Pentti Saarikoski, The Edge of Europe
reviewed by Michael Peverett
Someone has written on the back of it, "Pentti Saarikoski's The Edge of Europe is one of those novels often imagined but rarely realized: a novel that is as moving as it is funny etc." During the months of absorbedly living with this book I've read this back cover quite a few times, the way you do when you live with a book, and I've idly speculated about what ideological point is being made by the word "novel" since The Edge of Europe isn't fiction and most people would just call it a travel book or personal reflections or something of that sort; and (secondly) what is the genealogy of this ideological point, and does it have anything to do with B. S. Johnson, who used to call his autobiographical books novels? and (thirdly) who decided to call the book a novel, was it editor Göransson or editor McSweeney or translator Hollo or was it perhaps even Saarikoski? But none of this really matters; what I do like is the next part of the sentence, "often imagined but rarely realized" - for many are the books like this, undertaken by poets in particular, perhaps they start off as notes towards unwritten poems, and often these days they take the form of blogs, and anyway the idea is to write a sort of daybook of rambling thoughts that will somehow cohere into something wonderful, but it must take a special kind of talent to make it do that, and it seems to be a talent not often granted to poets, but Saarikoski has it from the off. The fluency of his prose, honed by all the newpaper columnism and by the incredible labour of his seventy book-length translations into Finnish (which included such not insignificant items as Ulysses, the Odyssey, St Matthew's Gospel, Tender is the Night, Calvino, Bellow, etc) - well, here it is (Hollo has to take responsibility for the wobbly "that" after the sixth comma):
First there were hopes and expectations, then came orders and restrictions, after those, requests and demands, they were attached to one's earlobes and buttocks, and characteristics were distributed at the same time, so that was when one learned to lie, to obey and to lie, to eat what was served, to go to church, to the theater, to the cafe, to smoke tobacco and to drink liquor, one learned all kinds of things, the names of birds and flowers and emperors, but then, one day, the birds stopped singing, the flowers stopped flowering, and the emperors stopped ruling, evolution had rolled back tens of millions of years, and you were a shrew. You did not know that you would become a human being who would be fruitful and multiply and build navies and great cities. After thinking that as well as something else I went to buy some fish. I waited in the cafe because the boats hadn't returned yet, but then they arrived, and I hurried down to the pier. I saw a garfish in one of the boxes, the fisherman was old, I helped him push the wheelbarrow up a concrete ramp to a small shack where villagers stood around waiting, and I got the only garfish caught that day. Then I sat in the cafe with the fishermen, in a mood of rare happiness, looked out the window and saw two seagulls sitting on a rock surrounded by water, and thought well, here it all is, Spengler's Abendland and Odysseus' final homestead, tall stones raised up, the pillars of the world. Now I was walking down a street in Tregunc. In the wetland, a frog sat under a bush and looked, or pretended to be looking, it was not engaged in any particular perceptions or so-called plans for the future, it was just looking around.
Among so much else to wonder at, just notice the sentence near the end, "Now I was walking down a street in Tregunc." This sentence looks like it's specifying the occasion when something else happened, but it turns out that there is no something else, both the preceding and the following sentences take place elsewhere. What's really happening here is an evocation of the spaces that compose a town, both inside and outside, their repetitive shapes, the simultaneity of communal existence, and the way that thoughts don't have an occasion confined to a specific locale but linger on as you pass from one urban spot to another, because in a town they're all so close together. It isn't quite a realistic evocation, this little port whose verticals all spring into life from a single image, pushing a barrow up a concrete ramp. It is cross-infected by the imaginary vastnesses of great empires, navies, cities, civilizations. Yet Tregunc, one reflects, is quite a small town! But then this leads on to a secondary theme, the emphasis on small creatures: a shrew, a garfish, a frog. The image of the author is partly connected with these small things. It is he, as well as the frog, who is only pretending to look. The Edge of Europe is in part a philosophical examination of civilization, in part a philosophical argument for the author's drifting, drink-fuelled, unconstructive way of life. The unconstructiveness is, as the book proves, highly constructive. "I sat on the bench, thinking about something, or not really thinking, just trying to think of something to think about." The relationship of Saarikoski to Heraclitus is elusive: the best way I can say it is that he constantly recalls Heraclitus.
