Authors: Marani, Diego
“The story of a mysteriously wounded man sent to Helsinki amid the chaos of the second world war to try to rebuild his memory and identity, it’s a strange, tender portrait of Finnish legends and language-learning, loneliness and human connection.”
Justine Jordan Fiction Highlights of 2011 inThe Guardian
“The title is odd, the cover is grey and the author is a besuited Eurocrat. But beneath these unflamboyant exteriors lie a colourful story. It has taken 10 years, the dedication of a small UK publisher and a perfect-pitch translation to deliver Diego Marani’s first novel in English. When it came out in Italian, reviewers called it a masterpiece and it won several prizes. Since then Marani has written five more novels and become a Euro-celebrity.”
Rosie Goldsmith inThe Independent
“…a subtle exploration of how language shapes our sense of ourselves…”
Adrian Turpin inThe Financial Times
“…we soon forget we are reading an English translation of an Italian novel. Sheer narrative vim is one reason for this… What givesNew Finnish Grammarits true interest, however, is its evocation of a place and language foreign to the author yet, to all appearances, intimately familiar.”
Oliver Ready inThe Times Literary Supplement
“One somehow knows that this couldn’t have been written by an English writer. It has a thoroughly European sensibility: intellectual, melancholy, mysterious, imbued with a sense of tragedy and history.”
Brandon Robshaw inThe Independent on Sunday
“Diego Marani ist the parfait persona to tell this story. In his novel, a man wakes up with no memory and is forced to relearn language. And the poor bloke happens to end up in Finland. Finnish grammar is notoriously intricate, counting 15 cases for nouns – including one for nouns which are absent. It’s an abessive case of amnesia.”
Fleur Macdonald inThe Spectator
“…a thoughtful, idiosyncratic book and, in its utter disdain for the conventions of literary realism, entirely to be applauded.”
Joanna Kavenna inThe Literary Review
“There is an unyieldingness at the heart of Diego Marani’s novel. He presents a world where heroism is expended in a futile task, friendship is sacrificed to despair, and help is rendered in such a way as to further the disaster. Yet this book is full of riches: a landscape so solidly created one can hear the ice crack, a moving examination of what makes a human being, and a restless brooding over the ideas of memory, belonging and identity (all three main characters are in some way lost). It is written in mirror-smooth prose and superbly translated. The story, finally, can’t fail.”
Anita Mason inThe Warwick Review
“As well as raising questions concerning psyche, identity and nationality, Sampo’s confused agony is quite simply one of the most incisive reflections of the trauma that befell Europe during that period that one might ever read.”
Oliver Basciano inArtReview
“…the book is beautifully written, poetic and mysterious. It has much philosophical wisdom that will be long remembered after one has read the book.”
Rose Lapira inMalta Today
“I know that it is a book that I will be thrusting into peoples hands for years to come urging them to buy it, read it and spread the word. It is the least that I can do for the pleasure that it has given me.”
Broad Conversationfrom Blackwell’s Bookshop in OxfordThe Author
Diego Marani was born in Ferrara in 1959. He works as a senior linguist for the European Union in Brussels.
Every week he writes a column for a Swiss newspaper about current affairs in Europanto, a language that he has invented.
His collection of short stories in Europanto,Las Adventures des Inspector Cabillot, will be published by Dedalus in May 2012 at the same time as his second novel,The Last of the Vostyachs.
His most recent novelIl Cane di Diowill be published in Italy in 2012 and by Dedalus in 2013.The Translator
Judith Landry was educated at Somerville College, Oxford where she obtained a first class honours degree in French and Italian. She combines a career as a translator of works of fiction, art and architecture with part-time teaching.
Her translations for Dedalus are:New Finnish Grammarby Diego Marani,The House by the Medlar Treeby Giovanni Verga,The Devil in Loveby Jacques Cazotte,Prague Noir: The Weeping Woman on the Streets of Pragueby Sylvie Germain andSmarra & Trilbyby Charles Nodier.
To Simona, Alessandro and Elisabetta
Ei Suomi ole mikään kieli, se on tapa istua penkin päässä karvat korvilla.
My name is Petri Friari, I live at no. 16 Kaiser-Wilhelmstrasse, Hamburg and I work as a neurologist at the city’s university hospital.
I found this manuscript on 24 January 1946 in a trunk in the military hospital in Helsinki, together with a sailor’s jacket, a handkerchief with the letters S.K. embroidered on it, three letters, a volume of theKalevalaand an empty bottle ofkoskenkorva.It is written in a spare, indeed broken and often ungrammatical Finnish, in a school notebook where pages of prose alternate with lists of verbs, exercises in Finnish grammar and bits cut out from the Helsinki telephone directory. Some pages are illegible, others contain just sequences of words without any apparent logic, drawings, foreign names, and headlines taken from theHelsingin Sanomat.Often the narrative proceeds by way of scraps cut out from newspapers, repeated each time a similar situation occurs, and fleshed out by others, in a wide variety of linguistic registers. My knowledge of the facts which lay behind this document has enabled me to reconstruct the story that it tells, to rewrite it in more orthodox language and to fill in some of the gaps. I myself have often had to intervene, adding linking passages of my own to tie up unrelated episodes. Adjectives left in the margins, nouns doggedly declined in the more complex cases of the Finnish language, all traced the outlines of a story which was well-known to me. In this way I have been able to coax these pages to yield up something that they were struggling in vain to tell. Using the scalpel of memory, I carved out words which ached like wounds I had believed to be long healed. Since I bore witness to many of the events and conversations recorded here, I have been able to piece them accurately together. In this I was greatly helped by Miss Ilma Koivisto, a nurse in the military medical corps who, like myself, was personally acquainted with the author of these pages.
The reader should not take this document as a reliable account of historical events, nor expect it to obey the laws of scientific observation. All it does is to tell one incredible human story. Twenty-eight years after having fled Helsinki, I had gone back, my sole reason being to track down the man who, as a result of a cruel misunderstanding on my part, had been unintentionally driven towards a fate which was not his own. But all that remains of him is this exercise book. Plagued with remorse, I set myself to unpicking the jumbled skein of this manuscript, feeling that the least I could do was to honour its writer by ensuring that he was remembered, and also perhaps to reconstruct my own story, my own identity, through other eyes. But it was many years before I could bring myself to offer these pages to the public (together with the annotations I added at the time), before they vanished, and me with them, once and for all. If there is no denying that it was my error which led the author of this manuscript to his tragic end, may I not at least plead the exceptional nature of the times as some excuse? The extreme uncertainty of those wartime days, when I was surrounded by death and suffering, caused muddled emotion to prevail over lucid reason, despite the fact that reason has so often served me well. At times, fate makes us the instrument of its designs, dragoons us into becoming unwitting accomplices in its savagery. Like this man, I too am an exile. But while he felt affection and gratitude for Finland, I have unfinished business with this country. Throughout all these years, I have tried to suppress my hatred for whoever it was who killed my father. Resisting the siren call of revenge, I have always sought to cherish the memory of the country which, after all, is still my own; I have kept up and cultivated my language, making each word a prayer with which I hoped to seek forgiveness for my father and, for myself, the promise of return.
And all to no avail. Time has sent shards of rancour through the clefts of my being, and it is these foreign bodies which shape my feelings: they take on monstrous form the moment they are born. Everything within me bears their mark, and redemption is no longer possible. My country continues to reject me, to fend me off, accusing me of yet another crime: that of having set the author of these pages on a mistaken course, thus wreaking his destruction.
Upstanding men, men of integrity, may serve as witnesses that what I did I did in all good faith. If Doctor Friedrich Reiner had found the handkerchief with the initials S.K. even a day earlier, the fate of Massimiliano Brodar would have been different, as would my own. One fine June day, when the smell of the sea is borne along the city streets, making every white building a sailing ship, I might have gone back to Helsinki, ready to forgive in order to be forgiven. But perhaps a hostile God had already settled everything, and Massimiliano Brodar is merely an instrument of my damnation.Contents
Praise for New Finnish Grammar
Return to Helsinki
New Finnish Grammar
The Tree of Happy Memories
The End Foretold
CopyrightReturn to Helsinki
Doctor Friari’s eyes were the first living thing I saw emerging out of nothingness. Preceded by a rustle of starched cotton, he appeared before me, haloed in blue, and stayed there for a time, watching me carefully. But the shifting blur of my disturbed vision prevented me from making out the outlines of his face. It was as though everything were bathed in a dense liquid, which slowed down movement and deadened sound. What followed were days when nothing seemed to move, whose surface was barely rippled by muffled voices, shadows behind glass, long silences somehow tinged with yellow. I tried to keep my eyes open for as long as possible, to blink away the misty blur so as to see the doctor looking at me. But even the briefest effort was promptly rewarded by a sharp stab which caused me to close my eyes again. I could feel the pain welling up from behind my temples, buzzing and swelling like a swarm of bees before settling behind my eyes. Sometimes a sudden wave of warmth would sweep over me; then I would sweat and feel my head throbbing beneath the bandages. The nurses must have noticed, because suddenly a glass bubble with a drip would appear beside me, and something cold would be applied to my arm. Then gradually the stabbing pains became less frequent, and things around me began to take on greater solidity. The blue halo became a porthole, the long silences were now less tinged with yellow, and the darkness was lit up by a night-light, screwed into a niche in the wall of the corridor.
So, I was on a ship. I could feel its slight pitching, though I could detect no sense of movement. I was aware that all was not well with me, but I saw and felt in a detached way, as though only a part of me were alive and sentient, and floating in something that was alien to me. As I recalled much later, in those days of gradual reawakening my brain was indifferent to my bodily state, as though it no longer had either the will or strength to bother with it. Now, before the doctor’s visits, two nurses would come to seat me in an armchair by the porthole. I had noted that they were Red Cross Nurses, and even in my confusion I remembered that there was a war on. I also thought that I might be a survivor of some wartime operation. But I could not remember who I was, nor did I have the curiosity to do so. My thoughts seemed to well up out of nothingness and then sink down again into the porous soil of my unfocused consciousness. Later on, I thought back to that sensation almost with regret. For just a few, marvellous days I was untouched by memory, free from recall, released from pain. I was just a bundle of cells, a primitive organism like those which peopled the earth millions of years ago. From my chair I could see the other side of the cabin, my camp bed, the bedside table. And above all, even if it was an effort to turn my head, I could see the sea beyond the porthole. Making it to the chair must have been a great step forward, because now Doctor Friari would smile when he came to visit me. He would shine a light into my eyes and examine them, easing them open with his fingers. He would bring down the little folding table fixed to the wall, lay out coloured cardboard shapes on it and ask me to say what they reminded me of. He always seemed very pleased with my reactions, and would jot things down in a notebook.
At first, our meetings took place in silence, taking the form of a dance of movements, courteous gestures and affable nods. After a few days, Doctor Friari began to talk to me, but using words that were different from those he addressed to the nurses – ones with rounder, more full-bodied, lingering sounds. I was as yet unaware of the tragedy that had befallen me, I did not know that the trauma of which I was the victim had debarred me from the world of language. My mind was a ship whose moorings had been shattered by a storm. I could see the landing stage bobbing not far off, and I thought that as I regained my strength I would be able to reach it. What I did not know was that the wind of desperation would carry me ever further out to sea. I could not understand the words that Doctor Friari spoke, nor did I feel any instinct or desire to answer him. But this did not worry me. Without really thinking, I put all this down to the wound I had sustained, to the immense tiredness from which I was gradually recovering. Furthermore, though only in the vaguest possible way, the hazy notion of a foreign language was surfacing in my mind, and this, as far as I could see, would explain why I failed to understand the doctor’s words.
As I learned later, right from those early days, the doctor was speaking to me in Finnish, his own language, which he believed also to be my own. He hoped that the soft, welcoming words of my mother tongue would soothe my pain and lessen my bewilderment, making me feel that I was among friends. I did not try to talk because I simply did not feel the need. All linguistic feeling, all interest in words, had died away. I could not speak any language, I no longer knew which was my own. But I was unaware of this: a subtle veil, like a form of hypnosis, was shielding me from the violent colours of reality.
One morning Doctor Friari opened up a map of Europe on the table and gestured to me to do something I could not understand. I thought that this was some new exercise and set myself to observing the green and brown patches, the jagged indentations of the blue sea, the deep furrows of the rivers. I knew that this was a map, the shapes of the countries meant something to me, I had already seen them on countless occasions. I had a clear idea of the things that I was seeing, but my understanding seemed trapped just below the outer skin of reality. I recognized those outlines just as I did every other object around me, but I could not put a name to them. My mind jibbed at any effort in that direction; as I noted later, it was as though it no longer had the tools to do so. My body, my hands had begun to move again. The movement of my joints gave me the sensation of having a body. I would lay hands on everything I saw: by touching things I would regain some knowledge of them. But my mind no longer knew how to link words and things; detached from me yet alive within me, it moved around without my being able to catch up with it, like a fish in a tank apparently expanded by the water and the glass, so that the edges too seem far away even when they are near. So I no longer knew what I was supposed to do with that map.
By way of encouragement, the doctor pointed a finger at a stumpy green strip fretworked with blue. I looked first at his eyes and then at the map, frowning in a state of growing confusion. Then at last I understood. Of course, the doctor wanted me to show him where I came from. Reassured, I gave a polite smile and lifted my finger, casting my eyes over the map. It was then that I felt my blood run cold. It was like leaning over the brim of an abyss. I recognized the shapes carved out on the map by the red scars of the frontiers, but I no longer knew what they were. The capital letters straddling valleys and mountains meant nothing to me. France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania wandered around my mind as outlined shapes, but I could no longer put a name to them. Mentally, I could reach the threshold of those concepts, but then could find no handle to gain access to them. It was chilling to discover that half of my mind was clearly not under my control. It was as though the blood which should have bathed my brain had been left blocked in some distant and obstructed artery. When I tried to grasp them, ideas that seemed perfectly straightforward simply melted away before my powerless gaze. Even the letters, which I thought I knew one by one, which I had the feeling I could write without difficulty, had now become signs without sounds, mute hieroglyphics from some vanished civilization.
Then, urgent as a desire to vomit, I felt the sudden need to speak. Once again I had that feeling of obstruction. My head was spinning and I felt a shower of stabbing pains swarming behind my eyes like sparks. I opened my mouth, hoping to produce some sound, but all that came out was a gasp of air. I realized that my tongue, my mouth, my teeth were incapable of coherent speech. The air passed from my throat to my palate only to dissolve into a forlorn sigh. The horror of that dreadful discovery rooted me to the chair which I was clutching, my nails digging into its painted surface. I stared at the doctor in wide-eyed terror, hoping for help. My head was seized by the familiar swarming feeling, followed by the usual stabs of pain. I was prey to a fear such as I’d never known. I felt that I was sinking, losing all contact with the outer world. Here and there things seemed to be fading from sight, as though the faint glow lighting up the last narrow passageway between myself and reality was dying out. The doctor tried to conceal his dismay; he turned the map this way and that, keeping his finger pointing towards the outline of Finland. He let slip the odd word, an exclamation he repeated several times: for me these were just sounds, which I could hear but could not understand. For a moment, his expression seemed to betray the perplexity of someone who finds himself having to deal with a madman. The nurses rushed towards me to take me back to bed. Once again I felt something cold against my arm. The doctor stayed beside me until I fell asleep.
