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by Bamber Gascoigne

Toivo (Richard) Pekkanen (1902-1957)


Finnish working class writer, master of the social epic, who focused on his home town Kotka in several works. After the traumatic Civil War (1917-18), Toivo Pekkanen became the first Finnish author, whose dispassionate novels were read on both sides of the class barrier. Pekkanen's highly acclaimed career nearly ended in the early 1950s, when he suffered from a stroke of apoplexy. However, he recovered and wrote one of his best books, the autobiographical Lapsuuteni (1953, My Childhood). Pekkanen also published short stories, plays, and aphorisms.

"I still don't know how to explain how Father guided me along the highways and byways of his mind. Only during those short moments when Mother was away did he hum softly to me a song about a star, the North Star. But when Mother came back, he always stopped. And that was, indeed, for me the most important thing: his mysterious silence, the far journey." (My Childhood, translated by Hildi Hawkins, in A Way to Measure Time, 1992, original work appeared in 1953)

Toivo Pekkanen was born in Kotka, the son of Taneli Pekkanen, a stoneworker, and Ida Kärpänen; she was eight years younger and had an illegitimate child, Martha Maria, who died before she was two. At school Pekkanen was a good student. He graduated from a vocational school, where he studied metal work. Due to his father's illness, he had to support the family and after his father died, the family fell in poverty.

Before the age of 13, Pekkanen had started to earn money from odd jobs, and between the years 1914 and 1932 he supported himself as a blacksmith's apprentice and later blacksmith. Pekkanen tells in an autobiographical article in Uuno Kailaasta Aila Meriluotoon (1947) that he was strongly built physically, but he suffered from heart and stomach problems and had a certain tendency towards being gloomy.

Pekkanen's early works, short stories, were published in the magazine Juttutupa. After contacts with Erkki Vala and the literary circle around Olavi Paavolainen, Pekkanen began to write purposefully short stories. Among his favorite writers was Jack London. In 1928 Pekkanen met Ester Kankkunen, who helped him in his literary apprenticeship, and began a corresponcence with her, that continud until his death. At the age of 25, Pekkanen published his first book, Rautaiset kädet (1927), a collection of stories. The following collections, Satama ja meri (1929) and Kuolemattomat  (1931), were also praised by critics. From 1932 Pekkanen devoted himself entirely to writing. He lived in Kotka until the early 1930s, and then moved to Helsinki. In 1933 he married Aino Halonen.

Like Pentti Haanpää, who also embarked upon a literary career without much formal education, Pekkanen read and studied English. During the following years, he made several long journeys to Europe. After visiting England, he wrote Takaisin Australiaan (1936), his only comedy, which was partly set on a ship bound for Finland from England. Demooni (1939), a play drawing on the myth of Icarus, represented the symbolistic side of Pekkanen. The play portrayed a charismatic actor, who slowly falls into madness.

Pekkanen's breakthrough work, Tehtaan varjossa (1932), was translated into Swedish (1938), Danish (1940), and French (1943). The protagonist, Samuel Oino, Pekkanen's alter ego, is a working class individualist, who decides to reach something better through self-education. "You are like a badly shaped brick which won't fit into any building made by people for themselves, you are not a capitalist and not a socialist either," says one worker to Samuel. In this book and others, Pekkanen emphasized the importance of emotional growth and humanistic values. He depicted realistically the living conditions of the proletariat, but concentrated more in single individuals and their aspirations than social or political analysis. Several of his works also combine fantasy with realism.

