Writing in a Fleeting World
What is the role of a writer in a world that is changing increasingly fast? How can words capture events that seem, if written at all, to be written in sand? For the novelist and medical doctor Veronica Pimenoff, writing always was a risky business, and its wildness and freedom is what keeps her making literary texts

by Veronica Pimenoff. Translated by Hildi Hawkins.

It is often said that literature is the nation's memory. But what if the world seems to be changing so fast that forgetting all that has gone before seems like an essential survival strategy in the new conditions?

The trumpets did not sound, as they did in Jericho, but neither did the cannons, when the wall around west Berlin, in the heart of Europe, fell. In the interconnected world, a cascade effect was in progress, destroying many of the great centres of the global power network and leaving the world with only one centre.

The connections of the Moscow node were severed and the power of the United Nations, in its tall building on the Manhattan shoreline, collapsed. The only centre, in Washington, withdrew its financial support to the United Nations, excluded itself from the Kyoto environmental protocol and the war crimes tribunal and claimed its independent rights to war. The NATO attack on Kosovo in 1999 and the Iraq war crushed the authority of the United Nations which had lasted for a half a century; the UN was forced to throw in the towel - which, as it were, is now expected to be used for cleaning in various post-war operations. Or, to change the metaphor, the UN is no longer able to throw down the gauntlet, but merely to wield the cleaning gloves.

The impulses for this development of reconfigured instruments and politics originated in Europe. This is the case particularly with Finland's cousin country, Hungary, which sent men who were to become, in the United States, important developers of computers (John Neuman), the atom bomb (Leo -Szillard, Edward Teller) and network theory (Albert-Lazlo Barabási); and it was on the Hungarian border, too, that the wall between East and West first began to crumble, symbolically, in 1989, when Hungary opened its borders to East Germans who were on their way to West Germany. But the centre was born on the other side of the ocean, and its new autocracy is recognisable by its impunity.

On the old continent, states collapsed and were born and modes of government changed in the surge of the cascade. In some countries, literature forwent its established role of reporting social reality, and also lost readers to other media. Thus it found itself with an unexpected autonomy and was forced to learn a new language.

In Finland, political change was not so extreme. But even I, as a 55-year-old, feel today that I spent my Finnish childhood and youth in ancient times in a different country. Technological development has subsequently transformed Finns' life trajectories, beliefs, families, homes, schools, work and work-places, leisure, ways of doing business and social interactions. The generations of technological innovation follow one upon the last more swiftly than human generations. No one can any longer join a network using an old password. Names must be changed as fast as one could imagine a hacker or cracker uncovering secrets or destroying a field of operations. One can visit these fields again and again in whatever form one wishes to invent oneself; other people, after all, have also made themselves up for the moment. Government, the post office, battery-powered milk-frothers and mobile-phone messages from one's lover all demand that one should adopt the new and not remember the old. If it used to be necessary to develop survival skills for bog, waterway, forest and fell, one must now manage in a body, social setting and virtual environment shaped by technology, and still fear that nature will somehow suddenly manage somehow to spring a surprise.

I too have written on this subject. In 1995 I published a novel called Risteilijät ('The cruisers', Tammi). It is a depiction of the different modes of being of water - the basis of life. In this landless fancy the characters are at sea in a floating technological world that employs floating satellite positioning. This world and relationships are determined by machines and appliances. People's desires and dreams are the same as those of people who lived a thousand years ago, but some of them have a heart pacemaker inside them or a mental dependence on machine-created virtual reality. In 1995 my characters were still on a ship without mobile telephones. In this way technological development makes a book age rapidly!

The title of the novel Maa ilman vettä (1999, 'A world without water') was directly opposite to the environment of Risteilijät. Such a place is sought as a site for returning the nuclear waste produced by technology to nature. At the same time, deadly poison is sought in an animal that, in its various developmental forms, can breathe both in the water and on land: the frog.

Historically, women have had either nothing or very little to do on such fields of honour as, for example, duels, army and war, academic life and research, or sports; in my novel, women are busy in the fields of honour, in the technological world of science and war. At the end of the book I hazarded a guess as to how soon biotechnology will become important on the stock exchange.

Those who interviewed me about the book were more interested in its political implications, asking repeatedly whether I believed that the 'fourth world' would make a series of attacks on Europe and North America. I said I thought it would. Those who did not have power had utopia. It is a motivational force which I would like to write about in a changing world.

As before, the world that is disappearing has fortified its defence positions and applies pressure from above as the forces that are aiming for the surface from below rise. Condemned criminals settled Siberia and -Australia, uncondemned ones the west of North America. Now the 'fourth world' is clearing its path to Europe and North America, arriving on foot, by boat and by air, in the vanguard always the most vital and skilled in international contacts: criminals and prostitutes.