I opened my eyes again perhaps an hour or so later, too exhausted to panic and too stricken to go back to sleep. The night-light in the corridor was flooding the walls of painted sheet-metal with yellow. The pitching, the black porthole, everything conspired to make me feel as though I were sinking slowly into a whirlpool, into a dark and cold abyss, peopled by monstrous fish. I felt weak, numb, unable even to cry. It was pitch-dark, both inside me and out. Grinding my teeth, I marshalled such rage as I could still summon up, and swore wordlessly at a God who could not hear me.
The next morning, Doctor Friari entered my cabin with a smile. The previous day’s dismay seemed to have been forgotten, and he gave me a confident look. Under his arm he had a bundle done up in wrapping paper, and now I saw its contents for the first time. It contained a blue jacket, the kind that sailors wear. The doctor opened the package on my bed and showed me a bit of cotton tape sewn into the inside of the collar, with two words with capital letters written on it. I could make out the letters, but I was unable to read them. Doctor Friari was looking at me closely, and his expression was clearly intended to be reassuring. He had now begun to speak, his finger pointing at the label on the collar’s lining. Stressing the initials, slowly he spelt out the words ‘Sampo Karjalainen’ with the metallic voice of an automaton. I tried hard to understand. I sensed that he was repeating what was written on the label. Standing in front of the porthole, he waved the garment before me, holding it by the shoulders. Thus taken hostage, the jacket seemed to take on a life of its own and struggle with the doctor, who had gone red in the face with effort. The sleeves flew upwards and then fell down again, as though inhabited by invisible arms, setting the buttons clicking. As though in some clumsy embrace, Friari passed his hands over the front of the jacket, looking for the pockets. He rummaged through one, then the other, and pulled out a folded handkerchief. This he opened up on the bed, letting the jacket fall to the floor. In one corner, embroidered in blue between blue lines, two letters stood out: S.K. I had no difficulty recognizing them: they were the capital letters of the name that appeared on the label. I could sense that the doctor was hoping for some reaction on my part. But, like the jacket lying on the floor, I too stretched out my arms in a helpless gesture, implying that I was beaten. My eyes were darting from the initials to the expectant face, the letters whirling in my mind, merging into a single indecipherable sign. Who was Sampo Karjalainen? Was I Sampo Karjalainen? Was that blue sailor’s jacket mine? Overcome by hopelessness, I took my head between my hands, then let it droop until my chin touched my chest. I saw the doctor’s shoes moving away over the wooden floorboards, then gliding towards the door. When I looked up, the blue jacket was still swinging slightly, now hanging from a hook in the wall.
I registered all the stages of that man’s awakening from his coma with the utmost care. His blood pressure and temperature as they slowly rose, the first dawnings of consciousness, his gradual recovery of movement, everything was entered in his patient’s file, together with the medicines I gave him. Even if I remember the order in which things occurred, much of what I wrote in those pages remains impenetrable to me. Often, adjectives and verbs follow one another in a succession of dry, bald words without any grammatical structure, stuck there like cut-out shapes. Rereading them, I could make some dim sense of them, I recognized the vague outlines of the sensations which that man felt and which I observed from the outside. I saw again the eyes which fixed me with such dismay, but I shall never be able to tell of the abyss from which they were surfacing.
A long time passed; the days seemed endless. Meanwhile I had recovered my sight. When they removed the bandages, I spent the whole afternoon looking at myself in the mirror screwed to the wall above the basin. At later stages, too, I often caught myself stealing a look at my reflection, trying to recognize myself. With the utmost caution, at times I would even venture delicately to feel the wound on the nape of my neck. But I was alarmed by the big hairless folds my fingertips would come upon amidst my ravaged hair. I skimmed over them with revulsion, as though touching my own brain.
With Doctor Friari’s help, I had learned to whistle. This was a first step towards recovering my speech. The little military marches which I whistled were irresistible: indeed, I began to move in time with them. I spent whole afternoons doing the pronunciation exercises the doctor set me. Without understanding them, I had begun to utter my first words. As I began to learn more about my condition, I resigned myself and tried to cope with it with the means at my disposal. The doctor helped me to take my bearings in the sea of my unknown drowned consciousness. Thanks to him, I came to understand that I had a relatively extensive grasp of reality. From the windows of his office, where I would go each morning to work on my rehabilitation exercises, the doctor would point to some object in the landscape of the bay and ask me to draw it in his notebook. In this way I realized that I knew how a building was put together, how a lighthouse worked, how a ship was made. Doctor Friari would write the name of each object underneath the drawing and teach me how to pronounce it. I repeated the sounds I heard him say, hesitantly at first, then with ever growing confidence. They were becoming my words; I could repeat and read them on my own and, over time, I learned to put them together. Later, when I could answer the questions that were put to me, the doctor was able to map out my technical knowledge more accurately, asking me to give him information about the various images he showed me, sometimes by means of gestures. In other words, I found that I knew how a car functioned, that I could work a gramophone, use a monkey-wrench or screwdriver; furthermore, although I was unable to formulate it very precisely, I found that I was also in possession of a certain amount of nautical knowledge. My brain responded to the proffered stimuli, the current was getting through. It was just the switch of language which failed to function. But the emergency lead installed by Doctor Friari gradually made good this deficiency; however temporary and prone to leaps in voltage, it nonetheless managed to fuel my gradually redawning consciousness. My memory, on the other hand, was still shrouded in darkness, and no amount of seeking the point at which it had short-circuited would yield results. Of the flow of events which the doctor put before me with the help of photographs, maps and flags taken from his books, none served as an anchor for my identity. Here everything became a blur, slipping away as though shut off by clouded glass.
Accompanied by a nurse, I had begun to venture out on deck for the occasional short stroll, walking the length of the ship, holding on to the taffrail. Once I had reached the stern, I would sit down in the sun, facing the blue sea which for so long I had glimpsed only from the porthole. Later, I would learn that I was on board the German hospital ship Tübingen, riding at anchor off the Italian port of Trieste, waiting to unload its cargo of wounded so that they could be transferred on to Red Cross trains headed for Germany. On sunny mornings the distant city, dotted with green domes, seemed to be set upon rows of glittering waves, and I took pleasure just sitting and gazing at it. I felt reassured by that expanse of limpid water, that ordered countryside. On deck I also met other soldiers, thin-faced men with an absent air about them. All had some bandaged limb or were more or less obviously maimed. Some dragged themselves along leaning on makeshift crutches, which they still handled clumsily. Others seemed physically unimpaired, but on closer inspection turned out to have a bewildered look that was scarcely human. They gathered together in small groups, on the more sheltered benches, playing cards, chatting, or staring wordlessly into the distance, taking the odd puff of a cigarette. I tended to steer clear of them, since I myself had nothing to contribute. But when I caught some snatch of conversation I would eavesdrop, trying to make sense of the words I heard them utter. I would single out those I could hear most clearly, those they seemed to pronounce most often, and move away in order to repeat them aloud to myself. But those unknown sounds would echo emptily in my mouth and head without leaving anything behind, like an echo dying away gradually. At an unconscious level I felt that they were not those that figured in the language spoken by Doctor Friari. Even when I did succeed in reproducing them, they would melt away like bubbles without my being able to gain the knack of repeating them. I would go back to sitting alone, looking out to sea. But not even that majestic sight could calm my sense of dread. My gaze bore into the distance in the desperate hope of finding some foothold, some memory, some image which might miraculously bring the vanished part of me back to life.
Each morning after my walk, I would go to Doctor Friari for my daily session. Petri Friari – a neurologist at the university hospital in Hamburg – was a German citizen, but originally from Finland. As I was later to learn, he had fled his native land many years earlier, when he was little more than a boy. At first I had difficulty understanding his story, even though he had told it me on several occasions, aided by that same map of Europe and every gesture he could think of. It was not clear to me why he had left, but I sensed that his departure had tragic overtones. But, as I gained in understanding, as words proliferated in my mind, I managed to piece his tale together.
During the years when Russia was being riven by revolution, Finland too was caught up in the maelstrom. Workers in the industrial centres rebelled, took up arms and set up a communist government. The country split into two and civil war broke out, with the white armies commanded by Marshal Mannerheim emerging victorious after a long struggle. Once order had been restored, mercilessly repressive measures were taken against those who had sympathized with the Bolshevik cause. Doctor Friari’s father, a university professor with socialist leanings, was arrested and sent to a prison camp. After the terrible winter of 1918, no more was heard of him. So Petri Friari, then a young medical student, had left Finland with his mother to seek refuge in Hamburg, to stay with distant German relatives. There, in order to survive, he had become a jack-of-all-trades, making huge sacrifices in order to complete his studies. He had not been back to his country since the age of twenty-three. But he had never forgotten his language; nor his people.
Backed up against the railway, blackened by smoke, the Gothic building of the Finnish sailors’ church stands just outside the port of Hamburg, where the cranes thin out and the city dwindles away into grey countryside. There the doctor would meet up with fellow-Finns who had arrived by merchant ship; they would tell him the latest news, bringing him letters and newspapers. Every Sunday he would accompany his mother to mass, and spend some hours in the afternoon doing charitable work for the city’s small Finnish community, whose members he would treat free of charge. In exchange he received warmth, affection and the occasional bottle of spirits, but above all the opportunity to speak his language, and it was this that he most welcomed. This was why Doctor Friari had taken such an interest in my case: the name embroidered on the label in my jacket was a Finnish name, and perhaps he saw my wretched situation as mirroring his own. I too had been unceremoniously flung out of my own country, and the language which the doctor believed to be buried somewhere in my damaged brain was also his. He cared for me and my wounds in the same spirit as he had tended to the sailors who frequented the church in Hamburg. During our sessions he would tell me about his past as though it were some sad tale whose ending he did not know himself, but which he enjoyed telling me, as though to ward off further misfortune. Welcoming me into his office, he would rub his hands as though in anticipation of some pleasant diversion. He would sit down and open his green notebook, which he constantly consulted as he told his tale, or questioned me.
Then he would show me pictures, different on each occasion, which were glued into his notebook or taken from some other book, and put names to them, asking me to repeat what he had said. The words he used were different from those I heard spoken by the soldiers on deck; at first I had difficulty pronouncing them; certain vowels I found particularly hard. But the doctor was wonderfully persevering. Later he told me that he himself was surprised at how fast I learned. A light dusting, a sprinkling of sounds had gradually settled on the smooth rock of my mind, becoming denser and more full-bodied over time. A rich, deep humus had formed, where words were now taking root and thriving. The linguistic memory which my injury had uprooted from my brain was being born afresh in another part of my mind, bolstered by reason but at the same time as spontaneous as a natural language. That was how the doctor put it, and indeed he was amazed that I could learn so quickly, drawing on mental resources which he had thought to be unsuited to the learning of a language. Secretly hoping to believe his own optimistic words, he ventured the fantastical hypothesis that my brain cells had tracked down the remnants of my language which lay scattered among the folds of my wound, and that the effort of learning had caused them gradually slowly to reknit, to take on shape and consistency. Some unknown chemistry was at work within me, new capillaries were branching out, bringing their juices to unexplored regions previously known only to the animal life of blood and flesh.
As he observed it, the doctor referred to this phenomenon as miraculous, and he took the greatest pleasure in all the stages of my progress. He noted down my reactions to his exercises in the greatest detail, together with the new words I was learning to use. He regarded my recovery as a personal triumph, a great step forward for science. But what he found most moving of all was the retrieval of a language which, in his own way, he too had kept safe within himself, ferrying it from exile into the seas of memory. Even though we could not engage in sophisticated conversation, and our dialogue consisted of single words, repeated to the point that they seemed almost to take on bodily form around us in the air, Doctor Friari felt that in some abstract way we both belonged to the same world. We were bound together by some mysterious link, some bond which was not to do with blood, but which resonated in the sound of language. In the doctor it revived the sweetness of memory, and in me it aroused the will to live.
I had been picked up on the verge of death, my head badly smashed, at dawn on 10 September 1943, on the quayside near the railway station in Trieste. I was not carrying any documents or personal possessions. All that I had was the clothes I was wearing. I had probably been attacked and robbed, hit on the head with the lead pipe found beside me, still daubed with blood and hair. During those same days the hospital ship Tübingen had arrived in the port of Trieste from North Africa, and it was to this ship that the sailors who found me belonged. They hoisted me on to their lifeboat and took me aboard, where I was put into the hands of Doctor Friari, a medical officer with the German navy. As he himself later admitted, in view of my serious condition, and the extent of my wound, he did not think that I had long to live; to the point, indeed, that he had not thought that it was appropriate to operate on me, so that he had accepted me on board the Tübingen for purely compassionate reasons, because of the name stitched into my jacket. But he immediately decided to have me transferred to the ward where the comatose wounded were admitted, and to keep me under observation in the recovery room. A large area at the nape of my neck had suffered deep lesions, and it was difficult to assess how much of my brain had been affected. But perhaps the doctor had sensed that something, somewhere within me, was still alive. As he later explained, clinically there was nothing to distinguish me from the other comatose wounded; whatever it was that had led him to tend me so meticulously, he saw as a nod from fate. As a man of science, practical and down-to-earth, he would come to see me each morning in the recovery room expecting to find me dead. When he saw that in fact I was making progress, he scented a miracle: from that moment on, he never left my bedside. The day I came out of the coma, the nurses swore that they had glimpsed a tear on one of his far from tender cheeks. He insisted on taking personal charge of my rehabilitation; each morning it was he who put me through certain exercises using coloured cardboard cut-outs. When he realized that I could not speak, that the injury had destroyed my memory for language and my ability to articulate sounds, he hoped in his heart of hearts that I would die. Surprised at the speed with which my brain was retrieving lost knowledge, at first he was intrigued above all by the scientific aspect of my injury. But he could not remain untouched by the fear, the bewilderment of a man part of whom had been taken from him, a man deprived of his past, his name, his language, obliged to live without memory, nostalgia, dreams. The supposition that I too was Finnish, having ended up for some unknown reason in those distant seas, led him to care for me with a devotion rarely met with by the wounded in a time of war.
In the weeks he spent at my bedside, peering into my eyes for the least sign of consciousness, he had become convinced that I must indeed be a Finnish sailor, who had come to Trieste on board some ship, possibly a German merchantman; that I had then been set upon by one of the sharks who hung around port cities and railway stations in those war-torn times. The name on the jacket and the initials on the handkerchief left him in no possible doubt. So he swore that he would move heaven and earth to get me back to my own country, to give me the chance to pick up the broken thread of memory. After all, the very fact that I was still alive was at least in part his doing, for better or for worse. He had put his scientific knowledge in the service of blind fate, while his heart had been won over by the familiar sound of my name.
