Friday, 18 November 2011

Leaves from Autumn's archive

My translation of some excerpts from Bo Carpelan's posthumously published novel Blad ur höstens arkiv (Schildts, 2011) are online at Books from Finland's website. I've also translated an essay by Clas Zilliacus which examines the book's style and structure.

Friday, 4 November 2011


Five allegorical sketches

by Rune Christiansen

The escalators down to the subway lead the shadows ambiguously home. In the absence of other gods, we eagerly greet the chill draught from the trains.


In Poems Around Zero Karl Vennberg wrote: "Someone, perhaps you, seems to be taking a rest, / though in great unrest," and then "Someone, perhaps myself, raises an arm / as against a delayed attack”, and elsewhere: "For a moment to stand there outside / and avoid recognizing oneself!"


We played soccer on a little piece of land, used an empty water bottle and a jacket as goal. I thought of all the years that had gone. When darkness came, we continued for another hour.


The two boys shivering in the rain will soon themselves turn into rain.


One no longer sees oneself as a child in one’s childhood.

translated from Norwegian by David McDuff


From Godfather [Gudfar], by Dy Plambeck

BANG! What a day to be at a cycle race! It was 1953, August, the time shortly before the turn, when the beech tree changes colour and the cycling season ends, and the rain was falling heavily. But it wasn’t one of those days when late summer puts a lid on, when the clouds draw together and the sky closes in like the dough round a baked pie. There was a brief, intense rain shower that made everything look stronger and more radiant, the way stones look brighter when they are wet. Then the sun broke through the clouds over Ordrup Track, and when Tenna noticed it she looked up at the sky. She had just fired the starting pistol to begin the race. It hadn’t been the original intention that she should do it. It was the job of Annalise, loved and admired, at least for her name. She was the daughter of Keller, the Track’s director, but she could not be said to be a great beauty. She was a small, slender woman with the shape of a pheasant. Only because Annalise was sick had Keller asked Tenna if she could oblige.

Tenna was twenty-nine years old, an hourglass-shaped girl with a big bosom, big brown eyes and big jet-black hair that fell in soft curls over her shoulders. She was slim, Gustav could have reached his hands around her waist, yet even so there was something full-bodied about her, something the police described in her dossier as stout, perhaps because everything about her was plump, her bosom, hair, lips, her large square nose, her puffy cheeks, her bushy eyebrows, pretty wasn’t the right word for her, more distinctive, alluring. She watched the riders as they raced down the straight. She loved fast cycling, a points race on the Track, the most exhausting kind of speed test. It was a pure war of nerves. The rider waited only for his opponent to lose concentration so he could attack. Only a moment’s inattentiveness was enough. No circuit race required the same raw strength and self-confidence.
  The start was crucial, the first turn of the pedal, all one’s strength had to go into it. The riders drew up parallel on both sides of their handlebars in order to set off in a straight line, and there was Erik-Frank approaching with his passionate face and elegant style. With his all-crushing ride. Tenna knew him from Pinden, the pub where she worked, the cyclists’ favourite watering hole, when he came and bought draught Tuborg. Tenna waved, Erik-Frank rode past her, and eight years earlier, in 1945, four days after the liberation, drove an open lorry through the old marsh district, Bringemosen, Møllemosen, Bundmosen, that surrounded Værløse camp, and continued across Måløvvej to fetch Tenna and Gustav from their bakery in Knardrup.
  It had been Gustav's dream to expand the bakery. He decided to raise the capital, he had the German discipline, even though he could hardly be called German. He was born in Flensburg, Germany’s Scandinavia, but had been naturalized and received Danish citizenship long before the war. He was seventeen years older than Tenna. One of his distant relatives knew a German officer in Værløse camp. It was through him that Tenna and Gustav came to manage the canteen. That way they could earn a bit extra, put money aside for Knardrup’s first patisserie.

The Germans took charge of Værløse camp from day one, on the very day of the occupation they shot the Danish army’s nine Fokker XXI aircraft to pieces. The Germans knew what they were after, how strong the fighter planes would make the Danish forces. As for the buildings, the Germans left them intact. They could use them. They hoisted the swastika over the camp and set up a shooting academy in the barracks where German fighter pilots from the front came to train. It was not the fighter pilots but the Danish workers at the camp whom Tenna had to serve in her canteen. She served breakfast porridge, sandwiches and leftovers of pastry from the bakery. She was a terrible cook, but the porridge and bread were not too bad. That was the extent of her abilities.