Pekkanen saw that being a member of the working class is a certain state of mind, an attitude of life. "Työt tehtaissa, konepajoissa, sahoissa ja satamissa loppuvat kahdelta, alkaakseen jälleen vasta maanantai-aamuna. Ainoastaan selluloosatehdas tekee poikkeuksen, mutta selluloosatehdas elääkin hyvien konjunktuurien aikoja. Sillä on raha puolellaan, ja siksipä se ei pidä väliä, vaikka tupruttaakin savua ja hajua sunnuntaitkin läpensä. Ellei tuuli ole suorastaan merelle päin, eivät ihmiset tosiaankaan edes sunnuntaisin saa olla rauhassa sen hajulta..." (from Tehtaan varjossa, 1932)

In the 1930s Pekkanen published such large novels as Kauppiaiden lapset (1934), about middle-class life, and Isänmaan ranta  (1937), in which the story was set in the 1920s and focused on a strike in a harbour. Its sequel was Menneet vuodet (1940), which closes at the beginning of the Winter War in 1939. These two latter works he united in 1946 into Jumalan myllyt, to which he added three short explanatory stories. The central character, humanistic union leader Helminen, believes in peaceful social development and individual responsibility, but his political comrades trust only in mass action. Helminen was for the author his closest fictional character. A huge success, the book sold 5000 copies in a month. Musta hurmio (1939), set on an island as the play Ukkosen tuomio (1937), was a love story inspired by D.H. Lawrence. Annamari Sarajas has pointed out in the literary magazine Parnasso (1957) the importance of the island in Pekkanen's works. In Musta hurmio the island people symbolized aspects and powers of the human mind.

From the Kotka series Pekkanen published three volumes, Aamuhämärä, Toverukset, and Voittajat ja voitetut (1948-52), before the project was abrupted by his sudden illness. Even in its unfinished form the series is one of Pekkanen's major works, an impressive portrayal of the development of the Finnish wood-processing industry in the late nineteenth century. When Pekkanen had earlier focused the social development of Finnish society through the experiences of an individual, Kotka series was about a larger social structure, a the history of a whole town, and its diverse inhabitants. Although Pekka's character dominates the first volume, and Pietola the second, it is a chronicle, where all the fates are equal.

Lapsuuteni was disheartening reminiscences from Pekkanen's poor childhood years. But there is hope, too: when his spirit is at the brink of being crushed and he has almost given up, he starts to write. According to Pekkanen, his inner hatred against the fortunate ones was hard to overcome, and for this work he developed an alienated, ice clear style to see the humiliations more objectively. The Finnish Civil War is seen from the Reds' side but without bitterness. "I didn't blame anybody," wrote Pekkanen at the end of the book. Lapsuuteni was born after Pekkanen had recovered from a serious apopletic stroke – to the astonishment of the physicians, learned to speak and walk again, and published six more works before his death. During this period he became addicted to Amytal, a tranquilizer.

Pekkanen's stage works did not gain much success; the author admited his limits as a playwright. However, he was a regular theatergoer. Matti Mäkelä, whose biography Leveäharteinen ajattelija (2002) renewed interest in the author, has characterized Pekkanen's plays as slow, solemn, and stiff, lectures about the thoughts of his characters. Sisarukset (1933), which was filmed in 1938 under the title Syyllisiäkö?, was a tragic story of a working-class girl, Emmi. She falls in love with an educated man, whom her brother doesn't accept. "It is not good to be an intelligent and poor girl," she says. "It is hell. Poor and intelligent girls should never have books in their hands, they should never go to a theater or movies."

Between the years 1942 and 1946 Pekkanen contributed several book reviews to the magazine Suomalainen Suomi. Most of them dealt with Finnish authors, such as Mika Waltari, Oiva Paloheimo, Eila Pennanen, Elvi Hämäläinen, and Olavi Siippainen, who also had a working class background. Pekkanen confessed that Siippainen's novel Suuntana läntinen (1943) was too close for him and its hero evoked memories from his own youth. Pekkanen had adopted a positive attitude to works he reviewed, which actually was not in conflict with his general world view. He avoided polemical statements, but noted that Eila Pennanen was not believable when she depicted in her novel Ennen sotaa oli nuoruus (1942) erotic adventures in the people's house of Helsinki. After reading D.H. Lawrence's Sulkakäärme (The Plumed Serpent) he doubted that the author was one of those, who "try to steal one's healthy common sense and dull one's healty instincts..."

