05. 13. 2015. 14:32

Small countries do not always have a choice in troubled times

Interview with Kjell Westö

Kjell Westö (1961), who belongs to Finland's Swedish minority, won the Finlandia Prize for his grand novel on Finnish history from 1906 to World War II, and the Nordic Council Literature Prize for his recent novel that takes place just before World War II. Writer Noémi Szécsi interviewed Westö at the Budapest Book Festival in April 2015.

According to stereotypes, Finnish literature is nature-centered and naturalistic, whereas the literature of the Swedish minority is much more sophisticated and sensitive to Western influences. Do you agree that Swedish-language literature in Finland has a flavour of its own? How do having Finland as your home country and having Swedish as your mother tongue meet in your prose?

There was some truth to these stereotypes in the past (Swedish-language literature tended, for example, to be more cosmopolitan and urbane) but they don't do justice to present-day Finnish literature. The stereotype is especially flawed when it comes to the younger generations of writers who write in Finnish―they have left the nature-centered and naturalistic prose behind them, and write in a variety of genres and styles. But I do think that Swedish-language literature in Finland has a flavour of its own. It is not easy to pinpoint the contents of that flavour, though. I detect a certain wistfulness, a longing, even a silent sorrow maybe―the wistfulness and sorrow of belonging to a national minority with a glorious but also complicated past, a minority which is slowly losing its influence and becoming more and more redundant in the national project. I know that this wistfulness can be traced in my own books. I also have no alternative but to confess that being a Finn (and I AM decidedly a Finn, that is my identity) but having Swedish as my mother tongue and my most beloved language, has set the tone and the "sound" of my prose.

Helsinki is a relatively young capital, in a way a "teenager" among European cities. But it probably changed enormously at the turn of the 20th and 21st century due to the changing status of Finland. Do you, as a native of Helsinki and as a writer constantly inspired by the history of this city, like its new face?

Yes, Helsinki and its atmosphere have changed enormously during the last 20 or 25 years―along with the changes in Europe and around the globe. The history of this―as you correctly pointed out―relatively young city has its paradoxes, though. If we go back to the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, Helsinki (then a very small city in the outskirts of Europe) actually had a cosmopolitan tinge. The Helsinki where I grew up, the Helsinki of the 1960s and 70s, was in some ways more "closed" and secluded than it had been before WWII. With my cosmopolitan views, it is obvious that I like the fact that the city has become more international, more open, more liberal when it comes both to accommodating people from all over the world and allowing different lifestyles. At the same time, and on the contrary to what I just said, I am a bit worried about the conservative, nationalistic and at times even xenophobic sentiment that has been spreading in Finland―like in so many European countries―during the last five years or so. At the moment I think no-one really knows what the future will has in store for Europe.

Your novel Där vi en gång gått has been compared to War and Peace not just because of its length, but because of your detailed and sensual descriptions―reminiscent of Tolstoy―which make the bygone world so palpable. How could you picture this episode of the past so smoothly? Can you mention some good sources or real-life figures which inspired you? Did Enok, Vivan, Allu, Eccu, Lucie have originals in the memoirs you read?

I am a thorough and patient researcher. I have also, during the decades, finally summoned the patience and stamina "to wait my stories out," to carry them within me for a long time until they are ripe and ready to be written and finalized. (This ability didn't come easy, my basic character, my soul if you will, is impatient and was more suited for the world of journalism where I started my writing career.) I do research in many, many ways. Sitting in archives, reading old newspapers and magazines, reading memoirs and biographies, searching for old correspondence (it can be the correspondence of famous or unknown people, I don't mind, but in my experience the letters of unknown people are even better than those of high-ranking people as the latter are often too self-aware. Two absolute favourites of mine are old photographs and old documentary films or news clips. I have created many a character by staring relentlessly at the faces of unknown people in old city photographs. But I never create my protagonists or even slightly important characters out of "originals." No, my method is to read extensively and do all kinds of extensive research, with the aim of making my total knowledge of any epoch so broad and deep that I can create truly fictitious characters out of what I know.

The Hungarian reader will have déjà vu reading the parts about the civil war of Finland, which will remind him of the Commune of 1919 and the massacres following afterwards. Public opinion of it changed from demonization to idealization according to the changes of the governing regimes. Did public opinion about the civil war have phases in Finland, too? Does the civil war still stir emotions in the Finnish?

