Hannu Salama Pekka Tarkka - Essay

Pekka Tarkka

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hannu Salama's work and his development as a writer reflect the relationship between literature and society in Finland. Salama was born in 1936 in the industrial city of Tampere, which since the fifties has been Finland's second literary capital—the retreat of the realists, of those opposed to the Helsinki modernists. Earlier Tampere writers like Lauri Viita … and Väinö Linna … represent the "proletarian writer" type in Nordic literature….

Hannu Salama did not join the Tampere group. Having dropped out of school, lonely and fearing hereditary schizophrenia, he shut himself up in the attic of his proletarian home in order to learn to be a writer…. He was able to view his own unusualness objectively in his first novel Se tavallinen tarina (The Usual Story; 1961), which describes how a young girl is driven to mental illness. The work can be interpreted in terms of R. D. Laing's existential psychology, for it describes how depersonalization is encouraged in everyday life, especially in a family with a history of schizophrenia, to the point where the sensitive individual is forced outside the organizational lines of society.

By 1963, after the publication of three works, Salama began to enjoy an established position as one of Finland's promising young modernists. But the following year he published Juhannustanssit (A Midsummer Dance), a "well-made" novel telling the story of ritual midsummer festivities which end in disaster, and a literary storm was unleased. He was taken to court and heavily criticized by the Church. The underlying reason for this furor was undoubtedly Salama's mercilessly realistic picture of the superficiality of life in the upper social classes. The leading figures of the Church and the Conservative Party succeeded in finding a paragraph of the law by which they could accuse him of blasphemy. (p. 28)

After Juhannustanssit he took refuge in a way of life outside all the approved social classes. A bitter disillusionment pervades his description of bohemia in the novel Minä, Olli ja Orvokki (I, Olli and Orvokki; 1967); he sought new contacts with the proletariat in Siinä nakijä missä tekijä…. (pp. 28-9)

"I, Olli and Orvokki" can be regarded as a weapon of revenge. The novel is written in the first person; the narrator is a writer who breaks off his relations with the bourgeoisie and becomes involved in a petty but destructive relationship concerning money and love in the world of Tampere shopkeepers and small-time businessmen. The description of destruction is violent; its spiritual parents are Céline and Henry Miller, but in the background is also the older bohemian tradition of the nineteenth century….

As if as a side product, this bohemian novel gives a picture of a society in which nothing stays still: no social status is permanent; the position of soldiers, technologists and businessmen is shown to be transitory; the heroic struggle of the proletariat to secure basic human rights has largely ceased. Salama paints an aggressively satirical picture of the reality of "capitalist morality." But in the end the main character of the novel understands that his permanent rebellion has isolated him from other people; he finds himself in a state which could be called the shipwreck of individualism. Like Dostoevsky's heroes, he has turned the relationship between normality and abnormality on its head. He sees himself as a modern barbarian who wants to preserve a real awareness of life, passionately to oppose anything which closes people's eyes to all but their own well-being. This kind of attempt to be a superman is not easy. The Finnish philosopher G. H. von Wright has found it in Dostoevsky and calls it "the tragedy of freedom." The attempt at unconditional freedom turns into its opposite: slavery to impotent desires, the state of possession.

But there is one thing which Hannu Salama's writer must hold sacred: he can deride everything but his own novel, which he has been planning for a long time, an "epic about an ideal communist people."… The "I" of the book always declares himself to be on the side of the workers and against their enemies, the bourgeoisie and the power of the state. But he has no desire to become an unconditional admirer of the left wing—his own experiences lead him to distrust such blind idealism. (p. 29)

In Salama's novel the different generations of the family he describes throw communism's stages of growth into sharp relief. The Salminen family, central in the novel, represent the country people who have recently moved to the city and whose grandparents' generation were still living in the forests under primitive conditions ruled by belief in magic and even witchcraft. Their descendants have become embittered in their new city lives, and from their ranks Salama develops two extremely vivid characters: the parents of the writer Harri Salminen, the novel's main speaker. The father is a comic, picaresque hero, boastful, self-important and at bottom a helpless rogue; the mother, on the other hand, is bloodthirstily bitter about her social conditions, changeable in her support of different causes, a vital female, a kind of cross between Moll Flanders and Mother Courage. A Stalinist critic later dismissed these characters as "quarrelsome and sneering."

In the workers' suburb of Pispala, as Salama describes it, there are also representatives of industrial communism, warriors of the class struggle with a strong grounding in the theory of revolutions. There are unresolved problems between them and the backwoods people, but the front against the surrounding world is all the same united; for this workers' community, set on a ridge between two magnificent lakes, has through the pressures exerted by "official" society, become a compact citadel fortress whose members' solidarity is genuine. They know who are "them" and who are "us"; they are exiles in their own country. Their heroes are their comrades who have emigrated to the Soviet Union or to the United States, and from them they expect help.

The basis of...

(The entire section is 2516 words.)