I waited on board the Tübingen for many weeks. Various problems had delayed the organizing of the troop trains to Germany. Now the ship was anchored in the port of Trieste. From my vantage point on deck I had noted frantic outbursts of activity on the shore and quays: military vehicles were arriving all the time, disgorging troops and weapons. When the wind was right, I could even hear the shouts of the commanding officers. Sometimes I would accompany the doctor to the station, where he would go to supervise the organizing of the troop trains or to procure medical supplies. On those occasions we would have lunch together, in some little restaurant near the port. As we ate, he would encourage me to tell him about everything I was doing, every detail of my day, even the most insignificant. At first I found this tedious, then I understood what he was aiming at. It was out of these spots of time that I would rebuild myself a past, a memory. He laid great stress on the importance of persisting with this exercise. Though he had not yet told me as much, the doctor was already mulling over a plan to get me back to Finland, and was slowly preparing me to make the break.
While the doctor was talking with his colleagues from the Medical Corps in the military quarters which I was not allowed to enter, I killed the time by taking walks. At first I did not stray far from the station, but later I began to venture into the city. On sunny afternoons, each street running inward from the sea was a gilded strip up which I walked as far as the shady squares further inland, where large buildings of white stone stood out against a deep blue sky. I enjoyed wandering at random, following the mirage which appeared beyond each corner and then emerging again into the blinding seaside light. Those were months of deep uncertainty for Trieste. I knew that new German troops had come to occupy the city since the Italian armistice, preparing to fend off a possible landing. The German allies had become potential enemies. Many Italian soldiers had fled into the mountains, joining up with the partisan groups, or had already been disarmed. Black Shirts and Salo soldiers had taken up their posts, under the German command. Doctor Friari was wary of these men, not regarding them as soldiers like himself. I had noticed that he tried to avoid them, and above all that he treated them with hostility. In the last days before my departure, during my solitary ramblings, I would hear sudden volleys of sub-machine-gun fire breaking the silence of the almost deserted streets. I was even stopped by the occasional patrol. But mylaissez-passerhad invariably sent the arms of the officers who opened it into a smart salute. Their voices immediately changed, and they allowed me to proceed. In the station, no one stopped me watching the troop trains leaving for the Yugoslavian front. Often I would go and look at the place where I had been found, a few steps from the commercial quay. I would search among the cranes and anchored ships for some trace, some clue that I might transform into a memory. Sometimes, while I waited for the doctor who was dining with some high-placed officer, I would find myself in the city until late at night and, just for a bit of human company, would take refuge in the first bar I came upon. Here, amidst German soldiers and Black Shirts who were getting drunk and singing, I would nurse my small glass of beer for as long as I dared, singing songs I could not understand along with my unknown drinking companions. It was reassuring to hear my voice mingling with others, to hear my own words overlaying theirs, emerging from my mouth and springing into life as though they were truly my own, as though behind those sounds which I had learned to imitate so well there were also some awareness of their meaning. Without addressing a word to me, the men around me would raise their glasses, clink them with my own, treat me as one of themselves. In the fug and din of those bars I felt protected: I was not alone. My fear of loneliness worried the doctor. He said I must get over it: it was a sign of my inability to accept my new destiny.
One morning in November Doctor Friari asked me to go with him to the small town of Opicina, up on the Carso just outside Trieste. He had to go to the German headquarters to meet a high-ranking civil servant working for the civil administration who had just arrived in town. I was still unaware that it was I who was the object of this trip. A car came to pick us up on the quay. It was a grey morning, though to the east the light-filled sky promised sunshine. The road that led up to the Carso was shrouded in thick mist. The whole of the upland plateau was oozing moisture; every so often fat droplets fell from the trees on to the windscreen, like sudden summer rain.
The German headquarters were housed in a fenced-in villa with an imposing white gate, set back a little from the street. We crossed the gravel-strewn courtyard embarrassed at the noise of our own steps, to be met by a soldier who, I noticed, walked with a limp. He exchanged a few words with the doctor and led him towards a door at the end of the hallway, gesturing that I should go into the officers’ mess, which was empty at that hour. I sat down and began to leaf through some old magazines. After long minutes spent in silence, I heard his limping step returning, then the door opened and the soldier appeared, beckoning me to follow him. I was escorted into the office, where the doctor and the civil servant were deep in conversation. The civil servant was solidly built, with a red face and a genial smile. He came towards me to shake my hand, gesturing towards an armchair in front of his desk. I sat down, and the doctor, seated beside me, carried on with a conversation which my arrival must have interrupted. He was speaking in German, but I sensed that it was my story he was telling. He pointed to the jacket, which I had taken off and was now holding folded on my knee. At a gesture from the doctor, I pointed to the label, brought the handkerchief with the initials out of a pocket and laid it on the desk. The civil servant turned it over in his hands, frowning, then handed it back to me. The conversation did not last long. The civil servant nodded as the doctor spoke, and took some notes. Then he stood up, took us to the door and bade us a warm goodbye. He also addressed a sentence to me personally in his warm, raucous German; I did not understand it, but sensed it was intended to be well-meant. The doctor, on the other hand, did understand, and shook the civil servant’s hand, giving him a grateful look. I too thanked him, bowing my head in place of words. The lone soldier led us through the gravel-strewn courtyard to the gate. We waited for his limping step to die away before getting into the car.
Now the mist was clearing, rising hazily towards the woods. As we left Opicina flashes of sunlight were already visible over the rocky coast, falling on the sea and dispelling the last strips of cloud. At the first turn in the road the bay came into view, spread out in front of us. The doctor pulled the car to the side of the road; we got out and walked along a stony track running round the side of the hill. Even though the countryside was bright with the fiery colours of the woods, there was a touch of winter in the cold sky. In the deeper dips in the uplands, where patches of cloud still lingered, the trees were already bare. When we reached the top, we sat down on a low stone wall, looking out at the empty horizon and the city below us, set in the dazzling sea.
‘In two days the troop train will be ready,’ the doctor told me. He was gazing into the distance, trying to find words which I could understand. Raising his voice, as though hoping that it would penetrate more deeply into my mind, he went on:
‘The time has come for you to face this journey. You must not be afraid. Basically, this journey is a return. Here you are living in a sort of limbo, a no-man’s-land, your life is in abeyance. Do you understand me?’
I nodded, even though I had barely grasped the meaning of what he said. Looking out to sea again, the doctor went on:
‘You must go back to your past life. Only there can you hope to find something that will jog your memory. Sometimes all it takes is some smell, some trick of the light, some sound that you have heard a thousand times, however unknowingly.’
Smell, light and sound, these had been the instruments of my awakening. The doctor fell silent for a few moments, giving me a conspiratorial look. I did not know what he was thinking, but I sensed that he would have liked to be leaving with me.
‘Now you must start to learn your language. This above all will help you with your memory. The merest breath is enough, if there is still any fire at all beneath the ashes.’
Seeing my blank expression, he repeated what he had just said, miming the lighting of a match, the flame swelling, and rising.
‘You’ll see, it won’t be difficult. But you will have to make an effort. You won’t be able to make do with just a few words and the odd gesture, as we have done these past few weeks. You will have to work hard at your language. Finnish is the language in which you were brought up, the language of the lullaby that sent you to sleep each night. Apart from studying it, you must learn to love it. Think of each word as though it were a magic charm which might open the door to memory. Say each word aloud as though it were a prayer – prayers are made up of words. Turn over its every meaning, its every usage, in your mind.’
I frowned. I could no longer follow what he was saying, but I did not want to interrupt the flow. His words were music, and that music was about me. The doctor saw my difficulty, and tried to describe the more difficult concepts, once more with the help of gestures. Some words he could only uselessly repeat, breaking them down into syllables to show me the pieces one by one. To no avail, the meaning still escaped me; yet, though they dissolved like morning mist, those syllables were not entirely lost. Repeating them to myself I somehow captured traces of them and, much later, those fossil remains yielded up the doctor’s thinking.
The wood around us was rustling with the faint sound of raindrops instantly drunk in by the earth. I felt I could hear the leaves shrivelling, as though all autumn were draining away in a few minutes. The doctor clasped his hands, trying in vain to find some way of communicating his feelings, his advice. Finally he spoke without caring whether I understood or not, in a sudden outburst, giving vent to an evident irritation that his words would simply be borne off on the wind.
‘One more bit of advice,’ he said. ‘I speak now as a man, not as a doctor. Since language is our mother, try and find yourself a woman. It is from a woman that we come into this world, from a mother that we learn to speak. Fall in love, give of yourself. Switch off your brain and follow your heart. You must fall in love with a voice, and with every word you hear it utter.’
Perhaps because it was followed by a long silence, that last phrase, without my understanding it, stayed in my mind. I repeated it, committing it to memory as a frozen block of sounds within which I could discern some meaning. Later, as it dissolved in my mind, I picked the words out of it, the most important last:rakkaus, which means love.
But the glorious landscape laid out before us, the glassy sea, puckered in the distance by the movement of the wind, and the sun, now hot in the still hazy sky, were not conducive to such weighty thoughts. Enchanted by that heartening view, we both fell silent for some time. Even the war seemed far away. From up there the city, so ill-at-ease and anxious, looked like a Christmas crib, and the warships criss-crossing the bay like so many toys. The doctor turned his face to the sun. I stared at the rock at my feet, dropping away steeply into the blue abyss of the sea, and pursued my thoughts. More than his words, which I had barely understood, it was the doctor’s tone which had struck me. I sensed that some moment of truth was approaching, that I was moving towards an appointment I could not fail to keep. I had to solve the puzzle which had cut my life in two. Even if I was by now more or less accustomed to the atmosphere of that unknown city, of that ship anchored outside time, I felt that I could not stay there for ever. The slow-moving smoke from the odd chimney rose from the dazzling city at our feet, together with muffled sounds. As though he were reading my thoughts, the doctor said:
‘And seeing that we are compatriots, when you get there, please send my old Finland my warmest greetings! These weeks of teaching you such little as I could remember of our language has been a voyage of discovery for me too. I have found words which had been forgotten in the cracks in my memory. When I was a child, my mother would often come out with the following saying: ‘Oma maa mansikka, muu maa mustikka’ (One’s own land is like a strawberry, other people’s is like a bilberry).Mansikkais the strawberry, red and sweet like our land.Mustikkais the bilberry, black and sour like other people’s. In other words, everyone is best off in their own home. Who knows, perhaps my mother foresaw the fate awaiting me, and those words were a warning. Perhaps meeting you in this way in such a far-flung place is a sign, a message she is sending me from the other world to say that it is time for me too to go back home!’ He gave a crooked smile, perhaps wanting to believe as much himself; he looked at me for a moment, then quickly turned his gaze in a less challenging direction, towards the distant sea.
The doctor had made the preparations for my departure. I would leave with the troop train that was taking the wounded from the Tübingen back to Germany; from Trieste, it would go to Dresden via Ljubljana, Vienna and Prague. From Dresden, I would carry on to Berlin and then Stettin, with alaissez-passerthe doctor had obtained from the civil servant we had met in Opicina. From there I would be able to take ship for Helsinki. The doctor gave me several letters of introduction to be given to a colleague of his in the military hospital in Helsinki, in which he explained my situation and described the injury I had sustained.
‘Ask for Doctor Mauno Lahtinen,’ he said, making sure I had understood. ‘He’s an old classmate of mine from the time when I was studying at the University of Helsinki. We have seen each other only once over these last twenty-six years, at a neurologists’ congress in Berlin, but we are in regular correspondence. I know that he is doing service at the main military hospital in Helsinki.’ He also gave me the money for the journey, and for my initial expenses. He was insistent that I should not hesitate to mention his name if I had problems with the German authorities.
‘If the worst comes to the worst, tell them to telegraph the Gauleiter of Carinthia, Doctor Friedrich Reiner, the man we met in Opicina. He knows all the details.’
A fine rain was falling on the morning I boarded the train to Dresden. The sky was full of billowing, low-lying clouds. Doctor Friari came with me to the platform. I sought for words of thanks, but could manage only to clasp his hand. He noted my emotion, but on this occasion contained his own.
‘Courage! You are going home!Oma maa mansikka…’ At the moment of our leave-taking he assumed a soldierly indifference which he had never shown before. His last words were as follows:
‘I hope you will be able to make a new life for yourself. Or find the one you lost. I will not ask you to keep in touch. I know that when you find peace and serenity you will not want to think back to these days. But at least, if you can, remember me. Being remembered – that is all we ask for, is it not?’
Drawing his overcoat around him, he said another quick goodbye as the train pulled out. I never saw him again.
Reading these pages, I felt deeply moved. Reflected in this narrative I glimpsed aspects of myself that were quite unknown to me. It contains almost all the words I spoke, and my own personal story sounds even more bitter as told here. Though he could speak no language at the time, that man could read into my silences, could sense my fear. I well remember our first meeting in my office, on board the Tübingen. Without realizing what I was doing, I had begun telling him my story. I was convinced that he could not understand me, and I was talking mainly in order to give vent to my feelings, something I had never been able to do, not even with the sailors in the Hamburg church, for fear that someone was spying on me. I had not realized it, but my pain was so intense that it leapt clean over those words and straight into the heart of that man, whom I had treated like a deaf-mute. How he managed to articulate whole portions of my outbursts, I do not know. Luckily I still have the diary I kept during that time. The green notebook, as he called it. Alongside my personal notes, I registered everything significant that happened on board. That notebook has helped me to reconstruct the chain of events with considerable accuracy, and to recall our conversations. Above all in the first part, some passages of the document were hard to interpret, and I had trouble making sense of them. But, spelling mistakes apart, many of the sentences I used to tell my story are reproduced here with alarming accuracy, as though they had been learned by heart. So heavily had those words weighed on that man’s mind that he had put his trust in me.
After long weeks spent off Cyrenaica, picking up the war-wounded from the fighting in Africa, my periodic returns to Trieste came as a relief. That light-filled bay gave me an illusion of peace; I had my feet on dry land at last. No longer haunted by a sense of danger, at night I finally found sleep, I had time to do a little reading, even to do nothing, if I so chose. I was drawn to that unforthcoming, foundling city. Neither Italian, not Austrian, nor Slav, it thrust its shameless beauty in my face, and I looked back at it a little shyly, as one might cast glances at a woman known to be unattainable. Sometimes I fantasized that I would stay there when the war was over. But I felt that it was too grand a setting for a life as colourless as mine. Those who live in such a city have an obligation to be constantly in love, because great joys, like great sorrows, demand grand backdrops. When the Tübingen, emptied now of its cargo of suffering and its stench of flesh, weighed anchor to sail northwards once more, the sight of Trieste receding into the distance brought with it an overwhelming sense of the most tender melancholy; parting is indeed such sweet sorrow. Once again I felt that I had missed an opportunity to embrace that city, and I imagined that perhaps, disdainful though she was, in some sense she too yearned for me.
