Translated and introduced by Paul O'Mahony
This article appeared in the 2012:1 issue.
Gå inte ensam ut i natten (Don’t Go Out Alone Into the Night), published in 2009, is the fourth and final book in Finnish writer Kjell Westö’s loosely connected series of Swedish-language novels set against the backdrop of twentieth-century Helsinki.
In 2006, Westö won the prestigious Finlandia Prize for Där vi en gang gått (Where Once We Walked), a novel steeped in the turmoil of World War I and the Finnish Civil War. A year later, he was long-listed for the International IMPAC award for the crime novel Lang, translated into English by Ebba Segerberg.
A film version of Där vi en gang gått premiered in Finland in October 2011, an event followed two months later by the launch of a six-part television drama series.
In Don’t Go Out Alone Into the Night, the reader is transported back to the 1960s, as the children of the World War II generation seek to forge new identities in a rapidly modernising Finland. As Hufvudstadsbladet’s reviewer puts it: ‘If anything, it is this that Westö’s epic Helsinki novels thrive on: transience. How the twentieth century swept across Finland; what time has done to this little country by the Arctic Circle; what it has done to the growing city and its inhabitants. But also, what life itself does to people and the relationships between them.’
Early in the novel, three of the book’s central characters, Ariel, Adriana and Jouni, form a band together. Soon they record the single that gives the book its title. The song is well received in musical circles but does not lead to the breakthrough they crave.
Sensing the band has no future, Jouni, a working-class brawler with a keen intellect, leaves the trio to focus instead on a new career in journalism and, later, politics.
Adriana, meanwhile – privileged, attractive and coveted by her band-mates – falls for the charms of the band’s manipulative manager before grappling with her deteriorating mental health.
The band’s demise comes as a huge blow to the meek, stuttering Ariel, whose life in Helsinki seems increasingly devoid of meaning. He mostly stays indoors with his beloved guitar when he’s not out running errands for criminals to finance a growing drug habit.
Though an adult now, he still lives at home with his mother and her invariably abusive boyfriends. He never met his father, who died in a car crash. Or so he has always been told.
In an attempt to better his situation, Ariel decides to move to Stockholm. He knows he at least won’t be alone: Finns represent Sweden’s largest immigrant group, with most new arrivals adapting relatively quickly to life on the other side of the Baltic Sea.
Cruelly, though, the only people Ariel knows in the Swedish capital are his criminal associates, Raikka ‘Hullu’ Hurme and Pätkä Suhonen. And Hurme is the one person who can give him the work he needs to start a new life.
During those years, a few hundred Finns – mostly men, but quite a few women too – frequented the area around Slussen, in central Stockholm. Slussen was a metro station and a transport hub, that much Ariel knew from hearsay, but he didn’t know a whole lot else. He’d heard of the Slussen Finns and knew they were doing what he’d been doing on the corner of Albertsgatan and Rödbergsgatan: selling illegal alcohol at heavily inflated prices. Ariel knew guys from Rödberg who would take the boat over to Stockholm on a Thursday just to flog booze for the weekend, and when they returned on Monday they were able to take the rest of the week off. But he hadn’t realised that at Slussen, and in its underground walkways, everything centred on the bottle. Slussen was a losers’ ghetto. It was a slum. For anyone who had not yet abandoned all hope, it was hell on earth. And Ariel had not abandoned hope. Far from it. Granted, he’d been lost and dejected this past winter. He’d drunk too much Sorbus and Nodika, popped too many Preludin pills, and smoked far too many pipes. However, he wasn’t a complete wreck. He was maybe a bit the worse for wear and lacking focus. But this was a whole different level. Many of the peddlers spent their whole lives at Slussen. They lived there. Either they slept in one of the few bushes or they hid in the walkways people used to get from the metro to the bus station. Worst of all was Gula Gången, a dripping, damp, cold pedestrian tunnel with yellow tiled walls. It was where the peddlers fled during police raids. Its nooks and recesses were occupied by sleeping men and women. Most ranged in age from twenty to thirty-five, but their faces made them look much older.
The only ones in better shape were the bosses. The people running the operation lived in actual apartments. Their homes were out in the concrete suburbs, or up in Söder, or in Gamla Stan, the run-down old town district just a stone’s throw from Slussen. Raikka Hurme was one of them, having quickly become a sort of deputy to the mysterious bootlegger boss who went by the name of Painija, The Wrestler. Pätkä Suhonen, on the other hand, had managed to drink himself half to death in just two months. Ariel found him living in an abandoned, rusting Simca behind the platform for the Nacka and Värmdö buses. The Simca reeked of urine, acidic wine and filthy clothes. The floor mats were strewn with empty bottles and grimy rags, and Ariel declined with a shudder the dregs of the aquavit bottle that Pätkä held out for him to take. Instead he said he had to go.
Yet Ariel, too, was beginning to get bogged down in the same mire as the others. The Slussen demi-monde sucked in the lazy and the lost with unmerciful force. The Swedish social system was well developed, and it was easy to get money for booze by signing on to the unemployment register and claiming sickness benefits. The city-run temperance committee and the local branch of the Salvation Army each handed out food stamps and the stamps could be used as cash. You could sell them if you were broke and the lure of the liquor was starting to override the need for food. The Swedish state-run off-licences were called Systemet, and any attempts by Systemet to curtail illegal trading were easily circumvented: all you had to do was buy small amounts from lots of different outlets. In late spring, when Ariel first arrived, a nightly half-bottle cost between twenty-five and fifty kronor, depending on supply. More often than not, prices were negotiated in Finnish rather than Swedish: the Slussen Finns were perhaps the most visible and the loudest, but they were far from being the only Finns in the city.
