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Meri, Veijo (1928 - 2015)


Veijo Meri
Photo: Kari Pekonen, Uusi Suomi Photo Archives

Veijo Meri is the most notable prose-writer within the Finnish modernist movement and one of the best-known Finnish authors abroad. Meri's oeuvre is extremely broad, including not only short stories and novels but also poetry, radio plays, theatrical works, essays, biographies and non-fiction literature, as well as translations of foreign literature. Writings of his have been translated into 24 languages and have been dramatised as TV and cinema films.

The great watershed in the life and literary work of Veijo Meri was the wartime period from 1939 to 1944. The short time of peace between the World Wars - when the events of 1918 were still close in the form of stories and living persons and when people were preparing themselves psychologically and physically for a new war - was, with all its tensions, a fertile substrate for Veijo Meri's growth. Meri has used the intimate circle and the landscapes of his father's southern Häme family in describing the events of the Civil War. He has depicted the last year of peace in the 1930s in the setting of his own childhood on the Karelian Isthmus.

Veijo Meri came to literature as a 25-year-old during the years of peace and reorientation when modernism gained an established foothold in poetry. Meri took up the work of reforming the language of prose, using Hemingway-style clarity as his guiding principle. The themes of his short stories and novels ranged over a period of a hundred years, but all the time he was, in a certain way, writing of the present. Thus the atmosphere of the 1950s and Meri's own experiential background are strongly present in his literary work. But he has not written of his experiences since the 1980s in the novel or short-story form.

Since the prose of the 1960s, Veijo Meri has become ever more involved with Finnish history. Here, too, he has been a writer of biographies in which he feels his way into the person of the subject, a reader of literature in his essays and - after these - a writer of Finnish history as seen in an anecdotal fashion. In this period, too, he is always attached to his background and to his life, which constitutes an intense force sucking him into literature and history. Meri's encyclopaedic knowledge, coupled with a dazzling capacity for association, comes across in his non-fiction works; they and their interpretations have left their mark on the Finnish consciousness as far as both ordinary readers and the writers of the nation's history are concerned.

On his father's side, the oral history of Veijo Meri's family begins in the mid 19th century. Liisa Mikontytär (b.1793), from Uittamo farm on the boundary between the villages of Ryttylä and Turkhauta in the parish of Hausjärvi, had married Kustaa Jaakonpoika (b.1790), who had come to Idänpää in the Vanaja district from Heikkilä. Their daughter Hedvig Kustaantytär wed Heikki Kustaa Erkinpoika, who had come from the same direction - to Idänpää in the Vanaja district from Anttila - as a live-in son-in-law. Their daughter Alina Vilhelmina Uittamo (1874 - 1949), the mother of Veijo Meri's father, was the repository of the family's oral history in the 20th century. Meri's paternal grandfather Esaias Meri (1870 - 1930), was from Jokilehto in the district of Oulainen, where his parents had moved from Haapajärvi. Esaias Meri's father had served in the Oulu military-tenure-system battalion, in the third company of which was a soldier named Meri. Esaias, who had moved to Helsinki in the 1890s or thereabouts to do building work, then left to seek further work and ended up doing log-floating work at Hausjärvi and via there finally at the Uittamo croft, marrying Alina, the daughter of the house. Esaias Meri became a live-in son-in-law, and he and his wife took over the Uittamo croft in 1909.

It is precisely the family of Alina Uittamo and Esaias Meri, its history and the surroundings close to Ryttylä Manor that form the basis for Veijo Meri's novel Suku ('The Family'). Thirteen children were born at Uittamo - eight daughters and five sons. Veijo Meri's father Väinö, born in 1900, was the fifth child.

