Monday, December 7, 2009

While we're waiting for a happy Finnish book...

42. Raja by Riikka Pulkkinen ("Border")

A disclaimer: if you are reading this journal, you might notice a bit of a depressing trend in the previous few books. When I started reading this one, I thought "Oh no. Suicidal people. Sex. A bit of alcohol, too. Again!" No worries: the book selections aren't a cry of help...

Raja is Riikka Pulkkinen's (who is born the same year as I, gasp) first novel, but it reads like one written by a person who has seen a lot. The narration switches between Anja, a fiftysomething literature professor whose husband is consumed by Alzheimer's; Mari, a 16-year old high schooler with literary pursuits and her young and handsome literature teacher Julian, who has decided to seduce Mari because of her muse-like qualities, and finally, Julian's small daughter Anni, whose only wish is that everyone is happy and safe, which she magically tries to ensure in everyday life by not upsetting anyone.

All of the characters concern themselves with the mysterious border between life and death. Anja tries to commit suicide because the promise she made to her husband is too much to bear. When she does not succeed, she has to face another, ethical border: is she ready to take another person's life? Mari, a plain girl and a straight A student, dreams of her death, her funeral, her obituaries, but the closest she dares to get to death is by cutting herself and letting pain make life real for her. Julian, in the quest for a new muse now that he and his wife are having problems, is preoccupied by Greek tragedies and is convinced that as art and life are not that far apart from each other, each story must involve a death to become a good story, a good tragedy. In real life, his border is, like Anja's, an ethical one. His daughter Anni, still in daycare, is the only one for whom the border between life and death is not yet clear, nor does she want to go explore it. She still believes in magic, and if she just plays the right way with her dolls, or if she just does this other little thing, her parents will not be angry with her and everyone will be happy.

Although a novel to really be gorged because of its intrigue, the subject of death and the fear and desire of it can be a difficult read. At the end, the reader feels the need to give absolution to all of the characters, regardless of their actions, and is thus made to think of his or her own borders and limitations. And as for the Greek tragedy pattern, the novel stays true to the form: death, suicide, murder, and even incest (albeit indirectly at the times, when Julian realizes what a small girl Mari actually is and how much she reminds him of his daughter, who secretly wants to be like Julian's lover)--all are present.

There's only one piece of criticism I have for this book, and I know, it's very petty, but... stop saying that horses always sleep standing up! It is not true! Every time an author perpetuates some myth without checking it, especially if the myth is used to bolster some greater metaphor in the book, a part of me is very disappointed. Same goes to you, writers, who say that Eskimos have a gazillion words for snow. In addition to using a thesaurus, authors should really have a link to handy.

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