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by Bamber Gascoigne

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Juhani Peltonen (1941 - 1998)


Finnish novelist, playwright and poet, who depicted mythological, larger-than-life -characters with affection, humour and psychological understanding. Among Peltonen's best known heroes is Elmo, a super athlete, who falls on 100 meters run, but wins the race, and makes a new world record. Characteristic for Peltonen's works is his ironic world view with romantic undertones. His melancholic attitude is lightened by more or less black humour or comic interludes.

Olen yksin. Tällä alalla
ei tunneta työttömyyttä.

(from Näköisveistos ruumiskirstusta, 1987)
(I'm alone. In this line of work
there's no unemployment.)

Juhani Peltonen was born in Tuusula, the son of Jorma Angervo Peltonen, a salaried employee, and Kerttu Maria (Taivola) Peltonen, a. clerk. During summer holidays from the school learned seafaring as a ship's boy (1956-59) - his uncle had been a seaman before he became an agronomist. At home Peltonen shared his room with his grandmother, and listened with her radio plays in the evenings. Because Peltonen could not discern red and green, he had to forget his plans to become a seaman. He read works by Gogol, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Camus, and published his first columns at the school magazine.

Peltonen graduated from the secondary school in Kerava in 1961, and after serving in the Navy, he entered the University of Helsinki where he studied literature and art history from 1962 to 1965. He also contributed to the student magazine Ylioppilaslehti. Peltonen's first serious literary efforts, a novel and radio play, came back with rejection slips. In 1965 he married Tuula Anneli Nykänen, a sales manager. They had two children.

After winning novel series in J.H. Erkko's writing competition, Peltonen made his debut as a poet at the age of 23 with the collection Ihmisiät (1964). From the same years he devoted himself entirely to writing. The most famous short story in his second book, Vedenalainen melodia (1965) is 'Orjien kasvattaja,' which had been anthologized in Uuden proosan parhaita (1969, edited by Pekka Tarkka) and has been translated into English under the title 'The Slave Breeder' in The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy (2005, edited by Johanna Sinisalo). The Kafkaesque horror story tells of a Werner Reiss, who abandons bourgeois life and retreats into his castle. There he becomes a master of slaves, whom he transforms into grotesque beings. Eventually his sadistic reign is ended by one of his own creations. 

Oudot minät (1966) presented Peltonen as a subtle aesthetician. His other side came out in the collection Felix Navitan etu- ja takaraivo (1967), and introduced him as a master of wordplays. "Elokellarin vokabulaarissa / on mitä hän mukanaan kantoi / Siellä työntää mystistä itua / sen hitunen se" Many of the poems in the collection had first appeared in the student newspaper Ylioppilaslehti. The fruitful combination of silently observing poems and witty insights continued in Kesken asumisen (1968) and Pitkää, omalaatuista rykimistä, (1974). Peltonen's later collections, Välimatkakirja (1984) and Näköisveistos ruumiskirstusta (1987), were again more serious.

"And the cuckoo cries hundreds of times before the sun
sinks behind the hay poles, the barns, the lake, the spruce forest
and the fire-blackened crest of the rock."

('Poem of Our Land,' in Kesken asumisen, 1968)

Peltonen's first novel, Salomo ja Ursula, came out in 1967. It gained an immediate success. "The exuberance, which Peltonen offers with his text, must be praised: only a bold writer can be so generous," wrote Pekka Suhonen in the literary magazine Parnasso (III/1968). Peltonen's novel was inspired by a newspaper article, which told about a young couple, who had difficulties in finding accommodation for them and their child to be born. The surrealistic love story of modern day Romeo and Julia was adapted into a television film. Salomo meets Ursula in a park - she is eating a pear and asks her, do you know what is "Otto tenet mappam, madidam mappam tenet Otto". She tells that she has not read Latin and don't know. They spent time in restaurant, railway station and after they are thrown out from Salomo's small room, in a church. Finally they find a place to live between railway tracks. Salomo, who plays piano, can't stand the noise. Ursula becomes pregnant. As in Shakespeare's play, the story ends tragically, Salomo is killed by a traffic accident and Ursula commits suicide in a public toilet. Salomo ja Ursula was read over two decades, generation after generation, in the schools. Valaan merkkejä (1973) was Peltonen's ambitious surrealistic novel. The protagonist, Joona Hemmermain, dreams about neglected manor house, and a whaling ship, but he must face harsh reality while serving tycoon Mundixon.