The landscape of Uittamo and the surrounding areas appears in many of Meri's works as a fairly precisely described, historical landscape from the famine year of 1867 up to the times of the novels Kalkki ('Lime'), Irralliset ('On the Loose') and Sujut ('Quits') and the play Nuorempi veli ('The Younger Brother'). The name 'Uittamo' indicates that it was an old crossing point on the River Puujoki, where there was already a bridge in Meri's days. The old Häme Ox Road from the east crossed the bridge and went past the house towards Hämeenlinna, passing by the village of Turkhauta just under ten kilometres back, as well as the market and overnight stopping place already known in the Middle Ages. Amongst others, German troops had marched along this road, and hereabouts occurred the skirmishing between Reds and Germans described in the novel Vuoden 1918 tapahtumat ('The Events of 1918'). The novel is based on events in the Riihimäki area in spring 1918, and Meri's sources included stories of his father's; Väinö Meri had been a 17-year-old member of the Civil Guards when he took part in these incidents.

Väinö Meri participated in the military expedition to the Olonets (Aunus) region in 1919 and told his son about it. The account makes an appearance in the short story Kenttävartio ('Forward Patrol'). In 1922, Väinö's military career continued at a border-patrol post at Petsamo (Pechenga). After attending the infantry school for regular NCOs in Viipuri (Vyborg), Väinö Meri stayed on there as a training NCO and met Anna Sallinen, whose roots lay in the Northern Karelian communities of Oravisalo in the Rääkkylä district and in Liperintaipale. They married in 1928 and moved to Valkjärvi the next year when Väinö Meri was transferred to the 2nd Bicycle Battalion there.

The couple's first child was born on 31 December 1928 and was named Veijo Väinö Valvo Meri. Veijo and his younger brother Pertti grew up in the ambience of the Valkjärvi barracks, which Meri has described in his novel Kersantin poika ('The Sergeant's Son'). During the summers, the boys were often at Uittamo, and Meri describes being there, his grandmother's stories and the doings of his uncles and aunts in Suku and, for example, the short story Lähtöpäivä ('Day of Departure'). The atmosphere of Valkjärvi - the barracks life, the NCOs, their families, the barracks children and their school days with the camping trips - where the preparations for a coming war were also ever present, is described not only in Kersantin poika but also in many of his short stories.

The life of Meri's family was strongly affected by the dramatic experiences that Väinö Meri underwent just before the Winter War and when it broke out. Meri has returned to such themes in many of his works, using his father's traumatic experiences as a basis. The short story Levonmäen tukikohta ('The Base at Levonmäki'), the novel Tukikohta ('The Base') and the stage version Syksy 1939 ('Autumn 1939') and TV film Kersantin kunnia ('Sergeant's Honour') relate at different documentary levels what happened then.

In late October 1939, Väinö Meri had been dispatched from the 2nd Valkjärvi Infantry Battalion to Lipola near Kivennapa, right on the border, to set up a base. He was in charge of an anti-tank gun. On 30 October two detectives from the security police arrived and arrested him, and he was taken to Kemi for interrogation on suspicion of treasonable activities dating back to the early years of the previous decade. In the atmosphere of suspicion that preceded the Winter War, Väinö Meri was caught up in the so-called 'Petsamo espionage case', which was pursued with a fervour that even lapsed into paranoia. However, after even quite menacing interrogations, Väinö Meri was released and allowed to return to his base. There he lived through the first hours of the war, which broke out on 30 November, and the enemy's first bombardments, which left only two riflemen and Meri alive at the base. As described in Veijo Meri's versions of it, the story is the most documentary of his writings.

The Meri family was at Hausjärvi during the Winter War, and the description of this period contained in the play Jokisen vihkiloma (English title: Private Jokinen's Marriage Leave) is based on stories told by Väinö Meri. When the family moved via Kuopio to Riihimäki for several years, Veijo Meri was frequently forced to change schools. His wartime schooling at various localities and the continual absence of his father must surely have contributed to the upheaval in the young boy's world. Meri relates that he experienced his first "existential state" in 1942 while travelling to the home of his mother's parents at Outokumpu. This sort of experience of the loss of self and of the hollowness of the world as something dreamlike recurs later in the consciousness of many of the figures in Meri's works.

