Förlaget (Finland), 2016.
Reviewed by Joanna Flower in SBR 2017:1
Review Section: Fiction - Adult
Korta Stycken is a slim volume of short stories, flash fiction and poetry by the Finland-Swedish writer Johan Bargum. Since his literary debut in 1965, Bargum has published numerous novels, short stories and plays, and has cultivated a reputation as a formidable stylist. In these brief notes, the combination of his trademark spare, economical prose and his narration by omission and suggestion is at times startlingly lucid and effective in depicting the fleeting moments in everyday life that we all too readily dismiss as insignificant, but in which Bargum sees something fundamental. In short, Korta Stycken is a masterclass in style by one of Finland’s most renowned contemporary writers.
An air of melancholy and poignancy infuses this collection, with recurring themes of ageing, nostalgia, loneliness, disappointment and the unwelcome growing awareness of the inevitability of death. Yet such is Bargum’s lightness of touch that the result is an engaging and thought-provoking reading experience. Bargum is down in the dirt with his protagonists as they wrestle with divorce, grief and the banality of life, and yet at the same time he hovers above it all, revealing a beauty and grace in the mundane, and showing us glimpses of what it is to be human.
The stories, or vignettes in many cases, are not dramatic in a plot sense, but Bargum uses devices such as form (poetry; a list of do’s and don’ts; a diary entry; a letter; a description of the mating habits of seahorses) and unusual points of view (an authoress of popular romance novels – back then ‘the men were the authors’– speaks from beyond the grave of her old age in a care home; a cat tells of his Machiavellian tricks to keep his owner on their toes;Sisyphus realises that the boredom of his task is a fate worse than death) to make something fresh out of the commonplace. Indeed, Bargum appears to go out of his way to avoid the dramatic. In one story, for example, a boy on a beach takes great care in drawing a picture in the sand of his mother – who, we are given to assume, has died – and is distracted by a passing motorboat. He plunges into the water to play in the enormous waves of its wake. Yet Bargum does not have the boy yield to the water in a longed- for return to his mother. He simply has him enjoy the carefree play, and then sees him return to the shore to finish his drawing. As a result, the effect of the scene is meditative.
The front cover of Korta Stycken reflects Bargum’s overarching theme by showing a handful of unremarkable objects that could simply be regarded as flotsam and jetsam. A shell, a piece of twine, a stone – these are the small things that activate our memories, and for Bargum, memories connect us not only to ourselves, but also to each other. Human closeness, a shared history, a sense of togetherness with another person, these are the things that really matter.Some of the most affecting pieces in Korta Stycken are those in which memories are actively treasured, for example, where the narrator entreats the reader to turn off the computer so that they can sit together on the veranda as dusk falls and talk of things they remember. One gets the impression that Bargum, now in his seventies, has gone back over the fabric of his life and is passing on to us here those important fragments that he has torn from it, those moments of insight he has gained from a lifetime of artistic endeavour. We would be well-advised to take note.