The journey to Opicina on that autumn morning, over the Carso emerging from the mist, remains imprinted in my mind, together with everything I said, so I was able to reconstruct its gist. It was hard to find a way of making myself understood. We were dealing with concepts, ideas, and at that time the author of these pages had words for things, and things alone. Today I see, with some surprise, that he had retained my words until such time as he was able to decipher them. It is true, I too would have liked to have been sailing back to Finland; to take advantage of the chaos of war in order to do away with the neurologist from the military hospital in Hamburg and replace him with the Helsinki university student of twenty-six years earlier. But this was no longer possible. Twenty-six years do not go by without leaving their mark. Memory overlays itself like lava, causing recollections to be preserved, it is true, but also stealing them from us for ever. Memory, which the author of these pages was so wretchedly pursuing, still has me in its grip. Memory is the tithe of pain I pay, each day, when I wake up to this world and agree to live in it. Why, I do not know. Perhaps because it is easier to be born than to die; perhaps because of the unwholesome interest which all men feel in seeing how it will all end, whatever pain it may cause them.
I did not expect my arrival in Helsinki to be like this. I was not expecting that grey dawn, that threatening sky. The city which was coming towards me like a looming mass had nothing welcoming about it. The Swedish merchantman on which I had travelled, the Ostrobothnia, had turned its engines off. It pitched meekly amidst the slabs of drifting ice, its rusting prow pointing skywards. On the quay, silent men had picked up the hawsers from the muddy snow and were running to secure them to the moorings. The general mood was wary, watchful. Some soldiers had already come aboard and were looking idly into the hold, accompanied by a sailor. The captain, who had accepted me on board reluctantly, and only after the closest questioning, was smoking nervously, scanning the façades of the black buildings in front of the port. I thought back to the barracks at Stettin, the long line of soldiers walking, heads bowed, and the strange brightness of their new mess tins; that prying face behind the desk, my documents, leafed through times without number. Then the journey by lorry to the port, the rain-filled potholes, the jumble of wharves, and that suspicious look for ever trained on me, that mouth, shaped like a scar, opening every now and again, as though it were on the point of saying something, but then remaining silent.
‘Where will you go, here in Helsinki?’ it asked me, a buttend clamped between its owner’s lips. He had posed me the same question on the voyage a hundred times. Perhaps he was hoping to catch me out, to discover some inconsistency in my replies.
‘I have the address of a military hospital; and a letter of introduction, from Doctor Friari,’ I told him yet again, in my rough and ready Finnish.
‘Anyway, wherever I go, it’s all the same to me,’ I added.
The officer shifted his gaze towards the city, turned his back on me and replied:
‘This isn’t just any city. It is an encampment of Mongols who surfaced at the other end of the continent by mistake; savages whose only thought is to get drunk, even on ethyl alcohol if they can’t find anything else!’ Pleased with his words, he turned around and drew deeply on his cigarette.
‘Welcome to Helsinki!’ he added sardonically, then walked away, tossing the butt end into the sea. Perhaps he had had those words stored away for me right from the beginning of the voyage.
I walked away from the port with my knapsack over my shoulder. I felt a slight feeling of nervous excitement, but it was not unpleasant, indeed it was more like a kind of sharp and unaccustomed happiness. Walking in the tracks left by the lorries, between the piles of muddied snow, I felt that I was going to make the acquaintance of my own city, my own country, and that thought filled me with hope. A soldier pointed out the military hospital, on a wide street in the centre of town. I shook the snow and mud off my boots and found myself walking over a red-tiled floor, shiny with wax, and entering a tall, poorly-lit entrance hall. The nurse at the reception desk asked me a quick question which I could not understand. I answered by repeating the introductory sentence which Doctor Friari had taught me, and handed her the envelope marked with the seal of the Tübingen. The woman got to her feet and nodded to me to wait, pointing at the wooden benches against the wall; then she went off elsewhere. I removed my cap and took a deep breath of air, which smelled of a combination of paint and ether. Some petty officers came in through the main doorway and stood chatting in the hallway before going off down the corridor, their voices echoing until they died away behind some door. I listened to them with interest, as though amazed to hear them talking like Doctor Friari. So that was really it – the Finnish language at last, alive and well around me, filling that unknown space with sounds I knew. Within the network of my ear, straining to catch each syllable issuing from the mouths of those men, among so many that were unknown or mangled, certain whole words remained trapped, still living when I caught them. I held on to them, took them apart, compared them to those I knew, repeating them under my breath. They were real, they were already mine!
A soldier who had come to sit on the bench opposite mine now distracted me from my wandering train of thought. He had put his elbows on his knees and let his head droop. Eyes on the floor, he seemed to be following something moving in the geometrical design of the tiles, and every so often he would raise the tips of his boots as though to let something pass by. I noted that he was wearing a jacket like my own: the same dark blue, the same horn buttons, but with badges sewn into the collar. I stretched out my arms and looked at them. I stroked the rough material and thought, yes, this country must indeed be mine.
I did not have to wait long. The nurse appeared from a door opening off the corridor and ushered me into the out-patients’ department. The doctor who received me had already read Doctor Friari’s letter; he had it open in front of him on his desk. I sensed that his worry was how to make himself understood. When he began to talk, he pronounced each syllable unnaturally clearly, letting each word die away before starting on the next. This was helpful. From him I learned that Doctor Mauno Lahtinen, the hospital neurologist, was away at the front in Karelia, but he would soon be back, and would certainly take care of me. For the moment, all they could offer me was a camp bed and food from the soldiers’ mess. The doctor repeated this last phrase in a different voice, perhaps for emphasis. These were words I knew, among the first I had learned on board the Tübingen. He added others which I could not grasp, but they cannot have been important, because he was already looking in another direction. Folding my letter back into its envelope, he put it into an unnamed file among the others heaped up on a cabinet behind him. The doctor noticed me casting a worried look in the direction of the still blank label on the sheet of grey cardboard, but he said nothing to reassure me. Then he stood up, to let me know that our interview was over, and shook me vaguely by the hand.
The nurse took me down the corridor to a large room whose walls were lined with shelves and white-painted cupboards, and handed me some rolled up sheets and blankets. I followed her again, this time through empty dormitories lit by large barred windows, then into a lighter corridor running around a courtyard, and finally into a slightly smaller room, where I counted six camp beds. She stopped at the foot of the last of them, handed me a key bearing the number six, and pointed to an iron trunk. She asked me something I could not understand, then waited for a moment for my answer. She smiled at my perplexed expression, then lowered her eyes, even more at a loss than I. When even the rustle of her uniform had died away, seated on the mattress of that unknown bed I felt all the silence, all the loneliness against which I had battled during my long voyage from Trieste to Helsinki, close up like water over my head. I was like one of those fishes left trapped by the ice under the Arctic sea. I could see light above me, but the call of the deep was stronger. I took off my shoes, somehow managed to cover myself up and fell asleep. It was weeks since I had slept in a real bed.
I was awoken by a bell whose sound seemed to be coming from outside. I had no idea how much time had passed. I heard steps in the courtyard outside the window, a vague sound of voices. I buttoned up the jacket I had not even bothered to take off, put my knapsack into the trunk and went out, following the sound of the bell, to join a queue of soldiers and nurses which was moving in the direction of a white church; on entering it, I saw that everything inside it, apart from the organ, was white too. The daylight was fading, and I could see red reflections of it on the glass of four skylights set into the ceiling. Three gilded numbers hung from a wall to one side of the altar. On the bench I found a missal bound in waxed paper, and a Bible with a red marker. There was a sound of rustling missals, and the singing began. A military chaplain walked up to the altar. He read out several passages from a large volume placed on a tripod; he was wearing a grey uniform, and his hair was so fair that it looked almost white. After he had read from it, he held each page of the book between his fingers before turning it gently over, a candle flickering beside him. The service did not last long, and was punctuated by fervent silences at the end of each hymn. I leafed through that strange Bible, looking from one line to the next, trying to recognize at least the names. I listened to my neighbours’ singing, envious of those mouths so full of words. At the end of the mass, people filed out one by one, though some remained kneeling in prayer.
The smell of the wood and the wax had had a calming effect. I felt safe, out of the clutches of the captain of the Ostrobothnia and the metallic voice of the loudspeakers announcing each station’s name; far from the carriages of the Red Cross train, from the smell of smoke and sweat rising from the endless soldiers asleep on their kit-bags. I too stayed in my pew, clutching that Bible as though to squeeze out of it the prayers I could not say. I felt besieged. Outside that church lay loneliness, and as soon as the last soldiers had filed out of its doors, that loneliness would seep in through the cracks in the wood, from under the door, through every chink and crevice; it would envelop me, sucking away my breath, but leaving me alive. My mind was running through doorless corridors, when I felt a hand on my shoulder and, turning round, recognized the nurse who had showed me to my room. She was with the military chaplain, who bowed his head slightly by way of greeting and said:‘Tervetuloa taloon!’(Welcome home!)
This was how I met the Lutheran Pastor Olof Koskela, the only friend I ever had, the only person I now miss. He left for the Karelian Isthmus at the beginning of June and I have heard nothing of him since. A few days ago, a soldier from the twentieth regiment of frontier guards, wounded at Kuuterselkä, called out his name in his delirium. During all these months, not a day has passed without my being seated at the rough table in the sacristy behind the church, where Chaplain Koskela taught me Finnish with the patience that only a missionary can muster. Bent over an old yellowing notebook gradually filling with new words, day after day I learned what I believed to be my mother tongue, conjugating verbs and declining cases, reciting prayers, singing the hymns from the services and learning strange stories from theKalevala. It is Chaplain Olof Koskela who has taught me to love this country. If he had had the time, he might have managed to make a real Finn of me.
Weeks passed, but there was still no news of Doctor Lahtinen. The nurse kept telling me that he was expected any moment, that he could not have been posted elsewhere because no replacement had been appointed. But I soon realized that no one at that hospital had time to devote to me. Those were terrible times for Finland. After the Winter War thousands of refugees had poured out of a ravaged Karelia; no one knew where they were to be housed. Those who could went to Sweden, to stay with relatives; others wandered from one train to another, ending up outside some village and building themselves a wooden shack in which to pass the winter. Many of the sick and elderly were taken temporarily into hospitals and assorted shelters; I was regarded as belonging to this category, and I paid for my bed and board by helping the nurses. But the doctors had other things to do apart from tending to my lost memory: there were the wounded and sick to be looked after, hungry people to be fed, children to be nursed through illnesses. It even occurred to me to wonder whether Doctor Lahtinen actually existed, or whether Doctor Friari had invented him, to reassure me, and that he had said as much in the letter I had given to the doctor on duty.
One morning, Pastor Koskela went with me to the War Office, in search of some clue which might help me discover my identity, but the staff had been transferred to safer places outside the city. The General Staff were said to be lying low in some bunker in Lapland; the archives were inaccessible. The sole employee we found in the empty rooms of that abandoned building clearly had other matters on his mind: perched on a ladder, he was clearing the upper shelves of a gigantic filing catalogue. He came down, somewhat unwillingly, and leafed through the registers of ships and those who had sailed in them, taking them from the crates where he had just placed them, and telling us brusquely that without the name of the ship or the date of recruitment he would be unable to give us any information. He advised us to talk to the Servicemen’s Association, which had lists of the dead and missing. ‘And anyway there’s no saying that this is a naval jacket. It hasn’t got the badges; it might be just something a sailor happened to be wearing!’ he told us as we were walking away down the corridor, cluttered with trunks and dusty documents. We also went to the Central Registry Office, but the employee we spoke to made a despairing gesture when he heard my name. ‘Half Finland is called Karjalainen! Without even a date of birth, where am I going to start?’ he exclaimed despondently, gesturing towards the rows of numbered shelves behind him, bursting with files done up with string.
As time passed, though, all this began to matter less. The pastor became my family, the hospital visitors’ quarters my home. Every so often I would be joined there by some officer who was passing through, though mostly all I would see of him was the rumpled bedclothes in the morning, or some vague outline under the sheets when I returned at night. I always came back late, because the quiet and loneliness of the visitors’ quarters frightened me; loneliness had become my great bugbear. When I was alone, all the unanswered questions kept temporarily at bay by my fitful daily activities would come flooding back. For such relief was indeed only temporary: even if I deluded myself into thinking that I could bear it, the wretchedness of not knowing who I was, was gradually building up within me and sapping my strength; slowly and firmly, it was swelling to occupy the space that it deserved; for without memory, no man can live.
I would spend my nights in the lobbies of the larger hotels, the Kämp or the Torni for example, which were always crowded with journalists, soldiers and a motley cross-section of humanity at large. There, in the din and fug, anonymous among people unknown to me, I felt at ease. When even the bar in the Kämp emptied out, leaving only the odd waiter clearing up the ashtrays, I would go back out into the street and wander aimlessly through the city, or take refuge from the cold in the station, where I would watch the soldiers and evacuees arriving from the front. I would feel a gleeful shudder of apprehension when the carriage doors opened, and men with bloodied bandages and stricken eyes would step down on to the platform without any idea of where they were going to go. One by one I would look them straight in the eye, recognizing the same expression of bewilderment I had seen on my own face, reflected in the mirror, that morning so many months ago on board the Tübingen. If I heard cries for help, I would hasten to the spot, offer to help bear a stretcher, unload a crate, give my support to an elderly evacuee standing in tears beside his few worldly goods tied up like rags. But deep within me I was delighting in all that hardship. It was only fair that I should not suffer alone, that other people’s desperation should prevail around me. I would return to the hospital only when I was thoroughly exhausted, certain that I would fall asleep the moment I lay down. Yet by dawn I would be awake again, would get up and go to light the stove in the chapel. Of course the few bits of wood available were not enough really to heat the space, but at least they would take off the night chill. When it was time for the service, a faint warmth would greet the figures who came in out of the darkness to kneel down on the benches. For reasons of economy, I would light the candle only when the bell stopped ringing. When the chaplain went up to the altar, I would take my place in what had become my own personal seat and lead the singing of the hymns, though without yet fully understanding the meaning of all those round, plump words. But I pronounced them confidently, as though they were my own. One by one, I would home into their meaning, take them apart, pigeonhole them. I was learning to use them outside the church, in my as yet rudimentary conversations with the pastor. Singing those words was my way of taming them. Since I could not ferry them to the shore of meaning, I had to approach them cautiously, ensure that they would not slip from my grasp, be lost in the unbroken flow of the singing. When I was sure of their phonetic outlines, Koskela would help me copy them out: as a result, together with the columns of verbs and nouns, the pages of my notebook somehow also emanated music, as though the notes had mysteriously become fused with the letters. At the end of the service I would collect the missals, blow out the candle and enter the sacristy to say goodbye to the chaplain before going to the refectory, where a cup of milk and a piece of bread which tasted of resin awaited me.
I never became close to any of the other soldiers. I was afraid of not understanding what they said; above all, I did not want to tell my own story. So I would always sit alone, next to the window, looking out at the silver birches in the courtyard. I would spend the rest of the morning giving a hand to the nurses, thelotta. I had learned from the chaplain that the corps of nurses at the military hospital, with their grey tunics and white belts, were known asLotta-Svärd. I helped them wash the sheets, boil up the bandages in drums of water, disinfect the surgical instruments. There was a mid-morning break; the nurses would make tea, and sit and chat. They talked quietly, rubbing their reddened hands over the rough cotton fabric of their uniforms. Those hands reminded me of something I couldn’t quite bring into focus, something familiar and motherly; whatever it was floated, tantalisingly, just outside the reach of my consciousness. Only then, in the warmth of the laundry with its steamed up windows, lying on a heap of covers, did I feel sufficiently untroubled to find sleep. Cradled by the reassuring chatter of the nurses, I found that loneliness had no more power over me.
