Translated and Introduced by Sarah Death
This article appeared in the 2011:1 issue.
Hannele Mikaela Taivassalo’s haunting new novel defies standard categorisation. On one level, it is a time-travelling murder mystery – though with the body and a very apparent suspect present from the outset, the ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ are more important questions than then the ‘who?’ On another level, it is a meditation on travel, on home and away, family versus rootlessness. On her blog in November 2009, while writing the book, Taivassalo wrote: ‘My new novel is about endings, interruptions and conclusions. About the transitory nature of things. It’s this: two Scandinavian capitals, strange individuals, a passenger ferry on a very small ocean, crossing to and fro, time shifts, buildings, Carl Michael Bellman, the sleaziness of today and the golden wingbeats of history. A tale with a scent of old perfume and tobacco. Longing. Characters linked to each other by family ties or pure chance. And of course: both the families and the chance are of great importance. Someone’s going to die, but not at the end.’ She characterised the work as ‘a psychotic, wanton novel, baroque and rococo within one and the same pattern, a popular song, but serious. As if you could come back after all, even when you are gone.’ At the novel’s heart is a cast of characters: Selim and his sister, who both work in the floating retail palaces that are the ferries, constantly travelling to and fro; Selim’s little girl Selina in Helsinki, whose care they share; the child’s feckless, drifting mother Lillybeth; the strange passenger Erling Elias Stoltz, known as the Baron, who is blond and beautiful but somehow seems to belong in an older Stockholm than the one we know today; and the stair dwellers in the apartment block with the thin doors, among them the red-headed woman (who surely has elements in common with the author herself) who wants to narrate the story, but is so saddened by the fact that all stories must end and people cease to be. In the midst of life we are in death, the novel constantly reminds us. And how will the stair dwellers react when Selim’s sister goes AWOL with the Baron and Lillybeth leaves Selina all alone? What will become of the lovers in the dark recesses of the Opera House? Taivassalo builds up her atmospheric story with the cutting and flashback techniques of film, but also borrows from poetry and song in her almost incantatory repetitions and plaintive refrains. And wheeling above everything like some kind of Greek chorus are the gulls, shrieking out their complaint and longing. The extracts below are pages 7-8 and 89-95 of the novel. Finland-Swedish writer Hannele Mikaela Taivassalo (b. 1974) is a writer of novels, short stories, plays for radio and theatre, and children’s books.
She walked alone on the thick carpet, looking up at the chandeliers, the painted ceiling. Alone, looking up. Into the room with the golden walls she walked. The crystals glinted. You could almost hear the brittle notes settling against each other, though not a single crystal edge was moving, though the ceiling was high and the lights far, far away. It is a solitary progress, moving slowly forward with eyes fixed on a ceiling that is so far away. The shot rang out, like an echo of something else, in another time, in another building, but the same place. Gustaf III, she had time to think. Then the chandeliers flickered, sighed, although they were silent. Then they were sucked slowly upwards and away, although they were motionless. The floor across which the blood spread was patterned already. The red moisture soaked down between the parquet blocks. She, was nothing, not ever again. Who was he, it must have been a he, who took aim and fired, who stood in wait and discharged his weapon? Black cloak and black mask. That is how one imagines he was dressed, he could have been, invisible as if he were in disguise and his movements covert. Perhaps there was a place with trapdoors and secret passages. A place with elegant panelling that slides at a touch, carved knobs to be given half a turn, one has to remember that décor is not solely for decoration, and that even what is beautiful can transform and conceal. What it will conceal we do not know; that is the whole point. He, it must have been a he, vanished as if swallowed up by the very building, by its staircases, its corridors, the corridors’ swirl, by the labyrinth of my heart.
You do not normally hear the creaking. The floor is old and uneven; it creaks as your feet tread over it. The creaking is generally drowned out by the buzz of voices, subdued by warm bodies and soft fabrics as everyone stands close together with their expectations, waiting for the performance to begin. Now, nothing will begin. Something has ended: what she is has ended. As she moved through the golden room with her eyes fixed on the ceiling, she could hear the floor creak beneath her; that is how alone she was. But she did not notice the sound. Nor could she have noticed the floor creaking beneath another pair of feet. She cannot have noticed anything else, the presence of anyone else. She noticed nothing but the glittering chandeliers above. Now, nothing will begin. Something has ended in this room. Like this.