The family moved to Hämeenlinna in 1946 when Väinö Meri was transferred to HQ duties with the function of a lieutenant. Veijo continued the secondary schooling begun in Riihimäki, attending the Hämeenlinna lyseo (grammar school). The Hämeenlinna period was important in many ways. He gained experience in life at such places as the peat-cutting site on the edge of town; he describes the almost surrealistic goings-on there in several contexts, including his novel Jääkiekkoilijan kesä ('An Ice-Hockey Player's Summer'). These events at the Tiiriönsuo marshes also planted the seeds for the story of Joose Keppila contained in the novel Manillaköysi (English title: The Manila Rope). The charmingly nostalgic but at the same time angst-ridden small-town atmosphere of Hämeenlinna can be smelled in the novel Irralliset, which tells not only the stories of the 'Hausjärvi' servant girl Anna and the Russian orderly Vasili but also those of their superiors, the grammar-school teacher Nuutinen and the captain. Woven into the novel is material taken from Veijo Meri's own experiences as well.

After achieving good results in his university entrance examination, Meri began his military service in autumn 1948 at the Castle Barracks in Hämeenlinna. At the end of that year, however, he was discharged because of a leg injury and assigned to Reserve Class II, a category not liable for peacetime military service. Despite this, Meri did become familiar with barracks life, using it as material for his Yhden yön tarinat ('Tales of One Night') and Everstin autonkuljettaja ('The Colonel's Driver'); these pictures of military life are a mixture of farce and comedy containing a wealth of stories that he had heard. In autumn 1949, Meri started as a History student, but he had time to fit in work at the Hämeenlinna tax office and a construction site. Traces of both settings turn up later, for instance in the short story Runkotalo ('The Frame Building') and in the form of the stately female figure 'the Big Blonde' in Jääkiekkoilijan kesä.

Meri had already been writing poems since 1948, and in 1952 he came equal second in the poetry category of a student cultural competition. A period of anxiety and trauma experienced in 1949 recurred in 1954, though in a milder form. In the same year Meri wrote his first short stories, won first prize in the student cultural competition and published his first work, Ettei maa viheriöisi ('That the Land would not be Green'). Two years later Meri moved permanently to Helsinki.

After the publication of his first work, Meri continued to study History intensively at the university, where his fellows included a large number of students later to become well-known professors in the field. Among his teachers were the renowned authorities Professors Jalmari Jaakkola and Arvi Korhonen. An important factor for Veijo Meri's future life - and also for his work - was a circle of friends made up of fellow inhabitants of the student 'digs' of the time. The most important acquaintances that he made while living at Oulunkylä were Veikko Kylänpää from Orimattila and then his sister Eeva, whom Meri married in 1959; he gives a fictionalised account of his visit to his flatmate's sister and their romance in his short story Morsiamen sisar ('The Bride's Sister'). In addition to the members of the 'Oulunkylä salon', Väinö Kirstinä, who turned up as Meri's flatmate in Fabianinkatu Street in Helsinki, was also important. At this stage Manillaköysi was already finished and at the publisher's. Meri was also working as an editor for the reference book Mitä Missä Milloin published annually by Otava.

After the publication of Manillaköysi, Meri moved to a flat in Hakaniemi arranged for him by Paavo Haavikko. While living there, Meri got to know the got to know the Helsinki area of Kallio with its many colourful characters. They appeared later in the novel Peiliin piirretty nainen ('Woman Drawn on a Mirror') and to some extent also in Everstin autonkuljettaja, Yhden yön tarinat and Runoilijan kuolema ('Death of a Poet').

In 1959 Meri broke off his History studies at the university, destroyed the Honours thesis dealing with the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902 which he had done for Arvi Korhonen, suffered a collapse resulting from overwork - he had already experienced warning signs in spring of that year in Copenhagen; the trip is depicted in the short story Stipendiaatti ('Scholarship Holder') - and had to spend three weeks recuperating at Lapinlahti psychiatric hospital. Before this, however, his marriage had taken place, and this was a factor of absolutely vital importance for Meri's career as a writer. It gave the author psychological and financial security, thus enabling him to devote himself to his creative work.

