August 2014

Sessily Watt

Facing the Raven's Eye

A Glimpse into the Finnish Fantastic

At dawn, the world glimmers between day and night. The meeting of awake and asleep, dark and light, is potent. Anything can happen. In the early hours when most still sleep, each footstep seems like it might slide from this world into another. Around the next corner might be a circus in the street. A lost friend. A ticket elsewhere. It is the same at dusk: the sound of movement might be a bicyclist passing in the gloom... or something else. And that shadow ahead between the trees seems too tall, too watchful to be a bush.

It Came From the North, a collection of Finnish literature edited by Desirina Boskovich, inhabits these dual moments of possibility contained in every day. In her introduction, Boskovich briefly sketches a picture of contemporary Finnish literature -- healthy and inventive," focused on the literary and crime genres -- and then stakes out the areas explored by this collection: the Finnish surreal, emerging from within the literary, and the small but robust speculative fiction scene. As with the publishing fiefdoms in the United States, there is a sense that the writers of the surreal and the writers of the speculative are separated, however artificially, with different places of publication and different awards. By bringing them together in this collection, Boskovich points to their similarities and the conversations in which they both participate. "Every story [in this collection]," she writes, "depends in some way on the magical and surreal, the weird and uncanny... In these stories, 'reality' has many gradations and gray areas."

It's telling of my taste that the stories I most enjoyed in the collection were those that contain multiple gradations of reality within their own few pages. Take the story "Ospreys," by Tiina Raevaara, translated by David Hackston. The narrator enters a swamp on April Fifteenth, the day that a pair of ospreys return to nest each year. The descriptions are thick with nature, creating an effect similar to Molly Gloss's "The Grinnell Method." Both narrators are deeply observant of their surroundings and as a result the setting is not so much important to the story as becomes the story. The familiar world is magnified until the shapes lose old meanings and acquire new ones. "Swamps are always paradoxical," says the second paragraph. "They are at once dead and alive; they decompose, and, at the same time, from that very decomposed matter they produce life." This is the paradox of "Ospreys" as well; the narrator returns to the swamp again and again, experiencing life and death as existing at once. Layers of seemingly contrary experience fill the page.

Another of my favorites, "The Garden" by Jyrki Vainonen, translated by Juha Tupasela and Anna Volmari, is also rooted in nature. In this story, the narrator's parents have a large garden, full of many plants, including a strange bush they can't identify. The bush grows a large seedpod, which bursts over his parents, covering them in sticky pollen. They feel tired after and go to bed. Soon, the narrator is taking care of both garden and parents. Throughout, the reader is caught in the gray area between what the narrator observes and how he interprets those observations, two versions of experience existing at once. "The Laughing Doll," by Marko Hautala, translated by Jyri Luoma and edited by James Wheatley, has a similar surreal feeling to it, though its strangeness lives more in the shadows of everyday life. A dinner conversation between two couples is interwoven with tensions, anger, and hatred. Their volatile emotions are hidden within the various legends they tell about "the Laughing Doll," who could be a murderer or a victim, or both. Neither "The Garden" nor "The Laughing Doll" is a comfortable story, but then possibility, that gradation of reality, isn't comfortable either, since it turns as easily toward tragedy as toward wonder.

In other stories, misunderstandings drive melancholy and loneliness through the hearts of the characters. In "The Horseshoe Nail" by Mari Saario, translated by Liisa Rantalaiho, the main character, Alice, repeatedly meets two strangers on horseback, one of whom has pointed ears and is covered in a light layer of golden hair. Alice and the strangers belong not only to different worlds but to different experiences of time, which distort their conversations, putting them continually out of step with each other. In "Delina," by Maarit Verronen, translated by Hildi Hawkins, the misunderstandings between a volunteer in a development work camp and a local woman come back to confront the volunteer years later. In "A Heart Clothed in Black," an excerpt from Pereat Mundus: A Novel, Sort Of by the great Leena Krohn (also translated by Hildi Hawkins), Håkan is verbally harassed by a man on the street, a stranger who seems to know him. Though Håkan resists the harassment, with an embarrassment and confusion familiar to victims of harassment the world over, by the end of the drawn-out encounter he begins to feel as if he actually had met the man before.

Other stories struck me as less interesting. "The Border Incident," by Tuomas Kilpi, is the story of the Norms of Normalia, and their country's border, drawn on the ground as a straight chalk line. There is, of course, a girl who rebels against the strictures of Normalia, and tries to cross the border. There are the expected arguments between the girl, the Border Guard, and the School Inspector who comes to fetch her. The most intriguing part of the story -- the part that breaks from the expected -- is the end, which shifts suddenly away from the border to an older woman and a dark cloud of insects, a striking image. But the rest of the story is overly weighted by a familiar frame around rules and whether to follow them. Similarly, "Watcher," by Leena Likitalo, presents an intriguing society composed of three populations, each suffering, each envious of the others, each stuck in a meaningless cycle. In many ways it reminded me of the classic science fiction story "Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death," by James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon), except that Tiptree's story brings readers deep into the system, making us participants, whereas Likitalo leaves us always as watchers of "Watcher." Any connections between our world and that world, whether direct or indirect, are easily shaken off.

This collection is an enjoyable exploration of fictional realities as they are being played with in Finland. The general introduction at the beginning and the brief background provided for each author seem designed specifically for an audience with only a glancing awareness of Finnish literature. For that audience, the benefit of a collection like this is the glimpse into the context of the overall literature, the references, and the conversations played out in subtext, all of which is missed when reading a single work. This collection is the doorway into new conversations, ones I plan to return to soon.