It was in the early morning, when there was more light, that the chaplain started to give me regular lessons. It was cold in the sacristy, and my hands would go numb; but the hymns warmed my heart, and when the temperature became truly unbearable the chaplain would open the door of a cabinet with glass handles, reach behind a pile of missals and pull out a bottle containing a white liquid. This, I learned, was calledkoskenkorvaand was extremely strong. What was particularly magical about that little bottle was that throughout all those months it remained half-full, as it had been at the beginning, however much we sipped from it. This was the personal miracle worked by the Military Chaplain Olof Koskela.
That antidote against the cold was also very helpful to the pastor in his various asides, when he recited the poems of Yrjö Jylhä or told stories from Finnish mythology. The characters from theKalevalacame most alive for me when that bottle ofkoskenkorvawas out on the table, together with our two thick little glasses. Then the chaplain’s cheeks would flame, and the austere churchman would become another man: the abrupt priestly gestures would disappear, and his body would take on a strange bonelessness, like that of a puppet. His face, too, would crumple into grimaces I never saw him make when he was sober. I cannot comment on the words he used, but I also sensed that his pronunciation altered: slackened by alcohol, his tongue and lips could no longer keep the consonants in place, and the vowels flowed out in streams, barely regulated by soft movements of the glottis. In this way the pages of the old grammar book that the pastor had found for me were overlaid by a personal Finnish grammar of my own, eclectic and many-hued, ranging from hymns to military marches, from stories from myth to excerpts from the Bible, from feats of arms at the battle of Suomussalmi to Olof Koskela’s own childhood memories, when he lived in the city of Vaasa.
The pastor was not just any common or garden Finn: he was part of the Swedish minority which had settled in Finland. He also had Polish ancestors, and perhaps that was why he regarded the Russians as a special threat. He had the deepest distrust for everything that came from the east, the wind included.
‘The word east means nothing on its own. In our language you have to be more specific.Itämeans the east in general,Kaakkomeans the precise point where the sun rises. If we have two distinct words for east in Finnish, it is so as to avoid having to use the same word both for dawn, and for the direction from which the Slav invasions come,’ as he explained to me one day. He used the map on the wall to give me his own personal reading of the migrations which had peopled Europe, talking of Finno-Ugrians and Ural-Altaics as though they were friends known to him personally, as individuals. He would make the most far-fetched connections, unveiling secret plots and colourful intrigues which I, while knowing nothing about them, instinctively felt I should not take seriously.
‘For example, do you know the difference between the Turks and the Japanese? None! They’re both Altaic peoples! It’s just that the Turks veered off to the left and the Japanese to the right! And they’re both sworn enemies of the Russians. Together they could have held sway over Asia! Their great mistake was to run off, one here and one there, leaving a feeble trail of weak and scattered people in their wake. My goodness! If only the Seljuks had stopped in Samarkand! Today the Slavs would all be on the other side of the Urals, and Finland would extend as far south as Moscow, which was indeed a Finnic city! Because we Finns are also descended from the Altaic peoples! It was the Slavs who cut us off from our original stock by forcing us to migrate northward!’
Nor did the pastor restrict himself to ushering me down the winding lanes of Finnish grammar. Speaking a language all his own, seasoned with a wide range of gestures and images taken from his books, he also provided me with an equally original vision of the world. He too clearly relished our daily lessons, possibly because he had been a teacher before the war and could hardly believe that he now had a pupil all to himself, a school all of his own. The sacristy behind the church had become the pastor’s own private educational establishment, a Greek philosophical academy transported northwards to the snow, where instead of sitting in the shade of an olive tree or on the steps of a temple, we would be stamping our feet because of the cold and sometimes be able to see our breath.
These pages also contain pencil drawings, unsophisticated but extremely elaborate and detailed. They are usually landscapes, though their locations are difficult to pinpoint with any precision. They would seem to be views of the military hospital, seen from the road; in one the church in the courtyard can be made out. Others are scenes from theKalevala,partly copied from the illustrations in Koskela’s copy. Further on in the manuscript there are fewer drawings, as though the author had abandoned the pencil for the pen as he gradually acquired the ability to express himself in words. The pages which follow give an example of one of Pastor Koskela’s language lessons. Never have I heard Finnish described so affectionately, so forcefully. Returning to my country after all these years, I found the language altered superficially, but basically unchanged. I went towards it as one might approach the object of some long-lost love, afraid, on reacquaintance, that I might regret the time and pain expended upon it, or, worse still, that I might realize that it had not been worth that pain. Instead, I discovered with relief that I was still in thrall to those chipped sounds, those words eaten away by ice and silence; that I was still able to free my mouth from the harsh grimace required by German and allow the soft, rich vowels of my own language to blossom from it. A learnt language is just a mask, a form of borrowed identity; it should be approached with appropriate aloofness, and its speaker should never yield to the lure of mimicry, renouncing the sounds of his own language to imitate those of another. Anyone who gives in to this temptation is in danger of losing their memory, their past, without receiving another in exchange.
One evening after mass the chaplain put many more logs into the stove than was actually allowed, and leant his feet up against it. He gestured to me to sit down on the bench beside him.
‘This was how therunoilija, the old singers of theKalevala, told their tales: facing each other, with thekoskenkorvabetween them,’ he began, placing the bottle from the cabinet with glass handles on the bench. Then he went on:
‘A good song is a song that is soon done, one that does not overstay its welcome. It is better to stop in time than to be interrupted in full flow, they said. You who wish to learn Finnish should know this, because Finnish is one single, unbroken song. Finnish is a language which should only be sung, that is its true form, its morphology. To speak it is like the prose version of a poem. It is for savages who know nothing of poetry.’
He spoke, drank and refilled his glass; he seemed to be looking through it, holding it between two fingers like some precious phial. At times he would pause, clutch my arm, draw closer to me and mutter a sentence under his breath. Widening his eyes, he would look around him, as though trying to see beyond what was around us, as though hearing the sounds of a world from which we were debarred, which existed just a millimetre away from our own. I did not understand his every word, but I saw that he was happy to be speaking, and that was enough for me. It made me happy too.
‘Like so many glass vessels, forms contain the liquid that is words, which otherwise would seep away, dissolving into silence. The forms of a language inevitably have repercussions upon the speaker, it is they which mould his face, his land, his habits, where he lives, what he eats. The foreigner learning Finnish distorts his own bodily features; he moves away from his original self, may indeed no longer recognize it. This does not happen studying other languages, because other languages are merely temporary scaffolding for meaning. Not so for Finnish: Finnish was not invented. The sounds of our language were around us, in nature, in the woods, in the pull of the sea, in the call of the wild, in the sound of the falling snow. All we did was to bring them together and bend them to our needs. When God created man, he did not bother to send any men up here. So we had to do what we could to struggle free of defenceless matter on our own. In order to gain life, we had to suffer. First came trees, lakes, rocks, wind. Becoming human all on our own was no joke. Finnish is a solid language, slightly rounded at the sides, with narrow slits for eyes, like the houses in Helsinki, the faces of our people. It is a language whose sounds are sweetish and soft, like the flesh of the perch and trout we cook on summer evenings on the shores of lakes whose depths are covered in red algae, the colour of the hunters’ houses and the berries which bead from the bushes in summer. Finland is a cuttlefish bone, a great concave stone within whose sandy womb trees sprout like mould beneath the endless northern light. Nibbled away by ice and ground into thousands of tiny islands, this is the figure that it cuts on the map next to plump Russia and bony but sturdy Scandinavia. Finland is what remains of something else: take away the Slavs, the Scandinavians, the Orthodox, the Catholics, the sea salt, the birch forests, scrape off a few hundred thousand tons of granite and what you are left with is Finland. If you were once Finnish, at some point or other you will find all this within you, because all this is not stored in your memory, it cannot be mislaid. It is in your blood, your guts. We are what remains of something extremely ancient, something which is bigger than ourselves and is not of this world.’
As suddenly as he had begun to talk, Koskela now fell silent and settled back into his seat. Abruptly, the silence of all the woods of the north now fell upon the church. The stove was sending out a red glow, sculpting his face out of the darkness. Beyond the glass of the skylights, darkness was pressing down, creaking like the ice against the walls of the houses. Once more the same miracle had occurred: there on the bench in front of me, the bottle ofkoskenkorvawas yet again half full.
Almost three months had passed since my arrival in Helsinki, and I had stopped asking about Doctor Lahtinen. The chaplain himself had made it clear to me that such inquiries were pointless. Perhaps he had been transferred, perhaps he really was in Karelia, perhaps he was dead. Perhaps he did not exist, as I continued to think, though without saying so. At all events no one had the time to look for him. With the bombing that was going on, the hospital staff had other fish to fry. The Russian planes would arrive by night; we could hear their distant rumble, the sound of the exploding bombs which they often also dropped over Vuosaari by mistake. Each raid would last for hours. People would leave the city or seek safety in shelters. No sooner had the sirens ceased their howl, than the first ambulances would arrive in the courtyard, and with them the first news of what had been hit, and the number of people who had died.‘Satama, satama!’The port, that was the word I heard repeatedly. The Russian air force was targeting the heart of the city, where people lived, and it was human flesh which flew into the air.
More snow had fallen during those same days. It had settled nonchalantly over that landscape of death, giving the Finnish people the hope that the bad weather might prevent the Russians from attacking. But a few nights later a low moon rose up from the bay, lighting up the city as mercilessly as a beacon. Where the Russian bombs fell, the white mantle of snow would be rent apart, leaving long ribbons of mud and stones. Now I could no longer sleep at night. Stretched out on my bed, I would wait for the sound of the sirens; then I would join the pastor and we would go and find the people who were proceeding in an orderly fashion towards the shelters. Sometimes, in the weak light of the bulb hanging from the low ceiling, Koskela would carry on with his Finnish lessons even there: amidst the pervading fear, they would take on a positively apocalyptic tone. I became aware that he was not addressing himself to me alone, but to all and sundry, because the people huddled all around us could hear him too. Sometimes, trying to distract themselves from the sound of the explosions which shook the ground beneath us, they too would begin to listen in fascination to the weird ramblings of that half-Swedish priest who had his own very personal ideas about language and history.
I found his words both complicated and intriguing; each day they bound me ever more closely to my new (or old?) identity.
‘When you are learning a new language, the first thing you learn is the noun; the word noun is associated with the word name, and naming a thing means knowing it. This is why we cannot pronounce the name of God, because it would be presumptuous to hope to know Him. The noun suggests an idea of something, it helps us know it. In Finnish to know istietää, andtiemeans road, or way. Because for us Finns knowledge is a road, a path leading us out of the woods, into the sunlight, and the person who knew the way in the olden times was the magician, the shaman who drugged himself with magic mushrooms and could see beyond the woods, beyond the real world. It is of course true there is more than one possible path to knowledge, indeed there are many. In the Finnish language the noun is hard to lay hands on, hidden as it is behind the endless declensions of its fifteen cases and only rarely caught unawares in the nominative. The Finn does not like the idea of a subject carrying out an action; no one in this world carries out anything; rather, everything comes about of its own accord, because it must, and we are just one of the many things which might have come about. In the Finnish sentence the words are grouped around the verb like moons around a planet, and whichever one is nearest to the verb becomes the subject. In European languages the sentence is a straight line; in Finnish it is a circle, within which something happens. In our language every sentence is sufficient unto itself, in others it needs surrounding discourse in order to exist, otherwise it is meaningless.’
Oddly enough, when he gave me lessons during our enforced stays in the air-raid shelters, the pastor would not hesitate to launch into some almost dangerously liberal analysis of languages and people, without worrying in the least about divulging his personal ideas concerning good and evil. His sermons, on the other hand, were always very decorous and unimpeachable in terms of dogma; when he was preaching he did not make so bold as to divert the course of migrations, nor did he follow shamans into forests. When he was at the altar, Koskela was a different man: he closed ranks with his church and his sermons took the form of simple moral precepts, hand-me-down phrases which he uttered with a hint of tedium, as though he were acting a badly-learned part in a play he didn’t much like. All that remained of his exuberant personality were the sweeping, tragic gestures, his way of sending his hands flying upwards, fingers outstretched. When he talked of God, he reverted to the familiar tone he used when discussing Ural-Altaics; but only someone who knew him as well as I did could have noticed. He always seemed to be in a hurry to bring matters to a close, not because he had some other duty to perform, but because for him everything had to be concluded as quickly as possible; as though life were a warehouse to be cleared, a lorry to be unloaded – a corvée like any other in the perpetual motion of the universe. Despite the fact that war and devastation were tightening their grip upon the city, the hours that I spent with Koskela were always utterly serene. We did not know it, but cutting ourselves off from the world during that endless winter was the saving of us. Trapped beneath the ice, harm was powerless against us.
‘As long as it’s snowing, they can’t fight!’ the pastor would say resignedly, looking out of the sacristy window. We were both looking forward to the thaw, although for different reasons: he because he may already have known of the death which he was going to meet and which, like everything else, he simply wanted to be over and done with; I because I cherished the fond hope that the part which had died within me might reawaken with the spring. As soon as I was out of his company I was again assailed by all the desolation which had dogged me since my reawakening on the Tübingen. I was beginning to be able to express myself, even if somewhat stiltedly. I would learn the words already declined, a different one for each case, and when I did not know how to put them together I made do with saying them at random, hoping that intonation and gesture would go some way towards making up for lack of syntax. And yet, while still lacking firm banks, the Finnish language was gradually carving itself out a bed in the quicksands of my mind, with the words that I had tamed coursing down it and gradually informing me of the meaning of others. Branching out and joining up, they sent the thousand drops of sound which make up a language into circulation, watering and strengthening my awareness, my ability to sense the boundaries of meaning. But I was still haunted by my ignorance of my own past. Wandering around Helsinki, I would sometimes be jolted by a fleeting sense of memory: the view from a corner of the street would suddenly seem familiar, and then I would set to scouring every foot of road, peering at the names on bells on the doors of the buildings to see whether there might not be some Karjalainen among them. I would dream that I was outside my old house, that someone up there was waiting for me, gazing nostalgically at an old photograph which had been slipped into the glass of the dresser. We had mingled but not totally bonded, Finland and I; something in me remained untouched by this mingling, as though deep down some buried identity was refusing to be wiped out and was struggling furiously to rise to the surface.
These are the clearest pages in the document. Koskela had evidently lent a hand in the drafting of these memories, which were probably put down on paper a long time after the author’s arrival in Helsinki. Some sentences have corrections in a different hand, or are recopied correctly beneath the original. The frequent exercises in inflection and breaking down into syllables of the nouns subject to vowel-change, interspersed throughout the text, bear witness to the perseverance and tenacity with which the author studied the Finnish language, at least during the time the pastor was at his side.