After the appearance of Manillaköysi, Meri's literary status as the figurehead of modernism in prose was strengthened within a short space of time thanks to Irralliset, Vuoden 1918 tapahtumat and Peiliin piirretty nainen. After living briefly in Lahti, the Meris moved to Herttoniemi in Helsinki, where the family's first child, a boy born in 1960, was joined by two more sons.

The Meris spent the summer of 1961 at Vaskijärvi in the Karkkila area at a villa owned by the Aleksis Kivi Society (Aleksis Kiven Seura). The house had been left to the society by the painter Ilmari Huitti. Meri was then already sketching out a novel with Helsinki's Sörnäinen and Kallio areas as its settings, but the summer at Vaskijärvi brought a new dimension into it. Ilmari Huitti, whom Meri had come to know only through things that people living near the villa had related, began to develop into an episode of his own. The most artistic section of Meri's novel Peiliin piirretty nainen concerned the character of the artist Otto Kukkakoski. The structure of this classic of the contemporary Finnish novel can be compared to that of James Joyce's Ulysses. In addition to what he was told, Meri also used written sources - even Huitti's letters to Marita Kalima, i.e. the 'Kaarina Hallakorpi' of the novel. A biography of Huitti by Pentti Mäensyrjä entitled Sielupensseli ('Soul-Brush') was also published later (1984). After much agonising, Peiliin piirretty nainen came out in 1963. With this book Meri confirmed his position as a writer of specifically modern novels, and he was awarded a State prize for the work.

The war novel Sujut had appeared before Peiliin piirretty nainen and had also earned Meri a State prize. The sources of the novel's narrative are twofold: the story of a deserter that he heard during his stay at Lapinlahti hospital, and his brother-in-law Teuvo Kylänpää's account of how the last soldiers crossed the River Vuoksi in summer 1944, when the bridge at Kiviniemi had already been blown up, and of how this phase of bad panic resulted in desertions.

In the first half of the 1960s, Meri's fame specifically as the writer of a grotesque war novel spread abroad. In 1963 he was awarded an international literature prize on Corfu; the French translation of the novel can certainly take some of the credit. During this period Meri attended literary seminars including the congress of the European writers' association Comes in Leningrad in 1963; its theme was the contemporary novel. Earlier that summer Meri also participated in the first Lahti writers' seminar, which had the same theme. In 1964, Meri opened a seminar in Tampere with a talk entitled 'Is there any realism in the new novel?', thus setting the scene for further discussion of the ways in which Väinö Linna and Veijo Meri viewed history and conceived of the novel.

The Meris spent the summer of 1964 at Suopelto in the Sysmä district, and this provided the ambience for Everstin autonkuljettaja, which was published in 1966. In the following summer Meri visited America and wrote about it in works including the short story Yhden dollarin ruokapaikka ('One-Dollar Diner'). During the same summer he wrote the plays Sotamies Jokisen vihkiloma and Uhkapeli ('Game of Chance'), which tells the story of Fritz Wetterhof. Sotamies Jokisen vihkiloma was a tough job for Meri, but it was also a success and brought a feeling of relief. This made easier the writing of Yhden yön tarinat (1966), Suku (1968) and Kersantin poika (1971). Two years later, Kersantin poika won him the Nordic Council's Literature Prize.

In the 1970s, Veijo Meri became keenly interested in Aleksis Stenvall (nom de plume: Aleksis Kivi), first writing a play about him and then a book entitled Aleksis Stenvallin elämä ('The Life of Aleksis Stenvall'; 1973). The book aroused widespread discussion, as it gave an erotic interpretation of the relationship between Kivi and Charlotta Lönnqvist, widely regarded only as his financial benefactor. Meri was closely involved in this discussion and took a stand on some literary phenomena. He was particularly critical of the long-winded, socially oriented prose so fashionable in the 1970s, proclaiming that he missed the clarity of modernism.

