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The Flip Side of the Family Idyll

Written by: Elisabeth Nordgren |

An important theme in Finnish Women’s Literature is the criticism of child-rearing, which sharpens into a merciless dissection of human relations. The idyllic surface is broken, and no family member is exempt. One of the theorists who influenced the new literature is Alice Miller, whose works were translated into Finnish in the 1980s. In the new family tales the mother often turns out to be the exploiter, but a child might equally well be found in the role of the unappeasable tyrant. Standard impressions and interpretations of growing up a girl are twisted and turned, and myths are reinterpreted.

Anna Maija Ylimaula (born 1950) is both an architect and a writer. She originally came from northern Finland. Her debut book is a brief novel of development with the title Papintyttö (1976; The Parson’s Daughter). The child, who grows up with a long list of prohibitions, fights hard battles over guilt and sin but comes out on top, and eventually becomes an ethically strong wife and mother. To her, love is a matter of will, not of feelings or sexuality.

Anna Maija Ylimaula is a parson’s daughter and the mother of several children. She grew up in a revivalist movement and depicts what the absolute ban on the use of birth control implies from a female point of view.

Lindström, Tuija: Photograph, year unknown.

The problem of motherhood becomes critical in the novel bearing the ironic title Idylli (1985; The Idyll). The protagonist, Ansa, has children while also having a career as a scientist, but finally cannot handle the ‘joy’ of having a large family, and when she becomes pregnant once again, she drowns the children and herself in the swimming pool.

Anna Maija Ylimaula is a restrained and laconic storyteller who sketches impressions and condenses form, while Annika Idström (born 1947) has a strong and hot-tempered voice. She depicts intrigue with extensive drama and experiments, and she belongs to the toughest of the new generation of Finnish women writers who break the taboos and dissect the hell of family life.

Since her debut novel Sinitaivas (1980; The Blue Sky), Annika Idström has been interested in the dreams and fantasies of women. In her first novel, the form is still conventional. The novel depicts the friendship of four suburban women. Only the monologue at the end of the novel, delivered by a psychotic female taxi driver, heralds the intensity with which the author would come to explore humanity’s inner world.

The novel Isäni rakkaani (1981; My Father, My Beloved) was Idström’s breakthrough. Here she explodes the conventions of both narrative techniques and the theme of love. The protagonist is a waitress who has grown up without a father, and who accidentally meets him at her workplace. The novel portrays the tensions involved in avoiding and meeting the father, hating him, feeling compassion for him, and loving him. Splintered crystals and blades of steel are the novel’s central symbols.

In the dreamlike final phase of the novel, the father and daughter – who have lived through incest, jealousy, lies, and disclosures – live an isolated life on an island in the sea. And at the very end there is the resolution, when this happy idyll receives the broken family’s mother. Annika Idström does not draw sharp distinctions between what happens in the protagonist’s dreams and fantasies, and what happens in real life. But the female protagonist feels that she is a more complete person after her journey through all manner of oppression. Now she can calmly state: “how lucky that I’m not mother, that I’m me!”

The motif of the child who becomes a giant that sucks the life out of its mother is repeated in the following novel, Veljeni Sebastian (1985; Eng. tr. My Brother Sebastian). The protagonist, the son of a single mother who works with literature, is more intelligent than many adults, and really only abandons his role of observer and analyst when he is eating: he satisfies his need for intimacy through the cakes his mother buys. The child seeks refuge in the intellectual world instead of “wading the swells of emotions”, and he is compelled to function as the guardian of the dissatisfied and frustrated mother. The novel’s women founder: they do not have the time to confront their self-deception before it becomes fatal.

In 1989 Annika Idström published the novel Kirjeitä Trinidadiin (1991; Letter to Trinidad), which is a darkly ironic depiction of a completely ordinary Finnish man’s hardships on a package tour of the Holy Land. The book contains a cannibalistic dream sequence, and in the following novel, Luonnollinen ravinto (1994; Natural Food), cannibalism becomes the main theme. A member of Parliament sits in the musty backroom of a small restaurant in Helsinki and waits to be served up and eaten by his wife.