Hullu-Hurme was delighted to welcome Ariel and immediately put him to work. Many of the Finnish-speaking peddlers couldn’t speak any Swedish at all – at a push, they could say fiffty, forrty or twenty-fife when asked for a price – but Ariel’s bilingualism made him an asset. And since this was a spring in which the Swedish capital was full of mods, as well as a longer-haired variety that had become known as hippies, Ariel didn’t stick out as much as he had at home in Helsinki.
Ariel worked hard for a few weeks. Sometimes he slept at Gula Gången, other times in Hurme’s place on the top floor of a block of flats out in Bandhagen. As the days and nights passed, he became consumed with a growing dread. The oldest of the Slussen men were aged between forty and fifty and belonged to the generation that had gone to war. Many of them had come across the water in the earliest peacetime years – an era referred to in Finland as the Years of Peril, since nobody knew on which side the country would end up in a divided new world. The others were closer in age to Ariel, and he could clearly see what was missing from them. They were like him: they were the children of dads who had either died in the war or come back wounded, addicted to booze and not right in the head; dads who had drawn knives, and would drive their wives and children out onto the street in the middle of winter if the mood took them. And here they stood, the sons of those damaged soldiers, about to go down the exact same road: drunkenness, drugs, burglary, theft, fencing, violent crime, prostitution – all this was commonplace now.
Whenever Ariel stayed over with Hurme in Bandhagen, he was forced to drink. The flat was always full of men and women boozing. Even The Wrestler turned up occasionally, making Ariel one of the few people who had seen the gang leader and knew what he looked like. On the nights when Ariel slept down at Gula Gången, or under the open sky, he covered himself with a mouldy blanket he had borrowed from Hurme. His brown shoulder bag served as a pillow, and he held the case with his Levin guitar in a tight grip until he fell asleep. His grip loosened when he slept, of course, and it would have been easy for somebody to pry the guitar case out of his hand. It was almost a miracle that the instrument remained by his side every morning when he awoke.
After a few weeks, he got lucky. It was a cold night in the middle of June and he was sitting in a boozer near the square at Mariatorget. He had gone to the pub to warm up, and while there he met a gang of mods from Jakobsberg. There were a handful of guys and a couple of girls. They were a few years younger than he was, and all the guys had spent time in reform school. A couple had even been to jail. They were tough characters – Ariel thought one of them, the leader, Ronny, looked like Jouni Manner – but for some reason they took a liking to him. One of the girls, a spotty redhead called Marga, took more of a liking to him than the others, and she and Ariel hung around together for almost a month. The whole gang lived together. They had access to an almost entirely unfurnished flat in a condemned building near Zinkensdamm, as well as a small wooden house out in Jakobsberg. It never became clear to Ariel who rented the flat at Zinken, or who owned the wooden house, and nor did he care.
They spent much of their time in the newly built City district, frequenting the neighbourhoods between Hötorget and Central Station. Sometimes Ariel would play his guitar all day, either sitting down in the metro or standing up against the wall of a building. He was encouraged to do so by Marga, who thought he played wonderfully. A couple of the Jakobsberg guys smoked hash and Ariel couldn’t bring himself to say no: he started smoking again. On the other hand, the Jakobsberg crowd didn’t drink much in the way of spirits, sticking mainly to wine and beer. They stole their food from Åhléns or Kvickly, always managing to get enough to keep everyone happy. Ariel was among the most daring thieves. He also wrote a couple of new songs during those weeks. He didn’t know it yet, but they were to be his last.
Ariel avoided Hurme and the other Finns. Sometimes he stayed away from Marga and the Jakobsberg crowd too. Instead, he hung out at Sterlings and the other record stores, and listened to new albums by The Beatles, The Doors, Pink Floyd, and The Kinks. But his favourite album was Are You Experienced? He was spellbound by Hendrix. He listened to the album almost daily, until one day he was no longer able to contain himself. First, he stole the album from Sterlings. Then, just before closing time, he tried to steal a record player from a shop on Drottninggatan but got caught. The Jakobsberg crowd weren’t happy with the attention, and Ariel was made to feel increasingly unwelcome in the Söder flat and the wooden house in Jakobsberg. Marga started saying he was weird and called him a fucking Finn, and soon his place on her stained mattress was taken by Ronny, who had recently begun fixing him with a sharp, piercing gaze. Ariel got scared and made his way back to Slussen, where he was greeted like a lost son by Hurme. He started peddling again. He hung out at Hurme’s place in Bandhagen. More often than not, he declined the bottles of booze circulating from person to person in Hurme’s shabbily furnished flat. Instead, Ariel would pull out his small corncob pipe and announce that he was having ‘a little bomb’. Nobody cared. In these circles, you could use whatever stimulants you liked without anyone interfering: some of them were using amphetamines and hardly slept at all.
In the third week of July, Hurme confided in Ariel that he had recommended him for a job abroad, and The Wrestler had given his consent. The job was reasonably well paid and very easy, Hurme said. All he had to do was obey orders and not ask what was going on. What’s more, Hurme added by way of a warning, it was important that he keep his mouth shut both before and after. Could Ariel manage that? ‘C-course I can. Can I leave the g-guitar here with you?’ Ariel asked as he accepted the job. That’s how he came to see Gotland and the sea off the coast of Stralsund, and that’s how he came to hear about his dead father Lennart.