After a break of just under ten years, Meri published the erotically lucid novel Jääkiekkoilijan kesä, which also became a notable success in the film version Iso vaalee ('The Big Blonde'; 1983) directed by Veikko Kerttula.

Meri felt that the essay suited him as a genre. He published the collections Kuviteltu kuolema ('Imagined Death') in 1974, Goethen tammi ('Goethe's Oak') in 1978, Tätä mieltä ('This is What I Think') in 1989, Julma prinsessa ja kosijat ('The Cruel Princess and the Suitors') in 1986 and Amleth ja muita Hamletteja ('Amleth and Other Hamlets') in 1992. He also became interested in etymology, and this led to the publication of Sanojen synty ('The Birth of Words') in 1982.

In 1988, Meri wrote the major work C.G. Mannerheim, Suomen marsalkka ('C.G. Mannerheim, Marshal of Finland'). Meri was interested in great, exceptional individuals of the likes of Mannerheim, identified with Aleksis Kivi's role as a writer, showed his interest in language as an expression of cultural contacts in his dictionary, and felt a profound and lifelong attraction to Finnish history. The result was the publication of an unbroken series of works: Maassa taivaan saranat: suomalaisten historia vuoteen 1814 ('On Earth, the Hinges of Heaven: a history of the Finns to 1814'; 1993), Huonot tiet, hyvät hevoset: Suomen suuriruhtinaskunta vuoteen 1870 ('Bad Roads, Good Horses: the Grand Duchy of Finland to 1870'; (1994), Ei tule vaivatta vapaus: Suomi 1870 - 1920 ('Freedom Does Not Come Easily: Finland 1870-1920'; 1995) and Suurta olla pieni kansa: itsenäinen Suomi 1920 - 1940 ('Great to be a Small Nation: independent Finland 1920 - 1940'; 1996).

Veijo Meri actually started as a poet, and he has also enjoyed writing poetry. Poems have filled the gaps - psychological and existential - left between the stories of his prose writings. They contain autobiographical recollections that have connections with earlier works and moods. Meri's poetry collections thus far have been Mielen lähtölaskenta ('Countdown of the Mind'; 1976), Toinen sydän ('Second Heart'; 1978), Ylimpänä pieni höyhen ('At the Top, a Little Feather'; 1980) and Kevät kuin aamu ('A Spring Like Morning'; 1987). The poetic work Runoilijan kuolema is dramatic in form, and it has been used as the basis for the libretto of Veitsi ('The Knife'; 1986).

Veijo Meri is one of the best-read Finnish authors of all time; his reading extends from the patriotic poetry and stories of his childhood to his lifelong favourite, the poet of angst Uuno Kailas, from German poets (Rilke, Hölderlin, Mörike) to French existentialists (Camus, Sartre). During his time as a student, Meri also discovered Anglo-American poetry and prose, with which he became acquainted through his intensive study of English. An especially great influence on Meri has been exercised by Japanese literature (e.g. Shohei Ooka), Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Chandler. Classic film-makers, from Sergei Eisenstein and Charlie Chaplain to Ingmar Bergman, have influenced him profoundly, as can be seen from the visual clarity and movement of his verbal artistry.

Veijo Meri is one of the best-known Finnish authors abroad. Great credit must go to good translations, which have made him well known in Sweden and the German-speaking area in particular. A great deal has also been written about Veijo Meri, and he has received many honours.

Hannes Sihvo

Translated by Roderick Fletcher


Veijo Väinö Valvo Meri, born 31.12.1928 Viipuri, died 21.6.2015 Helsinki. Parents: Lieutenant Väinö Henrik Meri and Anna Sallinen. Wife: 1959 – Eeva Kyllikki Kylänpää, high school teacher, wife's parents: August Vihtori Kylänpää, farmer, and Hilma Matilda Paltta. Children: Martti, born 1960; Pentti, born 1962; Lauri, born 1965.

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