At Ordrup Track there were unparalleled crowds, people jostling in and out between one other, a tumult of shouting and roaring from the loudspeaker which told of the day’s programme, and there he was again, Erik-Frank. Tenna thought it inconceivable that he could ride any faster, but he could. In one single flash he was at the head of the field. It was suicidal to try to get ahead of him, the jet fighter, as he was called. In the first minutes of any sprint, no one could touch him.

As the freedom fighters stormed into the private flat above the bakery in Knardrup, a loud whining rang in Tenna’s ears. Her teeth were chattering. A freedom fighter pressed his submachine gun into her back, jabbed it and threatened to shoot if she did not stop crying. Her knees knocked together. Was it because Gustav was German? It had never even crossed her mind that she and Gustav had been picked up because of her work. While it was true that the canteen was in the workers’ barracks, it was the Danish workers that it served. She had never thought there was anything unpatriotic about working there. Nevertheless that was one of the points in the indictment. Tenna was arrested, forced to get into the back of a lorry and driven away, even though she denied ever having been a member of the DNSAP, the Danish Nazi Party. She had had no connection with the Wehrmacht, the German police, German organizations or the German intelligence service. She didn’t understand why the freedom fighters were asking her about it, didn’t understand what was happening, no, she had never given information to anyone in the service of the Germans, she had never been issued with weapons.


With his delicate face, broad cheekbones, black, brushed-back hair, dimples and athletically trained body, Erik-Frank was the Adonis of Ordrup Track. Tenna watched him as he tore into the bend of the track. He had a nice smile, his teeth were more or less perfect. Gustav on the other hand had had teeth like lumps of amber and was shaped like a cigar. Low-voiced and round he was, and ever so withered to look at. Tenna met him on a staircase. He had been on the way down, she was going up. It was pitch dark. She couldn’t see him, but she liked the sound of his steps. His heavy, shuffling tread on the staircase made her smile. She stopped him. Nine weeks later they got married, it was 1940, she was only sixteen, they needed a royal dispensation.
  In the six years of their marriage Tenna never went anywhere without Gustav, to parties or coffee mornings, and anyway where would she go? They didn’t associate with anyone in Knardrup. Circle of acquaintances: None. That was what it said on their police dossier in black and white. When they were picked up by the freedom fighters and taken to the detention centre in Frederikssund they stood side by side on the back of the open lorry in their fancy dress costumes. They had been on their way to the carnival. Tenna wore a gown that was trimmed with imitation fur and had large tufts of feathers for buttons. Gustav was a negro. He had made a large hollowed-out head of papier mâché which he had put on top of him. It was brown with large, fleshy lips and a broad flat nose. On the head he wore a hat that was too small. In front of them stood a man who had been fetched from his wedding reception. He wore evening dress and had a carnation in his buttonhole. People in the street ran after the lorry, beat on it, spat and screamed: Folk like you should be put in a slicing machine and cut into slices!

Dy Plambeck, Gudfar [Godfather], Gyldendal 2011

translated from Danish by David McDuff


From Katariina, by Marisha Rasi-Koskinen


First I hear the sound. It’s a repeated sharp click followed by two rhythmic thumps. Click thump thump like the soft drum of a heart. When I see her, I see two furiously treading legs, around which the hems of a skirt are entwined. Hair that sways to the rhythm of the heart and descends in a ball. Hair behind which the sun gleams.

Click thump thump.

The legs stop. The skipping rope hits the wooden surface of the landing with a single empty blow and stops at the toes. The rhythm remains. Thump, thump, I think, though the sound is gone now. She looks up and I see her face. I see the serious eyes, the freckled cheekbones and narrow lips. There is something familiar about her, it is just that I do not yet know what.

“You,” she says. “Where did you spring from?"

She doesn’t seem surprised. On the contrary, she talks as if she had been prepared for my arrival. As if she knew me, though we’ve never met before.

I draw my breath.

"Me? What do you mean?"

She laughs. Her laugh is strange, only slightly more of a laugh than a hiccup. She sounds like a little girl, though a rather big one. Too big to be skipping with a rope in a pleated skirt and with scabs on her knees. Too big to speak familiarly to strangers, especially those older than herself. Too big to lick each finger one by one after slipping something from the pocket of her pleated skirt.
"I've seen you before. Tell me who you are."

She isn’t laughing any more. Not only that: she is completely serious. Her hiccups have turned into inexpressiveness in the time it takes to blink an eye or take half a breath. To open a mouth to speak. To intend to. When I say my name, she repeats it as if she knew it in advance.

"Katariina" she says. "You're probably eighteen now."


