Victim and executioner
'This morning I saw my book: Bitter Brew. In this dawn without light, in which whiteness glowed: melting snow, dirty white walls of houses. Rain, snow, slush, black trees with torture-twisted trunks. December dawn in this city, which can only inspire me with agony.
On this border I apprehend everything with painful clarity. But the tension in my throat gives me the evidence that it is the borderline that, overstepped, leads to the terrain of madness.'
The long essay Besk brygd (Bitter Brew, 1947) marks a watershed in Tuominen's writing, and it has been viewed by many critics as her most important book.
The mood of Besk brygd is one of departure and disintegration. Tuominen would soon abandon the short story and fiction as literary genres. She was about to leave the small town, and her marriage. Humanity had gone morally bankrupt; the holocaust of Hitler's Germany had been revealed to its full extent:
'If I were to stand on a square and howl out the horror that has seized me, they would take hold of me and cart me off to a mental hospital. They would look after me and declare me insane, but no one would look after my horror. Because I feel my horror so strongly that I must howl in order to obtain an answer, I am considered insane, but if I conceal my horror in my heart and talk about the weather, the shortage of food, clothes and tobacco, I receive a many-worded and many-voiced reply, and am considered sensible.'Tuominen does not howl out her horror in the streets. Instead, she uses the tool she possesses, literature, to bring order to the chaos and decay. She analyses human guilt and the part played by the executioner, methodically, step by step. Her starting point is a news item about a German soldier who threw a little Jewish boy into a sewer because the boy cried as the soldier was whipping the child's mother.
This scene remained in Mirjam Tuominen's mind forever. She would return to it over and over again. When she was writing Besk brygd, she believed that she could analyse it away or, more typically of her character, that she could take the guilt upon herself.
'I want to become embodied in this German soldier, in his body and his soul. I would like to return with him into his mother's womb, be born with him, grow up with him and then, organically coalesced with him, exist until the day when he took the boy and threw him into the sewer.That is my most fervent wish and and my greatest desire. Often. But I cannot do it, and therefore I am helpless. I know nothing.'In her autobiographical book from the years of the Second World War, La Douleur (Pain, 1985), the French author Marguerite Duras makes a similar effort to analyse a executioner. She states: 'His stupidity is impenetrable. It is completely without holes.'
In Besk brygd, Tuominen describes a more nuanced but equally impenetrable executioner:
'Yes, if the executioner could express himself - then nearly everything would be gained. Only he could fix on a pin this harmful human insect - only he see through it. But the executioner never speaks, he is the most laconic being that was ever created. He forces his victims to do the talking, the wailing, the stammering -- he himself is silent - one might think it was stupidity, but it is not stupidity, one might think that it was contempt for words, but he does not despise words, he is interested in words. It is perhaps quite simply inability. He is bound to the action, the victim is bound to the word.'The classic example of the executioner who compels his victim to talk incessantly is, of course, 'The Sultan and Sheherezade' in The Arabian Nights. Tuominen points out that Besk brygd could equally well have been called 'Sheherezade and the Sultan' The book's cover illustration is a pen and ink drawing by Mirjam Tuominen's husband. It shows the cruel, sensual face of a man behind the slim silhouette of a young woman.
The relationship between man and woman is often based on ties that are reminiscent of those between victim and executioner. We all have a executioner inside us, we are executioners to our nearest and dearest, to our children, to our pets, to ourselves.
But, Mirjam Tuominen argues, there are people who have both a executioner and a victim inside them. These human beings have a highly developed sense of humour.
'The executioner has no sense of humour, he is always deadly earnest. How could he have a sense of humour, as he does not speak, but act. There is in fact in every action something irresistibly absurd. The victim senses the absurdity and acts very reluctantly.'
Mirjam Tuominen constructs a system of guilt and non-guilt, of executioners and victims. The least guilty beings are infants and animals. This book of meditation on humanity's greatest crime is about 'feelings of gratitude towards a fly, remorse for offence done to a cat, and the genuine joy the company of two infants has given me.'
The world of adults is false and hostile to life.
'The infant and the animal love what they see and feel in man, the adult person loves what he wishes to love.
What makes social relationships with other adults so difficult is that the other person for the most part seems to be indicating that he is associating with someone different from whom one really is, and that one is probably acting in the same way oneself...
An invisible executioner, not joy and happiness, seems to be the host at every social event.'
Mirjam Tuominen is looking for better company than that hosted by the invisible executioner. She finds her new intellectual friends among those who, according to her own interpretation, have 'pointed out' the executioner; writers and artists who seem to have known all there is to know about the problems of guilt and the anguish that 'fill my days and nights until it seems to me that I have sunk into a burning sea of fire.'
(to be continued)