Rantanen, Silja (b. 1955): Pantokrator, 1986. Oil on canvas. Private collection

Eira Stenberg’s (born 1943) Paratiisin vangit (1984; Prisoners of Paradise) is an equally wild and astonishing work when it comes to intrigue. Stenberg is one of the few Finnish language poets who made their debuts in the 1960s. After that she published short stories, and around 1980 she returned to poetry.

Without compassion, Paratiisin vangit analyses matriarchal cruelty and the festering family life of a father, a mother, and two children. The home is both a ‘Garden of Death’ and a house on chicken feet. The mother is the witch of the gingerbread house, and the sister on the one hand is a combination of angel and monster, and on the other hand is a phoenix. “Paradise is no happy place,” the narrator of the book, one of the two siblings, establishes: “it is not a condition of satisfaction. It is a condition of dissatisfaction dominated by prohibitions, that is, it is a Garden of Death.”

It takes a bold step into the unknown, “into the black hole”, to liberate oneself from the shackles of the parent–child relationship. This happens to the girl protagonist of Eira Stenberg’s second novel, Häikäisy (1987; Blanked-Off Window). Her name is Stella, which is a play on the book’s cosmic symbolism. After a journey into her own darkness, Stella finds the unity that the whole world aspires to achieve. Certainly, the world is ruled by fragmentation, but “everything within us is drawn towards the return to the whole, towards merging, towards unity. Towards love and death.”

Fundamental Angst and Solitude

Many important women writers in Finland in the 1970s and 1980s concentrate on the eternal existential questions that go with being human. Often, the human being is placed in borderline situations, separate from others, before a meeting, or near to grief and death. The main themes are guilt, identity, frustration, mental breakdowns, and the possibility of changing in one way or another. In the background are problems relating to growing up, living in a marriage, or professional life.

Eeva Tikka (born 1939) and Raija Siekkinen (born 1953) depict solitude and terror. But even though the fundamental motifs are the same in their respective works, there are differences in the ethical emphases, in the way they convey hope and draw character portraits.

As a storyteller, Eeva Tikka does not break with the formal traditions of the novel or short story, but her language is highly lyrical. The central theme is the boundary between being ill and being so-called normal, the analysis and the depiction of the mentality of a sensitive, deviant individual, and the description of how it is possible to grow and obtain greater insight through a breakdown. The protagonist might be a boy who is bullied because of a small or large defect, or a mentally ill woman. The sensitive and intuitive outsider is confronted with a strong ‘normal individual’. These two persons may correspond to the Bible’s Jacob and Esau, and the one who develops during the course of the novel is usually ‘Jacob’, who is strong despite his sensitivity and his obvious weakness. In the novel Jyrkänparras (1981; The Abyss), the stutterer Sulevi, who disappears into the forest at the end of the book, experiences paradoxical strength: “strong! He closed his eyes in the classroom and ploughed up swathes of ground, mowed down entire forests, lifted up the water of the lakes. His strength was so colossal that he collapsed under it […].”

Hanhijooki, Marjatta: Hat with veil, 1986. Etching. Nordisk Grafisk Union

By the end of the short story “Auringossa” (In the Sun), from the collection Alumiinïkihlat (1984; Aluminium Engagement Rings), a childless woman whose mind is broken gives birth to herself again in water. But first she has to accept herself as a broken person. “There is a shadow that comes from the sun, the shadow of water, at the root of a white water lily. She sways in its womb, and everywhere she is surrounded by warm amniotic fluid, like a water lily seed she awaits her delivery, awaits, and not entirely in vain, new children are still being born.”

Raija Siekkinen depicts the fundamental alienation of human beings in a more pessimistic and absolute manner than Eeva Tikka. She depicts the lives of married couples, siblings, or other intimately related people as a prison. She discloses the grotesque undercurrents of conversations at the coffee table or at family occasions, and she sticks to the impression that people’s inner worlds never meet. Doors, blanked-off windows, annoying glass shards or paving stones, and lift shafts are recurring metaphors for the lack of contact between human beings. “I knew the theory of alienation,” the narrator may say with irony in a short story, “and the blind person who committed suicide after having regained vision.” Elämän keskipiste (1983; The Centre of Life).