"That's good. I’m Margareetta. Thirteen."

Then she offers a sweet. I take the sticky yellow oval. It puts up a little resistance before agreeing to free itself from the sweaty palm of her hand. The sweet is fluffy and rough, so sugary that it hurts one’s cheeks.

We have introduced ourselves, exchanged the codes that are sufficient to bring us together during the weeks to follow.

We are Margareetta and Katariina, in that order.

The rules are simple.

"We’ll only meet at your place,” she says. "You can’t come to our place, and don’t come looking for me. I’m the one who decides when we meet, I’ll come when I can and if I don’t it means that I couldn’t. Don’t ask any questions, you don’t need to know. I will take care of knowing and telling you what you need. Got it? "

The rhythm of her speech is like a poem. A slow monologue rehearsed in front of the mirror, or a cheat sheet from a civics test. A preliminary guidance lecture for youth camp participants.

Margareetta does not wait for my reply. Or what I would say if I did reply, for I don’t. I have known her for five minutes and I already know that it is useless to resist her.

"I’ve done my skipping now, haven’t I, Katariina."

I must have closed my eyes, as I didn’t see her face turning into a smile. Yet there she is, smiling, rolling up the skipping rope and throwing it over the railing. She smiles again. I see the rope fall and open up. The sun brushes the plastic surface. My heart stops. It’s a thirty foot drop.

And later, many hours or days or weeks later, we sit on the roof of the house, on either side of the chimney, with the cooling bricks under our bare legs. Behind Margareetta the sun dazzles me so that I can’t see her properly. We sit with every muscle tensed, every nerve-end receptive, in the pit of our stomachs a fist that presses and of which we are unable to say whether it feels good or horrible.

From the roof we can see far away. The cars. The trees. The dogs. The people.

Margareetta speaks first.

"How many of them are actually thinking," she asks, "those people down there?"

"Not very many," I suggest.

"None of them. They’re all just props. They’re there to make us feel lonely. In the right kind of way."

I look at the props far below, props that walk and run, props that stumble, cycle or stagger. Pee against a tree trunk, if they happen to be dogs. Shriek and fly up to the branch of a tree, if they’re birds. How real it all looks. The sound effects carry upwards faintly: a cry, a laugh, the shouting of children.

"The sounds are a bit too quiet," I say. Margaret nods gravely.

"If you fell from here," she says, "it would be a thirty foot drop."

"We’d land with a thump in the middle of the stage.”

Margaret laughs. She looks at the thirty foot drop and continues almost as if in a dream.

"If you lost your balance you’d end up sliding down the drain pipe."

"It would give way."

"Which way would you fall?"

"Legs first, then head. Or maybe head first. The head is heavier."

"It wouldn’t look good," she says. After that she doesn’t say anything for a long time. And then, at last: "I wonder what mother would say when she found you lying on the ground.”

"I don’t know. Cry, probably."

"Or maybe she wouldn’t."

Margareetta gets up and stands on the ladder. She stands with her legs apart and her hands outstretched as though she were trying to hold the sky in her arms. Her long shirt flutters. Her long hair streams.

"I wouldn’t just cry. If you were to fall, I would fly after you." She closes her eyes. "I’d fly so hard and so fast that I’d be able to catch you before you hit the ground."

I believe it. Margareetta always takes hold of me before I fall. If she wants to.

She’s a bird. Quite soon she will take flight. Quite soon she will fall. I don’t dare to look, but hug the chimney tighter and close my eyes. Then I remember the skipping rope. How it fell. How it opened like a cry. For a moment I think she is the skipping rope that fell. Or not her. I am.

Until she laughs again. Opens her eyes on the roof ridge.

"What about trying an experiment," she says, and I know that soon we will start to play again. "Let’s stage a fall. It would be great."

"It’s boring here, isn’t it,” Margareetta says, slipping another sweet into her mouth. To me she no longer offers one.

"Let's go to your place, Katariina."

We do that. We go to our place.

In the coming weeks we sometimes meet in other places too. In the city. At the harbour. Sometimes in a garden, in a park or under a bridge. Most often however, we meet at my place. At hers we don’t. I go there only once, and uninvited.

Our place. Soon, she starts to talk like that about my home.

Why did I obey? In this, and then in everything else as well? I simply obeyed. She was one of those people who are obeyed. The people who handle others like puppets and make them do things for them. Besides, if I really think about it, I wouldn’t have had anything better to do.

Katariina, by Marisha Rasi-Koskinen, Burning Bridge 2011

translated from Finnish by David McDuff