By Tuva Korsström
Mirjam Tuominen's next collection of short stories, Murar (Walls), was published the following year, in 1939. The first story in this book, 'Anna Sten', is both strange and magical, and thematically enigmatic.
Anna Sten does not possess the thematic elements which, though skilfully concealed, can be traced in many of Mirjam Tuominen's stories, for example 'Irina' and 'Brevet' (The Letter) in the first collection, and later on 'Flickan som blev en växt' (The Girl who Turned Into a Plant), 'Chérie Klosters dagbok' (Chérie Kloster's Diary), or 'Resan' (The Journey). The heroines of these stories are slim, beautiful, intelligent young girls or women struggling on account of their need for intellectual independence on the one hand, and for a physical, 'normal' life on the other.
Anna Sten has none of the beauty and creativity of these protagonists. She is totally ugly, totally isolated, totally passive, totally unhappy.
But before she becomes the incarnation of absolute misery, Anna Sten is given a certain number of chances in life. She is gravely handicapped from birth, but she can use her hands and takes a delight in her work as a seamstress. Then her hands are ruined by rheumatism. Anna Sten might possibly have taken pleasure in reading. Infirmity makes her half blind. Anna Sten, who is so repulsively ugly that human beings cannot stand the sight of her, gains the affection of a kitten. The cat disappears. Gradually but inexorably, Anna Sten is stripped of everything. She becomes the sum-total of suffering:
'She looked as though she had never done anything but suffer and she looked like one who has never reconciled herself with her suffering, who is completely helpless before it. One might have taken her for suffering personified. That was why her appearance frequently had the effect of a violent insult brutally thrown the face. It was as though she deliberately wanted to force upon people the assertion, for the suffering consciousness at least an atrocious and wounding one, that suffering is completely without purpose or meaning.'
What other people find particularly shocking about Anna Sten's face is its expression of active suffering:
'It looked as though it had constantly placed its hopes on this earth. Otherwise it would not have looked so desperate. Otherwise it would not have borne this imprint of suffering, of dissatisfaction with suffering.'
To the young man Sven Kolmar, who is mortally ill, Anna Sten is as the pawnbroker is to Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment: something that ought to be eliminated. The reason for this is that Anna Sten, unlike Sven Kolmar, still paradoxically, senselessly, hopes for something. But when he comes to Anna Sten in order to kill her, it is she who discloses life's inner essence to him:
'And then Sven Kolmar understood that he had forgotten or overlooked the most important thing, he had forgotten love, human love and the one that exists outside human beings; more patient, stronger, more merciless, more compassionate than any human love, because it will not give up until it has forced to the surface that within man that will help him to help himself, life's love for all creation, which for its part will not give up until man has blessed it.'
In 'Anna Sten' Mirjam Tuominen expounds the essence of Christianity in its most naked and for many its most unacceptable form. She returns to the New Testament and its injunction to love the ugly, the poor and the suffering.
'Anna Sten' is a timeless story. Its image of suffering and existence makes it possible to understand why, for example, Grünewald's paintings of Christ are so repulsively ugly. Mirjam Tuominen also anticipates Samuel Beckett's terrifying and humorous descriptions of beings that possess nothing except life.
(to be continued)