Saturday, 21 March 2009

Robert Åsbacka - "The Organ-Builder"

Orgelbyggaren, by the Finland-Swedish author Robert Åsbacka and published by Schildts has been nominated for the Nordic Literature Prize 2009.

Åsbacka now lives in Sweden, but this novel is set in the area where he was born, around Nykarleby in Ostrobothnia. There is a
review in Swedish by Pia Ingström in the Finland-Swedish daily Hufvudstadsbladet.

As Ingström points out, it is a novel about the loneliness of an old man who first lost his daughter through cancer, then his wife Siri in the "Estonia" ferry disaster. In memory of his wife, he begins to construct an organ. Buxtehude is a leitmotif throughout the book. By way of an accident, he meets the people who are living in his former house, and the novel takes off from there.

There follows Chapter 1, in my draft translation (including ???, where I can't think how to translate the word or passage), and part of Chapter 9, where the old man who, like Åsbacka himself, worked on that very ship when it was still called "Viking Sally", imagines what his late wife must have gone through in the last hours of her life.


That very morning, he sat at the breakfast table a little longer than usual. There was a poem by Stig Dagerman in the paper. He knew it all too well. Maybe something Siri had read to him. She tended to read aloud, both poetry and novels. This was something they had already started doing in the fifties, when they were still young and relatively malleable. And although, in those days, he wasn’t really interested in books, he never protested against reading aloud of an evening. Quite the opposite, he could think of no better way of approaching the substance of books. Although what he really wanted to get nearer to was her. Books came as an added extra. Gradually, books became part of their lives, and much later, when she was no longer there to read and pilot him in the right direction, it could happen that he would cross the esplanade and enter the bookshop in order to order something he had heard about on the radio, or read in the paper.

But when exactly Siri would have read that poem by Dagerman was something he couldn’t remember. Maybe it was something she had borrowed from the library. Or the poem may have been in an anthology. She would sometimes bring home such books. New Swedish poetry. From Södergran to Sonnevi, and all the rest. And the Dagerman poem did have a whiff of anthology poetry.

Or perhaps the book had been on his own bookshelves. He shuffled out into the hall, just to check. Two solid stacks of varnished fir, from floor to ceiling. There they were, in alphabetical order. These were what was left over, after he had weeded out books and given away most of what Siri had left. And it was not beyond the bounds of possibility that the Dagerman had fallen victim to the process. In which case, the books could now be found in the local second-hand bookshop, going for a song. They would hardly have been sold. Each time he had entered to browse, the bookshelves of unsold books had increased. Those that could be sold would be lying on a rectangular table in the middle of the shop. Turnover from that table was likely to be quite high. But the Dagerman had never lain there.

The only Stig Dagerman book he managed to find that morning was a cheap edition of Bröllopsbesvär - "Wedding Worries". It was squashed in between Chorell and Diktonius. He wondered why he had saved that particular book. Maybe because the cover expressed love and despair, presumably more despair than love. He didn’t know whether this was also true of the book itself, because he had never read it. It was likely to have been bought by Siri, sometime in the fifties. She never bothered with first editions and fancy bindings; for her, what counted most was the contents. She used to read mostly when lying in bed, with one of her inherited cushions under her neck. The last years, she would often complain about pains in her wrists. The origin of these pains was not likely to have had anything to do with reading, but it did mean that she was forced to change her habits, and when at least reading heavier books, would have to sit up in an armchair, with the book on a stand in front of her. Or sit on the organ stool with the book open on the keyboard while the minister was taking the service alone. She had a peculiar capacity for being able to follow the service and love intrigues at one and the same time. Only on rare occasions did silence ensue, and the minister begin to cast worried glances over the lectern to see what the organist was busy doing, as the music had not begun where it should have. This happened when she was reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and although she happened to be reading it for the second or maybe even the third time, she was drawn so much into the story that she was oblivious of the silence that had fallen on the whole church. It was only when she heard the minister clearing his throat several times that she allowed herself to be gently raised out of the relationship between Anna and Vronsky and back onto her organ stool in the church which had now begun to fill with whispered voices and the sound of sandy soles against the stone floor.

But Stig Dagerman’s Bröllopsbesvär was thin and light and had never been propped up on a stand. He brushed the dust off the picture on the cover and replaced the book on the shelf. Then he shuffled back to the kitchen and cut the poem out of the newspaper. The last verse went:

How soon the poplars stand high
and naked with black in streaks.
To die is merely to snow
like leaves in the merry stream.

Snowing like leaves. Borne on water. That sounded peaceful.

