Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Minna Lindgren. Kuolema Ehtoolehdossa (Helsinki: Teos, 2013)

Minna Lindgren’s (1963- ) first novel about the inhabitants of the Ehtoolehto care home, Kuolema Ehtoolehdossa (Death at Evengrove) was a great success when it was published in 2013, and it is now being turned into a film. This year (2014) a second book, Ehtoolehdon Pakolaiset (Refugees of Evengrove) followed. The translation rights have been sold for Italian and German versions, but not yet for an English one. Those interested in securing English translation rights, see I would be happy to do the translation.

The Nordic noir does not get much more noir than Kuolema Ehtoolehdossa. It is all about death. It is four funerals and a wedding with some mysterious criminal activity thrown in to provide narrative tension.

The heroines are in their 90s. Siiri Kettunen and her two friends Irma and Anna-Liisa have flats at Ehtoolehto. They spend much of their time playing canasta in the common room with other residents and putting off the keen young women who are trying to lure them into doing crafts or sit-up gymnastics. They while away their time waiting for death, or so it seems (p96).

Death has been worked into every scene and seam of the narrative. Anticipation of death is all pervasive. The characters do not forget for one moment that they are only a few steps away from the crematorium. At the same time, with the death failing to arrive day after day, they get a sense of immortality; they will never die (p95). They have been overlooked by death (pp. 8, 56). This all-encompassing presence of looming death on every page is both tedious and thought-provoking in its tediousness. Is this how very old people live each day: with the idea of death an albatross around their necks? Death is an imaginary friend for Lindgren’s characters.

There are signs that Nordic literature is taking a special interest in the lives of very old people and their experience of the modern society. This is the main theme and content of Lindgren’s book. It is not a traditional crime novel; the main interest of the narrative is not an investigation of a crime. Yet, crime provides the central motor for the narrative and the source of its narrative tension. Kuolema Ehtoolehdossa is about crime causing (welcome?) disruption in the otherwise featureless lives of the protagonists. Perversely, crime has a power to improve quality of life.

Kuoelma Ehtoolehdossa opens with news of the suicide of Tero, the cook at the Ehtoolehto dining room (p7). It is soon followed by the mysterious sick leave of Pasi, the resident social worker (p15). Matters really become alarming when one of the residents, an old man called Reino stands up in the middle of a card game and declares that his friend “Olavi raiskattiin eilen illalla omassa kodissaan!” (“Olavi was raped last night in his own home!”) This is a very strange and disturbing scene (pp.26-9). Olavi is an old man (87 years, p63) in a wheelchair. Reino has a total mental collapse. While he bellows his rage, the reactions of the others around the card table are mixed. Some carry on with the game as if nothing has happened. Siiri remarks that a man cannot be raped, while Irma reminds her that Märta Tikkanen wrote a novel with that title and rambles on about another author, Henrik Tikkanen. This is both a tragic and a comic scene. Something absolutely horrendous has happened and poor Reino is trying to communicate this. At the same time, these people’s responses, as true to life as they may be, are uncomfortably uncaring.

This scene is a good example of Lindgren’s method of building her characters: her dialogue is realistic in the way her characters appear to ignore each other and talk past one another. Later in the book, Siiri has a funny turn in a tram, and a woman asks her if she is all right (p127). Siiri spouts apparent nonsense to the woman, but we know Siiri is thinking of an earlier encounter on a tram with a child (p125), and now sees herself in a position similar to that helpless and lost 4-year-old. On this page, we see Siiri both from the outside as a confused, dotty old woman, and from the inside, as a logical person with a perfectly capable intellect.

The scene with Reino at the canasta table also has a quality of (very black) slapstick humour. This kind of humour, characteristic to Nordic writers, runs through the narrative. Another good example is the scene where the Ehtoolehto – gang make their way through the snow to Reino’s (or Jaakko’s?) funeral (p132)

Reino is picked up by four, strong Russian women and bundled into the closed dementia ward (p30) and he dies off the page (p128). Equally, the crime of rape, so dramatically announced, is pushed aside. The story focuses on Siiri and her friends’ suspicions that there is something very rotten in the whole management of the care home, and the home is used as a front for some mysterious criminal activity. This is where the plotting falls short for a traditional crime novel: it is not clear and not even very important what the management are up to. Instead, the story shows how Siiri, Irma and Anna-Liisa try to protect themselves from the increasingly menacing acts of the management in a situation where they seem to be incapable of attracting outside help. The authorities, the health care system, relatives, even children, are portrayed as uncaring, bogged down with their own interests and problems, hampered by lack of funds and time. Irma’s daughter Tuula is too busy to visit Ehtoolehto, because she has two horses (p129). The old are low on the priority list and yet there seems to be a whole industry based on managing them.

