engaged to the handsome, blond fisherman’s son Lalmanti, who is of Viking descent. Lalmanti winds up in the Soviet Union and dies on the Finnish front. Veikko, who assists in digging up the enemy’s fallen soldiers, is taken by Lalmanti’s beautiful skull, which he keeps. Lalmanti’s mutilated corpse haunts Veikko, and carrying the skeleton along with him, he tracks down the impatiently waiting Irene in Greece after many years of searching.

The novel does not offer any single interpretation, it is multi-faceted and inexplicable, due to a symbolic, mythical superstructure that pervades all its layers. For instance, Veikko (Finland) can be seen as a mediator between East and West. The shamanistic powers possessed by Veikko, as well as by Irene and Lalmanti, are opposed to modern Western culture, and Irene is depicted as a strong woman who will not give in to stubborn suitors or the calculating village priest’s demands. Irene is able to preserve her integrity through uniting Christianity and Shamanism.

In her narratives, Eila Pennanen (1916–1994) unites a psychological ‘realism’ with a lightly ironic, humorous criticism of social phenomena. She made her debut in 1942 with the novel Ennen sotaa oli nuoruus (1942; Pre-War Youth), which she would later revisit in Mongolit (Mongolerna) (1966; The Mongols) – a novel set in the 1960s with all the political changes, young people’s demands, compromise, and lifelong delusion of the day.

The high point in Eila Pennanen’s literary oeuvre is the Tammerfors trilogy about the beginning of the twentieth century, a family novel about middle class life seen from the point of view of a young woman. In the trilogy, begun in Himmun rakkaudet (1971; Himmu’s Loves), continued in Koreuden tähden (1972; For Vanity’s Sake), and concluded in Ruusuköynnös (1973; The Rose Garland), Eila Pennanen takes an ironic look at how the educated middle class allows itself to be shaped by society, and she comes down on the side of the poor and the weak.

In her prose writings Eila Pennanen, in a toned-down and playful manner, reveals human weakness. In her traditional narrative style, the sharp yet comical characterisation plays a vital structural part.

Eeva Joenpelto, Anu Kaipainen, and Eila Pennanen have all focused on women’s lives, on patriarchy, and on gender roles in their prose works, whether Eeva Joenpelto’s snapshots of the time in her Lojo series from the 1970s, Anu Kaipainen’s historic mythical novels, or Eila Pennanen’s insight into the life of Saint Bridget of Sweden in Pyhä Birgitta (1954; Birgitta the Visionary), or into middle-class life in her Tammerfors trilogy, set at the beginning of the twentieth century.


In Mörkrets kärna (1965; Core of Darkness), issued in several editions, the Finland-Swedish Marianne Alopaeus (born 1918) articulates the existential vulnerability that is so characteristic of the prose of the 1950s and 1960s. Right before the war, the novel’s Mirjam is separated from her beloved schoolmate, the Russian-Jewish immigrant boy Jurek, and the ‘betrayal’ lives on inside her like an open wound when she later in life meets the Algerian resistance fighter Jacob. The price of the independence she is fighting for is a great loneliness and a fundamental feeling of being a bystander in all arenas of life.

Translated by Marthe Seiden