„Tattered Ruins of that Map”!?
I can still remember a book of my childhood. It was a little bit thicker than the one I’m going to talk about; it had a several-figure illustration on its cover, probably a picture from The Musicians of Bremen. Basically, it emanated the same atmosphere that the Hungarian translation of Bengt Pohjanen’s autobiographical novel. The novel translation has been issued in hard covers, illustrated in good taste and feeling by Andrea Jánosi. The book in its physical appearance is airy and easy to read, with wide margins and comfortable white spaces between the chapters: white spaces, like a beautifully laid anniversary table in a weekend in the village of Kassa, where one would expect the most wonderful tastes and smells, or even colours to be conjured upon it. Magic is two-levelled here. There is the magic of the writer who makes the reader become a magician in its turn. This can be considered – and this is the moment where we should start thinking about the role and results of the translator, as well – as one of the writer’s greatest strengths. He is able to arrange silence and language manifestations on this “white table” in such a manner that most of us are able to find the tastes we are looking for.
The novel entitled The Smuggler King’s Son saw light in Hungarian in Enikő M. Bodrogi’s interpretation. Let’s face it: it must have been quite a brave task from her part. It is nearly impossible to present Meänmaa purely through language, still what else could serve a translator in fulfilling her task? And this is one of the heaviest contradictions pressing a translator’s shoulders. But Enikő M. Bodrogi manages not only to lead us into the story itself and its language, but also to show – up to a high extent – the country itself, as well as the culture of the people living there. And the way that other, above-mentioned book made me actually SEE a toothless dog standing on the back of the donkey, Enikő M. Bodrogi has managed to re-create Pänktti’s world. In conjuring this world, the translator has also called for the help of the scary world of footnotes; still this does not interrupt the rhythm of experience. For me – as they are carefully proportioned – these footnotes have only highlighted the magnificence of this „feast”, explaining where and why the vase with the lily-of-the-valley, the fork, the plate are placed exactly where they are; on the other hand, it also shows where the place of appetite itself is in the course of a Meänkieli „dinner”.
I’d better approach the contents
of this book through a short story written by Borges in Del rigor en la
ciencia (On Exactitude of Science):
In that Empire, the Art of
Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province
occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety
of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and
the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of
the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following
Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their
Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without
some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of
Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are
Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the
Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
From Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, Translated by Andrew Hurley Copyright Penguin 1999.
The Empire Borges speaks about is far from us in time. Meänmaa is also far from us, but quite in a different way and from several other points of view: in space, in culture, as well as in being border-bound.
From another point of view – as a revealed minority, with their claim for self legitimacy – we can also feel them quite close. As a matter of fact – even if not always explicitly – our own message bears the same wish.
But there are even tighter, more palpable connections between Borges’ story and the plot of Bengt Pohjanen’s novel. First, there is the huge arrogance that makes them believe someone is able to create a perfectly similar copy of a certain world. This arrogance includes an intention for colonisation, an experiment for a misunderstood homogenisation. Could anyone prepare an exact copy of a habitat or a society? As an answer to this question, the Meänkieli culture is sad and optimistic at the same time. Meänkieli has had the status of an independent, minority language since 2000, and Meänkieli literacy and literary language have been developing; the Meänraatio (radio programme in Meänkieli) has also been working. On the other hand, objective though sad reports say that a person living on the Swedish bank of the Tornio River still does not feel convinced that it is their benefit to live their own Meänkieli culture through their own Meänkieli language in their own area: Meänmaa. After all, this is a situation well known to us, Hungarians in Romania, as well.
The second similarity somehow grows out of the first one. In a world where people/the Cartographer’s Chamber/ the politicians believe that they managed to create the perfect copy of a certain habitat, a certain society – in other words: where the leadership consider it desirable and possible to repeat itself, they consider this newly created world their own, so they think they can do with it – they have the right to –whatever they want. They think they have a right to banish them in the Northern Wilderness or order them to speak Swedish and behave like the Swedish. Either of these or both, whatever they wish. These Cartographers, Leaders or politicians don’t understand the first imperative of a leader’s status. Namely: that nobody has full powers over those who belong to us, not even over those that create our own tissues. One of the most challenging tasks of a leadership should be to give up this thought about their omnipotent powers and assure sovereignty to those who belong to them (because of an arbitrary drawn frontier, for instance) still who are different from them.