Yes, public opinion about the Civil War has had phases in Finland too. One could even say that it's taken us almost a hundred years to learn to come to terms with the cruelties and atrocities that took place. We are more analytical and calm about the Civil War now than we were for example 30-40 years ago. Had I published my novels in the 60s or 70s, the debate about what I am depicting would have been more heated and more infected. The  attitude towards the Civil War is still not neutral though, it still stirs up emotions in many people. One has to remember that our Civil War was also the war that sealed our independence from the Russia that was shortly to become the Soviet Union that was, in its turn, later to endure the dicatorship of Joseph Stalin. A very patriotic person would still call this war The Freedom War. During the 70s and 80s, when the Far Left was much stronger that it is today, communists called the war The Class War. I stick to the term Civil War, because historians recommend it as being neutral. A Civil War always leaves very, very deep traces in the nation whose inhabitants fight it.

The end of Tuntematon sotilas by Väinö Linna (also a winner of Nordic Council Literature Prize like you) always made me envious, because it seemed Finland "came second," she did not humiliate herself in the way Hungary did. How proud, how mortified are you by the role Finland played in World War II? Did your opinion change while ou were doing research for your novels, Där vi en gång gått and Hägring 38?

My precariousness stems partly from the fact that both my grandfathers were killed in the wars against the Soviet Union. World War II was too big a trauma in my family when I grew up. But of course, as a Finn I do know a lot about the events of the Winter War and the Continuation War. My opinions have stayed quite the same during the last ten years or so. There is no doubt whatsoever that our country was brutally attacked at the end of November 1939, and I am proud of the way the generation of my grandfathers defended our country during the Winter War. The decision to try to take revenge and fight alongside Nazi Germany from the summer of 1941 and onwards is a much more problematic one. I wouldn't say I'm mortified by our role―the Finnish Army defended itself heroically in the summer of 1944 when the Soviets started a massive attack with the aim to defeat and occupy Finland, and small countries do not always have a choice in troubled times. But there are many events―for example the prison camps for Russian POWs, or the treatment of our own defectors―from the years 1941-44 that should be investigated thoroughly by historians and discussed publicly. And finally, I think it was lucky that Finnish politicians and diplomats were able to stop us from being at war with the Soviet Union as early as in September 1944. That could give us exactly the room we needed to be able to stay on the Western side of the Iron Curtain later. Because that's where we were during the Cold War, even if we were "finlandized" and had to tread very carefully in our relations with the Russians.

From the beginning your writing career seems to be building progressively (from collections of poems and short stories to novels and even a magnum opus); it seems very smooth from the outside. Did you have periods of standstill and writing blocks and if so, what helped you onwards?

This is too large a question to start answering extensively here. But I can tell you it wasn't as smooth as it looks. I had enormous difficulties in doing the transition from poet/short story writer to novelist. Actually I fell into a total standstill and severe writer's block during the years between my second collection of stories (1992) and my first novel (1996). I was quite severely depressed during the year 1994 and during half of 1995, after having failed in my first attempt to write a novel. And I've had minor writer's blocks and problems even since. Actually I'm living through a quite problematic period right now: I'm working on a new novel, a very important one at least for myself, but the success of Hägring 38 makes it hard to find sufficient time to just hide somewhere and write.

After receiving the Nordic Council Literature Prize in the Helsingin Sanomat you said writing your next novel has been slowed down by duties required by the representation of your books. Do you have strict rules to keep up työrauha, the peace needed for work, to balance between writing and a successful writer’s duties like receiving prizes, travelling to book festivals or giving this interview?

I'm trying my best to keep my työrauha, I even have an unfriendly automatic reply on my-email saying "please don't contact me, I have too much to do!" in three languages. But it isn't easy. I'm disposed to be kind and polite to people, I was brought up that way, and I've had some difficulties when trying to guard my privacy and above all the time and space I need to write and create. But travelling abroad when translations are published or meeting the readers at home have their upsides too. It's a great honour that a foreign publisher wants to publish your book, and it's remarkable and a true privilege that talented translators―often great writers themselves―take the time to do the hard work it requires to translate an ambitious novel. All this is something to be really thankful for. And the readers―where would we writers be without them? I feel privileged to have the position I have.

Noémi Szécsi

Tags: Kjell Westö