Pinecones make great kindling. Fire is a miraculous thing, somehow it seems to exist by itself, as it licks those pinecones, even though one knows it's only the pinecones that are burning, becoming fire. The world becomes books.
Or the whole passage beginning: "In his poem 'Beginning My Studies' Whitman says that one should never pursue studies past their beginning..."
Saarikoski pointedly and repeatedly denies being a scholar. Often he lets us see him thinking as idly and ignorantly as a Leopold Bloom. In Brittany, while he's studying Le Breton sans peine, he finds himself wondering "why words are gendered, where did that come from, or the two articles en and ett in Swedish, surely they haven't been around all that long since many words are en in Swedish but ett in Norwegian, en människa but eet menneske, this seems completely random, but I'm sure the scholars have some explanation..."
Yet I've felt the temptation to assert here that Saarikoski was one of the most learned poets of his century. He was, as the same passage continues, "a victim of linguistic satyriasis, every time I encounter a new language I want to penetrate it", he published translations from at least six languages (English, Classical Greek, Swedish, Norwegian, German and Italian). There was also the political poems of Ho Chi Minh, but I doubt if he worked from the Vietnamese. So I felt this temptation, but Saarikoski's writing deflates learnedness as a value. Who is to say that certain information should be blessed with the name of learning while other information has no such status? And what really impresses me most in the list of Saarikoski's translations is not the books with classical status but the more ephemeral bulk of the others, a sort of core-sample of what was on the shelves of reasonably literate people in the 60s and 70s: J. D. Salinger (Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey), J.P. Donleavy (The Ginger Man), Roald Dahl (Someone like you), Oscar Lewis, Eric Ambler, Hubert Selby Jr, Philip Roth, Christy Moore (My Left Foot), David Lytton (The Goddamn White Man), Edna O'Brien (August is a Wicked Month), Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, John Lennon, Dalton Trumbo, James Thurber, Jerzy Kosinski (Steps), Malcolm Bradbury (The History Man), Arnold Wesker and John Osborne. That's just some of the translations from English - the Swedish ones included poets such as Göran Sonnevi, Gunnar Ekelöf, Werner Aspenström as well as Finland-Swedish prose texts by Christer Kihlman, Anders Cleve, Antti Jalava. The point I'm struggling to make is that Saarikoski's vast unspecialized knowledge was not "learning", it was a heap, the by-product of someone capaciously absorbed in his own times. The Edge of Europe is not, in a scholarly way, an exposition of the owner's heap, but a piece of engineering that declines to explain how it was made or what it's for, in the Heraclitean manner.
"Well," said Bothwell, "in that case these yellow rascals must serve to ballast my purse a little longer. I always make it a rule never to quit the tavern (unless ordered on duty) while my purse is so weighty that I can chuck it over the signpost. When it is so light that the wind blows it back, then, boot and saddle,―we must fall on some way of replenishing.―But what tower is that before us, rising so high upon the steep bank, out of the woods that surround it on every side?" (Old Mortality, Chapter IX)
Thus Serjeant Bothwell interrupts his natter with a coarsely-handled narrative signal ; his war-party, of course, can see what he's pointing at just as clearly as he; he would really have said: What's that place over there? But Scott festoons the question in definitive description for the reader's benefit.
Saarikoski might, less objectionably, have gifted us many such definitive descriptions; it is supposed to be quite in order in a travel book to "set the scene", to explain something about Valsäng in Sweden, Stavanger in Norway, or Kerlin in Brittany (the main locales of The Edge of Europe). Instead, outside the section headings he is reluctant even to name them; explanations (like paragraph divisions) are withheld; we hear the prose taking its own course spontaneously, the sound of someone thinking in situ, and are left to infer what we can about the text's surroundings from what it betrays. The text declines to shape, instead it is offered as shaped, that is, as evidence; just the way someone would say it in real life.