The ship is a city, but simplified and transient. Most people, perhaps all of them, are on their way somewhere else – across the sea or back. Many are only there temporarily, so that at least for a moment in their life, they can be somewhere else. But they are all going away somewhere, no journey lasts forever. Yet perhaps there is one, in a cabin way down, below the cars, below the waterline, far removed from the perfume and the loaded buffet tables, far removed from the singers in the bar and the reception desk, from the alcohol buying and the gaming machines, one who has stayed in this no man’s land and is permanently going away somewhere. In a forgotten cabin with no number, the door handle seems to be missing, does it even look like a door any more? In there, someone is living her life, working as an unofficial cabin stewardess, handing out extra pillows from the stores, stealing wallets and food and keeping herself to herself. Alternating directions, to and fro, out and back and back again, new people, new strangers all the time. The only constant is the presence of someone who is not supposed to be there. The only constant is this unknown factor, of whom nobody in this community, this city, ever becomes aware. The element that is not supposed to be there. But no journey lasts forever, not even this one. When the ship is finally sold for scrap, it is sold with that little, mummified body way down inside, below the empty car deck, below the waterline. The door is like part of the wall, and no one ever considered opening it. When the vessel is taken apart, the decomposing body is broken into dry bits, crumbles to dust. Without anyone noticing. The scrap metal is sold on, the volume of it ensuring a not inconsiderable income for the poor country that is taking care of the waste products. The vessel is a city, but it is not a home.
The perfumes that are lined up on the white shelves have many fragrances, and trying to catch the closest fragrance is disconcerting. It eludes, is distant, frustrating, while the others all around are obstinate, getting in the way. She stands at the counter, absolutely still, and thinks about herself; not even her hands are doing anything. Oh, I was so soft, she thinks, everything about me was so rounded and smooth, his hands almost sank into me. I shaped myself gently around myself, filling me and our flesh. She smiles. It is quiet around the glass bottles, around the white shelves. The voices whisper, speak in low voices. The prices are high, one buys with reverence. The light is shimmering white, like her skin beneath her clothes My skin, as soft as Lillybeth’s skin, she thinks. As if I had caressed my own skin with powder paper, wrapped my own arms lightly and comfortably around myself and another, at the same time. As if that were how it could be, how it had to be. As if there were no question. My own fragrance, delicately wheaten. Then I fell asleep under the glare of the light. The air is always heavy with perfumes here.
So this journey, too, ends, as everything ends, sometime. She does not pack her bag, does not disembark, does not go ashore. She stands out on deck and watches her city, where she should be walking now in the grey haze, wheeling her case behind her, a little after the rush to avoid the overcrowded tram. She should be walking there now, her feet on the tarmac, her collar turned up against the persistent wind off the sea, on her way home, into the city, to the house with the thin doors, on her way home to the two other quiet people, to Selim and Selina, the two who begin with S. But she stands up on deck and looks down on dawdling hordes slowly winding their way out, and off into the city. She rang to say she’d be away. For a few days. She could tell from Selim’s voice that it scared him, that he would have liked to ask her to come, change her mind, but he said nothing. Okay, he said after a few seconds of silence, have a good time. Nor would she have time to get home before he had to leave, she knew that, she wouldn’t be there this time, when he picked up his bag and set off for the docks. Naturally she wondered what he would do. How he would organise things. Selina. Who would look after the Child? He couldn’t take her with him; he couldn’t leave her there. Maybe he’d have to ring the shipping company and explain, maybe he’d just have to take sick leave, maybe he’d have to ring somebody else or maybe there was no solution at all. She didn’t know. It would have to be his problem. It didn’t have to be hers, always hers, any longer. The waves looked grey and cold, the sea was sluggish and heavy. The gulls circled, flying far too close. She would come back out on deck to see the vessel cast off, she decided; it was a long time since she had watched that. The body of the vessel would grate and screech under its own weight, the hawsers would move slackly through the water towards the hull, and all the parts would stir with stiff weariness, too big and unwieldy to do otherwise; only the little people on the deck and the quayside would seem supple and swift, though almost invisible. She wanted to see that, on a day like today. She wanted to see the ship’s departure, she wanted to see it detach itself, and then she would stay on deck to watch the city disappear. Those were her thoughts as she turned her back on the terminal and opened the heavy door to the interior of the vessel. Before the door slammed shut behind her, she could not avoid hearing the pleading screams of the gulls.
