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from Colorado Avenue
Lars Sund
Translated by Laurie Thompson

This article appeared in the 2005 supplement.

Lars SundLars Sund was born in Jakobstad in 1953. After studying at Åbo Akademi, he moved to Uppsala, Sweden in the early 1980s, where he worked as a journalist. He made his literary debut with a poetry anthology in 1974, and published his first novel, Natten är ännu ung (The Night is Yet Young) the following year.

Colorado Avenue was published to great acclaim in 1991, with Sund being compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie. It was to be the first in a trilogy of novels set in the fictional Ostrobothnian community of Siklax, depicted so vividly that there are regular reports of keen, albeit geographically challenged, readers driving around Ostrobothnia in search of the setting for their favourite books.

The novel follows Rödskär’s-Hanna from Siklax, a poor coastal village on the west coast of Finland, to the mining town of Telluride, Colorado, where she transforms herself into Dollar-Hanna. The translated extract on the following pages is the opening of the second part of the book, and shows the now wealthy, but widowed, Hanna’s return to Finland with her two children after her husband’s death in the American miners’ strike of 1903. The novel goes on to depict the events of the Finnish Civil War from the perspective of the Finland-Swedes of Ostrothnia, and shows how Otto becomes a celebrated bootlegger during Finland’s prohibition.

Colorado Avenue was followed in 1997 by Lanthandlerskans son (The Country Storekeeper’s Son), in which Otto, now 94 years old, escapes from an old-people’s home and travels back to Siklax. The third, and apparently conclusive, novel in the Siklax trilogy, Eriks bok (Erik’s Book), was published in 2003. Critics were unanimous in proclaiming that one of the great sequences of Finland-Swedish novels had come to a worthy conclusion. All three of the Siklax novels were nominated for the Finlandia Prize,

“Lars Sund has completed a remarkable achievement. As a novelist he is driven, daring, audacious, linguistically adept and precise, and a documentarist of some talent.”

Hufvudstadsbladet review of Eriks bok

Neil Smith


Once upon a time there was an enormous steamer with a black-painted hull, dazzling white superstructure and three tall funnels spewing out massive clouds of black smoke. This ship transported a small boy over a wide ocean. The boy had never seen the sea before, even though he was wearing a sailor suit. Where he was born was surrounded by mountains.

Anybody who has lived in a deep, narrow canyon surrounded by mountains knows very little about horizons.

Out at sea this boy saw the horizon for the first time. Being in the centre of a round disc of water with a metallic glint, seemingly suspended under a dome of light blue glass, changed his attitude to life for ever. But it is not only the absence of an horizon that distinguishes mountains from the sea. The secret behind the colossal bulk of the mountains is their serenity; the key to the grandeur of the ocean is its constant motion, ever-changing. The boy would stand on deck for hours on end, contemplating the ever-changing landscape of the waves, never the same from one moment to the next.

During the Atlantic crossing he also got to know the ship. He explored it from bow to stern. He was beguiled by the size of the steamer and the perfection of its complicated machinery. He idolized the officers on the bridge who steered the vessel and knew exactly where it was in this desert of water, below the clear, blue sky. He became very friendly with the stewards, and was invited to corned beef sandwiches and soda in the engineers’ mess.

He was so happy, it hurt. He woke up every morning boiling over with pleasure at the thought of another day at sea on board the liner. He had forgotten that he ever had a father, and that his father was no longer alive.

But the joy of travel is short and transient. Sooner or later the traveller reaches his destination.

The boy arrived in Siklax.

A little boy who has lived in a canyon surrounded by sky-high mountains and then been privileged to see the boundless ocean could not help but be engulfed by devastating disappointment. It was springtime; a cold, depressing and rainy spring. The fields in the plain were brownish-black and soaked with muddy water. The outbuildings were grey, broken-backed and seemed to be sinking into the ground; the houses were just as grey; their black window panes stared at him, full of hostility. There was an icy wind; the leafless birch trees tossed and twisted, as if trying to keep warm.

Everything seemed to the boy so miniscule.