A few days ago, Miss Koivisto suggested that we visit the air-raid shelter where the hospital staff would take refuge during the bombardments. I too was interested in seeing another of the places mentioned in the manuscript, in the vague hope of finding some trace of its author. We turned off the road and found ourselves in a dark space, littered with lumps of plaster and broken glass. Purely by chance, my torch picked out various names and bits of writing carved into the black tiles on the wall, and I suddenly felt deeply unsettled, my instinct telling me that I should instantly look away again. And yet, deep down, some deeply buried compulsion drove me to read each and every one of them, as though they might contain some secret. It was climbing the stairs, back into the white light of the road, that the memory flashed into my mind, that on the other pavement I suddenly recognized the barracks to which my father had been taken the evening they arrested him at the university. In my mind’s eye I saw again the ill-lit parlour, the guards standing around it, the wooden plank beds carved with threatening words, recently gouged resentfully out of the dressed wood like so many wounds, and my father looking at me wordlessly from the other side of the grille. It was meant to be a reassuring look, it was an attempt to inspire trust, but in fact that mask of bogus confidence would sometimes slip, leaving me alone, exposed to the full weight of his own fear. That was the last time I saw him; and, as though I knew as much, I remember how determined I was to slip my fingers through the mesh of the grille for one last clasp of his hand.
Dusk came early at that time of the year. The snow was not enough to light up the empty city, barred and bolted as it was, with all the windows dark. The main monuments, caged in by wooden beams, were reminiscent of the catafalques of some forgotten religion. The buildings in the city centre were empty, the ministries and government offices deserted, having been transferred to underground premises out of town. Although it was not yet at war, Helsinki was a city in a state of siege; the only people in its streets were hurried civilians and drunken soldiers. Fear oozed into the city from the frozen bay, lapping at the streets and squares. Death entered it with the trainloads of refugees, and spread throughout the smoke-filled lairs where the few remaining inhabitants had taken refuge. There was feverish talk of the latest news from the Russian front, of the siege of Leningrad, of the railway at Murmansk which no one had the courage to blow up. Some people cursed the war; the future seemed to be closing in on all sides, like the horizon around us. Each day seemed likely to be the last. This sense of doom was at its most tangible in the fug of the press-room in the Kämp, where I would take up my position in an armchair by the bar, among people I did not know. Together with the book of grammar Koskela had lent me, I would open up my notebook and start copying out words from the newspapers, while listening in on the conversations going on around me. Whenever some important army officer or civil servant entered the room, a small knot of journalists would suddenly form, shouting out questions and leafing through their notepads. I would slip in amongst them, listening to each question as though it were the one I myself would have liked to ask and staring firmly into the eyes of the person being questioned while he gave his reply. Although I had only the barest grasp of what was being said, I laughed along with the reporters, and shook my head to indicate that I shared their irritation when the replies were too evasive. They offered me cigarettes and glasses of brandy, which I accepted without a word of thanks, as though they were my due. When the hubbub died down and everyone went back to their seats, I too would settle down on a nearby sofa, open theHelsingin Sanomatand pretend to read.
It was in the Kämp that I finally became friendly with a German journalist, although perhaps he was rather an acquaintance than a friend. We would greet each other and sit together without speaking, as though we had no need of words to understand each other. He must have pieced together his own version of my story from the few words we had actually managed to exchange. I knew that he was a journalist, and that he was German: that was enough for me. Hearing him talk his language, on the telephone or with some diplomat, I was reminded of the weeks I had spent on board the Tübingen, of the merciless blue of that sea, so different from the desert of ice that lay before Helsinki, of the radiant vision of Trieste and the kindly attentions of Doctor Friari. Since any attempt at conversation required an extreme effort, we had tacitly decided to abandon any further deepening of our friendship. After all, in that doom-laden atmosphere nothing seemed to have a future and friendship, like love, served merely to pass the time. For me, not having to talk was always a relief; but his presence reassured me, gave me a sense of warmth. I would pretend that I had ended up sitting beside him by pure chance; with my notebook, pencil and newspaper, I liked to imagine that I too was a journalist, but I kept this piece of make-believe to myself. He would glance at me out of the corner of his eye, and seemed to have understood everything about me. One night the lobby of the Kämp was strangely deserted; he was sitting typing in a corner, next to the piano, I was in an armchair trying to put off the moment of returning to the hospital for as long as possible. I had drunk and smoked too much and was about to fall asleep, when I heard him whistling a tune which I must already have known. Without realizing it, I began to sing:‘Davanti un fiasco di vin, quel fiol d’un can fa le feste, perche xe un can de Trieste, e ghe piasi el vin!’He turned round, intrigued, breathing the smoke from his recently discarded cigarette out through his nostrils. I raised the empty glass I was still holding and repeated that one verse of a popular drinking-song I’d heard so often in the beer-houses in Trieste. Smiling though disconcerted, the journalist offered me a cigarette and made some surprised comment in German. I shrugged, pointing to a print of a ship which was hanging on the wall. From then onwards he took to calling me ‘Trieste’, and that was how he introduced me to his colleagues. He had realized that I was not in fact a journalist, but apart from some vague questions about Trieste, he had never asked me anything. He observed and respected the mysterious notebook in which he saw me scrupulously taking down the words I would underline in theHelsingin Sanomat; without guessing the secret thread that ran between them, he had nonetheless sensed that they were not taken entirely at random. Seeing that I spent most of my time wandering around without anything to do, at first sporadically but then increasingly often he began to use me as an errand boy, sending me to the post with telegrams, to the Hotel Torni to pick up messages or buy him a newspaper, rewarding me with the odd mark and the occasional cigarette. He made his requests known to me by means of an extremely effective range of gestures, backed up by his personal brand of international German:‘Trieste, bitte, telegramm presto zum Post!’he would say, without taking the cigarette from his mouth. When he left for the front at the beginning of June, other journalists employed my services. So, as time passed, everyone at the Kämp knew me, even though they knew nothing about me. The Kämp had become my home from home; I felt less anxious there, and my jacket was just one blue sailor’s jacket hanging among others.New Finnish Grammar
‘They’re looking for people to help with the bonfires. Tonight’s the night.’ I was the only person in the room, lying stretched out on my bed and staring at the ceiling, but the pastor had come into the visitors’ quarters on tiptoe and had spoken in an undertone.
‘The bonfires?’ I asked.
‘The army’s putting great piles of wood together to the north of the city. Tonight, when the Russian bombers come, our men will set fire to them. It’s a trick: they’ll think they’re seeing Helsinki going up in flames, and that’s where they’ll drop their bombs!’ he explained, taking my jacket off the nail and throwing it towards me.
We piled into the lorries, which then drove off, lights dimmed, towards the forest further inland, along a track of frozen snow. It was pitch black; the snow gave off no reflection, and the dark sky loomed above us. Suddenly we stopped, deep in the woods; the whole column waited in silence, scanning the sky. I couldn’t see hair or hide of the pastor, but I sensed that he was near me; I recognized the unmistakable smell of his overcoat, which smelt of musty paper, as did the sacristy. We carried on walking until we came to a large clearing, where groups of men were already at work around large heaps of cut-down trees; there were also several tractors, and dray-horses. The lorries drew up in a circle; we clambered out and formed a line, to be handed axes and saws. Then we were divided into teams, and each was given a task. I worked for hours in silence, unable to make out the faces of my companions. I recognized them by their movements, by the way they walked across the snow. The pastor was wearing a cap with the earflaps unfastened, so that they swung around with his every movement, making him look like one of the magicians from theKalevalathat he would show me from his illustrated version. Our team’s task was to drag the trunks into the clearing after they had been cut down and roughly trimmed by other soldiers in the forest. We would saw them up into bits, then another team would come to collect them and pile them up. The exhaustion, the sweat, that whole clearing swirling with the men’s white breath, those bodies working in silence, all gave me a sense of peace, of harmony. I was no longer alone, no longer an outsider. I was among my own people; I was working with them to protect our land. It was a powerful feeling; it lent strength to my right arm as I drew on the great toothed blade which bit so effortlessly into the flesh of the wood, as though it too was eager to bolster that surge of concerted energy. The pastor must have noticed, because he came up behind me and slapped me on the shoulder. The earflaps swung around, and I could imagine the expression on his face, although I couldn’t see it. A whistle halted us in our tracks; the tractors turned off their engines and we all ran into the woods, then waited in silence. Shortly afterwards we heard a rumble, followed by several explosions: they were bombing Helsinki. Orders were barked out; a tanker emerged from the woods and began to douse the piles of wood with naphtha; the lorries formed into columns, in preparation for departure. I followed Koskela’s earflaps, then found myself seated next to him, puffing and sweating. No one said a word; the only sound was my companions’ laboured breathing. The column started up. Before we turned into the woods, a gigantic burst of flame lit up the whole clearing, then bounded skywards. Suddenly the faces of my companions leapt out of the darkness, each with its own fear, its own amazement.
We did not make for Helsinki, but headed north-west. After some time the whole column drew up on a road in the woods, and waited; a sergeant handed out cigarettes, and passed round a bottle ofkoskenkorva. Most of the soldiers had climbed out of the lorries and were listening to the sound of the bombs, trying to work out where they were falling. Then suddenly we heard the sound of an approaching rumble, increasingly clear, and loud. The Russian planes were right above our heads, we could almost hear the throb of the pistons, the metallic whirr of the propellers. The ground was shaken by several powerful explosions; the soldiers were becoming uneasy, some were running along the column looking for officers. Then the rumour spread.
‘It’s working!’ someone shouted.
‘Hurray!’ we all shouted back.
Then the sound of singing rang out through the dark woods: voices previously held in check were now set free to rise upwards, soft and buoyant. It was as though all Finland were singing, as though the same song, delicate as glass, was rising from each woods, each lake, each far-flung house of that vast land. Restrained and gentle as it was, it seemed ill-suited to that night of war; and yet, ever more solid, ever more convinced, it flooded every last corner of the forest, leaving no place or heart untouched. Behind us the sky was aflame, the Russian bombers were flying above our heads but did not see us, and we, bareheaded now, beneath them in the woods, were singing: ever more loudly, louder than the planes, louder than the roar of the lorries as they moved off again, and our voices rose to a shout, our song became a battle cry. Now the rattle of bombs was all but drowned out by the sound of a marching song, its rhythm marked by the stamp of our heavy boots upon the ground. We were no longer afraid of being taken by surprise, indeed we wanted them to hear us, we wanted to fling those words of strength and outrage in their faces. I didn’t know them well, but I managed to grasp the drift of those songs and imitate their sounds; I opened my mouth as though to drink in the music which was pouring down on me, fully to share the magic of that rhythm. The tune throbbed around me as though it were in my very veins, and even the distant flames seemed to move to its racked dance.
It was dawn by the time we were back in the city. We knew that Kotka had taken a bad hit, but Helsinki had been left relatively unscathed. There were a few hours until the morning service, but both Koskela and I were too excited to think of sleep; instead, we retired to the sacristy and allowed ourselves the luxury of burning a few large logs, and making tea. The room was filled with the fragrant scent of woodsmoke.
‘Fire! Iron and fire! These are the only things that count in war! You whose name is Sampo – did you know that you are born of fire?Sampois a sacred word for the Finns; the whole of theKalevalarevolves around it. No one can say exactly what it was, no one has ever seen it, because it has been destroyed. It might have been the pillar which held up the earth, and whose collapse for ever cut us off from the place we came from. Legend has it that theSampohas three lids, which are made from the tip of a swan’s wing, the milk from a barren cow and the seed from a head of barley. It could have been made only by Ilmarinen, the smith god who had already forged the ‘lid of heaven’, together with the planets and the stars. The queen of Pohjola had promised her daughter in marriage to therunoilija(poet) Väinämöinen, if he procured theSampofor her. He gave the offer close consideration: the queen of Pohjola was the powerful ruler of the land of ice, and her people had tried to invade the fertile plains of Kaleva on more than one occasion; marriage with the daughter of his longstanding rival would at last bring peace to the two peoples. Furthermore, a young princess would give new life to his old blood, sapped by the passing of the years. The greatrunoilijawanted to ensure a radiant future for his people; for their sake he was even willing to forego theSampo. So Väinämöinen instructed Ilmarinen to go to the kingdom of Pohjola, to render this great service to the queen of the land of ice. The faithful Ilmarinen obeys the orders of his lord. Arriving at the court of Pohjola he promptly sets to work, and on the first day the breath of his bellows coaxes into life a golden arch with a silver apex. it was most beautiful, it was prodigious, but it was not what he wanted, and the smith casts it back into the fire. The next day what he produces is a boat, completely red but with a golden stern and copper rowlocks, and clearly this is not theSampoeither. The smith persists: after drawing a golden-horned heifer from his forge, its forehead strewn with stars and the disc of the sun upon its head, and a plough with a golden ploughshare, a copper shaft and a silver tip, at last, on the fourth day, it is truly theSampothat emerges from the flames. Ilmarinen is exultant: he places three mills beside it, one for making flour, one salt, and one gold. The magicalSampo, which will give men light, has been created. As a reward, the queen of Pohjola will offer her splendid daughter in marriage not to Väinämöinen, but to Ilmarinen. For this powerful ruler had already understood that Väinämöinen was a man of the past, from the time when the world was made of water and men were fish. The future lay in iron, and in the fire which melted it, turning it into the magicalSampo!’
‘So, do you sense the power, the truth that lies within this story?’ the pastor asked me as he poured the tea.
I took the cup from him, my hands still red with cold. I had grasped the bare bones of it even if much escaped me, above all those strange words, those fantastical objects whose shape the pastor outlined vainly with his hands: I had never seen anything like them. But I had been captivated by seeing the sounds forming themselves in his mouth, to be turned into words, then melt away. When I could not understand them, I listened to them like music, a fascinated witness to their fleeting life. How many words were needed to bring a man to life!
Meanwhile, a smoke-laden warmth had built up in the church. Hanging above the stove, Koskela’s overcoat and my jacket were drying, giving out a smell of naphtha. Without caring whether I was following or not, the pastor had begun to speak again.
‘When you can read theKalevalayou will be a real Finn; when you can feel the rhythm of its songs, your hair will stand on end and you will truly be one of us! Look!’ he added, opening the black leatherbound volume on the table. ‘These are not just words! This is a revealed cosmogony, the mathematics that holds the created world in place! Ours is a logarithmic grammar: the more you chase after it, the more it escapes you down endless corridors of numbers, all alike yet subtly different, like the fugues of Bach! Finnish syntax is thorny but delicate: instead of starting from the centre of things, it surrounds and envelops them from without. As a result, the Finnish sentence is like a cocoon, impenetrable, closed in upon itself; here meaning ripens slowly and then, when ripe, flies off, bright and elusive, leaving those who are not familiar with our language with the feeling that they have failed to understand what has been said. For this reason, when foreigners listen to a Finn speaking, they always have the sense that something is flying out of his mouth: the words fan out and lightly close in again; they hover in the air and then dissolve. It is pointless to try and capture them, because their meaning is in their flight: it is this that you must catch, using your eyes and ears. Hands are no help. This is one of the loveliest things about the Finnish language!’