But the real reason for him to remain seated for so long, and that he had gone out into the hall to find the book, was that he had begun to wonder why a writer from Sweden itself, such as Stig Dagerman, would have written snöga for "to snow" That was pure dialect. He remembered, from his schooldays, lines by Topelius with winters where "snow" became snöga on your nose, and where the white rowan tree would snöga down blossom on whoever it was. But Topelius was born and bred locally, and had soaked up the way people spoke here, the way a child tends to do.
Ostrobothnian dialect. He’ snögar.

Or maybe the word was a remnant from Swedish times. In which case it was not dialect, but archaïc usage, and common to usage in both Ostrobothnia in Finland, and Västerbotten, across the water in Sweden.

So he went for another walk. The town had begun to come alive. Even the girl in the flat above was awake, he could hear a chair scraping then the thud of the pipes as she turned on the tap in the kitchen. That thudding, didn’t that mean there was something wrong? An air lock? A leak? Every time he heard it he thought of phoning to tell someone. But he would forget, until the next time he heard it.

The Swedish Academy’s Glossary was on the bottom shelf near the floor. He had to bring up a chair and sit down, in order to reach it. In times past, he would climb up without thinking onto a chair to fix shelves just below the ceiling; now he even had to use a chair to reach the floor. He could not avoid thinking what the next step might be. No great effort was necessary to arrive at the answer, but he chose not to linger on the topic and instead leafed to the letter "s".

Snöa, as it was given there. The standard form. Nothing else. Nothing about dialect or archaïc usage. Just snöa.

Not that it mattered. The poem was fine as it was. It was called Höst - Autumn.

- - - - - - -

[From Chapter 9:]


At about half-past nine, the weather was already making its presence felt. The ship wasn’t rocking so much that the stabilizers were unable to neutralise the swell, but she knew it was going to get worse when they were out in the open sea, and were no longer shielded by the coast. The forecast had warned of high winds during the night and the next morning. Siri never got really seasick, but she did often go pale, lost her appetite and wanted to lie down to quell the nausea. She may have done so that time too, chosen to go to bed and try to sleep through the storm.

When the ship set sail, the wind was blowing at about ten metres per second, and the wind was increasing, hour by hour. By midnight, it had increased to around 20 metres per second, and the vessel chugged on through the waves at about fourteen knots. In such conditions, the hull ???rister skrovet", and the bows dig down so deep that the water hits the windows on deck seven.

Thomasson had a habit of standing in the bows in the autumn, behind the thick plate glass, watching the storm come over the Åland Sea. It was a grand performance. For a moment, all his cares would sink away; Majas illness, love, then jealously, things that would keep him awake at night, Siri’s silent accusations during weeks off, life that was slipping away. All he was waiting for, standing there in the bow, was for the next wave to make the water crash against the hull with even greater might. Standing watching the vessel making its way through waves metres high, and feeling the thousands of tons rise and sink under his feet brought tranquillity to his body. He got a feeling of control, huge forces were at play, yet he was beyond all danger.

But that was the Åland Sea. This meant two hours of open water. The voyage in the Estonia from Tallinn to Stockholm was something else entirely. During the hours after midnight, the waves she encountered would be around four metres high, more than double what they were then. She was ploughing her way forward, and meanwhile Siri was presumably lying in her cabin, listening to the muffled thuds as the waves hit the bows. The thuds, then the shuddering that worked its way through the hull, and gradually ebbed away, like vibrations in a tuning fork. She heard it and knew that everything was normal, Thomasson had described to her many times how the body of the vessel began to take on a life of its own during stormy weather. The Sally was a strange construction; many people thought that it wasn’t a vessel but something else: a hotel, a floating fairground. Something that resembled, but wasn’t. As fake as the brass rail around the bar. And yet it felt as if this clumsy body had come alive during a storm, she would roll, stamp and play her way forward through the waves.

Thomasson had told all of this to Siri, so it was not until an hour past midnight, when she heard metallic noises that she became really afraid. Because he had never said anything about those. Nor could he have done, as these were sounds that were out of place. A wave, the ship rises, and falls onto the next. Then it came: a metallic crash and a shudder. Followed by another metallic crash and a shudder.

Leading up to the most powerful crash of all. It was one o’clock in the morning by now, and if she wasn’t awake already she was wakened by the noises and the blows that were going right through the hull of the ship. A crash, like a collision. Or as if the vessel had run aground and stopped dead in its tracks. Only a couple of minutes later, the Estonia was on her knees and listed to starboard. People fell out of their bunks. The vessel began slowly to righted again. At that point in time, the passengers, unbeknown to themselves, had ten minutes to get out of their cabins and get up the stairs to deck seven.

