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||Pentti Saarikoski (1937-1983) - wrote also humorous columns under the name 'Nenä' (the nose); see Gogol|
Poet and a brilliant translator, the central figure in Finnish literature in the 1960s and 1970s. Saarikoski emerged into poetry somewhat like a enfant terrible, a combination of Dylan Thomas, Zorba the Greek, and Che Guevara. He wrote in simple, straight-forward language. He often used images from antiquity and contrasted everyday observations with philosophical insights, following free flow of thoughts.
Life is given to man
grey skies pass over,
Pentti Saarikoski was born in Impilahti into a family composed of civil servants, politicians, and small entrepreneurs. His father, Simo Saarikoski, was a journalist and civil servant. Elli Saarikoski, Pentti's mother, was the daughter of a baker; her family came from Karelia, generally regarded in Finland as a treasure-chest of poetry and the paradisiacal primal home of the the Finnish people. "She wasn't an important person," wrote Saarikoski in 1979 after the death of her mother, "but the language I have / is hers". Saarikoski studied literature and Greek at the University of Helsinki in the 1950s without receiving a degree. His first collections of poems, Runoja and Toisia runoja (1958) deliberately irritated concervative critics. Saarikoski's first "Greek" period, characterized by subtle imagery and irony, ended in Runot ja Hipponaksin runot (1959). In its title Saarikoski referred to the Greek poet Hipponax (fl. 540 B.C.), who was known for the bitterness of his satires.
From 1958 to 1960 Saarikoski was a columnist for the conservative newspaper Uusi Suomi. He wrote under the pseudonym "Nenä", and gained a large audience with his satirical sketches. Mitä tapahtuu todella? (1962), which challenged the preceding modernism with its frankness and aphoristic colloquial style, turned out to be an exceptional commercial and critical success. Saarikoski gathered various sentences from newspapers, books, and other sources, describing his writing as "democratic" or "dialectic", in which sentences fought with each other. Also in his first novel, Ovat muistojemme lehdet kuolleet (1964), Saarikoski juxtaposed different opinions.
"Metre was invented by literary researches not by poets," Saarikoski once said. Cold war politics, personal incidents, and reflections in Finland's geo-political realities were mixed in such poems as '1918', referring to the civil war, and '120 miles from Leningrad, in which Saarikoski wrote: "We sit here surrounded by our forests, backs turned to the giant / and stare at his image in a well's eye. He wears a dark suit, / white shirt, silver-grey tie. In this country everything is / quite different, there people walk on or without their heads." (transl. by Anselm Hollo)
In the early 1960s Saarikoski was already famous, not only as a poet and translator, but also as a bohemian. He had married about the time Runoja had appeared – it was his first marriage – but unable to settle down, he turned more and more to drink and by the autumn of 1962, he was on the brink of nervous breakdown. Saarikoski worked usually at home, in small apartments, where normal family life and writing intertwined, or conflicted: "These poems are written for her / under her eyes. (from En soisi sen päättyvän, 1968) Saarikoski was married four times, last time to Mia Berner, with whom he published the bilingual Ja meille jäi kiireetön ilta / Kvällen gör sig ingen brådska (1975).
In the 1960s Saarikoski joined the Finnish Communist Party, as many other writers and artists. Politically Saarikoski was unorthodox, and in the magazine Aikalainen, which he edited and which was supported by the Finnish Communist Party, he published Mao Tse-tung's poems. In 1966 he ran unsuccessfully for the parliament – he got 2300 votes and much less in 1970, only 435 votes. Saarikoski became one of the most visible intellectuals in the media, who was engaged in the front line of literary debates and political activities.