Koskela would intersperse his speeches with long pauses, during which he would become suddenly motionless, as though entranced by his own train of thought. This gave me time to gather up such scattered remnants as I had managed to grasp and put them down on paper. Sipping my tea, I would leaf through the pages of theKalevala, seeking out the words which I did not know but which I had heard in his account, so that I could ask him about them. I would also linger on the images. I noticed that the signs that gave physical shape to that ancient language seemed to have something in common with the characters described: drawn in Indian ink so that they looked almost three-dimensional, the tousle-headed heroes had nothing with which to express themselves except the words that lay around them: solid and dense, these words marched across the page in geometrical, almost military order, reinforced by the alternating rhyme schemes. I did not read the rhyme, rather I saw it, like reassuring embroidery made of the same three letters, bonding the lines together like an iron nail.
My own personal knowledge of our national epic has enabled me to reconstruct some illegible parts of the preceding text. The author was probably copying out sentences dictated by the pastor during his lessons: clearly, in his excitement, Koskela must have been speaking too fast for his still inexpert pupil to take them down in their entirety. As to Koskela’s dense reflections on language, here and elsewhere, I have been able to reconstruct them thanks to the substantial notes written on the back of the illustrations in his copy of theKalevala,which I came across together with this manuscript. In an envelope glued into the jacket flap, along with sacred images and old Russian stamps, I also found various theological writings, indeed virtual dissertations, by the pastor which I incorporated into the manuscript where I felt that the author’s notes seemed to be referring to them. I too would have liked to have known the Army Chaplain Olof Koskela, and to have talked with him of theKalevalaand of God. His reflections often surprised me: if in some places I recognized the signs of his religious training, others were marked by an open-mindedness rare in a Lutheran Pastor. I do not know how old he was, but judging by the date of his edition of theKalevalaI inferred that he was just a little younger than my father; so that I cannot help wondering which side he was on during the civil war. His dislike for the Russians is only part of the story. Perhaps Olof Koskela was indeed a shaman; certainly he was one of the few remaining free spirits in this country at the time.
The pages which follow reproduce a series of dialogues; they are among the most indecipherable in the manuscript, full of crossings out, spelling mistakes and words in the wrong case. Sometimes it is not even clear who is speaking, and the responses are often incomplete, full of blank spaces. Clearly, this part of the manuscript was never corrected by the pastor, and I have been able to fill in the blanks with help from Miss Ilma Koivisto, indeed it was she who transcribed them. It was she who reconstructed the author’s descriptions of the landscape, and other of his thoughts. In the manuscript text the digressions which introduce and follow the dialogues are only roughly sketched in, barely hinted at by fragments of sentences, single words, heavily rewritten or underlined. Like buoys on the ocean of the page, they pointed me towards the flotsam and jetsam of conversations I had had with the author on board the Tübingen in the autumn of 1943. In this way, encrusted now with shells and overlaid with seaweed, the thoughts of which I am once more taking possession do indeed belong to me.
It was snowing heavily as I left the hospital, one evening in late March. Walking as fast as I could along the Esplanadi, I heard what I thought was the sound of a piano playing, borne on a gust of wind, coming from the Kämp. Opening the door, I was met by the welcoming sight of a choir of uniformed nurses, standing before an audience that was, for once, quietly attentive. Shaking the snow from my coat, I too joined the crowd, taking my place in one of the back rows. The room was brighter than usual; there were lamps on the tables I’d never seen before, and various ornamental plants had been laid out at the foot of the little dais, itself covered with a red cloth bearing the emblem of theLotta-Svärd. The piano had been moved into the middle of the room, and was being played by an officer from the frontier guards, who was wearing a uniform which was too big for him. The occupants of the front rows were mainly officers in regimentals, and ambassadors in tails; behind them sat the journalists, together with a group of soldiers wearing dark grey uniforms, with badges which I did not recognize, their chapped faces suggesting that they had just returned from the front. It was beside one of these that I had seated myself; he was listening to the choir as one hears mass, with his head bowed and his hands placed firmly on his knees. The red mark of a scar was visible on the nape of his neck, amidst the close-cropped hair. The heavy fabric of his uniform gave out a smell of disinfectant which reminded me of the piles of blankets in the laundry, laced with a scent of soap; his boots and belt smelled of recently applied polish. The waiters were handing round some warm drink which was very strong; I took a glass from every tray that came around, and it was not long before I was well and truly drunk, glowing with alcoholic warmth, which somewhat lifted my dark mood. In the crammed lobby, the show went on; the silence preceding each number became increasingly tense and grave; so still was the room that you could hear the trees on the Esplanadi rustling in the wind. The voices of the nurses rang out with a mellow softness which was quite unlike the martial tones that I was used to hearing; they rose beguilingly in harmonic scales, then dropped again in geometric spirals. Yet for some reason their songs seemed to inspire the audience with the patriotic fervour normally aroused by a military march. The final song left the soldiers around me positively incandescent, and they burst into applause where joy and fear mingled in equal measure. It was not one of the gentle popular tunes they had been singing previously, but a march which everybody knew. I myself had also heard it somewhere, I could not remember where. At the first notes, one soldier tossed his cap into the air, others turned to hug each other, shouting words I could not understand; then, to a man, they rose to their feet, took one another by the shoulder and added their own deep voices to those of the choir. It was then that I recognized the march: suddenly I remembered the night of the bonfires, the icy road and my unknown companions singing in the dark. Perhaps they were indeed the very same men: I had seen nothing of them but the glowing tips of their cigarettes in the chill darkness. Now I realized that the smells too were familiar:koskenkorva, tobacco, sweat. Although I did not know the words, I too began moving my lips in imitation of the man next to me; I too applauded and thrust myself forward into the crowd which had formed around the soldiers, some of whom were weeping. The nurses on the dais were visibly moved, and had fallen silent, to listen to the soldiers; they looked hot and tired, yet quite composed. They remained in their rows, hands clasped, feet neatly together. Once the soldiers had fallen silent and the applause had finally died down, the usual atmosphere returned. As people filed slowly out, pulling on their overcoats, the waiters replaced the chairs around the tables and pushed the armchairs back into place beside the windows. After exchanging handshakes and military salutes, the soldiers too picked up their greatcoats and left the room. I saw them climb on to a military lorry, its headlights lighting up the whole room as it executed a turn in front of the hotel. The soldiers in regimentals, and the ambassadors, disappeared into the waiting limousines and drove away. Seated at the tables in the back of the room, the journalists had resumed their usual prattle about military strategy; one or two were at the bar, finishing their beer. The usual little glasses forkoskenkorvanow reappeared, together with the ashtrays. Several nurses had stayed behind and were now sitting with a couple of officers at a table a little to one side, where tea and cakes were being served, rather thankoskenkorva; they were talking quietly and gathering the crumbs up from the tablecloth.
I had sat down in the first free armchair to hand, beside the window, and I was staring out of it at the blinding snow. The sudden calm after those rousing songs came as an anticlimax: having been in a sense part of their group, having shared their emotion, I now felt more alone than ever. The Kämp’s usual bustle was not enough to keep my persistent anxiety at bay. My eye fell on my journalist friend, standing among a group of colleagues: he was holding forth in a language I did not know, putting forward his views in no uncertain terms, while another voice was raised in contradiction. I had no desire to throw myself into the usual journalists’ discussions, to pretend to understand sentences which remained impenetrable to me, doggedly to pursue each sound until I managed to dovetail it in beside another I already knew, and hence grasp its meaning. It seemed to me that I would never have the strength to do that again; I felt an irresistible desire to give myself up to silence and to solitude, to let the world make of me what it would, sending me to a painless death, like that of soldiers falling asleep in the snow. Folding up my jacket and placing it on my knee, I glimpsed the label with the words ‘Sampo Karjalainen’ and slipped my finger absently behind it. It was a small piece of fabric secured by four stitches of black cotton, as firm as the sutures of a wound: four stitches which were all that held my life in place. Perhaps it had been that military march which had sent my thoughts back to Trieste; those frightened soldiers, so like those with me on board the Tübingen, and those others in the woods. I had not forgotten Doctor Friari’s words; ever since my arrival in Helsinki, his advice had served as my rule of thumb, and had stood me in good stead. At first, it had seemed to work: as he had suggested, I had devoted myself systematically, indeed pigheadedly, to studying the Finnish language, I had allowed myself to be convinced that Finland was my country, that its people were my people, that those sounds were those of my own language. In moments of desolation, when my thoughts were at their blackest, I had stayed curled up before that flicker of hope, and so I had been saved. On such few clear days as there were, together with the pastor, I had gone to the headland at Katajanokka to see the sunrise, imagining that one day I too would be born afresh. It was not hard to give myself over to that universal need, the longing to belong. But my new adoptive identity remained a sham.
Each day meant starting again from scratch. The moment my attention lapsed, the moment I allowed my mind to wander, all the good work would be undone. The words stayed with me, my knowledge of the language became stronger and more rooted, but any sense of truly belonging to that place would have vanished. I had a distinct suspicion that I was running headlong down the wrong road. In the innermost recesses of my unconscious I was plagued by the feeling that, within my brain, another brain was beating, buried alive. The thought occurred to me that perhaps my sense of being permanently on the alert, my failure to immerse myself blindly in my new life, might stem from one single but serious omission. There was just one piece of Doctor Friari’s advice that I had failed to follow: namely, to give myself over to the search for a lover. Somewhere within me a shell had formed, as hard as stone and equally impenetrable; I could feel it, under my skin, as though I could touch it. It was the kernel of my new being. To crack it open, to offer it to someone else, meant jeopardizing even that little I had managed to build up, meant that those sixteen letters of my name might be blown away, scattered to the four winds. I who did not yet know who I was, how could I forsake myself so soon? Who could be worthy of my trust?
So there I was, lost in painful thought, hunched over my bundle of blue cloth, staring pointlessly into the distance, when a familiar figure took shape at the watery margins of my vision. I recognized its gait as it lingered on its right leg, body and neck thrust slightly forward, as though it were seeking permission to enter my thoughts. It was the nurse who had met me on my arrival at the hospital, the one who had introduced me to Koskela and whom I had never seen since.
‘Good evening! So it is you? From a distance, I wasn’t sure,’ she said, coming nervously forwards and making an effort at a smile.
‘Good evening!’ I answered, getting to my feet. I didn’t know whether to shake her hand, and she didn’t know whether or not to offer it. We ended up by exchanging something approaching a bow. My head was spinning, indeed I was probably reeling from too much alcohol; she must have noticed, and responded with a mixture of composure and embarrassment.
‘Where have you been all this time?’ I asked awkwardly.
‘We nurses were mobilized, sent off to Mikkeli. We were supposed to have been going somewhere else, but we couldn’t leave because of the bombing. Now we are off to Viipuri – tomorrow morning, in a troop train, to organize the refugee centre there, and … Oh, I’m sorry … how stupid I am! I wasn’t thinking … I was forgetting …’ When she spoke again it was more slowly, pronouncing each letter of each word with the utmost clarity:
‘Mikkeli is a city – a big city – and, well, that’s where we were, but …’
She was using her hands to give an idea of the city of Mikkeli. I broke in, smiling:
‘Don’t worry, my Finnish is much better now. I don’t speak it well, in fact I speak it extremely badly, but I understand much more.’
She nodded in surprise.
‘Oh, but you’re right, congratulations! I wasn’t paying attention! You’ve even got a slight Helsinki accent!’ She was pressing her small hands together, desperately thinking of something to say.
‘How about you? Still in the visitors’ quarters?’ Traces of red from her earlier embarrassment still lingered on her cheeks; as she spoke, she tried to thrust an unruly tuft of hair back under the cap from which it had broken loose, falling over her eyes.
‘Yes, I’m still there. Bed number six, by the window!’ I answered, a false note creeping into my voice. In my mind’s eye I saw the six white beds on the red-tiled floor like six snow-covered tombstones.
She gave me an apologetic look, as though she felt personally responsible for my fate. Her green eyes had darkened slightly, as did her voice when she asked me:
‘Is Doctor Lahtinen back yet?’
Within one question, I sensed another.
‘No. Now they say he is in Petsamo,’ I said, without much conviction.
‘Perhaps he can’t make it back. Travel is a problem, what with all the bombing …’ she offered by way of explanation, though she herself did not seem to believe her own words.
‘That’s right. Perhaps he never will!’ I shot back with a bitter smile. But I wanted to talk of other things; or perhaps I did not want to talk at all. I was forcing myself to be sociable, and it was taking its toll. I would have liked to find a quick way out of the entanglement, but some strange compulsion led me to carry on.
‘Why don’t we sit down?” I suggesting, pointing towards a table.
‘That would be nice,’ she replied, but she sounded indifferent, nor did she make a move. She had blushed again and was looking down at her shoes, hoping I would not notice. I felt that she was regretting ever having acknowledged me.
She was a very slight girl, and fragile-looking, unlike most of the other nurses, who looked and moved like sturdy farmers’ wives. She slipped off her cap and folded it up on her knee, running one hand quickly through her hair. The shifting colour of her eyes meant that there also seemed to be something changeable about her face: one moment she looked like a shy girl, whom I could scarcely imagine dealing with bomb-torn flesh, the next she looked like a grown woman, inured to the sight of suffering. Outside, the wind had died down and the snowflakes were drifting lightly towards the windows, settling into the spidery network of ice etched on to the panes; given a sense of warmth by the yellow glow of the candles, their white veiling offered a sense of security which was hard to resist.
‘What lovely voices!’ I said, nodding in the direction of her fellow-singers.
‘Thank you! You’re very kind. But then we’re singing such lovely music!’ she answered. I noticed that she was looking around uneasily, in search of some safe spot to rest her gaze. When they met mine, her eyes veered nervously away, like those of some startled creature. I too was peering around me, wondering how I might put her at her ease. Because, by now, I wanted her to stay; I would have liked to drive off her discomfiture with my bare hands.
‘It is so good to sing: your lungs fill up with air, your blood runs faster, even your brain works better. That is how sad music becomes joyful music,’ I said lumberingly, tripping over every word. But I was not sure that she had understood, because I often get mixed up betweensurullinenandiloinen’ – sad and joyful.
‘Singing is the most natural form of music; and the oldest!’ she said distantly. I thought back to my lonely nights in Trieste, when I would repeat verses from songs I’d heard in the bars, quite without understanding them – just to have some words, any words, going through my head, anything to stave off the exhausting coming and going of my thoughts. Now I had a potential associate, someone to get to know, a friendship to nurture. But shaking off the crusty embrace of solitude entailed an effort.
‘Do you sing?’ she asked, taking heart.
‘Yes, but only as children do, to pluck up courage when I am afraid.’
‘And when are you afraid?’
‘Often. Above all when I am alone, when there is too much silence. I’m always afraid that it will last forever.’
My words made her smile; clearly, they struck a chord. So as to have something to do with her hands, she had begun fiddling with one corner of her cap, rolling it up and watching it unroll.
‘Silence is music too. At school, our singing teacher used to say that silence in music is like white in a water-colour; it’s not a colour, but you need it in a painting. Silence is what is left around the patches of colour, and every painting … ‘
I kept my eyes on her, but I was not seeing her. My thoughts were chasing one another pointlessly, never catching one another up. Her voice trailed away, and she looked at me doubtfully, ill-at-ease again.