Kuolema Ehtoolehdossa is entertaining and should be read for its humour and social insight, not for its crime plot, which his far too vague to engage the reader and relies too much on coincidence. Siiri’s meeting with Mika Korhonen (p70), the appearance of the dementia ward keys (p140) and Siiri’s timing for her nocturnal visit to the dementia ward (p163) are all examples of this.  There is also much padding in the novel. Siiri’s numerous rides on the trams around Helsinki(pp.41-2, 56, 105,124, 214, 237 )  and her interest in the city’s buildings (pp.56, 67, 68, 98, 126, 185, 214, 227, 283), build a portrait of the Finnish capital, but do not add to the main narrative. They are a kind of metaphor of Siiri’s existence: an old woman wondering around aimlessly and looking at life led by others. Siiri voices this idea when she says about people in their 90s: “Raitiovaunissakin he katselivat ohi vilistävää elamää sivullisina, kuin se olisi tv-ohjelma ilman kaukosäädinta.” “Even on a tram they watched life bustling past from the sidelines, like it was a tv programme without a remote control.” (p215)

There are places where the otherworldliness of the aged protagonists sounds a slightly false note. Siiri and Anna-Liisa think that the door of the bank is broken because it has no handle and then are relieved when it opens automatically (p202). Siiri calls Mika an angel and wonders why Mika has to be so rude as to swear about ‘Hell’s angels’ (p71). He is a young man involved in an international club that combines motorcycles and charity work (p130). It is unlikely that someone even in their 90s would be oblivious to Hell’s angels and automatic doors, or finds IKEA a pleasing novelty: “IKEA oli ihmeellinen paikka.” (p297, “IKEA was an amazing place.”). Siiri may have served in the Second World War in her twenties, but it does not have to mean that the latter part of the twentieth century passed her by entirely.
Lindgren has a pleasing sensitivity to language and she squeezes much humour and characterization from individual words. Her third person narrator holds interesting words up to us like curiosities. “Omahoitotarvikejakelupiste” (p. 260) (“Own care equipment distribution point”), “asiankäsittelyaikataulu” (p280) (“matter handling time table,” or an ‘agenda’ for short), “raparperi-inkiväärijäädyke” (p149) (“rhubarb-ginger sorbet”) and, most gloriously, “syyttämättäjättämispäätös” (“charge abandonment decision”) and “käsittämattömämmäksi” (p149 “into more incomprehensible”) are all dangled before the reader’s eyes with great relish. Siiri’s friend Anna-Liisa is a retired Finnish teacher, and this allows the dialogue to drift into complexities of the Finnish language. Anna-Liisa quite rightly points out the quality of language in the Finnish Donald Duck -magazines (pp.206, 247) I remember this from my own childhood: whoever translated Disney’s Donald Duck cartoons into Finnish, did an exceptionally good job with great flair. Particularly, Lindgren presents professional health care jargon with gleeful sarcasm (pp. 20, 254, 259). Often the protagonists find the modern Finnish turn of phrase had to comprehend. Bureaucratic officialise may sound ridiculous in its pretentious complexity. It is a scary thought that perhaps that is the way people will all speak in the future, we are just being left behind the times just like Siiri and her friends.
Siiri and Irma have developed their own language, like many close friends do; they use their own mangled versions of words and phrases. Irma’s habit of repeating “Döden, döden, döden”  (The death, the death, the death” in Swedish) both irritates and delights Siiri. It mostly irritates the reader. This running gag is part of the tediousness of waiting for death (pp. 11, 25, 27,36,49,54, 75,84, 90, 110, 115, 135, 151, 164, 209, 302).

Kuolema Ehtoolehdossa is very much an adventure of the very old in contemporary society. Siiri has a sense of alienation: “Tuntui kuin yli 90-vuotiaat eläisivät omalla autiolla saarellaan eivätkä lainkaan kuuluisi muuhun maailmaan.” (p.215) (“It felt like those over 90 existed on their own desert island, and were not part of the rest of the world at all.”) Lindgren shows how Siiri and her friends experience shops, transport (trams and taxis), the post office, banks, police, the legal system and, especially, the health care system and hospitals. In the guise of humour and comical situations, Lindgren is inviting us to think whether the very old really view the world as such an awkward and unfriendly place. She also asks us to think, what it is like to have death just around the corner.  Like Siiri indicates, it is only a matter of time before we are all in that same place. She says to a young doctor: “Jonain päivänä tekin kuolette. Ja toivon että olette silloin sen ikäinen, että ymmärrätte , mitä kuoleminen on, ettekä pane vastaan.” (p96) “One day, you will die, too. And I hope that you are then at an age when you will understand what death is, and won’t struggle against it.”

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