Getting off the plane in Oslo, I dropped my shoulder bag on the tarmac, my liquor bottle broke, then I slept all the way to Stavanger, the breaking of the bottle pissed me off, but for some other reason I was happy, I felt as if this trip made some sense, that I wasn't just travelling but really going somewhere.
This is, naturally, part of what distinguishes it from scholarship, and it's in this context that I interpret Saarikoski's remark about Linnaeus:
On the path by the shoreI met the snake again, but when I looked closer, there were two of them, lying across each other, had they fucked, were they now resting, exhausted, in the heat of the sun? Nature is my psychopharmakon, but I know very little about it, now I don't know if snakes fuck or how they procreate, but neither do librium users know how librium is manufactured. The names of plants and animals and stars are not their true names, they have been given to them by people. It seems to me that Linnaeus must have hated nature, how else would he have been able to organize it to his liking, labelling and archiving it.
This was partly a wind-up, Linnaeus being greatly reverenced in Scandinavia, for them Darwin is only a footnote, and this is quite true, once you have genera then the fact of interspecific relationship stares you in the face, it is just a matter of digging up a mechanism. Patently, I am annoyed by Saarikoski's remark, much he knows about it, he who cannot even tell one snake from two! And perhaps I am taking a commonplace remark of the time rather too seriously. But why would the satyriast of language have this aversion to so monumental an enhancement of the capacities of human language? And yet I have to admit Saarikoski is right. For Linnaeus to accomplish what he did, required if not a hatred certainly a willingness to junk a certain awareness of nature, the experience of fellowship; to render certain routes forever inaccessible in order to lay open an enormous highway. Linnaeus, demythologizing and in a sense deanthropomorphizing Mickel the fox and his companions, in another sense anthropomorphized them, not as individuals but as sociological units in a population, an anthropomorphic metaphor so ingrained in our thinking now that we hardly recognize it as metaphorical. Perhaps it is relevant to note that Linnaeus' names had started as definitive descriptions. When these became too unwieldy, the abbreviated (binomial) name came into use for ease of reference; these names, whose impact was so explosive, were a by-product, almost an accident.
Saarikoski's method of skipping definitive description means readers can be as attentive as they choose to be. Rarely knowing, as he cheerfully admits, what day of the week it is, the calendar of this travel-diary is nevertheless there to be inferred, though it gives no certain date until the last page: you can plot it from the Falklands conflict or such stray playful references as "only a week to St Benedict's Day". But it's up to you. Where or how the book catches the light depends also on shared knowledge. I did not know anything, for example, about what a garfish is or what it looks like, though I do now.
(Garfish, taken from http://thighlinescork.com)
Of garfish, I also learnt that "they are very tasty to eat, but the green bones makes them an unpopular option on the menu."
The point about the inferred calendar is that it sharpens the brilliantly under-described evocation here:
Like hundreds of millions of others I have passed through the Lenin mausoleum, his face is handsome and young, not at all the face you see in the last photographs, and yet it is he, it is Vladimir Illich, a holy relic, and worship makes relics real, makes them part of reality. They are not forgeries. Musing on that I set out for a walk, a different way this time, so I saw a lot I hadn't seen before. It was so warm that I scanned the edges of ditches for coltsfoot, water was burbling out of a pipe into the ditch, rippling down its sandy bottom, splashing onto the gravel, then quietly dispersing in the wetland. I walked through the woods and looked at the trees. To my mind, the spruce is the most beautiful tree. It is the only tree that seems to know what it is.
This is Sweden in late March, too early for coltsfoot whose flowers there are the first for many months and eagerly looked out for. What Saarikoski refers to (scarcely describes) about the Norway Spruce is also something quite instantly obvious, not recondite or paradoxical at all, but only if you know the tree in that part of the world; a search of the Internet suggests that, like some other very common experiences of nature, it's difficult to photograph (the best I could come up with is below); knowing the tree as it grows in Britain, always dully and often miserably, is extremely unhelpful. Thus The Edge of Europe tends to work in regions of the mind that lie outside the community of scholarship. It reminds us that such regions exist.