During the Continuation War between Finland and the Soviet Union (1941-44), Pekkanen served in Helsinki in the army's information department, writing propaganda articles. His family spent much time in Vihti, where Pekkanen built a summer cottage and become friends with the writer Urho Karhumäki. Due to political reasons, Ajan kasvot (1942), Pekkanen's collection of writings dealing with the Winter War (1939-40), was forbidden after the armistice in 1944. His novel, Inkerin romaani, depicting the tragic fate of Ingrians in Russia during and after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, did not appear until 2002. Pekkanen wrote it in 1942-43. In the new political situation, publishers avoided printing books which could annoy the Soviet-British Allied Control Commission in Finland (1944-47), and the question of Ingrians was an especially delicate issue.

In 1945 Pekkanen received Aleksis Kivi award. He also was a member of the Finnish Academy. Although his appointment in 1955 was criticized by some writers, the public opinion was on Pekkanen's side. Pekkanen died on May 30, 1957 in Copenhagen. His final collection of short stories, Mies ja punapartaiset herrat (1950), showed the influence of Kafka.

For further reading: 'Toivo Pekkanen,' in Uuno Kailaasta Aila Meriluotoon, edited by Toivo Pekkanen and Reino Rauanheimo (1947); Toivo Pekkanen by Kauko Kare (1952); Toivo Pekkanen runoilijana by Unto Kupiainen (1955), Toivo Pekkasen kirjailijantie I by Keijo Ahti (1965); Eine kritische betrachtung über... Ihmisten kevät von T. Pekkanen by Leena Levä (1966); Kirjailija ja omatunto by Leo Vuotila (1967); Kannaksen mosaiikkimaailma by Tuuli Reijonen (1968); Uuden teollisuuskaupungin kehittyminen Toivo Pekkasen Kotka-eepoksen pohjalta by Eila-Helena Äijälä (1972); A History of Finnish Literature by Jaakko Ahokas (1973); Toivo Pekkanen, hellittämätön pohtija by Panu Rajala (1982); A Way to Measure Time, edited by Bo Carpelan, Veijo Meri, Matti Suurpää (1992); Meriruoho ja voikukka by Saara Vesikansa (1996); 'Prose of the New Generation: Waltari, Haanpää, Pekkanen' by Markku Envall, in A History of Finland's Literature, edited by George C. Schoolfield (1998); 'Toivo Pekkanen: Kotkan eepos,' in Todenkaltaisuudesta: kirjoituksia vuosilta 1948-1979 by Tuomas Anhava, edited by Helena and Matti Anhava (2002); Leveäharteinen ajattelija by Matti Mäkelä (2002); Ja kaukana siintää meri by Riitta Tenni (2017); Toistemme viholliset?: kirjallisuus kohtaa sisällissodan, edited by Kukku Melkas, Olli Löytty, Heidi Grönstrand (2018) - See also: Olavi Siippainen - Other Nordic working class writers: Martin Andersen-Nexø, Harry Martinson, Tove Ditlevsen

Selected works:

