Thursday, 26 March 2009

Olli Jalonen: 14 Knots to Greenwich

from the novel


Before the Tying of the Knots

or, straight from Petr’s notebook:

[The world really has only one ocean, and all the others that are called oceans are merely its fjords and inlets, while the landmasses are its shores, frozen or unfrozen. There is plenty of globe-blue lacquer paint, with a multicoloured island in the middle.

If one or two channels had not been scooped out in a straight line and the water in the Bering Straits had dried up just a bit lower down there would have been only one great continent, a world island. All the islets dotted here and there would have been scattered flecks in relation to the land, in the same way as the lakes and salt-pits are to the mother sea.

That is what the world looks like on a scale of 1:100,000,000. The globe is covered by an ocean embroidered and interrupted by the continents and landmasses. Journeys across it seem bafflingly short. The area of the surface coloured in blue is calm and the air eternally windless, the whole geoid curves smoothly, convex like a gleaming lacquered salad bowl.]

The world washes people apart, he thought, as the strip of grey-green sea appeared behind the cairns. Although at first it looked like a river with straight sides, he knew it was a fjord because he had traced the footpath on the map all the way to the shore of Killary Harbour, where it must be possible to get across. Closer to, the mountains rose on the opposite coast, and at the head of the fjord lights were coming on in rows and blotches, though behind the peak of Devil’s Mother there were still rags of cloud coloured by the evening light. The base of the scraped-looking rocks was a purplish black.

Time washes people apart, or distance, sometimes, no matter how close to each other they are, by email one can’t do more than update information, there isn’t room on the Christmas card for the new address. For many years it was as if Graham and Isla had vanished. They had moved to a corner of a quiet part of the world, that was how Graham himself had put it in a letter, but an emptiness like that of Lapland was something my brother could not have expected.

Though how can one know for certain, he wrote all kinds of things in his Ryman notebook, but some of the lines can’t even be deciphered, and what changes everything Maaria, is that I am being made into him.

He had last met Graham and Isla seven years earlier. That spring he had still been on a scholarship and spent the summer in the village of Haslingfield near Cambridge. At the beginning of the autumn he returned home, but they had written messages, intensively at first, then less frequently until suddenly the addresses were merely wrong, and the emails started to bounce back like boomerangs.

They had known one another ever since my brother Petr obtained his first long-term fellowship in England. Sometimes he spent a couple of years in Finland, but had always come back to Churchill College again. Always in his absence Graham had started on something entirely new, his own research project or a well-paid substitute post, and when Graham started on something, he did it all day from morning till night. That way one gets a lot done but is not always patient enough to wait behind those who are slower than oneself.

They had grown tired of Cambridge, or Graham had, gone to the neighbouring island to look for a secluded cottage and found one in Country Mayo, on the shore of Killary Harbour. So Graham had told him in email messages when after a long silence they started to arrive again.

For the first time, a clean attachment appeared in my brother’s email: a copy of part of a page of the Independent with an advertisement for something called the Halley Society and a cable channel ringed in blue pencil. The sender’s country code was “ie”. My brother had been unable to contact Graham and Isla, it was after all so long since the last Christmas card and instead of the sender’s name there was only the name of a company, HisOceanOs. Graham had never talked of owning his own research firm during their student years together, nor had Petr known that they had moved to the Atlantic coast of the other country.

Round the world team race. To celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the Edmond Halley Memorial Society and Britain’s leading producer of historical travel documentaries, the Channel-14 cable and satellite company, announce a contest intended for expedition groups, which will attempt to travel all the way round the globe in the shortest time possible. Part of the route will pass through regions and places associated with the life and work of Edmond Halley. The expedition must be made in accordance with the contest agreement and the conditions and limitations set out in the rules. The selection of the groups will follow criteria based on itinerary, resources and qualifying stages, details of which are explained in the rules...

In this first message my brother was unable to find anything, even by searching, that would indicate why it had been sent to him. He tried to check the sender and the attachment , but in vain.

Half an hour later the next message arrived. Then it all suddenly became clear, as though a silk ribbon had been cut and the road opened.

First Graham explained how their lives had changed, told him about the firm and the move to Western Ireland and then in more detail told him why he had, without comment, sent him that cutting with an obscure advertisement for a competition of this kind.

Our work together at university went so smoothly that I immediately wondered if you might have a) the enthusiasm b) the possibility of going and c) any interest at all in such a long run. This will take longer than the double marathon we ran along field paths near Cambridge in the autumn of 1994. Soon everything will be a long time ago.

We won it, or the post-graduate series, at any rate, because there weren’t so many people taking part. But at any rate 84 kilometres 390 metres in under twelve hours, though our feet were blistered and our toenails were half black and blue. On the wall of my study I have an enlarged photo of the start: our numbers are 109 A and B, we both SPRI waist bags in front and behind, still full of liquids and energy sticks broken into ready portions, spare socks and Vaseline for abrasions. Next to the picture I have put a photocopy of the result list.

1) Graham Richard Hugo and Peter Jarvi 11 hrs 52 mins 30 secs

I do remember that your name was spelt wrong, it always was.

I suppose we last saw each other seven years ago, but the memories are good ones. You immediately came to mind when I began to think of a possible team. I will discuss the funding and other details of the rules with the E.H. Memorial Society office, but I’m asking you now. Do you think you could take the time off, and come with me?

My brother remembered the marathon well, jogging past the banks of the Cam, the horribly long day in a hot, brooding September, the beginnings of cramp in one’s calves and crushing magnesium and caffeine tablets against a stone wall so they would dissolve more quickly absorbed in the water and the bloodstream.

Ever since going up to Cambridge he had known Graham, who was a tutor of foreign students, showing them around and advising them on practical matters. Their study programs were almost identical, and as my brother had already met Isla elsewhere, by chance, the three of them had become friends since Petr’s first year there.

When after much prevarication Isla and Graham decided to get married, Petr had bought them a wedding present: a double-sized electric blanket with a thin coiled element inside. It was the kind used by elderly couples who lived in stone houses with draughty, single-glazed windows and no heating during the night time. The wedding guests laughed at it where it lay among the elegant and trendy presents on the gift table, but my brother had said he knew the sort of ascetic life that Graham led in his attic lookout chamber on Chesterton Road, and wanted to make sure that Isla had at least one warm place to go.

I'm interested, though I really don’t know anything about it. I can easily take a few months off: at any rate, the inland waters history project is finished as far as I’m concerned. I’ve been making maps and drawing up the preliminary texts for the Finnish water atlas for a year now (not a strange or challenging or difficult task). Greetings and a hug for Isla. Petr.

He fired off his reply without thinking any more about it, and it proved to be the kind of step that takes one on a para-glider off a vertical cliff-face towards something that cannot possibly be known because it has not existed for one to any extent ever before.

[The older I’ve become, and the more projects of every type that I’ve got involved in, the more often I have begun to take decisions on the principle of spontaneity . It’s pointless to speculate on things that are pointless, and the best thing is to trust the first strong feeling one had. Spontaneity always takes one forward to some extent, and it’s not worth letting alternative futures dangle on in the balance for weeks on end. If one chooses a certain direction, one is already there. There will always be new interconnections and all the alternatives will branch off so many times that all the choices and failures to choose are connected to all the other ones. How will one know any longer whether by making a different choice one would even have ended up somewhere else, or just there, in the same place where one is?]

translated from Finnish by David McDuff

For an interview with Olli Jalonen, and an introduction to the book, see in this blog:

14 Knots to Greenwich

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