SKETCHES OF A GENERATION
Kjell Westö is best known for his best-selling novel Drakarna över Helsingfors (1996) (‘Kites above Helsinki’), a book which was even made into a film and directed by Peter Lindholm. The novel chronicles the story of a family through several generations and Westö’s second novel Vådan av att vara Skrake (2000) (‘The Unfortunate Fact of Being a Skrake’) deals to a great extent with similar ground.
The critic Pekka Tarkka has commented on how Westö attempts to “write a threnody for a lost generation, for young people who ended up in a chasm at the end of the sky-high economic growth of the 1980’s and who were driven into a vacuum devoid of any values. His prose reflects an ironic, light-hearted rejoicing in life and personifies the life and times of Helsinki.” This could also apply to Westö’s considerable body of work as a poet.
In his debut Tango Orange (1986) which was awarded a prize by Svenska Litteratursällskapet (The Finnish-Swedish Literature Society) Westö paints very sympathetic portraits of Carita (“trött: väsynyt: fatigué: müde: tired and so on”), Sebastien, Fat Molly and many other characters, whose relatives can be seen in the volume following this Epitaf över Mr. Nacht (1988) (‘Epitaph for Mr. Nacht’), Westö’s novels and his collections of short stories Utslag och andra romaner (1989) (‘Resolution and Other Stories’) and Fallet Bruus (1992) (‘The Case of Bruus’).
In the collection Tango Orange, bursting with sparkling turns of phrase, as well as in Westö’s later poems, it is easy with hindsight to see that the poet was on his way towards writing prose. The poems are often like scenes from a novel or outlines of a character, akin to Westö’s prose in its separation from modernist ideals. “I wanted to tell this person’s story, but on the other hand my patience only lasts long enough to create this miniature,” Westö has described this time of searching for direction as a writer.
In his poetry as in his prose Westö makes great use of the modern mythology of rock music and popular culture in a wider sense. “At the time, towards the end of the 1980’s, a kind of ‘pure’, tight poetry concentrating on language was in fashion. In contrast, I had an impatient character and a romantic, ‘impure’ idea of what art was all about,” Westö has commented on his attitudes at that time in the book Miten kirjani ovat syntyneet 4 (‘How my books came about 4’) and mentions American beat poetry, Diktonius, Martin Enckell, Claes Andersson, Lorca and Neruda amongst his prime influences.
His third collection Avig-Bön (‘Adverse Prayer’), published under the pseudonym Anders Hed, stands out very clearly from the rest of Westö’s work. This collection, more economical with language than its predecessors and yet like them still dealing primarily with people marginalized by society, is largely characterised by a kind of post-modern word play. The absurd prayers in this collection draw attention to nimble shifts in repetition and the following example comes from the third and final section of the volume,
“you say you make me / I say I make you / we agree we make each other / we jesters / when mankind’s greedy leap / over death mounts us both / makes us” (translated by David McDuff.)
The title poem of the collection Adverse Prayer crystallises the spirit of this play on words:
“adverse prayer / is derision and role play / looks like that which it is not / adverse prayer / is farce and playing the fool / creating something that perhaps it is; / a drop of clown’s tears / an ounce of magpie / and a pound of cuckoo / adverse prayer / is so pious / that it is no longer serious”.
The Chaplinesque characters fighting against their destiny in Adverse Prayer show that there is far more to Westö than merely a ‘narrative poet’.
translated by David Hackston
Tango Orange (1986), Epitaf över Mr. Nacht (1988), Avig-Bön (1989), Utslag och andra noveller (short stories, 1989), Dikter (1992), Fallet Bruus (short stories, 1992), Drakarna över Helsingfors (novel, 1996), Vådan av att vara Skrake (novel, 2000), Lang (novel, 2002), Lugna favoriter (short stories, 2004), Där vi en gång gått (novel, 2006)