Partly to find peace for writing and to escape the publicity, Saarikoski made several journeys abroad. Laulu laululta pois (1966), a collection of poems, was born in Romania, where he was a quest of the local writers' association and participated in literature seminar on the works of Gheorghe Cosbuc. He had also an affair with the poet Sarah Kirsch, who moved in 1977 from German Democratic Republic to West Germany. Aika Prahassa (1967) was written in Prague and in Tallin in Estonia, Kirje vaimolleni (1968, Swedish translation: Brev till hustrun), a stream-of-consciousness travel book, was mostly written in Dublin. These mixtures of trivial incidents, memories, and comments on political and current affairs, received poor critics in Finland but in Sweden Saarikoski was compared to such names as Strindberg and Henry Miller.
While in Island Saarikoski started to work on Katselen Stalinin pään yli ulos (1969), a collection of poems, where he took distance from the Communist movement and radicalism, stating that no revolution has overthrown the power. He is also afraid that in the new order there is no place for him: "What would happen to me / it there was a war and they closed the borders? I couldn't go anywhere, disqualified as I am / from soldiering; I suppose / I'd have to sit up nights, composing / orders for the day."
Saarikoski translated works from a number of authors into Finnish, among them J.D. Salinger, Euripides, Italo Calvino, Henry Miller, Allen Ginsberg, James Joyce, Sappho, and Philip Roth. The translation of Homer's Odyssey, based on Victor Bérard's edition (1902-03), took only two years, which is a kind of world record. It was the book on which Joyce founded his retelling of the Odyssey. While making the translation, he drank daily, usually a bottle of wine. "I never write with a clear mind," he confessed in his diary. After all retail alcohol outlets were closed due to a strike, Saarikoski felt more nervous than usual. A number of translations appeared in the literary magazine Parnasso. James Joyce's Ulysses was one of Saarikoski's major works, which influenced also his other projects. Italo Calvino's humor left traces in his poems.
Saarikoski's favorite tool with English texts was Webster's Third New International Dictionary. Many times, he did not follow slavishly the original writing. In The Odyssey by
Homer he abandoned hexameter, which Otto Manninen had used in his
unsurpassed translation from 1924, and developed a rhythmical prose
Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye Saarikoski moulded into his own visionary Helsinki slang, not very faithfully to the world of Holden Caulfied. With J.P. Donleavy's famous novel The Ginger Man Saarikoski failed and another translator finished it. However, the work was credited to Saarikoski.
Because of heavy drinking, Saarikoski was hospitalized several times. Following disappointments in politics, Saarikoski become again interested in early Christianity, and started to translate Matthew's Gospel. Not very originally, he identified Jesus and his chosen followers with revolutionaries. Especially the character of Ernersto "Che" Guevara (1928-1967) fascinated him. After a catastrophic journey to London, Saarikoski was rushed to hospital. He weighted 57 kilos and was diagnosed with Alcoholismus chronicus, Epilepsia symtomatica, Chirrosis hepatis, and Encopresis. In Paris, where he went after recovering, he noted that somebody has started to produce plastic street stones for souvenirs. Evankeliumi Matteuksen mukaan, Saarikoski's translation of the Gospel, came out in 1969. The work was perhaps partly inspired by Pier Paolo Pasolini's film The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), a stark and sober retelling of the Gospel, which earned Pasolini the label of Catholic-Marxist.
Characteristic for Saarikoski's personal life was his nonconformist attitude to social conventions. At the same time his works showed influence from classical literature from Greece and Rome – this side in Saarikoski was not a sign of conservatism. He had a good nose for picking up dissident poets and philosophers of the classical world, such as Hipponax and Heraclitus, or drunkards, troublemakers, and sex maniacs, whose verses he presented in Jalkapolku (1977), a selection from The Greek Anthology.
In the 1970s Saarikoski retired from publicity. He moved with his wife to Kerava, where he become interested in Eino Leino (1878-1926), a poet, with whom he identified himself in the biography Eino Leino (1974). His works showed resurgence of the Greek influence, and he became deeply preoccupied with contemporary science and the hazards of the nuclear age. In the essay 'Minun runoni ja minun aatteeni' (1978, my poems and my thoughts) he expressed hope that knowledge will win out over brute power. Saarikoski moved to Sweden, where he lived from 1975 to 1983 with Mia Berner, a critic and university teacher, on the island of Tjörn near Valsäng. In 1975 they made a journey to Greece. Saarikoski, who did not drink as much as usually, fell asleep at the Acropolis.