Between these two books, in 1997, I published another novel, Kunniakirja ('Roll of honour') about Finland's shift from east to west. I mixed today's events with a time when Finland had done it once before - the period before my birth. I tried to ensure that the technological equipment of the world I described somehow corresponded to the proposed period. Among the important themes in the book were men's honour and human mortality. Honour is described as nauseating, mortality as a relief. This is not dogma. Literature is not an information channel. Literature is the mouthpiece of experience and knowledge.

True, Kunniakirja was not without political content. It opposes honour and cleanliness, which divide people into the worthy and the unworthy and demand continual separations and cleansings, and attempts at praising mixing and coexistence, which - at least seen from a distance - have perhaps succeeded long ago for a moment in Cordoba and even recently in Yugoslavia, until all parties were taught the lesson that some people live and believe wrongly, they must be eliminated and if nothing else succeeds, then by killing them.


I have written only at long intervals. When, as a child, I began to write and decided to be, among other things, a writer, I had no idea what I should write about, or how, let alone why. I still do not know, and it bothers me as little as it did then. Writing just feels extraordinarily good and this experience has lasted.

As a child I did not need readers; the text kept me company and I assured myself that I would one day write something important that would astonish other people. I admit there are still some remnants left of the last ambition, but my desire has faded. My very first publication made me realise that a finished text is not me. It goes its own way and yields, with the readers, and with other texts, to relationships of which I do not form a part.

In writing, I explore what I explore, invent what I invent, play as I wish; I experiment freely, without regard or responsibility for others, without caring for destruction, impressions, consequences. In no other situation am I as unrestrained as when I write - as a woman, a mother, a doctor, a scientist, a performer, when I walk in the forest or row on the river....

Naturally I take the material about which I write from the world. Literature always recalls the cruellest politics in that people are its material. In writing and reading literature one gives the world the sack and leaves it to its own devices and becomes intoxicated by the experience of moving in another world. Literature can flee the world and forget it - or meet it head on and criticise it. I do not aim to depict reality, reveal the truth, but I do aim at a texture made up of various events, ideas and feelings that is connected enough to stay in one piece, but still sufficiently open that the reader can link with it his or her own knowledge and experience - which are, of course, unknown to me.

My writing has certainly changed since I was six years old. At that time, I tried, by writing, to experience things that I had not yet experienced and that I might never dare experience. Now, when writing, I set myself to examine things more mercilessly than I have ever explored them with a man, a woman, a child, a friend or a passing acquaintance. This is sometimes cruel and it hurts. When pain begins to please, you press even harder: to try to hit the mark so that it would really hurt. Sometimes beauty and horror result, and one gains a new sense of the world, one's own self and life.

When the first sentence is complete, the writer is no longer free. In fact, the text writes itself, for everything that is written defines and influences that which is written subsequently. The end cannot be written autonomously; it stands in relation to the beginning. Even when it is unsuitable and seems impossible or undermines the beginning, it is in relationship with it and with the entire progression of the story. The end can itself change the meaning of the beginning without a single word of the text being changed.

When one creates a text, one gives birth to a living being. If the text is beautiful, strong and brutal, it immediately opposes its writer. This is stimulating and keeps me writing. The vital brute devours everything around me, growing into a novel, and defines the traffic jam I experience, the argument I hear, the wind in the rushes and the light on the snow as suitable nourishment. My body, the text and the environment give birth to a rhythm which must be furnished with words.

The freedom that making a literary text enjoys from bonds, obligations and responsibilities and the whims, dangers and attraction of the text have fascinated me since childhood. That is why, from time to time, I return to it. The process is more inspiring than the material. Having most recently written about an attempt to hide something lethal in nature at the same time as wanting to uncover something lethal, I am now writing a novel in which I ponder what it is that keeps the world together. The text can be assembled as the challenge of an imaginary world to the world I experience. I enjoy the fact that my exploration is not limited by anything - except my own cowardice and lack of invention - and that, if I succeed, I produce in my text a powerful opponent to myself before I bid it farewell, when it goes out to play with its readers.

The risks associated with writing make it sweetly nerveracking. One can be rejected, even though one approaches the text with tenderness and desire. In writing, the text invites one to join a dance whose rhythm is only just being created. The fascinating brute may not be tamed, and one must not allow oneself to be mauled. Its power and beauty must be made to flow so everything shines and rings out.

© University of Wales, Aberystwyth 2002-2009       home  |  e-mail us  |  back to top
site by CHL