Tuesday, May 14, 2013

On "People in the Summer Night" by F. E. Sillanpaa ****

When I was describing this book to a friend last night, he said it sounded like an Ingmar Bergman film. And I suppose, in its focus on everyday life, it is. And were I to focus on the major theme of this work, it would seem hopelessly cliche, because essentially the book is about the cycle of life and death. Ho hum. Let's go read something with a little more pizzazz.

But what makes this work more than its rather perfunctory theme is its execution. And really, isn't that the case with all works of fiction? There really aren't more than seven major themes available, one professor of mine once noted. Unfortunately, I've forgotten what those themes were, but I can totally understand the argument. Human life, even amid constant technological change, still centers around a stable and limited number of concerns.

Sillanpaa chooses to tell his story over the nights surrounding a weekend, mostly Saturday and Sunday. He focuses not on a single character but on a town. I was in some ways reminded of Susan Orlean's Saturday Night early on. During the first thirty pages, all Sillanpaa seems to do is introduce character after character and what they're doing. No plot seems evident. If he weren't such an amazing descriptivist, one would quickly put down the book. So many people thrown at a reader at once means any one of them is hard to follow or to feel much for.

But then, the characters start to settle out, and so does the story. If the first and last thirty pages are each focused on mundane descriptions, the middle one hundred and packed with plot. A young man arrives from out of town to court a young lady, and together with another couple, they rush off to a party. A man's pregnant wife goes to check on a sick cow and ends up in labor, the midwife not to be had and the doctor needing to be fetched. The problem is that that doctor is off on another visit: elsewhere in town one man has stabbed another to death and struggles in vain to bring the man to life. That dead man's wife, meanwhile, dallies with other men in her house, serving them beer and looking out for the husband who will fail to return.

The events don't really come to an end so much as they become subsumed in the general ebb and flow of life itself. These intense moments of love, birth, death, Sillanpaa seems to be saying, fade into the general mundanity of existence.

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