There were children like himself. He tried to talk to them. Then their eyes would turn as black as the farm-house windows. They shouted at him. The language was familiar, but even so he couldn’t understand what they were saying. Then they would run away. The boy remained rooted to the spot, sobs welling up into his mouth like cold porridge.

If only he could return to the canyon surrounded by mountains, where he felt he belonged.

 

The boy sat on the floor of his grandma’s kitchen in Siklax, playing with a mouth organ. Not playing it. He twiddled and turned the mouth organ with his fingers, trying to capture the light in its shiny tin-plate casing. He held it against his cheek to feel the coolness of the plate against his skin. He closed his eyes.

He was back in the canyon surrounded by mountains.

He was on his way up a steep slope, riding on his father’s shoulders. It was early in the morning of what would become a beautiful summer’s day; the sky seemed newly scrubbed, the snow-clad peaks glittered in the sunlight and, despite their massive bulk, seemed weightless, almost transparent. He could feel his father tensing his muscles in order to keep his balance as he climbed, and breathed in his father’s comforting smell of sweat and tobacco as he listened to his laughter.

They were united by mutual happiness. That happiness was called Here and Now.

A little pebble came loose under his father’s boot and danced down into the void below. They were higher up than they’d ever been before. They were going to climb up the highest peak, and the world would be spread out beneath their feet: the mountains with their canyons and passes, the city, the mines, the slag heaps and the Denver & Rio Grande Railway wriggling and winding its way along the valley floor; mountain rills glinting in the first sunlight, pine trees, scree slopes. And arched over their heads the deep blue sky, and the thin mountain air making them feel light-headed.

Then something happens.

The sky darkens over. The air is filled with swirling snow. The wind howls. Snowflakes bite into the boy’s face.

He is no longer sitting on his father’s shoulders.

There is no sign of his father. The boy is all alone on a lofty ridge – a narrow knife-edge of stone, surrounded by bottomless precipices. He is searching for his father in the raging storm. His father is out there somewhere, and needs him! The boy tries to shout, but the storm fills his mouth with snow and wind. He is forced to screw up his eyes to keep the swirling snow at bay. He is shivering with cold. At any moment he could be swept away by the howling wind or sucked into the masses of snow that are wrenched loose and hurtle down into the bottomless pit.

Then he hears his father’s voice.

The voice is faint, the words are carved up by the wind:

“Otto! I’m here!”

He staggers blindly through the blizzard, sobbing and shivering with cold.

“Here! Come to your Pa now!”

He catches a glimpse of his father: no more than a shadow, close by. And the shadow reaches out its hands towards him. The face has his father’s features, true enough, but it is a mask of ice: a grinning mouth with no lips, eyes black and dead as pebbles. Hard, crooked fingers are groping out towards him.

The boy screams in terror and tries to run away.

But suddenly there is a void beneath his feet.

He falls.

Headlong.

 

At first, after they arrived from America, they lived with Hanna’s mother in Bäcklidsgränden. His grandma frightened Otto: he had never seen anybody as old as she was in all his life; in the canyon surrounded by mountains most people had been young.

Hanna’s mother surrounded herself with high, thick walls, built of solid blocks of silence and implacability. The old woman would sit in silence inside her fortress of implacability, her own prisoner. But she could never understand that. She was convinced that she suffered the tribulations of the righteous, and that her warders were her fellow human beings, not herself.

Otto did not grasp this, of course. But he did notice how his mother used to humble herself and bow her head before the old woman in the fortress, he glimpsed the tears in Hanna’s eyes. He had never seen her like that before. It scared him.

When the old woman looked at him her gaze was as sharp as newly crushed gravel. It hurt.

I must get away from here, he thought.

They had come here over the sea. And so he needed to go back to the sea. The steamer they had travelled in had a black hull and dazzling white superstructure and was called the Campania. She would lead him back to the canyon surrounded by mountains. If only he could find her.

Otto ran away.

 

While Hanna thought he was in the back yard looking after his little sister, Otto travelled to Stranden hidden at the back of a cart laden with empty herring barrels. The driver had stopped behind the steam sawmill. Otto jumped off and ran down to the shore.

What he saw made him so astonished that he peed himself without noticing. His heart got stuck between two beats like the spring in a mechanical toy.