(Norway spruce, taken from Den virtuella floran, photo by Anna-Lena Anderberg.)
This was one of Saarikoski's last books. In 1983, a year after its publication, his much-abused liver finally gave out during a visit to Finland. He was 45, had been married four times and had several long spells in hospital. In addition to the 70 translations there were 22 poetry collections, 6 volumes of essays, etc. Let's be honest, there are plateaux of writing that a part-time author, even an academic, can never get close to. It helps to be driven by enormous debts. Väinö Kirstinä (Note 1) wrote, "if you read Saarikoski for ten minutes / your breath starts to smell of liquor". It's true that The Edge of Europe is a drinker's diary, very preoccupied with getting hold of alcohol, the joy of being bought it and the despair of losing it; and seeing the world with a drinker's eyes, Saarikoski has a very sharp eye for noticing other drunks. It's also true that the elimination of a definitive-descriptive-presentational layer tends to create an uncertainty about who thought what, was that my idea or Saarikoski's...
Anselm Hollo has now produced at least four book-length translations from Saarikoski. From what I have seen of Saarikoski's poetry (in Herbert Lomas' 1991 anthology for Bloodaxe, Contemporary Finnish Poetry), it's less finished than the prose, it resists finish and says, look, I stopped it right here, in a strange place. This is one of the poems that made him into a celebrity ("the blond Beatle of the north"), from What's going on, really? (1962):
This began two years before the wars
in a village that now belongs to the Soviet Union
my sole recollection of the war is the fires they were great
they don't come like that nowadays
I run to the window at the wail of the fire engine
I was on the move all my childhood
I turned communist
I went into the cemetery and studied the angels
they don't come like that nowadays -
sella in curuli struma Nonius sedet
I burned books in Alexandria
I played the part of a stone and a flower and built a church
I wrote poems to myself myself the chair went up and down
high-backed ones like that don't come nowadays
high poetry there is I'm expecting a cheque
Which is the mistake, the wrong way, or the right, not the Way
I live the future times
I read tomorrow's newspapers
I support Khrushchev carry the owl from room to room
I'm looking for the right place for it, This began
"This" was Saarikoski's birth in Impilahti in Ladoga Karelia, now part of the Republic of Karelia, which is part of the Russian Federation, but in 1937 still part of Finland (note 2). (The quotation is from Catullus LII; Catullus feels like dying when he contemplates current politicians such as "the tumour Nonius".) The wars fought around Karelia were brutal; a quarter of a million Russians died in the Winter War campaign. Where Saarikoski stood on the "Karelian question" I don't know, but he certainly went on carrying the owl until his death. Even after arriving (as we eventually make out) in Brittany he says:
I walked down a bumpy cow track to the shore. The sun had set, soon it would be dark. I picked flowers whose names I didn't know. I watched out for cowpies. Then I reached the shore. It felt as if I had learned to walk and talk by this shore. Then the sea's name was Ladoga, or the Yoldian Sea, but when I learned to walk and talk, seas had not been named yet. I became a refugee. Through Närke Sound I arrived here, the Danish Straits did not yet exist. I have always lived by the Yoldian Sea.
Saarikoski's mother was Karelian (note 3) and his grave is at the new monastery of Valamo in Heinävesi, centre of the Karelian Orthodox faith (note 4). In The Edge of Europe this background mostly manifests itself as a feeling of being permanently an exile, and in his acute interest in Russian affairs and in Communism. Saarikoski had been a serious Communist for a while, but by now he was through with all political leaders. The amusement (e.g. in his fantasy of Reagan and Brezhnev slugging it out in the ring, or his comments on media coverage of the unfolding Falklands War, Mrs Thatcher "wearing some sort of diarrhetic cowpie on her head") conceals a desperate sadness which itself probably conceals a more desperate anger.