Raija Siekkinen’s portrait of humanity does not vary much from book to book. The protagonist is a woman past her early youth who is frustrated with her studies or her marriage. She is lost and is going around in circles, although she may still think she is journeying and moving forward. Her inner world is an unknown and mysterious abyss. A similar thematic complex is found in the work of Eeva Tikka, who clarifies it with nature symbols: a tempting and terrifying abyss within mankind symbolised by the dark depths of water, a vertical end, a crater, or a steep precipice. “It was no invitation to the silver well of the river or to a hallowing. But into the darkness that existed within herself, and which attracted in dark whorls.” Jyrkänparras.

Raija Siekkinen often identifies this abyss with a metaphysical ‘centre of life’ or with the biological nucleus, the cell nucleus. This innermost, deepest, and darkest place is shared by us all, and yet only a fraction of people recognise it in themselves, let alone in others.

The feeling of alienation also implies that “it seems as if the world had become smaller and wanted to keep its distance from me”, as the first-person narrator in her diffuse pain puts it in Raija Siekkinen’s short story “Koulu” (The School), from Elämän keskipiste. In the works of Raija Siekkinen, imagery of open spaces and clear sunshine is connected to existential decrepitude. In the works of Eeva Tikka, similar imagery can be more positive: terror mixes with hope, and is followed by salvation: “… and then the forest ended and the boundary was sharp, she came to an open space where the trees had been felled – and a feeling of freedom and emptiness washed over her. Was it sorrow?” Jyrkänparras.

“At home she had stood before a mirror and looked into a face that was completely naked and without expression. It was the face of a total stranger.”

Raija Siekkinen: Elämän keskipiste (1983; The Centre of Life)

Eeva Tikka unites the motif of emptiness with the positive potential of humankind: growth, grace, and hope – although what humankind never can grasp is just as vast as the sky. “But it exists out there: in its entirety, that of which we only see a fraction, the wholeness that is meant and prepared for us. And in our tribulations it is poured out in the form of grace, that we may recuperate and live on in its presence.” From Hiljainen kesä (1979; The Quiet Summer).

Liisa Enwald

Ruined Lives and Dark Silence

Rosa Liksom (born 1958) belongs to the group of writers who in the 1980s showcased a new narrative mode in Finnish prose, along with Mariaana Jäntti, Anja Kauranen, Päivi Perttula, Eira Stenberg, and Annika Idström. A fragmentary and episodic form and a Kafkaesque or Orwellian conception of contemporary society as dystopian are characteristic traits of this new prose. While Mariaana Jäntti, among others, has used the clichés of the modernist novel in her investigations of physical and existential determinism, and Päivi Perttula has rendered style significant in her Dadaist prose and has turned literature into abstract art with her anti-novel, Rosa Liksom employs often amusing details to conjure up an idyll threatened by a great catastrophe.

Rosa Liksom made her debut in 1985 with the vicious short story collection Yhden yön pysäkki (1985; Halting-Place for a Night), which immediately became popular with readers and critics. It introduced a completely new idiom, a provocative protest in its depiction of individuals replete with loneliness, isolation, wordlessness, muteness, self-contempt, indifference, hatred, disgust, aggression, and the total disillusionment found in autistic youths in the cities of the 1980s or in the pitch dark, lonely Lapland.

Even when young children, Rosa Liksom’s broken characters come to know how “blood tastes in the mouth”, whether they are stuck in a raw, concrete environment or sit behind iced-over windows in the far north. Rosa Liksom’s characters suffer from the idea of total independence and total freedom. And in the confrontation with fellow human beings and with the machinery of society, they are met with disdain and insensitivity.

There are no choices for these ‘borderline people’, whether bitter and cynical city youths or worn out loggers from the arctic wastes. There is no place for dreams in a world where people stockpile hatred against the schizophrenia of reality. Only a repugnant, meaningless violence is seen as a sort of desperate solution.

