Friday, March 4, 2011

Metafiction attack!

7. Peter-Peter by Aila Meriluoto

Peter-Peter is an epistolary novel, where a story of two immigrants in Sweden unfolds through Finnish librarian's, Sanna's, letters. The first letter approaches Peter to request his presence in a literature event, him being a well-known author in addition to his daytime job as a doctor. Sanna, a widow and a mother of two teenagers, takes a leap and begins a very personal correspondence with Peter, whose letters the reader never sees.

Whenever the two meet, the missing letters are filled in from Sanna's personal journal entries and her attempts at novelizing her affair with this married doctor.

Although the premise may not seem that earth-shattering, bear in mind that this is based on a true story of the author's experiences. The further we get into the story, the more reality begins to intervene, combined with possible law suits if "Sanna" would ever publish Peter's letters. The book ends with about 10 pages of Sanna's stream of consciousness written in dialect, her trying to rationalize to her therapist what happened between her and Peter, and how she could go about publishing their story without fears of retribution.

What an odd read! This will definitely go under the "social porn" tag in my Goodreads account...

8. 27 eli kuolema tekee taiteilijan by Alexandra Salmela ("27, or, Death Makes an Artist")

This book garnered a lot of attention last year as it was a Finlandia Prize candidate. Thing is, usually only Finnish citizens can become candidates for this prestigious award and oops--Alexandra Salmela is not a citizen. After much debate, the jury decided to let her stay in the competition and while she did not win this particular prize, her acceptance into it is a great testament to immigrant, non-native Finnish speaker writers (and Finnish learners!).

I'm very glad that her novel gained all this attention, because it's great. It's hilarious, ironic, self-deprecating and stylistically adventurous. There's something fresh in this book that I cannot pinpoint. It really is like nothing I have read in a long while.

The story goes like this: Angie, a student majoring in Finnish in Prague, wants to do something remarkable before she turns 28, which is the gateway age to boredom according to her. She painstakingly lists all legendary musicians who have died at age 27, and records what she is doing at the same age as them. She attempts writing a screenplay for a TV show, a radio play and finally settles on a novel about Finns. She goes to live on her professor's relatives' cabin in Middle of Nowhere, Finland, where the same yard is shared by a Finnish family: three children, an unemployed, ass-crack showing dad and an eco-maniac, tote-bag making mother.

The story gently mocks Finns, but it also mocks people who have stereotypical views of Finns. Sometimes it's hard to tell which form is being employed in the novel, because the stereotypes come way too close to reality.

If you've been reading this blog, you know that I'm a sucker for unreliable narrators (like the one in Monika Fagerholm's American Girl) and guess what--this one has its share of them, too! They are not unreliable in the sense that they want to explicitly lie to the reader: it's just that their view on other people is affected by their cultural background and their own, personal problems. The only completely reliable narrator is the family's car, who records only what people sitting in the car are saying without adding any emotions to them. In addition, the car painstakingly records all the actions from looking through the rearview mirror and turning the lights on to how a typical Finn parks a car (Step on clutch, change gear to one, roll forward while keeping the clutch down and braking. Brake to a stop and pull the handbrake up. Switch off engine).

Besides Angie and the car, other narrators include the family toddler's toy pig (who is ridiculously positive and naive) and the stray cat who roams around in the yard.

As with Peter-Peter, sometimes events can be interpreted only from Angie's exaggerated novelized versions of them, and the reader is left to decide what the underlying truth is.

A fun story that I want to read again at some point, because I feel like I missed a lot of subtleties during the first read.


  1. The most interesting thing about Peter Peter is not the book itself (which I thought was ok but nothing special) but the sections of Meriluoto's diary (Vaarallista kokea) that she was keeping during her affair and during the time she was writing Peter Peter soon after the affair ended. Particularly fascinating is the way she anticipates how her book is going to be received in Finland and Sweden - she is convinced that it's going to be a huge scandal, nothing like it has ever been written, everyone will talk about it. I have not been able to find out how the book really was received at the time; she does say in the diary that some friends cut off all contact with her and some critics were appalled.

    Her diary illustrates an interesting dichotomy: on the one hand Meriluoto considers herself an artistic and sexual "rebel" (which I guess she was as a divorced mother of four kids who had a taste in married, middle-aged, artistically talented men), but on the other hand, her own underlying view of life and expectations still seem pretty conservative, at least to our generation. Another thing that stands out from the diary is her attitude to her own books and their critics: she suffers from fear of rejection and low self-esteem (and who doesn't), but when critics bash her books, she is absolutely convinced that the reasons for criticism are motivated by some exterior factors such as her gender, personal antagonism, and her status as an immigrant in Sweden, and none of the criticism really stems from the quality of her writing. It's not that I'm surprised by these feelings (maybe they are necessary for a writer to restore herself and be able to write again after bad reviews), I guess I'm just a bit shocked by the fact that she admits to them... I don't know if she's remarkably brave or just plain irritating. It may be my Finnishness... if someone tells you that you suck, you should believe it, hang your head in shame and not find excuses! ;)

  2. I have so much love for this comment, you won't even believe it! <3 Sorry for getting to replying so late.

    Although I know near to nothing about Meriluoto's personal life, I, too, thought that the inward reflections on her writing and her motives for writing were the most interesting bits in this book. Otherwise, the book would read like a cheap Harlequine romance novel: ooh, a clandestine affair! I should check out her diary for more of this.

    The aspects of the dichotomy you mention do seem to appear in Peter Peter as well, especially in Sanna's letters: on one hand she plays the part of a bashful young woman who hates the way she looks, but at the same time you can clearly tell that she is much more confident in her capabilities--whether they be artistic or of sensual nature--than what she lets the reader on. Sanna seems to be the type of person who puts herself down at every turn as an invitation for other people to praise her. If they do not, she is puzzled.

    I don't know if she's remarkably brave or just plain irritating.

    Haha! The line between being assertive and being self-absorbed can be so very thin... Now I need to read the diary. Do you happen to have a copy of it?

  3. Yep, I have it, and it also has some great photos of the younger Meriluoto, her family, friends and her men. Will bring to next meeting.