There was a thundering and roaring inside his head, like the sound of water thudding onto iron: the sound made when rollers are thrust aside by the bows of an Atlantic liner.

Blaxnäs Bay opened out in front of him, wide and bluish grey, steaming with haze on this calm spring day. The sea! You could hear the seagulls screeching and the thumping of breakers on the shingle, you could smell the tang of brackish water, sodden earth, rotting reeds; from the timberyard of the sawmill drifted the fresh scent of newly-sawn wood. On the other side of the estuary was a row of boathouses with thatched roofs and racks for drying fishing nets, and jetties, on this side was the sawmill, a long grey building with a little annexe of brick from whose roof jutted a tall metal tube spewing out thick greyish white smoke into the sky. But Otto saw, smelled or heard none of all this!

For out there in the bay, apparently hovering in the haze some way above the water line, was a steamboat with a black hull and white superstructure.

He recognized it immediately. He had no need to search any more. The Campania had come to fetch him.

*

Meanwhile mother and daughter were drinking coffee in Hanna’s mother’s cottage. American coffee from a blue bag: ready-roasted beans, dark brown and fragrant.

They sat at opposite sides of a well-scrubbed table. Between them was a small, deep ravine filled with the silence accumulated over many years.

Their silence was like the first ice of autumn: through its clear lens you can look down into the water below, see waterweed and pieces of reed that have frozen fast, and burbot gliding up from the dark depths. Yes, that is what their silence was like: brittle and transparent like new ice.

Hanna’s mother poured coffee into the cups: carefully and painstakingly, as if it were not ordinary coffee but the wine that is transformed into the precious blood of Jesus. She poured some of her coffee into her saucer. Cut a lump of sugar from the loaf using the black iron scissors. And raised the saucer, balanced on her outstretched fingers. And blew. And placed the sugar lump between her lips. And closed her eyes. And slurped.

An old woman drinking coffee noisily and with great pleasure over a lump of loaf-sugar, a kerchief over her head and her wrinkled eyelids closed; she is framed by the daylight drifting in through the window behind her back, and against the light she is a silhouette cut out from black paper; and Hanna thought: this is the real Finland!

And she thought: America was no doubt a gigantic and powerful land, but there is no way that womenfolk there could hold a saucer of coffee as it’s done in Finland, they have so many luxuries that they couldn’t possibly derive as much pleasure from a drop of coffee as they do over here.

Then she was brimming with laughter. Laughter bubbled and bobbled inside her like the water in a coffee pot brought to the boil. But the reverse side of laughter is weeping, just as weeping, when you turn it over, becomes laughter. So Hanna laughed and cried, cried and laughed until she no longer knew what she was doing. Her happiness caused her a lot of pain. It was the same extreme pain she had felt when giving birth to her children, and the same happiness in the midst of pain. She would not have wanted to miss the experience.

Not many words were spoken by mother and daughter.

But that was not because the words were not there.

The silence spoke incessantly. Electrical signals sped through the air like Marconi waves. An unspoken conversation was held over the chasm of silence, inaudible to anybody but the two taking part.

 

The purpose of stories is to find words for what is too momentous to say out loud.

Stories have to interpret silence and make it comprehensible.

The unspoken conversation between Hanna and her mother might have sounded – in the scrappy and incomplete version of the narrator – something like this:

Hanna’s mother: So, now you have returned. I did not believe I would ever set eyes on you again. I thought: that distant and immense country America has swallowed you up as a pike swallows minnows. The cruel Lord has taken my only daughter from me, just as He previously took away my sons and my man. I thought: It is finished for me now.

Hanna: But I had promised to return. I kept that promise.

Hanna’s mother (not without bitterness): You married in America. And you saw fit to choose a pauper who had been a drudge before going to sea. Well, marriage vows are quickly sworn, but they bring much in their wake. Succumbing to your weakness has left two brats clinging to your apron strings. And now you are a widow. Now you will discover how good life is to you! Make no assumption that you can come to me and beg for pity. Every man for himself and God for us all!

