Schildts & Söderströms (Finland), 2016.
Reviewed by Deborah Bragan-Turner in SBR 2017:2
Review Section: Fiction - Adult
Peter Sandström’s Laudatur is a masterpiece of understatement, a brilliantly laconic portrait of the sad vicissitudes of life. Sandström is a highly regarded Finland-Swedish author, the winner of numerous accolades and awards, who has yet to attract the attention of English-language publishers.
The story takes place in the city of Turku (Åbo in Swedish) and the small town of Nykarleby, in western Finland. The male narrator, who has left his job as editor of a journal, is gradually coming to terms with the slow collapse of his marriage and alienation from his children. The details of his everyday life act as triggers for memories of the past. The resulting narrative moves between Turku in 2014, and a key scene with his parents in Nykarleby, in 1988. In many ways this is a companion novel to Sandström’s previous book, Transparente blanche, both following the return of a middle-aged man to his childhood home.
The 51-year-old narrator, Peter, spends much of his time in the basement of his house, doing the family’s laundry and reading poetry. His 49-year-old wife, Zebra, an academic, has just announced she is pregnant; she comes home from time to time for a change of clothes, between her demanding career at the university and long periods spent with ‘someone called Mäkinen’. The two teenage children live at home with their father, but increasingly he finds he has nothing to say to them.
In September 2014 the narrator receives a text message from his mother: a photo of a death notice accompanied by the words ‘Good riddance’. The narrative then switches to August 1988, and Peter’s memories of being 25, back home with his parents in Nykarleby, before he starts his new job in Turku. His father is a war veteran, now a gardener, who chops the wood that keeps his family warm. ‘A man and his firewood. Perhaps that was as simple as life could get.’ But during these few summer weeks he learns that his parents’ apparently stable, loving marriage (and his father’s womanising) is more complicated than it appears. The father-son relationship ‒ and the import of what is left unsaid ‒ is a recurrent theme in Sandström’s works. Peter says of his father: ‘He carried his darkest dreams deep within; they were his.’
Sandström has a very sharp eye and a gift for seeing humour in the incongruous and the mundane. His is a singular voice, its beautiful prose conveying an idiosyncratic view of the banal and the commonplace. A quiet comedy pervades the melancholy. There is a self-deprecating tone to the narrator’s keen observation of what amounts almost to a chemical experiment: what happens when the opposing elements of his own fastidious personality and his wife’s more disorganised approach are joined in one shared life. The result is no dramatic denouement, but rather a measured shift. There is a tiny hint of duplicity too, as elements of his past life emerge and reveal a character at odds with more than just his wife and children. We learn that as a young man he was a conscientious objector who undertook civilian instead of military service, he wore make-up and red silk pyjamas, he left his job because he refused to agree to a new time management system. He is a misfit whose strongest emotion appears to be mild irritation.
This book is an antidote to the fast pace of modern life. It is to be read slowly, for pleasure ‒ to hear the subtlety, the gentle dialect, the restraint, the comedy and the heartbreak. It is to be savoured and relished, and it will remind you of the joy of reading.