But before these ten minutes were up, the vessel had once again listed steeply to one side, this time a little deeper and had righted itself again. But not as much as before. It was as if this keeling had somehow taken hold of her. And took a tighter grip for every wave that crashed against her. At that moment, she no longer righted herself, at that moment, the list became permanent it was no longer possible to pull out of it.

Siri was not shy, far from it, but she was careful about her looks, and the impression she made on others. So when the crash and listing came, she did not rush immediately out of her cabin into the corridor in her nightwear. She got dressed, reached for the slacks she had put over the chair back the night before, but which now lay on the floor, picked up her jumper from the sofa that was screwed to the wall, sat down, then stumbled to the door where her shoes were lying, under an upturned chair, which had slid away as soon as the ship had begun to list. She put on her shoes, sitting on the stubbly wall-to-wall carpet. Voices could be heard from the corridor. People were screaming.

Sometimes Thomasson thinks like this: she managed to open the door and make her way along the steeply sloping corridor where the doors across the corridor were like hatches; if one swung open as she passed, she wouldn’t be able to stop herself from falling through the whole cabin and against the wall where the portholes were now pointing down into the deep.

But she pressed on, past all the cabins and the screams for help that could be heard behind shut doors, right to the reception area which was filling with passengers by the minute. Most were coming from below, up the narrow stairways from the car deck that had no carpets, designed for oily soles. People were making their way on hands and knees, sometimes bracing themselves against the opposite wall, sometimes against the person behind. Once up, many stayed in the reception area, it was after all there they had come on board several hours earlier and it was perhaps here that rescue lay, beyond the shut double doors. But the doors remained shut and the ship was now listing so severely that those that could not find anywhere to brace themselves against slid across the floor to starboard. Others held onto poles and jambs, some dragged and fought their way to the stairs where those already exhausted had stopped and moved neither up nor down, simply clamping themselves fast.

But Siri did not stop, she had not yet dragged herself up the stairs, she still had energy and was waiting for the vessel to roll again, because now it was no longer chugging, but was listing ever more steeply into the wind. Amidst the chaos, she could feel that the engines had stopped. Under all the screaming there was silence. The ship rose and fell, but it seemed as if the ship could no longer right itself. Siri braced herself against the wall, leaned forward, managed to reach the balustrade and began to pull herself upwards. She tried not to look at the injured passengers who were lying and sitting in the stair well. She pulled her way forward, like a gymnast pulling their way up wall bars, and she finally arrived at deck number five and the first thing she saw was the information desk where a young woman, white at the knuckles, was clutching a microphone and shouting Häire! Häire! Laeval on häire! Below the desk sat a man with his hands and feet pressed against the wall-to-wall carpet. He was braced against gravity like a ski-jumper hesitating at the start. People fell through the room. Files fell out of cupboards over the woman who was continuing to sound the alarm, and who had hunched her shoulders as protection.

Siri didn’t stop there either, but continued up what was becoming an ever steeper incline past the smashed glass doors of the supermarket, though the thickening smell of smashed spirits bottles up to the next stair well. With both hands on the balustrade, sometimes with the help of others, sometimes in spite of them, she managed to make her way up to the deck above, and the next.

But it does happen that he sometimes thinks like this: everything that was loose, tables, chairs, suitcases and clothes cupboards had been thrown against the door when the ship listed, a door that opened inwards. The cabin was small and the debris blocked the only way out.

Or like this: she was thrown headlong out of her bunk.


This is Robert Åsbacka's third novel. His first, "Fallstudie" tells of a couple of men and a lorry, who are assigned to collect a three-hundred kilo magnet, empty oil drums, and rusty iron for an art installation. His second novel "Kring torget i Skoghall" was about a "bruk" village in the Swedish province of Värmland and the sausage and hamburger kiosk and its owner, plus, once again, art, brought to the industrial village and how it affects the everyday lives of people. These two novels also appeared with Schildts in Helsinki, and in parallel editions in Sweden. Back in 1988, Robert Åsbacka brought out a collection of poetry called "Med tungorna hängande", published by Författarnas Andelslag in Finland.


David McDuff said...

The excerpts read very well, I think, even in draft. Maybe this would be something for Books from Finland? Or the new Scottish publisher that Harry Watson mentioned? I always feel there's a certain resemblance between Finland-Sweden and Scotland.

Eric Dickens said...

I already sent the whole excerpt (around 10,500 words) to Canongate in Edinburgh last December, but no response yet.

Certainly, Books From Finland would also be a good idea. I'll write to Soila.