In the 1960s and 1970s Peltonen wrote several works for radio and television, among them the radio plays Elmo, urheilija (1977) and Elmo - muu maailma (1978). The work was later enlarged into a novel, titled simply Elmo (1978). Originally, in an unfinished manunscript, Peltonen's hero was a master guitar player, not an athlete. With this book Peltonen made his breakthrough as the forefront satirist. The text imitated the nationalistic language of sports fanatics and undermined the exhalation of world wide sports events. However, especially sports fanatics adopted Elmo as their patron saint which effectively watered down Peltonen's attack on chauvinism. One internationally successful Finnish decathlonist, Petri Keskitalo, was later nicknamed "Elmo."

Peltonen's multi-talented super-athlete, member of the athletic club Kainalniemen Hiki (Armpitpeninsula Sweat), is interested in church architecture and growing of apples. He is an unbeatable single-man football team, and he plays card during a marathon, but wins all the competitions. Finally, after being disappointed in love, Elmo disappears into the space, becoming an UFO. The idea perhaps derives from Salomo and Ursula, where Peltonen refers shortly to a athletic contest, where an illiterate winner from the mountains approaches the goal with a transcendental smile on his lips. In the character Peltonen chrystallized some of his central themes, his fascination with eastern mysticism and surrealism, nostalgia, loneliness, and unhappy love.

In the 1980s Peltonen wrote columns for the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat. He travelled several times in the Soviet Union, attracted by his own version of religion, which he called orthodox mysticism. He was also interested in Latin American and Spanish poetry. Several of his novels and short stories reflected the surrealistic worlds of Magic Realism. Stereotyped religious views were dealt in Iloisin suru (1986), in which Peltonen continued his religious meditations. The story portrayed a deputy Lutheran minister, Sauli Rekelä, whose wife and daughter have left him. The only joy in the gloomy life of Rekelä is his relationship with his 11-year old son Aleksi. In Jumalan kuopus (1980) life is a dream, novel a fiction, and God is a fascist. Peltonen considered that his books, Välimatkakirja, a collection of poems, Iloisin suru, a novel about a deputy parson, and Näköisveiston ruumiskirstusta, formed a kind of trilogy about loneliness.

Peltonen's travel stories, which he published in Helsingin Sanomat between 1974 and 1990, were collected in Matkoilla (2005). An outsider as his fictional characters, Peltonen occasionally writes of himself in the third person - he is P., Ivan Jormanovitš Malopoljev, Koito Susirenka, know-how-mies, and Matkamies Maan. After several tragicomic attempts to visit Chekhov's estate in Melikhovo, Peltonen eventually managed to see the place with the help of Kalevi Sorsa, Finland's Prime Minister. Peltonen become acquainted with him in 1963 in Paris, where Sorsa at that time worked for the Unesco.

Much of his life Peltonen lived in Korso, in a house called "Villa Orrela." In the late 1970s he was forced to leave his home and his dear Chekhovian apple orchard due to construction work, which changed the idyllic area. Orrela was pulled down, and the loss of the orchard was a deep blow to the author. He even tried to appeal to Kalevi Sorsa, but the Prime Minister could not help. Peltonen moved with his family to Loppi, where he bought a school house, "Heikkilä's old school," where he began small scale sheep farming. In the new surroundings, he wrote two darkly hilarious collections of poems, several radio plays, three novels, and four collections of stories. Peltonen died in Loppi, on February 27, 1998.