Wasn't there a time when we had wishes and dreams? Did we not believe we would make the world easier to inhabit for human beings? Here we are now, your name is Jean-Pierre, my name is Pentti, you have very thick eyeglasses, you say you were in the Resistance but don't care for politics anymore, it's all the same to you who sits in the palace in Paris, and I agree, my stomach or the world's gut, there are no doctors able to cure them, we're just sitting here talking. Not that we have anything to say to each other, who has anything to say to another, the world has come to an end, and this is heaven, or hell, whichever way you want to look at it, as we're sitting here like this in the back room of the alimentation, picking small bits of snot out of our nostrils and talking, passing the time. But there are times when even an old pine tree's roots twitch. It's a passing feeling, as if something were about to happen, it's just a memory, Jean-Pierre, that's all it is.
If I had found out about it earlier, I could usefully have bought Hollo's translation of Saarikoski's final trilogy of poetry collections (La Alameda Press, 2003), but that'll have to wait for another day. The late poems were being written at the same time as The Edge of Europe and sometimes the texts cross-illuminate each other, though no illumination is really needed.
No, Quetzalcoatl, don't come back
we adore other gods here now
your feathers are on special offer
in the supermarkets
your lakes are ice
the island-to-island bridges
are exhaust pipes of human distress
from the apartment windows
dud eyes look out
on People's Square
gone red with innocent blood
no don't come back, Quetzalcoatl
stay with the faith of your ancestors
As the ending underlines, this is Quetzalcoatl not only as creator-god but as Aztec ruler (they tended to take his name) and also as Cortez (claimed by European sources to have been mistaken for the god). People's Square refers I suppose to the 1949 purging of Shanghai. In The Edge of Europe, Saarikoski tells us, "There is a charming Aztec glyph for speech: small birds flying out of a person's mouth. In 1521, Cortez put an end to the Aztec empire, but he was not able to kill those little birds, there are no weapons one can use against them". In a later passage, Saarikoski is musing less politically, you would suppose: "Aztecs knew the wheel but didn't use it for vehicles, only for children's toys, toy horses with wheels instead of hooves. Quetzalcoatl, I wish you were sitting right there on the other side of the table, we'd eat a little, some bread and onions, and you could tell me things." Putting the three texts together just confirms that, whatever else this poem is about, it's certainly part of Saarikoski's continuing dialogue with Lenin, with whom Saarikoski shared a taste for mushrooming. How fellow-human beings with their warm kitchen tables and their conversation and brilliant insights could dole out human misery by the ten thousand, that was something he could never quite put to bed, only endlessly drink it and write it.
1. Väinö Kirstinä, Saarikoski's contemporary and similarly engagé. Here's one his poems, translated (like the Saarikoski poems) by Herbert Lomas:
I is a lyrical I
I has an electric typewriter
I is professionally I
I's task is to be I
I gets grants if it's I
but if it's not I it doesn't
2. Large parts of what is known as Karelia, including the areas where most of the Kalevala oral poems were collected, have never formed part of an independent (or any other) Finland, though they were sometimes wistfully claimed by Nationalist believers in a "Greater Finland". But Saarikoski's birthplace in Western Karelia was confirmed as part of Finland by the Treaty of Tartu, 1920, which largely kept to the traditional border between the Grand Duchy of Finland and Imperial Russia. It was invaded by the Soviet Union in the Winter War, 1939; ceded by Finland in the Moscow Peace Treaty, 1940; recaptured by combined Finnish and German forces in the Continuation War, 1941; recaptured by Russian forces, 1944, and finally ceded to the Soviet Union in the Paris Peace Treaty, 1947.
3. That is, she spoke Karelian, a Finno-Ugric language, sometimes considered a dialect of Finnish, still spoken by around 70,000 people in Finland and the Russian Federation.
4. The historic Valamo monastery is on an island in Lake Ladoga not far from Saarikoski's birthplace. The new monastery came into being when the monks, like Saarikoski's family, fled westwards to modern Finland during the Winter War.
Pentti Saarikoski, The Edge of Europe: A Kinetic Image, translated by Anselm Hollo, is published by Action Books (ISBN 978-0-9765692-6-8).