Monday, 23 March 2009

Henrik Jansson - "Excerpts From the Minutes of Subversive Meetings"

Henrik Jansson's 2007 novel Protokollsutdrag från subversiva möten, as it is called in the Swedish original, is a fine and unusual novel. It deserves not only to be translated, but also to be read in Sweden. Because this is a novel written by a Finland-Swede.

It will be argued that many Finland-Swedish authors have joint editions in both Finland and Sweden, for instance Lars Sund and Kjell Westö, but even by Finland-Swedish standards, Jansson's novel is published by a rather small press: Scriptum in Vasa. So it is unlikely that he will be widely read in Sweden.

The novel is nonetheless significant. It tells the story of how Communist youth from the 1970s grew disillusioned, but also weaves into the plot personal details from family life in the 2000s. The former aspect is the more important, perhaps, although Jansson's descriptions of his relationship in the 2000s are convincing.

The Communist youth movement in Finland was quite powerful. Maybe only Pirkko Saisio has written similar novels, but she wrote in Finnish. This is one of the very few Finland-Swedish novels that closely documents the feel, the music, the meetings, the trips to Tallinn, the blue-shirts and the red-shirts. Because even then the youth wings of the Communist movement were split in two. The so-called taistoiter, or hardline Communists, named after the leader of the hardline faction, Taisto Sinisalo, wore the uniform blue shirts, whilst the more liberal wing, which had the weekly Ny Tid as their mouthpiece, wore red uniform shirts.

I know all this because I was, at the time, the classic fellow-traveller. I sympathised with Communism, but could never bring myself to join any party. As I was living in Finland during the 1970s, first as a year-abroad student at Åbo Akademi, and later as an English conversation teacher in Jakobstad and Vasa, I experienced this whole ferment at first hand. When I left Finland in 1980 to go and teach in Umeå, Sweden, my friends were still fervent Communists. By the 2000s, they have become Greens, or have fallen silent.

But Jansson decided, very interestingly I feel, to document what it felt like to be a member of the Finland-Swedish wing of the Communist youth movement (blueshirts, as I believe) and how, in the early 1980s, he threw away all his written Communist material, including newspapers, magazines, minutes of meetings, and so on, something he now regrets. Because it was, to an extent, the documentation of his own life. But with only memory to go on, maybe Jansson has avoided getting bogged down in detail.

Henrik Jansson has always been keen on jazz and rock music. So there are plenty of mentions of Dylan, Donovan and John Coltrane, as well as home-grown bands and singers, plus leftwing composers and martyrs, such as Victor Jara and Theodorakis. And his protagonist has had good and bad relationships with women. So the actual number of political meetings described in detail are rather few, in comparison with the rest of the test.

Jansson swings, sometimes within the same paragraph, between the present (around 2005) and the distant 1970s. But the reader is not led into a labyrinth of narration. It is a readable book.

So I hope that those readers who saw the pathetic antics of the Russian provocateurs and their Finnish supporters today in Helsinki, by way of the online coverage, will one day read Henrik Jansson's novel to see at close quarters what drove young people in the 1970s, often from quite middle-class homes, to become Communists.


David McDuff said...

It's encouraging that former Finnish radicals like Jansson are now prepared to come out into the open and criticize their former ideological past, even if this doesn't necessarily mean disowning it. Certainly, it's hard to understand why anyone would have sympathized with Communism in the 1970s - or indeed at any period in history - now that the facts about Communist repression and brutality are widely known.

Growing up into university studenthood in the 1960s, as I did, it was hard to avoid at least a dalliance with left wing radicalism. I was probably fortunate in that my early involvement with Russian studies took me to the Soviet Union twice before the "halcyon" year of 1968, so I had some idea of what left- wing politics could lead to. In May 1968, living in Cambridge, UK, I came close to accepting some of the ideas of the New Left that were then prevalent in academic centres - but then the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia took place in August that year, and by the autumn of 1969 I was once again in Moscow, where some of the conversations I had at MGU, particularly with Cuban and North Vietnamese students, opened my eyes to the intensity of the truly murderous hatred felt by much of the world's "real left" for the West and the people who lived there. After those conversations, and the realization that most of this hatred was manipulated, endorsed and given official support by the Soviet foreign policy machine, in my own development I didn't look leftwards again. The move was not without its difficulties, and it set me at odds with many of my contemporaries, but I'm glad that I was able to make it in the end.

By the time I got to Finland and to other Nordic countries in a literary context - that was in the early 1980s, after I'd spent much of the preceding decade in the United States, Iceland and England - I found myself a bit of an outsider, as most of the people involved with Nordic studies in those days, and certainly most Nordic writers and intellectuals, still seemed to be very firmly on the left. Still, this gave a useful perspective from which to work, and since the fall of Communism I've appreciated being able to observe the ways in which at least some representatives of Nordic intellectual life and opinion have more or less abandoned their former left wing "comfort zones".

Eric Dickens said...

Thanks, David for mapping out your brushes with Communism. You lived in a country under "real Socialism", or whatever they termed it, one decade before I did.

Curiously, I went with my parents as a teenager to Prague in 1969, one year after the "troubles" there. I remember the strange canned food, the high-rise block where my dad's old friend from Reading University in the 1930s and his family lived. The food was mediocre, the beer (some of the first in my life) excellent. But no political awareness whatsoever, though I had seen the invasion itself on BBC TV the previous year.

I then went to UEA in 1971, where everything was radical. I was very much on the sidelines, but when I came to Finland and lived at Kåren, the Åbo Akademi residences, the most open and friendly people were all Communists. Some listened to Mahler, or went to loud discos, went to the residences sauna even though "bourgeois" students were there, and would get paralytic on vodka and orange late on Friday afternoons, but belonged to the blueshirts, as above. Despite coming from middle-class families. These were not Dzierzinskis and and Berias in the making.

After UEA, I spent one year living in Kraków, experiencing what it was like to live in the real-life Eastern Bloc. Not the Soviet Union, but pretty close. I stored up my memories from Soviet Bloc Poland.

Nevertheless, when I returned to Finland, two years later, I remembered the four significant newspapers for those of my political bent at the time: daily, "Tiedonantaja" the Stalinist weekly, "Enhet" for the Swedish-speakers, "Kansan Uutiset", the pro-Communist daily and "Ny Tid" which has now become an excellent cultural organ for the Finland-Swedes as a whole. Frankly, I found the two Stalinist papers turgid. But the "right-wing" Communist ones were interesting. Almost the only interesting news about Estonia you could ever read in the Finnish press was in "Kansan Uutiset". I cursed my poor knowledge of Finnish.

These are aspects of my past, written in concise form here, that I cannot disown and will never regret. Decades later you realise how the false steps of your youth can become invaluable tools for understanding as pernicious a system as the Communist one, later in life.

However, I must state categorically: the Finland-Swedish Communist youth I met at the time were rarely screwed up and were, for the most, incredibly honest and "New Testament Christian" types of people. Later, they often ended up in the state media, as there was presumably a "Berufsverbot" on them for other jobs, owing to their [former] political allegiance. So many probably had their careers blighted, as indeed we are seeing now in Estonia with those who were too inclined to suck up to the Communist authorities during Soviet times.

But none of this is black and white. We must be eternally watchful of totalitarianism, but never forget how real people, like Henrik Jansson, were living at a time when it was fashionable among youth to be Communist.

One amusing memory: one of the hardline, Stalinist, Finland-Swedish Communists at the time used to read the Financial Times, of all papers, to see what the enemy was thinking. He ended up running a small printing works. Presumably as a capitalist.

Such are a few of the paradoxes of Finnish Communism, seen through my eyes.