Peltonen' s final novel was Kuolemansairauteen rinnastettava syli-ikävä (1991). The story was set in the war years 1808-09, which led to Finland's annexation to the Russian Empire and end of the Swedish rule. A group of prisoners is taken to Russia. Captain Värnhjelm leaves his nostalgic farewells to his country, wife Ottiliana and daughters Catharina and Sofia. He discusses with the feverish Major af Åkerlille about death on the way to a small village on the banks of the river Volga. There af Åkerlille meets the youngest daughter of a prince, Marfusa. She tells that she don't believe in God - God is bitter, disappointed and lonely. "Me too," answers af Åkerlille.

For further reading: 'Juhani Peltonen ja "vedenalaiset" maailmat' by Irma Perttula, in Groteski suomalaisessa kirjallisuudessa (2010); A Way to Measure Time, ed. by Bo Carpelan (1992); Miten kirjani ovat syntyneet, ed. by Ritva Haavikko (1991); Suomalaisia kirjailijoita Jöns Buddesta Hannu Ahoon by Lasse Koskela (1990); Suomalaisia nykykirjailijoita by Pekka Tarkka (1989)

Selected works:

  • Ihmisiät: runoja, 1964
  • Surunapit, 1965 (radio play)
  • Vedenalainen melodia: yhteneväisiä kertomuksia, 1965
    - Mélodie aquatique (translated into French by Mirja Bolgar and Lucie Albertini, 1989)
    - "Peltosen novellit liikkuvat epätodellisessa unimaailmassa, tapahtumat noudattavat unen logiikkaa: mikä tahansa on mahdollista, jopa itsestään selvää, selityksiä ei tarvita... Aiheena on usein sota, väkivalta, yleensä Paha; tämä luo novelleille ominaisen painajaistunnelman. Esikuvana - ei sentään vielä vertauskohtana - häämöttää taustalla tietenkin Kafkan hahmo." (Vappu Karjalainen, in Arvosteleva kirjaluettelo 2/1966)
  • Oudot minät: runoja, nostalgioja, nekrologeja, 1966
  • Salomo ja Ursula, 1966 (play)
  • Felix Navitan etu- ja takaraivo: runoja, 1967 (illustrated by Alpo Jaakola)
  • Salomo ja Ursula: romaani, 1967
    - Salomo és Ursula (translated into Hungarian by Gombár Endre, 1972)
    - Salomo a Ursula (translated into Slovak by Peter Kerlik, 1990)
    - "Salomo ja Ursula ovat kaksi nuorta, jotka kohtaavat, rakastuvat ja menevät naimisiin, asuvat toinen toistaan mahdottomimmissa 'asumispaikoissa' kunnes lopulta tuhoutuvat. Kertomus on samalla kertaa lämpimästi hauska ja traaginen, kuvaus rakkaudesta jolla ei ole kotia maan päällä. Lähtökohtana on todellinen tilanne, asuntopula, mutta Peltonen kertoo tarinansa todellisuuden ulkopuolella, mielikuvituksen kummassa maassa, missä voidaan asua ratapihalla kiskojen välissä ja missä kissan nimi on Koira." (Vappu Karjalainen, in Arvosteleva kirjaluettelo 10/1967)
  • Kesken asumisen: runoja, 1968
  • Kiertoajelupäivä, 1968 (radio play)
  • Perimmäisten ammattien äärellä, 1968 (play)
  • Päivän sankari, 1968 (play)
  • Jatkojen aika, 1969 (play)
  • Rakastettuni minusta poispäin, 1968 (record)
  • Kolme: romaani, 1969
    - "Peltosen kerronta on ... kaukana tavanomaisuudesta (paitsi kun hän tahallaan, parodioidakseen, kirjoittaa 'tavanomaisesti'). Se on samalla hilpeää komediaa ja klassista murhenäytelmää, herkkää runoa ja karkeaa arkiproosaa, ihmisten pieniä iloja ja suuria suruja, elömää, jossa kuolema on aina jossain lähellä muistuttamassa olemassaolostaan." (Vappu Karjalainen, in Arvosteleva kirjaluettelo 1/1970)