Rosa Liksom does not analyse the problems of her characters any further, and so their empty rituals, their primitive half lives, and their purposeless flights from reality appear rather static, motiveless, and destructive in all their insensitivity.

The characters of Liksom’s stories are anonymous and contourless. With swift brush strokes the author spreads an icy cold mood over the inner lives of her characters and the outer, oppressive landscapes. Most alive in the works of Rosa Liksom is the language, whether urban slang or a Northern dialect.

In her next short story collection, Unohdettu vartti (1986; Frozen Moments), Rosa Liksom continues to depict the human fates of the arctic wilderness. The work is fragmented into very short prose texts, in which the characters remain anonymous, hampered, and locked-up. However, the violent hatred and provocative protest of her debut book has been somewhat dampened and replaced by resigned abidance.

In Väliasema Gagarin (1987; Gagarin Station), the setting has shifted to Mongolia and Siberia, and Rosa Liksom’s stories have become exotic mini-narratives that are disrespectfully comical in their childlike expression. The style has borrowed the rhetorical, old-fashioned chanting tone of old folk stories and myths. Mythical, saga-like elements also function as natural elements in contemporary everyday events: there are semi-wild horses, camels in rut, and fish flying up onto the dry land of the tundra where youths play ball with the dried penises of horses while the smaller boys play dice with the bones of lambs. The absurdities are thus in some cases absolutely self-evident and natural. Some of the stories function as ironic, shamanistic aphorisms.

Tyhjän tien paratiisi (1989; Paradise Ultra Light) continues the depiction of the ‘primitive’ half-life and the ‘primitive’ fates that Rosa Liksom worked with in her early short story collections. The fragmentary depiction of society gains its human qualities through the subjectivity and style of the narrator. The book exposes the cynicism and amorality that hides behind the ‘polished’ surface, whether private or societal.

In 1996 Rosa Liksom published her first novel, Kreisland, a satire of upper-class life and the clichés of society. The novel ranges in time and setting from the Finland of the 1930s and 1940s, to the Soviet Union under Breshnev, and the United States of today.

Leena Lander (born 1955) made her debut as a writer of light literature in 1982. Today, she is one of Finland’s most popular and well-known writers, and has been translated into many languages. Besides novels, she has written essays and drama for theatre as well as for radio and television. She is the recipient of a large number of literary awards and was nominated for the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize for both Tummien perhosten koti (1991; The Home of Dark Butterflies) and Tulkoon myrsky (1994; May the Storm Come).

Pirkko Saisio (born 1949) made her debut in 1975 with the novel Elämänmeno (1979; Life As It Is). It is an epic novel about a working-class family in the Helsinki suburb of Sörnäs. In her own name, she has written the angsty novel Kainin tytär (1984; Kain’s Daughter) (Kains dotter), about lesbian love. She has also published books under both male and female pseudonyms. Besides being a prose author, Pirkko Saisio is an industrious playwright.When Anja Kauranen’s (born 1954) debut book Sonja O. kävi täättä (Sonja O. Was Here) was published in 1981, her depiction of female lack of inhibition caused an uproar. Sonja’s development towards modern femininity takes her through several stages. First, she is a girl who goes from bed to bed and is exploited by men. Then she toughens up and seeks revenge, before she finally realises her calling: to be a vierge moderne, to be a writer.

In Pimeää vain meidän silmillemme (1987; It is Only Dark to Our Eyes), Anja Kauranen tells the story of the child sports star Petra Winter, whose muscles are top-tuned while her femininity is suppressed. She is a sister figure to the spiritually suffocated Sonja, and they both break free, but in very different ways.

In Ihon aika (1993; Time of Skin), Anja Kauranen tells of her mother’s illness and death, and makes a poignant contribution to the debate about care for the terminally ill. In the novel Pelon maantiede (1995; Geography of Fear), she describes how a feminist group of academics commits a series of cold-blooded murders of chosen men. Several of Anja Kauranen’s books have become controversial best-sellers.

Elisabeth Nordgren

Translated by Marthe Seiden