Monday, 16 June 2008

On Karelianism, feminism and stale egg-butter

I have recently joined a book club, and one of our passionate themes is Finnish women's writing focusing on Karelia. Last time we discussed with fervour three novels by Kaari Utrio: Vaskilintu (The Bronze Bird, 1993), Viipurin kaunotar (The Beauty of Viborg, 1972) and Piritta Karjalan tytär (Piritta the Daughter of Karelia, 1971). Not all of us had read them, but who cares, the coverage was lively and we managed to find the raunchy scenes anyway. All men seemed to have rough hands and a burning need to rip down the ladies' elaborate dresses. All sense was lost when desire was burning in the loins. We would have appreciated scenes with more ambivalence and even minor attempts to break down the heterosexual matrix, but this didn't seem to happen. Kaari calls herself a feminist and she is also an ambitious scholar of all things medieval, so we were disappointed by the psychological flatness with which she portrays men and women. So now she is a closed chapter in our club's genealogy. Time to move on towards new challenges.

But there's another author whose works keep haunting me, Eeva Kilpi. She recently gave a deep and thought-provoking interview to Mark Levengood on TV. Even this is telling of her case: her texts have inspired Mark, a gay Swedish-speaking man struggling with his identity in the 1980s monocultural Finland. Eeva's texts are not as obvious as Kaari's, she has always written boldly about sexual taboos, and in her sex scenes nothing is perfect or predictable. I have particularly enjoyed her poetry, but before this month I have never had the nerve to approach her prose.

Now I am one and a half novel wiser. I began with her latest novel of old age, Unta vain (Just a Dream, 2007). It is a narrative of polyamory, thematically not remote from Jennifer Fox's documentary series I reviewed some months back. The 78-year-old protagonist escapes from Canada and a marriage to a Canadian man to her country cottage in Finland to solve her identity problems. Kilpi uses plainer language and less Karelian dialect in this one than in the earlier texts. Philosophically, the text's simplicity even resembles Marguerite Duras' spartan sentences. The theme of a woman alone in her faraway hiding place, keeping house and managing her life through shopping lists, is also quite Duras-esque. Both women have produced brilliant studies of solitude and the conditions of leading a creative life.

The other novel by Kilpi, Elämän evakkona (Evacuated from Life, 1983), is perhaps her most known and prized work. Here her main contradiction as a writer becomes apparent: on one hand she is an avantgarde feminist writer of her generation, writing openly about sexuality, lifestyle choices, alternatives to common Finnishness, and on the other hand, she is unashamedly pro-Karelian, nationalist and nostalgically mythological about the past. She dares say: Bring us back Karelia, and confesses her hard feelings towards the Russians. For sure, it is her war-time generation's right to speak up about the past, and it is this split between the postmodern and the pre-modern that interests me. She almost ignores modernity - the instant cultural jump from simple farming life to vegan hippie multiculturalist pacifism is what interests me most in this text.

I was reading Elämän evakkona aloud to my family in a car at the weekend. Poor sods. There were all the clichés about Karelian food fads, the stale egg-butter, homemade jams, rice pastries that were left in the oven for Russians to eat, potato kettles that were still boiling, the ravaged kitchen gardens. And also, the eternal myth of the packed bags - how anyone with a Karelian background cannot travel without a few too many, in case the trip extends and a return home is no longer possible. One always has to carry the egg-butter too. I partly belong to this party, and I am not aware of roots behind the border. Only North Karelian roots, which is not interesting - these people never left anywhere, they don't share the same sense of drama as the evakko people have shared.

I wonder if one can claim Karelian roots as a sympathy vote, and if there is a Karelian feminist single mother's club one could attend, after I've done my compulsory readings.

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