The Parson’s Widow Marja-Liisa Vartio
Translation Aili and Austin Flint
Posthumously published in 1967, Hänen olivat linnut (literally: His Were the Birds) is regarded as a masterpiece of modern Finnish novel. The novel centres around the question how a human being is formed in dialogue with other people and how difficult and full of misunderstandings the communication between people is.
This is a brave work that distills an epoch. There is a glow of great laughter and bubbling madness in it.
The novel concentrates around birds – a collection of taxidermied birds – that a widow has inherited after the parson’s death. The birds become symbols and metaphors, at the same time religious and erotic.
The novel consists mainly of conversations between the parson’s widow, Adele, and her maid, Alma, who spend most of their time reliving the past and arguing about whose recollection is the right one. Telling and retelling the key happenings – the devastating parsonage fire, the parson’s death, the disputed inheritance, Adele’s relationship with her sisters-in-law, Alma’s departure from her home – betoken who one was once and who one became. In the repeating, reinterpreting, and defending of their ‘truths’, the novel is a cry to be heard and understood. They also force the reader to confront some unpleasant possibilities: that neither character is reliable, that memory itself is woefully unstable and that life is more or less meaningless. The dreams, visions and old histories told by these two women reveal much about their own fears and preoccupations but also the pitiful secrets that seethe beneath the surface of respectable rural life, in which the dead become as much the acting characters as the living. The deaths of the members of the family are only ostensible – they live on in birds.
Though played out in an early-twentieth-century Finnish village, the characters resonate today, thanks to the universality of their reactions and motives. The novel, from time to time really absurd and grotesque, reveals the alienation and futility of being.