In Sweden Saarikoski produced in his "second classical period" trilogy of verse, Tanssilattia vuorella, Tanssiinkutsu and Hämärän tanssit. The melancholy and ironic series, known as Tiarnia trilogy, shows Saarikoski's extensive knowledge of gnosticism, and viewed such mythological figures as Sisyphus, Ulysses, and Hercules in present-day political situations. The poet tells he can hear "the voice of the world", and he realizes that "Only when the minotaur has been destroyed / and the labyrinth transformed into dance / polity, politics / will be possible again". Saarikoski invitates the reader to dance, he has signed the invitation but he is also a dancer, a kind of pagan shaman, who has "eaten of the knowledge of good and evil".
Euroopan reuna (1982), Saarikoski's last travel book, began on his stay in Brittany, France, where he studied Breton with Le breton sans peine.
With Mia Berner he spent some days in Dublin. The city was celebrating
the 100th anniversary of James Joyce. Saarikoski called Mia his 'Molly
Bloom'. He had no regrets about moving to Sweden, but before his death
he planned to return to Finland. When the couple spent some weeks in
Brittany in 1983, they had frequent quarrels which Saarikoski recorded
in his diary.
Pentti Saarikoski died of hepatic cirrhosis on August 24, in 1983, during his visit in Finland. His grave at the Orthodox monastery of Valamo in Heinävesi is a popular visiting place for his readers. Saarikoski's plans to visit Mexico and write a book on the Mediterranean world were never realized. Before his death, Saarikoski had finished a translation of Werner Aspentröm's poems. At that time, Aspenström was a member of the Swedish Academy, and Saarikoski believed that Aspenström would vote for him if he was formally launched as a candidate for the Nobel prize for literature.
Several volumes of Saarikoski's diaries have appeared posthumously, the first from the years 1953-57. It reveals his sexual fantasies, and his religious and ideological struggle. Saarikoski did not hesitate to record intimate details of his life for posterity – on August 2, 1954 he has masturbated on the page. Saarikoski became a legend already during his life time, and was referred in works of such Finnish authors as Väinö Kirstinä, Tuomas Anhava, Kari Aronpuro, Matti Paavilainen, Pekka Kejonen, Hannu Salama, Jorma Ojaharju. In Sweden Werner Aspenström, Willy Granqvist, Bernt Rosengren, Tobias Berggren and Göran Sonnevi have written in their poems about Saarikoski. The Hungarian writer Sándor Csoóri mentions also Saarikoski in one poem. In Finland Väinö Kirstinä stated ironically in Puhetta (1963): "jos lukee saarikoskea 10 minuuttia / alkaa henki haista viinalta (...)" (if you read Saarikoski for ten minutes / your breath starts to smell of liquor).
For further reading: A History of Finnish Literature by J. Ahokas (1973); Pentti Saarikoski, legenda jo eläessään by Hannu Salama (1975); 'Myth and Material in the Poetry of Pentti Saarikoski since 1958' by K. Simonsuuri, in World Literature Today, 54 (1980); Anteckningar från ett sorgeår by Mia Berner (1985, trans. into Finnish in 1986); Veljeni Pentti by Sirkka Garam (1987); A Way to Measure Time, ed. by Bo Carpelan et al. (1992); Kilpikonna ja olkimarsalkka by Tuula-Liina Varis (1994); Pentti Saarikoski, vuodet 1937-1963 by Pekka Tarkka (1996); Euroopan reunalla, kosken korvalla by Yrjö Hosialuoma (1998); A History of Finland's Literature, ed. by George C. Schoolfield (1998); Tanssi yöhön, pimeään by Janna Kantola (1998); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 4, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Pentti Saarikoski: Vuodet 1964-1983 by Pekka Tarkka (2003)