The Cartographers in this story of Borges finally gave up the science of cartography. The perfect copy of their space had not been perfect after all. Two things might have happened: they realised that it is impossible to create a perfect copy; or they got bored to death by their own doubled selves.
What remains after all this? An uncharted territory – like a labyrinth – as well as fear of the dangers of this uncharted territory. If this fear cannot be eased, it only will create a perpetually foreign Empire, sentenced to atrophy.
Now, let’s have a few words about the way Pohjanen creates this virtual space, Meänmaa, or – more precisely – the story of Kassa, the story of living on the frontier, alternating the grammatical tense of his childhood and the narrative present.
The language- and plot effect of The Smuggler King’s Son seems to be somehow raw. We could also consider it a documentary or fact-finding oeuvre. At the same time, it is indisputably at a high literary level; it is far from merely reflecting reality. Memories and retrospective are constructed along very well thought-over aspects: the role of religion in peripheral situation; the language of religion; social focuses; reflection of religious and ethnic frustrations upon language; the problem of language in itself; language and permanent life on the frontier, which ultimately can be interpreted as living on a language frontier, all the time. And all these are imbedded in an ironical, especially self ironical view. The core of the book may be the last two problems: immutably living at the periphery and – along with it – the possibilities, as well as impossibilities of the language.
At narrative level, in this atmosphere of unsolvable political and religious and territorial fragmentation we can find behavioural role- and character alternatives. The smugglers’ role is one of them. But there are also the Lestadian believers, the members of the Korpela movement, the Meänkieli who died in Stockholm. And there are also the former inhabitants of Kassa, who had been moved to the Swedish town Piitime and had been re-trained/shattered from linguistic and identity point of view. These are general roles and their general nature derives from the logic of their lives – lives that are lead in a permanent periphery state. And these roles receive a new light as they are presented through childhood eyeglasses and drawn up in a historical context.
„But the smuggler unites and does not divide us.” – says the novel. The smuggler – according to our ethic code – is a déclassé element of society, because – and because of that, at the same time – he is an outlaw. On the other hand, putting aside all arrogant moralizing, the novel clearly shows that there are places and systems, where being an outlaw means avoiding- or maybe even defeating the evil. It shows that the roles must not everywhere be judged with the same measure. The measure should always comply with the situation just being examined.
„Gunnari is a hero resting in the Turtola cemetery, very close to the Tornio River, the river which is flowing but heading nowhere.” – says the novel a little later. The Tornio River, means time, showing that the weave of time is heading somewhere; the River is flowing ahead, carrying time and remembrance; at the same time, as a frontier it is frozen, fragmenting the space of political games. Pohjanen’s novel takes place at the point where these two dimensions are straining against each other. It keeps cracking, straining against each other role-possibilities: aesthetic and historical, individual and collective But you can discover strain between Pänktti and Bengt, as well as Bengt and himself. This strain comes up again and again in the novel. „Pänktti was a little boy” – says Pohjanen – „and nobody wanted to stay at home and take care of him; but he was such an obedient, silent child and he was already sleeping when we left home that evening, when the Germans made the big fire.” With a special skill, Pohjanen models and re-builds – out of letters and words – that space where it is only normal that Pänktti is at home alone, sleeping; at the same time he is watching the fire together with his family and the villagers. The ego is badly fragmented, but the cause of this phenomenon, essential from all points of view, is never explicitly uttered. Is it because of the laws, aiming to erase personality? Is it because of this peripheral existence? Bengt Pohjanen is looking for the answer, using humour as one of the most important tools. Let’s have here a bit of this humor, as well: „Hitler is my ideal and rival, at the same time. He is my ideal, because he has such a pair of elegant boots as the vat and my father, the smugglers’ king have; and he also wears berets, like a customs officer. His moustache is hardly smaller than the one of Stalin, who seems to be an honest man, as well. At the same time, Hitler also is my rival; when in August, 1944 the Germans burnt down the Finnish bank of the Tornio River, under the manoeuvre Birke fällen, meaning „hew the birch down”, his name has been uttered too many times, endangering my role as a protagonist.” This is Pänktti’s Meänkieli measure for those who play main roles on his contemporary stage of world politics.
A philologist knows that he can be optimistic where the grip of reality gives way to literary pleasure. The philologist also knows that he can be optimistic where he can find good humour and self-irony. I have met both in Bengt Pohjanen’s novel. I am optimistic.
English translation: Betty