What was it the gulls wanted, what was it they craved? Was it the sea they were missing, even though it was right beneath them, even though their shadows skimmed across the water like pointed arrows, pointing this way and that, their direction unclear. The scornfully laughing gulls, shrieking with contempt for all the waste we leave behind us, before greedily devouring it. The yearning, desperate screams, the craving as they circle close to the square, close to the café pavilion, even right into it. But what was it they craved? It wasn’t the rubbish and it wasn’t the buns. It wasn’t the half-melted ice cream that fell onto the pavement, nor the hot dog plucked straight from the hand of a careless victim. No, it wasn’t that. Whatever it was, it must have been something else. Somewhere else. Someone else. The empty hot dog wrapper tumbles and twirls and along the ground, the mustard plasters it to the lamppost, then it is carried on, out towards the waves, towards the water, across the quay and down into the clouded, mobile sea.
an echo of our bottomless longing
Mark your shadow Baron, mark, my friend, the way it grows longer and longer behind you there, as the day grows shorter. Soon it will melt into the shadows of night, into the darkness of the alleyways. Then it is evening and time to sleep. My dear Baron, go in now and rest, in your own home. Wake up, for this is your world, your time, there is no other. Go home. But the Baron does not go home. We are obliged to accompany him through this lovely city, we follow him to discover what depravity he will lead us to. However we follow will we ever see what he sees? The city cools down, the lively main street suddenly seems so much broader. The light is grey, but the air is clear, even so. The new part of this city stands there in confusion, cars are few, bypasses lead upward, but as if in vain. Where are all the cars, now they have planned for them? What is the point of all these lanes, and where are they meant to lead? Away? Why away? In other districts of the city, the stumps of streets are narrower and more crooked, but not lost, not dead. Although there is no one walking along them, they still exist just as much as they did a few hours ago: they are not transformed by the twilight, not even at midnight. They are not streets simply to be passed through, they are streets that are, that exist, for hundreds of years, however much you and I exist or disappear. Baron, you are here now. Try to be here now, among the cars and delicatessens, among the neon lights and traffic lights, among plastic gadgets and designer jeans. You will hear no rustle of capes against skirts against petticoats, no horses’ hooves or clattering carriages or coachmens’ impatient cries of out of the way, you rabble, out of the way, no excrement in the gutters against which to guard your hand-sewn, silken shoes, no dainty, hand-sewn shoes to guard, no tricorne pressed down lightly over your wig, so the pigtail tickles the back of your neck, not even the same shadows or the same twilight as in the sparse gleam of hanging oil lamps or tallow lanterns; the darkness is split and broken by the countless electric lights that mean today’s city stands out, even when viewed from thousands of metres above. Erling Elias, known as the Baron, try to be here now, with us, in this city.
Oh come and look, not yet, but soon, soon. It was a head, the thing eventually lying here; the wet scraps are impossible to piece together. And even if they could be, they would contain no more thoughts. How can something that is in progress just end, something that is real just cease? The brain that was so recently planning an action, deciding where the feet were on their way across the creaking parquet, now lies splattered over worn floors, soiling them, soaking in. The thought has been broken off, not to say shattered. The feet rest motionless against each other, against the same wooden floor, going nowhere ever again. It all came to an end. We go on, but even if we whisper or call or speak loudly and enunciate clearly, we can never reach her again. Her light brown hair still lies in neatly set waves; the body is there, but lifeless. However much we wait, she will not move. Although she has her mobile telephone with her in her handbag, she is still unreachable, suddenly. This is how it will be, in mid-sentence, in mid-thought. But for now she is standing on deck, with a pounding heart and the wind rippling the waves in her hair. On her way to the city.