Saturday, 21 March 2009

Hannele Mikaela Taivassalo - "Andrej Krapl had Five Knives"

There follows an excerpt, translated by Eric, from the first novel by Hannele Mikaela Taivassalo (born 1974) who, despite her surname, is a Finland-Swede, originally from Jakobstad, now working as an actress in Helsinki. She studied philosophy and literary studies in Helsinki, and acting in Gothenburg. She is a member of the peculiarly named Skunkteatern.

The novel deals with a young woman, rather a tomboy, who plays football until puberty kicks in, and while still at school meets a mysterious man called Andrej Krapl, who, as the title suggests, had a bundle of five knives with him. The original Swedish title is "Fem knivar hade Andrej Krapl", but I found the inversion of word order too unnatural for the English.

The novel, originally published by Söderströms, and which won the 2008 Runeberg literary prize, has appeared in Tarja Teva's Finnish translation with the Teos publishing house. See
this link.

There was a short review of this novel in English in the Swedish Book Review, 2008:2, and other reviews in the Finland-Swedish and Finnish press.


Hannele Mikaela Taivassalo

Excerpt from the novel: "Andrej Krapl had Five Knives"

Prologue II: (Genesis)

It all started so quietly and peacefully. I was born with Jesus just round the corner and with everything ordered and tidy all about me. But in Jesus’ defence I do have to say that he didn’t disturb me a great deal. Not at first, at any rate. Nor later on, for that matter.

My father’s sister, Aunt Lilian, passed judgement on me after only a few hours of life. Well, well, not much to shout about, is what she’s supposed to have said, standing in the doorway. In a loud voice, so that it would carry over the two other pale, postnatal mothers in their sweaty hospital beds. She never really came right into the room, Lilian that is, but stood there in the doorway, buttoning up her blue midwife’s smock, as she was off to the night shift.

Oh dearie me, he’s shrieking so much you could almost imagine he were a girl.

It is a girl.

Oh, by Jesus!

Then nothing more could be heard apart from the sound of her plastic sandals whose heels flip-flopped for every step shuffling she took. Mum bit the tops off all the liqueur chocolates and sucked out the contents, but it didn’t help. Neither against Aunt Lilian, nor against by sexless shrieking in that cot on wheels that stood next to her bed.

I understand her.

When the car rolled into the yard I was completely silent. Staring out into the dark. My dad carried me inside and I was so tiny that I could rest in his cupped hands. His best shoes were cheap and their soles were completely smooth and the way over to the steps was slippery and bumpy because of ice that had frozen quickly. I hovered in the air, borne on his hands. Anything could happen.

Mum still sat waiting in the car. She also stared out into the darkness, listening to the silence. She sat there for a long time and it was so cold that her hands grew red and the milk in her breasts almost froze. Perhaps for long enough for a small portion of her heart to be coated in a thin crust of ice, hard as crystal.

The house I’d arrived at was ugly. It looked as if it had clamped itself fast to the ground below. Concrete foundations, its façade covered in dirty white panels made out of some 1960s material or other which is forbidden nowadays. When I was a few years older, I would stand on the concrete steps looking out over the muddy puddles and think, well, so this is my life. I wasn’t old, but I could feel the concrete ribbing under the soles of my feet and every year I watched the lawn getting washed away in the rain, and thought, well, this then is my life.

That was before I found the knives.

Before I found the knives, most of my childhood was washed away in the rain. I was never chastised and didn’t go hungry. It was just that my childhood was one huge muddy slurry, sludgy and dark to move about in, and the fixed point in my existence was a reinforced concrete set of steps that were always cold and chafed your skin if you didn’t move with care.

Indoors, everything was brown. Brown carpets, brown wallpaper, brown curtains and brown doors that were so thin and lightweight that you couldn’t even push them properly shut, let alone slam them. They hung there listlessly, indecisively ajar, and if you were really determined to shut them you had to get a good grip on them and pull a little bit more, even when you had actually got the door to click to.

My room was very small and very dark, as it faced the back yard where brushwood and bushes grew almost up to the roof. One wall consisted of nothing but the doors of cupboards, in the other there was that unnecessary window and a provisional writing desk (two low bookshelves with a piece of fibreboard) and against my third wall stood a narrow bed that wobbled every time you rolled over in your sleep. The wall with the door in it, that was the fourth, could not have any furniture against it. For a start, the foot of the bed almost reached it, and the door also opened inwards. You couldn’t fit anything else into that room, it was already crowded as it was, and the bed and the doors to the cupboards scraped against one another and got stuck. The wall-to-wall carpet clung to my feet and always smelt dusty.

On the soccer pitch, I would also be slithering about in the mud. Our team was a poor one and the other team would churn up the area in front of our goal. I was a back and slid around in the mud for most of the time. Your feet would fasten like suckers and it always took just that second too long to reach the ball.

After losing, we would always go home dirty, would shower and wash our kit. So that we could do the same thing all over again the following week.

Many things repeated themselves, as if the same events were relived time and time again.
Some things happened once, never to be repeated.