  • Suuntaan nolla, 1969 (radio play)
  • S/S Neekeri, eurooppalainen keskikoululainen, 1970 (radio play)
  • Suomen leijona, 1971 (play)
  • Norjasta ostettu posliinitonttu, 1971
  • Pateettiset tarinat, 1973 (radio play)
  • Semmoinen karhu, 1973 (play)
  • Valaan merkkejä, 1973
  • Pitkää, omalaatuista rykimistä, 1974
  • Maanäären viinitarhurit, 1975
  • Kohti maailman sydäntä, 1976
  • End: novelleja, 1976
  • Elmo, urheilija: kuunnelma, 1977 (radio play) 
    - Elmo, the Athlete (translated into English by Diana Tullberg, 1977)
    - radio play, with Jarno Hiilloskorpi and Kauko Helovirta, Prix Italia honourable mention in 1979
  • Metsästys joulun alla, 1977 (play)
  • Elmo – muu maailma: kuunnelma, 1978 (radio play)
    - Elmo: hörspel (translated into Swedish by Christer Liljelund, 1979)
    - Elmo (translated into Slovak by Peter Kerlik)
    TV film 1981, dir. by Pekka Milonoff, starring Sulevi Peltola, Heikki Kinnunen, Pekka Autiovuori, Matti Varjo
  • Elmo, 1978
  • Kohti maailman sydäntä: ynnä muita näytelmiä, 1979
  • Jumalan kuopus, 1980
    - "Peltonen on romantikko katkenneiden yhteyksien maailmassa. Hänen näkemyksensä voivat olla naiiveja ja elämänfilosofiansa falskia, mutta tuloksena on kuitenkin itsensä perusteleva kuva maailmasta. Hän raivaa tilaa omalle elämäntunnolleen, siihen kuuluu nostalgiaa, rakkautta, leikkimieltä ja riemua. Parodia syntyy, kun tämä ykstyinen elämänkuva kohtaa yleisen. Hajoavassa maailmassa Peltonen heijastaa kokemusta sirpaleiden kautta." (Arto Virtanen in Parnasso, II/1981)
  • Natalian kanssa: valiokoiruuksia, 1981
  • Islanninhevosia, rakkaani: väliinpudoneitten proosaa, 1982
  • Välimatkakirja, 1984
  • Isän aarteet: "kotiasioita": novelli, 1985 (radio play)
  • Iloisin suru: yksinäisyyden apotepoosi, 1986
  • Metsästys joulun alla: valitut kertomukset, 1987
  • Näköisveistos ruumiskirstusta: runoja, 1987
  • Ikuisen rakkauden polulla: kuunnelma, 1987 (radio play)
  • Katu virtaa huoneeseen: pienoiskuunnelma, 1987 (radio play)
  • Kotka ei pyydystä kärpäsiä: kuunnelma, 1989 (radio play)
  • Ikuisen rakkauden polulla, 1989 (radio play)
  • Puisto jouluksi: kertomuksia, 1990
  • Kuolemansairauteen rinnastettava syli-ikävä / kapteeni Herman Henrik Värnhjelmin muistiinpanopalasten innoittamana kirjoittanut tyystin kuten on parhaimmaksi jo pitkään katsonut Juhani Peltonen, 1991
  • Pensasaidan takana: kuunnelma, 1993
  • Osuma- ja harharetkiä, 2005 (illustrated by Petra Giacomelli)
  • Lähes täydellisiä käsityksiä kaikesta: evankeliumin jakeita, ylivertaisia viisauksia sekä J.U. Malan sanaa, aatosten soihtuja, sanakaltereita, sietokilpailuja, tekstissä esiintymättömiä sanoja, todellisen onnen ja kuuluisuuden tuokioita, sekä perinteisiä että 15 sek. novelleja jne. jne., 2007 (edited by Harri Haanpää)
  • Koko valittu runous: runoja vuosilta 1964-1987, 2007
  • Kirjeitä hullunmyllystäni: kirjeitä ja kortteja vuosilta 1962-1996, 2009 (edited by Antti Seppä)
  • Valitut kertomukset, 2011

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