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Saturday, August 2, 2008

Pentti Saarikoski's The Edge of Europe: A Kinetic Image, reviewed by Summer Block

The Edge of Europe: A Kinetic Image
Pentti Saarikoski, translated by Anselm Hollo
Action Books, 2007
ISBN 0-9765692-6-4

Reviewed by Summer Block

"Call me whatever you want," Finnish poet Pentti Saarikoski riffs in his highly allusive, frequently sardonic prose journal The Edge of Europe. His compatriots settled on "The Blond Beatle of the North," and for a time in the 1960s and 70s Saarikoski was Finland’s rock star poet, voice of the "Generation of ’68," living in a region described by translator Anselm Hollo as a "‘buffer zone’ country whose political climate in the Cold War years presented far greater ambiguities than that of the major Western countries."

The Edge of Europe, published in Finland in 1982 and available now in English from Action Books, is a sort of personal diary or highly autobiographic novel that Saarikoski wrote in the odd spaces while working on his final major poetic work, the three-volume Trilogy. At this time Saarikoski had left Finland, setting himself up with his partner Mia Berner and a cat named Heraclitus on the small island of Stavanger off the west coast of Sweden. From this old house he made forays around the Western edge of Europe, traveling through Norway, Brittany, and Dublin, teaching himself Breton, and meeting a lot of lonely people.

The Edge of Europe can be considered stream of consciousness, a series of apparently disordered meditations that proceed nimbly one from the next, from housecats to saunas to Kierkegaard to Brigitte Bardot, a sort of frontier of the mind that echoes Saarikoski’s peripatetic frontier-hopping out at the edges of his troubled continent, in fishing villages in stark Norway or among the surly Bretons in France. Yet the stream of consciousness feeling is deceptive: behind the apparently aimless meandering of Saarikoski’s thoughts lies a tight series of causes and effects laid out in a style as mannered and artful as T.S. Eliot’s. Saarikoski always seems very much in control of his mind and of his writing, even when incapacitated by drink or by pity.

As he wanders, Saarikoski muses on Munich, Chagall, etymology, James Joyce, Odysseus, and the long, strange history of Europe’s wild places, including Vladimir Lenin’s own roots in "Chuvash territory." Yet the poet’s engagement with the physical world servers as a constant corrective to his corrosive intellect, throwing up lines like, "To my mind, the spruce is the most beautiful tree. It is the only tree that seems to know what it is," or "A cloud floats across the sky. Somehow, curiously, it looks as if it were lying on its back," or at last, more bleakly, "the sky is blue and turns the water blue as well, but when you look at them closely, neither is any color at all."

The nineteen-eighties at the edge of Europe were a politically charged time, and Saarikoski’s wide-ranging intellect finds the usual targets. Many of his observations on Lenin and Marx have not aged well; they have become commonplaces. His teasing of Reagan and that president’s dangerous, disordered agedness now seems trite, or perhaps even a little mean-spirited. He is cynical and tired. He muses, "Thinking about important things such as for instance this Falkland Islands crisis is just a pain in the ass, trying to think about it gets you nowhere." His weariness threatens to make the reader weary. He is always failing to make love, or failing to bake bread, he is impotent.

And yet, he is right more often than he isn’t. Saarikoski muses on the First of May about those Communists who claimed, as the Nazis before them, that they didn’t know what they were supporting, "What is one to think of a human being who works, often selflessly and in a spirit of sacrifice, for a party that won’t let him/her know what is going on, what it wants, what its aims are?" As good a piece of common sense then as now, and as relevant, in this age of furtive security operations and willful blindness.

Saarikoski can come off unremittingly bleak: "In a life," he says, "no one has time to develop into anything other than what he had managed to develop into when he joined the work force, it is futile to think that there is anything to a short human lifespan except for decay and death, first there are these twenty years and then you start taking them apart again, there isn’t room for more in a human life, in a backpack, there they are, your memories, your clothes, your t-shirt, shorts and pants, all the knowledge and experience you’ve gathered, and you carry that backpack so that when you arrive you might understand that the whole trip was in vain, it didn’t get you anywhere."

He can also be a dilettante, a complainer, a curmudgeon, and a misogynist. Nevertheless, he turns towards the world a diffuse, steady sympathy. Like a true intellectual, he is open to experience, to meeting new people and seeing them for who they are, for letting go of his preconceptions. "Visitors thought he was a local guy and the locals thought he was a stranger," he images his wife saying about himself in an extended metaphor. (His conceits, and there are many of them, never get away from him; you can be assured that pages of winding metaphor will tie together neatly at last.)

The Edge of Europe is a raw, bawdy book, and not opposed to a touch of vulgarity, though often of the smart sort – musings on Joyce’s onanistic tendencies, for example. There are few things Saarikoski is not willing to say, personal or political. In this "anything goes" atmosphere he uses ellipiticism to great effect. The careful domestic details of Saarikoski’s life are shy and lovely. He says of his partner, "It occurred to me that we just might, after the sauna, being clean and all, but after we were done and she had berated me for using her towel, thus causing it to reek of my sweat forever, I no longer thought about it." Everything unsaid here is heartbreaking. Saarikoski’s willingness to be combatitive, fatalistic, a pedant and a pugilist, make his unexpected tenderness all the more affecting. He earns the right to say, "That’s the way it is in a marriage, when two clocks show the same time, that is the correct time for them even if all the other clocks in the world begged to differ," and inspire no wincing. He is tough-minded, with a great heart.

A novella is rarely the best introduction to a poet’s work, or a private journal to an artist’s more polished successes, but The Edge of Europe serves as a fine introduction to Saarikoski, the man as well as the poet. This slim volume is a fine example of a great mind at work on his life’s long project: "I was reminded of the spring evenings of my youth in Helsinki, lonely walks and rambles by the seaside, when it had already become clear that something in my life had gone irrevocably wrong. I started writing books in order to find out when and where that had happened, and writing I found out many things, but not that one."


Summer Block has published essays, short fiction, and poetry in a variety of publications, including McSweeneys, Small Spiral Notebook, DIAGRAM, the San Francisco Chronicle, Monkeybicycle, Stirring, ALARM, Identity Theory, January Magazine, and Rain Taxi. Find her work at