Dad died at work. He worked at a large sawmill and thought what the hell, he could pull that length of plastic out from among the timber on the conveyor belt without switching off the machine. All you had to do was clamber up onto the belt and kick it upwards a bit with your right foot, then pull the strip out. Three seconds. Then it’s over.


In order to pay the rent on the house, mum would work at the clinic during the day and as a cleaner at the sawmill in the evening. We could have moved to a smaller house, but no one wanted to buy the mud house.

Even my first period looked like mud. I was already fourteen, but didn’t understand what it was. It just didn’t strike me that this could be menstruation, though I’d been waiting for several years for it to arrive, but it was supposed to be blood! Red, shiny! Rebellious and profane! Bursting forth like an exclamation mark into my white knickers and announcing the end of my life of innocence and lying fallow. Now, at last, it was going to begin! But it was as thick as shit and brown.

In fact, I thought I’d contracted a deadly disease. A tumour in my colon, muscular dystrophy, or some disease of old age which would mean that I was no longer watertight. That I’d shat myself. Several times a day. That I was dying.

On the third day I didn’t manage to wash my underwear before my mum got back from the clinic and came into the sauna washroom to change into her cleaning clothes.

You’re having your period, she said. Haven’t you got any sanitary towels?

I felt she had saved my life. She had cured my cancer, my virginal AIDS, and my death wish, all within the space of a few seconds.

I don’t know whether she understood this herself. Maybe. Something tells me she probably did. Looking at me for a long time as she produced her sanitary towels, as if she wondered who I really was and from what century I had come. When I left the toilet, she took my knickers that I had screwed up in my fist – she winkled them out of my grasp - and went to the washroom to switch on the washing machine. And later on, when she got home again, when she thought I wasn’t looking, she looked at me. For a long time, questioningly, but with something so searingly tender in her look, that I felt smaller than ever. Smaller than when I had been borne on my father’s hands in the cold and the darkness.


Chapter 1: The Tempter

One warm March day, I was walking as usual on the wrong side of the road on my way to school. I was walking straight on, looking down at my tennis shoes. The snow that had not yet managed to melt and run down into the ditch, stuck to the soles of my shoes in gritty lumps. My feet were wet and cold and I could hardly feel them. I was not completely sure that I was actually on my way to school.

For some reason, I didn’t spot him until he had come quite near. On the right side of the road, of course, he was that sort of person that would walk on the correct side of the road and believed in the highway code. But I didn’t know that. I still knew nothing about him, anything about all the paradoxes. All I knew was what I saw: him coming towards me, on my side of the road. I heard a lorry approaching from behind. And my feet were already wet and were numb in any case, so I jumped into the strip of lumps of snow and slush that were between the edge of the road and the ditch.

He was approaching very slowly, so I had to stand there in the slush for a good while. And I stood and stood and stood waiting for him to pass. It was in fact quite warm, but he was wearing a long winter coat. It reminded me of a priest’s soutane, sat tight and had no coat tails. He was walking all the time, but it looked as if he wasn’t getting any nearer. His cap was threadbare and lined with fur, half a century old no doubt, and the scarf he had wound a couple of turns round his neck was knitted, thick and flecked with green. His face was gaunt and his jaw was covered with a short but untrimmed mid-brown coloured beard. No, I didn’t look away. I stood there, almost in the ditch, and stared.

When he had come up to me he stopped. His eyes were an icy blue and it almost hurt to look into them.

– Good morning, he said. My name is Andrej Krapl. Excuse me for asking, but what are you doing?

– Standing in the ditch, I said. There’s a lorry coming up behind me.

– Oh, that turned into the gravel quarry over there. It won’t be passing for ages. You can reckon on him taking nearly an hour to load up.

I nodded. And didn’t even turn round to look, I knew he was right. The hair sticking out from under his fur cap was light brown and curled gently in locks towards his face, got tangled in his beard in a surprisingly feminine and touching way. And when he spoke, it sounded as if he would never stop and didn’t really require any reply.

– I could ask, while we’re still standing here, if I’m on the right road. I’m on my way to the school, a secondary school, so I’m going the right way, am I? I’ll find it sooner or later, but as I’ll be taking morning assembly I might as well ask someone who knows, rather than spending half the day getting to the assembly, if you know what I mean.

– You’re going the wrong way, I said.

– I see, he said.

– You’re walking away from the school. You’re walking out of town.

– Oh. In that case I’d better cross the road, said Andrej Krapl.

He crossed the road and began to walk back.

I stood there a while and watched him as he walked.

We hadn’t even passed each other.

So I stepped out onto the asphalt, stamped my feet free of snow, and continued on my way.


This forms part of a promotional excerpt translated by Eric Dickens, and subsidised by Svenska Fonden in Helsinki (Helsingfors, for purists, given the language involved).


David McDuff said...

Eric,I've inserted spaces between the paragraphs, as I feel that this makes the text easier to read, given the fact that there aren't any indents, as you point out. Hope that's ok.

Eric Dickens said...

As with the Åsbacka, I've done an excerpt (6,500 words) and sent it out. No response yet.