  • Rautaiset kädet: kertomuksia, 1927 [Iron hands]
    - Raudsete käte usk (tõlkinud H. Lepik, 1960)
  • Satama ja meri: novelleja, 1929 [The harbor and the sea]
  • Tientekijät: romaani, 1930 [The road builders]
  • Kuolemattomat: novelleja, 1931 [The immortals]
  • Tehtaan varjossa: romaani, 1932 [In the shadow of the factory]
    - I fabrikens skugga (från finskan av Ragnar Ekelund, 1938)
    - A l'ombre de l'usine (traduit du finnois par Irja Spira; pre´face d'Aurelien Sauvageot, 1943)
    - TV film (1969), prod. Yleisradio (YLE), dir. by Rauni Mollberg, screenplay Jorma Savikko, starring Vesa Mäkelä, Elina Kolehmainen, Esko Hannula, Riitta-Liisa Helminen, Aimo Saukko, Jouni Jalarvo, Risto Salmi
  • Sisarukset: nelinäytöksinen näytelmä, 1933
    - film adaptation: Syyllisiäkö? (1938), prod. Suomen Filmiteollisuus, dir. by Jorma Nortimo, starring Kaisu Leppänen, Eino Kaipainen, Henny Valjus, Joel Rinne, Yrjö Tuominen
  • Kauppiaiden lapset: romaani, 1934 [Tradespeople and their children]
  • Ihmisten kevät: novelli, 1935 [Human spring]
    - Menschen im Frühling (übertragen von Charlotte und Friedrich Ege, 1948)
  • Takaisin Australiaan: pessimistinen komedia pulavuosilta, 1936 [Return to Australia]
  • Isänmaan ranta: romaani, 1937 [The shore of my country]
    - Aux rives de ma Finlande: roman (trad. par S. et J. Anglade; avant-propos du Lucien Maury, 1946)
  • Ukkosen tuomio: yksinäytöksinen kaksikuvaelmainen näytelmä, 1937
  • Levottomuus: novelleja, 1938 [Restlessness]
  • Maantie meillä ja muualla, 1939
  • Musta hurmio, 1939 [Black ecstasy]
    - TV film 1984, prod. Yleisradio (YLE), dir. by Tapio Suominen, starring Heikki Määttänen, Sulevi Peltola, Paavo Pentikäinen, Anja Pohjola, Anneli Ranta, Markku Toikka
  • Demooni, 1939-40 [The demon]
  • Ne menneet vuodet: romaani, 1940
    - Åren som gott (övers. av Kajsa Krook, 1942)
  • Rakkaus ja raha, 1941-42 [Love and money]
  • Ajan kasvot: muistoja ja tunnelmia sotavuosilta, 1942
  • Raja merellä: yksinäytöksinen näytelmä, 1942 [The border on the sea]
  • Tie Edeniin: romaani, 1943 [The road to Eden]
    - Den svåra vägen (övers. av R.R. Eklund, 1943)
  • Hämärtyvä horisontti, 1944
    - Mörknande horisont (översättning av Heidi Parland, 1946)
  • Elämän ja kuoleman pidot, 1945 [The feast of life and death]
  • Jumalan myllyt, 1946 [God's mills]
  • Nuorin veli, 1946 [The youngest brother]
  • Uuno Kailaasta Aila Meriluotoon, 1947 (editor, with Reino Rauanheimo)
  • Aamuhämärä, 1948 [Dawn]
    - Morgongryningen (övers. från finskan av Eva Stenius, 1955)
  • Toverukset, 1948 [Companions]
    - Kamrater (övers. från finskan av Eva Stenius, 1956)
  • Mies ja punapartaiset herrat, 1950 [A man and the red-bearded gentlemen]
  • Täyttyneiden toiveiden maa: kuusi kertomusta miehen vaiheista, 1951
  • Voittajat ja voitetut, 1952
    - Segrare och besegrade (övers. från finskan av Eva Stenius, 1957)
  • Lapsuuteni, 1953
    - Min barndom (till svenska Th. Warburton, 1954)
    - My Childhood (from the Finnish by Alan Blair; with an introduction by Thomas Warburton, 1966) - Meine Kindheit (übers. von Helga Thiele; mit einer Nachbemerkung von Helga Thiele, 1986)
    - TV mini-series (1967), prod. Yleisradio (YLE), dir. by Rauni Mollberg, starring Kimmo Jokinen, Jarmo Lupunen, Matti Oravisto, Anja Pohjola
  • Lähtö matkalle: runoja, 1955
  • Täyttyneiden toiveiden maa, 1955-56
  • Totuuden ja kirkkauden tiellä, 1957
  • Valikoima novelleja ja otteita romaaneista, 1954
  • Teokset 1-2, 1957 (ed. by Kauko Kare)
  • Teokset 3-7, 1958 (ed. by Kauko Kare)
  • Toivo Pekkasen ajatuksia, 1962 (ed. by Antero Pekkanen)
  • Inkerin romaani, 2002 [Inkeri's novel]

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