Hanna (to herself): I must tread warily now, I shall use cunning and skill to build bridges over chasms: I shall assume appropriate humility, as a submissive daughter bow my head before my mother and win her over: let your hard heart grow soft, forgive me that for which I am not guilty! Accept me! But what have I to regret? That I am a woman and possess the body of a woman and the functions of a woman, am I to blame for that? Sorrow is a pain inside me, the sense of loss and the longing for the man who has gone for ever. But nothing can prevail upon me to regret. I cannot go back. What is done cannot be undone.

Hanna’s mother: You have always been stubborn. You had to go to America, even though the very stones were weeping. Not on any account would you listen to reason and pay heed to somebody older and wiser than yourself.

Hanna: Do you not recall what you said to me? You said: Do not include me in your considerations! Every one of us knows his own affairs best. You must make your own decision. That is what you said, I recall it well, very well. I started to serve as a maid before I was twelve years old. I could not even complete junior school, even though I would have liked to and the teacher said that I had the head for it. I wanted to make my way in the world. That is why I left.

Hanna’s mother: Oh, Oh, what hubris! You have that from your father. But you cannot approach your God with condescension, that is one thing that is certain.

Hanna (with a sigh): That is typical of you. You have forgotten nothing. You have forgiven nothing. And learnt nothing.

Hanna’s mother: In a long life I have doubtless learnt all I need to know. Do not think that it has always been easy for me while you have been away.

Hanna (caustically): You seem to have your daily bread, and butter on the bread.

Hanna’s mother: God feeds us all, albeit sparingly. I receive a little from those who come here with their ailments. Thanks to the squire at Smeds I am allowed to live here without payment. But I do not lead an affluent life, certainly not.

Hanna: In no way have I come here in order to be a burden on you. I have learnt to look after myself. I have plans.

Hanna’s mother (with a snort): Plans? What kind of plans can a little girl like you have?

Hanna: You must accept that I am a grown woman, and I have seen something of the world. America is a hard school. Anyone who is not strong goes under. (bites her lip) There is one thing I want to know... Why did you stop replying to my letters?

Then came the sound of a child crying in the back yard.

 

At first Hanna didn’t react; it was as if the crying had to burn its way into her thoughts like a candle flame burning a hole in thick paper. But then she leapt to her feet, rushed outside and found Ida dangerously close to the well, watched only by the cockerel that had taken up a position on the swipe.

“Where’s Otto?” Hanna asked when she had calmed the girl down a little.

Still snuffling, Ida pointed towards the row of sheds. Hanna shouted angrily for Otto. No reply. She went to look for him: no sign of him. Hanna’s irritation turned into worry. She went back inside and placed the girl firmly on her grandmother’s knee, an action that would not tolerate any objection.

“You must look after the little wench for a while. I’ll be going to go and look for the boy.”

Hanna was already on her way out. Then her mother said abstractedly:

“You’ll be going to make your way down to Stranden. To the shore. That’s where he is.”

Hanna paused in the doorway.

“What on earth are you talking about?!”

“The lad’s drawn to water. On the floating logs. That’s where he is,” said Hanna’s mother.

In many ways believing is more of a problem than knowing, for anybody who believes takes much bigger risks than somebody who only relies on what they know. Hanna bit her lip and hesitated. Ida started crying again.

Hanna looked hard at her mother, the old woman’s eyes were clear and sharp, gazing into the distance.

Hanna hurried out, her skirt flouncing.

Hanna’s mother sat there with Ida on her knee. The little girl’s body was stiff and tense as she wept. With no trace of a smile Hanna’s mother looked down at her granddaughter’s red, tear-soaked, screwed-up face.

Stroking and caressing was not something the old woman knew about. She had only experienced a limited amount of tenderness in her life, and what you have never had you cannot share with others. But there are other ways of stopping a child crying. She cut off a small lump of loaf-sugar, poured a few drops of brandy over it and put it in Ida's mouth.

Ida stopped crying. She sucked away at the sugar as she sat there on the floor.

She’s just like Hanna, thought the old woman.

She started singing for Ida. In a gravelly voice she sang the sad song about four men from Stranden who drowned while out fishing:

For Death, he harries everything
on water and on land;
just when we don’t fear anything
he reaches out his hand...