‘Perhaps what I am saying is too complicated? I’m sorry … You express yourself so well, I quite forget …’
‘No, no,’ I broke in, ‘don’t worry, I understand. Not everything, but enough. And when I don’t understand, I myself make up what I want to hear!’
Then she laughed, and the sound was like a match struck in the dark room of my memory. I had the feeling I was remembering an identical laugh; but it was only a feeling.
‘I like the image your singing teacher used,’ I went on. ‘Who knows, perhaps we could play pictures like symphonies, only we just don’t know it!’
‘You use words nicely, too,’ she said. ‘Now that you know it better, what is it that you most like about our language?’
‘What do I like about it most?’
‘Yes. A word, a phrase …’
‘Well, I know this may strike you as strange, but what I like is the abessive!’ I answered hesitantly.
‘The abessive? But that’s a case, a declension!’ she shot back in amusement.
‘Yes, a declension for things we haven’t got:koskenkorvatta,toivatta, nokoskenkorva, no hope, both are declined in the abessive. It’s beautiful, it’s like poetry! And also very useful, because there are more things we haven’t got than that we have. All the best words in this world should be declined in the abessive!’
She burst out laughing, holding one hand in front of her mouth; but it was no good, because her amusement had spread to her eyes. I savoured the success of my witticism, felt a pleasant sense of warmth stealing over me.
I glanced out of the window. The journalists who were not staying in the Kämp were beginning to take their leave; I watched them setting off over the snow, shrouded in the white mist of their own breath, talking loudly and swinging their arms in order to keep warm. At that hour I too would usually be returning to the hospital: to my cold and empty room.
‘What’s the matter?’ she asked in alarm, noting my sudden change of mood.
‘Nothing, nothing,’ I reassured her, shaking my head. ‘We were talking about music!’
She looked relieved.
‘Oh yes, music. What sort of music do you like most?’
‘Well, I’m no expert – I don’t go for anything difficult. Of the songs that you have just sung, I liked the last one very much.’
‘ThePorilaisten marssi? Pojat kansan urhokkaan?But that’s a military march!’
‘That’s as may be. Anyway, the audience enjoyed it – it’s cheerful.’
‘The music maybe, but not the words!’ She was amused, and was still rolling her cap up into ever larger curls.
‘What are they about?’
‘About the homeland, about blood and those who are prepared to die,’ she explained gravely.
‘Will you teach it me?’
‘Well, there are more cheerful ones!’ she protested.
‘But that’s the one I want!’ I insisted. ‘If you speak slowly, I could copy out the words.’ I pointed to the notebook in my pocket, adding: ‘I’ll learn it by heart and then I’ll be able to sing it when there’s too much silence.’
She smiled; now I even saw a touch of tenderness in her eyes. She let her cap fall on her knee and placed her outspread hands upon the table; she clearly bit her nails.
‘Just as you like!’ she said, nodding in assent and looking around her, as though to check that no one was looking.
‘I don’t even know your name,’ I said, opening up my notebook.
‘Ilma,’ she said in a low voice. ‘It means air,’ she added.
‘Air?’ I repeated, amused.
‘Yes, like what you breath; or indeed what the weather is like.’ Once again she clenched her hands, so as to hide her fingers.
‘So when the weather is bad, could you say that today it’s bad Ilma?’
Clearly, no one had ever put it quite like that before.
‘Why not?’ she said, in some surprise. ‘But, above all, the name Ilma means freedom. Because it lets you free to be what you are, to go where you want: free as air. That’s what my father used to tell me. People called Eeva or Helena or Noora share their name with lots of others, so there’s something stale about it; but Ilma is always new, always pure.’
The meaning of this last sentence escaped me. I had watched it emerging from her mouth, followed the sound of it for a time. Then, without my realising, my eyes had ventured in the direction of her own. I felt the muscles of my face relax: everything in me was now letting go.
I copied out the words of thePorilaisten marssi, barely understanding them, as though they were the ingredients of some secret spell, and now they struck me as more magical than ever. Of all the words I’d written in that notebook, it was the ones which had made the soldiers cry that most intrigued me. That they had to do with war was plain as a pikestaff. Some of them were quite long, full of repeated vowels, with umlauts like helmets and aitches like slung arms. Others, much shorter, chopped off by apostrophes, seemed to be waving their stumps in the direction of the empty line. Certain capital letters referred to places where famous battles had taken place, although I could not recognize them. I saw the word for flag, and it did indeed seem to flutter, making a snapping sound as it left one’s lips.
‘Now you must sing it!’ suggested Ilma, suddenly warming to her task, elbows on the table, hands awkwardly intertwined.
‘I would like you to sing it with me,’ I said, overcome with shyness.
‘In march time, and till dawn?’ she asked, suddenly playful. ‘Till dawn!’ I answered, getting up and pulling on my jacket. Drunk with an exhilaration I had never known, I let the words slip from my mouth careless of where they might lead me, although I sensed it might be far.
Ilma’s face had lit up. The delicate sprinkling of freckles on her cheeks and cheekbones looked sharper, warmer, her expression suddenly unguarded, and a strange sense of reserve caused me to look away. I realized, then and there, that something was happening which I did not want to happen.
‘Wait for me outside,’ she said, pushing back her chair. Looking back through the ice-clad window pane I saw her rejoin her fellow-singers at the table, where her outline merged with the rest. There on the silent street the biting cold brought me to my senses: I felt unreasonably bothered, I wanted to run, to disappear back into my solitude, which now seemed both troublesome and comfortable, like some non-life-threatening disease. Now the very thought of even the most tenuous link between myself and that young woman filled me with dismay. How could I have yielded to such easy temptation? It must have been the alcohol. I was suddenly sickened by the idea of that unknown presence beside me, demanding warmth and care. I would be required to take an interest in another life and all its petty doings, to feign concern for a person who was nothing to me, to share my anxieties with someone else and agree to lower my gaze to meet their own. Above all I would have to listen – listen to someone else’s story, sympathize, mull over their feelings, be dragged into sufferings not my own, though I would have to serve as comforter; have that face before me each day, pleading for understanding, pity, help; promising me joys I do not seek, affection I do not want to give. See my time merge, my boredom fuse, with hers; smell her smell on my clothes, pick out her shape along the street; sleep in her bed and wake up each morning, always the first, alone in the grey light, waiting for another endless day to start – to be spent with her, to be dragged out of silence by force and carried in my heart till evening, until the moment when darkness would return to drown out our solitude, both mine and hers. The idea was abhorrent to me. I was repelled by the way all those around me clung so doggedly to life, the way they were born again beneath the ruins, instantly rebuilding what the bombs had flattened, in the grip of that unquenchable desire to be brought back to life which is the scourge of the human race. My own instinctive desire was to get through such life as remained to me without sullying myself, with the least possible damage and the least involvement. Because mine was no longer a life, but a leftover, some leavings I had picked up along the way. To rediscover my true past was an impossibility; to seek out a future, a huge effort. Doctor Friari was right: language is our mother, and it is through language that we come into this world. But I had lost both, forever; to me, rebirth was denied. The best that I could do was to live out the remainder of the life I had as one smokes the last bit of a cigarette, in a hurry to get it over, already looking around for somewhere to throw the butt-end. Determined to avoid forging that dangerous link, I was about to walk off towards the darkness of the Esplanadi, but Ilma was already beside me; she placed her arm on my blue jacket, and I instinctively took it.
It was no longer snowing. The wind blowing in from the sea was now less cold. It smelled of seaweed, but also of resin: as though, on its journey from the open sea, before reaching the city it had become lost in the woods, soaking up the smell of the earth. The Esplanadi was deep in snow, its course marked only by two rows of bare trees.
When we reached the Mannerheimintie, it was dark and deserted; the great dark shapes of the buildings loomed above it, many with their windows still glued with strips of protective tape. We passed a group of soldiers, but fortunately they immediately turned off into the Aleksanterinkatu; perhaps they had just come out of the Capitol. They were talking loudly and walking at a fair pace, and we were irritated by the racket. But soon they were out of hearing, and we were plunged once more into the silence of the great avenue, streaked with tyre marks on the dirty snow. We turned into the Bulevardi and walked towards the sea. Ilma was walking in silence, but I thought I could catch the drift of her thoughts; she was working out what she was going to say. I looked at the sky, above the tangle of bare branches: it had a strange glow to it. Somewhere up there a wind must have been blowing; the odd gust made its way down among the trees, dislodging the snow from the branches. I could see the clouds fraying and whitening in the pale light of stars too distant to have any resonance.
‘Now we can sing!’ said Ilma in a whisper.
It was too dark to see her face, and I felt nothing but relief that she could not see mine. We walked faster as we sang, picking our way between heaps of snow-covered rubble, along the dismal road suddenly enlivened by our song. The city lay around us, motionless, crouched like a hunted animal. Disembodied and brazen, our voices were dashed against the walls, falling back upon us in fragments. What with the singing and the marching, I was soon out of breath; but the more I sang, the emptier my head became. At the end of each verse Ilma would remind me of the words of the next. I followed her as best I could, and I felt as though I were marching towards the front, towards the Russian batteries hidden beyond the horizon; or towards that battlefield which I myself had become. Hearing me flounder over some difficult word Ilma would laugh, tightening her grip upon my arm, and it was by that arm that I felt clamped to the life I had decided to clutch at; that life I had so often seen flowing at my feet without finding the courage to leap into it, to wallow in it, like the rest. Now I was allowing myself to be dragged along, into song and down that street, away from loneliness, away from silence; away from myself.
When we reached the shores of Hietalahti Bay, we came to a stop; it was so quiet that you could hear the fat raindrops falling from the trees; and I too was a raindrop, I too was a tree. I was the snow, and I was no longer frightened of melting, of running down the streamlets into the sea, to merge with the relentless march of all that is endlessly transformed and never dies. For the first time I had found the courage to leap out of my beleaguered consciousness and mingle with something different from myself. I had gone down into the slime of life, my feet experiencing its disagreeable consistency. My awareness of this careless intermingling made me at once euphoric and dismayed: I had become vulnerable. My fragile memory, hothouse-reared, kid-glove tended, now lacked all protection; now parasites and mould could attack and destroy all that had cost me so dear to nurture. Now that I was alive, I might also die. A door had opened up before me, and it filled me with foreboding: to go through it meant steeping myself in life, letting each cell merge with millions of others, becoming part of that chaotic brew of organisms which is life, where the individual is insignificant and life and death are mere moments, ways through towards some other place, some point in the universe where everything is rushing headlong – to disappear. On the one hand I was drunk on that new sensation of surrender and belonging, on the other I was alarmed by the idea of losing control of my individuality. I regretted that I would never be able to go back to that freezing evening when I had gone into the Kämp and sat down among those soldiers with their unknown uniforms.
‘It’s starting to thaw,’ said Ilma, pausing to listen. She looked around, narrowed her eyes and added: ‘Can you hear, the wind has changed? It’s coming from the sea.’
We both looked behind us at the dark mass of the city, then turned towards the white expanse of sea.
‘Does that mean there will be no more snow?’ I asked.
‘It will rain. A lot. Everything will turn to mud.’
‘But the trees will come into leaf.’
‘That takes time. Here, spring is the worst season. The earth and sky soak up the mud churned up by all the rain; even the seagulls get spattered with it when they come to peck at rubbish in the puddles. Everything that has died in winter goes bad only in spring, because the ice keeps it alive for months. You’ll see, there will be a smell of rotten wood, dead animals and stagnant water, all coming from the woods. It’s like that on battlefields: it’s only now that many mothers will weep; only now will the earth be soft enough for digging graves. That is another thing the summer does: it frees us from the dead.’
In front of us the ice was creaking, the trees were dripping and the clouds breaking up in the darkness of the sky, swept by a gale that we down here could hardly hear. Ilma fell silent, let go of my arm and turned towards the open sea. Now I could smell her hair: it smelled of smoke and lacquer; it smelled of life. I felt an urge to take her by the shoulders, to take her in my arms, to hold that being made as I was made. But something held me back: each of us was locked into an equal solitude, lonely conditions which touched one another but did not blend, like two drops of different liquids. We carried on walking around the bay, towards the hill in Kaivopuisto Park; a shapeless bit of moon had emerged from a strip of cloud piled up on the horizon, its glancing light gashing the countryside like machine-gun fire. Shadows dense as pitch danced down from the trees on to the walls of the buildings, carving dark, unsettling fissures in the snow. The houses thinned out as we approached the hill; Ilma was walking a few steps ahead of me, as though she were in a hurry to reach her goal.
‘I want to show you a secret,’ she said.
She walked quickly up the slope, turning around every now and again. I could hear her breath, and the splashing sound our steps made in the wet snow; from time to time the wind would send a lock of our hair flying over our faces like a long scratch. I was having trouble keeping up with her, and would stop every so often to draw breath. I sensed, from her enthusiasm and her determined step, that she had something specific in mind. She stopped in the middle of a field of untouched snow, on the brow of a downward slope running towards a little cobbled lane.
‘Here we are!’ she exclaimed breathlessly, pointing towards a great tree, gnarled and bare, which forked into two almost at its base, one branch running immediately upwards, the other running horizontal to the ground for several feet before doing the same, so as to form a seat. Ilma went to sit on it, brushing the remains of the snow from its smooth bark, and casting a shadow which looked alarmingly like that of some prehistoric animal.
‘This is the magic tree – the tree of happy memories! It’s here that I hang all the good things that have happened to me in this city. Of course, it’s more impressive when it’s in leaf – summer evenings are the time to come here, when the light is red and the air taut as a sail. That’s when it casts its spell. Would you like me to tell you how it works?’
I nodded, and went to sit beside her on the seat.
‘Whenever I meet someone I get on well with, I bring them here, talk to them here, let the tree take in something of our memories, and the magic starts to work. Then each time I come here that memory will return: that moment, that person are mine for ever, here, inside the magic tree!’
‘Do you have memory trees everywhere you go?’
‘No, only here.’
‘Why only here?’
‘Because in this life you have a right to just one memory tree. Otherwise, it would be too easy, people would just rush from one tree to the next so that nothing would ever be forgotten, so that nothing of one’s own memories would be left lying around. Then nothing would be forgotten, and memories would cease to exist.’
‘But without memories there would be no nostalgia, either,’ I objected.
‘That’s true. So how would people carry on living? After all, we live in hope that a memory will come back – that it will prove to be a premonition.’
A prolonged silence followed. I listened to the wind as it whistled through the branches; I wished that they could speak instead of me, for I had nothing more to say. But rather than keeping silent, I persisted:
‘And why would you want to remember me?’
It gave me a certain painful pleasure to say these words; nor did I try to soften their meaning with my tone of voice. Amidst the throng of rowdy thoughts that had surged through my mind during that night, I recognized the face of my own solitude: it was my damnation and my raison d’être. It was calling me now; I had to go. Ilma bowed her head; she knew what I was thinking.
‘So that this night may be remembered, so that it won’t fall into the dark pit of everything that’s past,’ she answered bitterly.
‘So you hope that this night will come back? That it will be a premonition of something else?’
My question was badly formulated, put together in haste without the words being properly sewn together. Ilma had to think for a moment before she understood what I meant.