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Bo Carpelan, Barndom (Childhood)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2008. ISBN: 9789100120450

Reviewed by Eric Dickens in SBR 2009:1

Also published in Finland by Schildts Förlag

This impressionistic description of the life of a small boy from infancy to 13 years of age is set in the Finnish capital in the 1930s, in 51 short chapters. Bo Carpelan was born in 1926, and the dates coincide with the author’s own, so that the three sections of the book deal with 1930 to 1936 in the old flat, 1936 to 1939 in the new apartment, plus a separate section for 1939 as war is imminent and the family’s fortunes declining. The family is a middle-class one; the father works at a bank. Respectable, never rich, but comfortably off, initially. The little boy is surrounded by an everchanging world. Aunts, uncles and neighbours come and go in this urban Swedish-speaking world (even the street names are in Swedish). Only one neighbour, who reads to the protagonist Davi, is Finnish-speaking. And occasionally, someone comes from abroad, worrying Davi’s parents with news of heightening social tensions. The style is rather special. As in Jag minns att jag drömde (1979), there is a slight hallucinatory quality to some of the chapters, and the young boy is often found nodding off, dreaming in bed, or in a brown study, in the classroom, on the street or in the park. In such situations, perceptions are highlighted or distorted.There are clouds, summer sunsets, and the sleet, snow and ice of winter. Plus the occasional disturbing nightmare. The first watershed in Davi’s life is when his parents move to a rather grand apartment so that he can be nearer to his new school.This cuts off old friendships with Leo and others, but there is a girl of his age, Eva, living in the new apartment block, with whom he goes skating and falls in love in his tender pre-adolescent way. There are happy times and sorrowful ones. People fall ill and die; Davi ponders the meaning of death. As the novel proceeds, there is tension about the family’s income and its ability to afford things.This is an aspect that rings especially true in today’s economic downturn. And inevitably, in the last section, the family’s fortunes come to earth with a bump. Mother, father and Davi are now living in a two-room flat, with Davi sleeping in an alcove curtained off from his parents’ bedroom. His thoughts revolve around Dickensian London and characters from various boys’ adventure books, while his father reads the paper in the living room and his mother cooks. War is now looming. He is back at his old school. And the biggest step into adulthood is when, on his thirteenth birthday his parents ceremoniously announce that Davi will now get the living room to sleep in, with its bookshelves, piano and so on. The book ends with the air raid sirens sounding as the children are sitting in the classroom.The ending is surprisingly pathos-filled for such a low-key novel.

Also by Bo Carpelan

  • Benjamins bok (Benjamin's Book). Reviewed by Joan Tate in SBR 1998:1.

Other reviews by Eric Dickens

Other reviews in SBR 2009:1

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