My Scandinavia (VII)

Lithuanian novelist and playwright Marius Ivaskevicius is highly rated in the Baltic States, Poland, and Hungary for his humorous observations of contemporary life. Now Eurozine publishes, in English translation, his seven-part Scandinavian travelogue. In part VI, Ivaskevicius became the northernmost European. This week, fighting the urge to go even further north, he turns back, and, trying to discern the essence of Scandinavia, walks headfirst into a blizzard. His journey, and our story, ends here.

A Norwegian high school girl on her way to see the dentist, riding the bus with me from Narvik to Bodo, Nordland’s capital, gave me the best definition of Scandinavia. “Lots of space, few people”, she said. When I asked her what she did in Narvik, she answered, “Nothing. Narvik is small; it’s boring.” When I asked her what she did in Bodo, she answered the same. She chose to travel the three hundred miles to the dentist by bus rather than by plane because she hated flying. “The aeroplanes are small and they shake a lot”, the girl said. When I asked her what she planned to do when she graduated, she said, “I’m going to Amsterdam. There’s a lot to do there.” I remembered Maike, who I’d met in the Sami town of Karasjok. She’d said, “There’s no room in Holland,” justifying why she’d moved to Karasjok.

A tree and a town

Space in Scandinavia just keeps on going. Besides the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland, there’s yet another Scandinavian island: Spizbergen. Several planes fly each day to Spizbergen from Tromso, a town in northern Norway. I admit, I couldn’t believe it. It felt the same as finding out that normal people could fly London-the Moon-London.

Sylvi, a television producer and director in Tromso, who I’d stayed with, had just returned from Spizbergen. She was full of stories about polar bears, who every once in a while mauled a careless tourist, and the hotel she’d stayed in, where she was served by Thai people, who’d somehow ended up in the far north. The poet Liv, who also lived in Tromso, had just submitted an application for a writing grant that would allow her to stay in Spizbergen. Overall, I got the impression that every second person spent his free time in Spizbergen. I too became obsessed with going to Spizbergen. But I held myself back, understanding that there was no end to my desire to push ever further north. The north has a way of hypnotizing you, so that neither Nordkap nor Spizbergen is ever enough; you are sick with longing for the north until you reach the very North Pole.

By the way, there is a connection between Tromso and the North Pole. Most travellers to the North Pole set out from Tromso. It’s the last town before the Arctic. For many, the last town they’d ever see. Among these travellers there was Roald Amundsen, the first to reach the South Pole. It’s strange that a Norwegian would be the first to reach the furthest point south. Norway – the Antarctic, they’re on opposite ends of the earth you’d think. But this nation is accustomed to poles, and whether that pole is to the north or south loses its significance. The conqueror of the South Pole died when he went to rescue an Italian who’d run into trouble trying to reach the North Pole. Amundsen’s plane took off from Tromso and never returned. Having touched one end of the earth, the other end did him in.

Tromso, which many travellers have dubbed the Paris of the North, is located on an island; although, in recent times, it has expanded onto the northern shore of a neighbouring fjord. In Tromso, like in most Scandinavian cities, there is a strange mixture of wood and stonework. The city gives the impression that just yesterday it had been a village, which grew up rapidly into a city. The old section of the city is half built from wood. In Tronheim it’s the same thing – the majority of the houses are built on stilts. And on the other side of this city, on the shore of the fjord, there’s a sculpture by the son of Viking Leif Eriksen. The Sagas sing of this old Viking, who reached the new world five hundred years before Christopher Columbus. He named the land he’d discovered Vinland. His bitter glance was fixed on the mouth of the fjord, which gave onto the most direct route to the unknown continent. In that very same spot today there is a huge enclosed water park, where modern Norwegians bathe in warm water and admire that same view through a wall of glass. An austere past and a carefree present exist alongside one other. There’s nothing left to worry about. Everything’s already been discovered.

There are many wooden houses in Oslo too. It’s considered prestigious to live in one. Gothenburg, the second largest Scandinavian city, has entire streets of wooden houses. It makes you wonder whether maybe we were wrong when we decided to tear down the Snipiskes neighbourhood in Vilnius. Maybe we should have preserved this unique village among skyscrapers.

Searching for a Lithuanian Beckham

By the way, at the time of writing, Gothenburg was expecting the arrival of an onslaught of Lithuanians. Lithuania was guest of honour at Scandinavia’s largest book fair in 2005. It’s interesting that this book fair is a private business. Ana took it over from her father a few years ago. The book fair had a difficult start. In the beginning it was conceived of as an event for Swedish librarians, but slowly it grew into a larger scale and became an annual international cultural event. That year’s guest of honour was England. Ana thought she would be able to lure more people to the book fair by inviting David Beckham, who had recently published his memoir. It wasn’t clear whether the scandal surrounding his extra-marital activities would get in the way. I wondered who could become a Lithuanian version of Beckham and attract a crowd of curious fans to the Lithuanian exhibit. Cautiously I mention Sabonis, holding Marciulionis, Ilgauskas, Macijauskas, and Jasikevicius (Lithuanian basketball stars – trans.) in reserve. It’s true that Sabonis hasn’t written a book, but maybe there’s hope, maybe in the name of Lithuanian literature he could put something together in time. But when Ana asked, “Sabonis? The name sounds good, but who is he?” I realized pretty quickly that the man who’d pulled our Olympic team through Barcelona and through Atlanta would be of no help to us in Gothenburg. No, it would be better to bring Zubrius or Kasparaitis to Gothenburg (Lithuanian ice-hockey stars – trans.) because our passion for basketball just doesn’t fit the Scandinavian model. In Sweden, people watch soccer and hockey; in Finland, hockey and Formula One; in Norway, soccer and all sorts of winter sports. While I was in Oslo, I made a special trip to Holmenkom, on the very edge of the city, so that I could see the ski jump. I got there just in time for the biathlon World Cup. Until then, I’d always watched the biathlon on television, but only as something to soothe my nerves – in place of camomile tea after a long hard day. I like the muffled sound of the gun, those bells that ring when the biathlon athletes approach the finish line. Biathlon, tennis, billiards – these are all sports that I find relaxing. But in Holmenkolm I saw another type of biathlon altogether. A biathlon with roaring maniacs in the stands, an impassioned commentator’s voice, and thousands of Norwegian flags waved maniacally by fans, cheering on their countrymen. Scandinavians worship their flags in an unhealthy way, I’d say. They wave them anywhere and on any occasion. In a Lithuanian crowd, whether it be a political demonstration or fans at a sporting event, there is usually one person who waves a giant flag and others cluster around it. In Scandinavia, on those occasions, the crowd waves hundreds of small flags. In a Lithuanian crowd, that giant flag says, “I am Lithuanian”, but the Scandinavian crowd screams out, “We’re Swedes”, or “Danes”, or “Norwegians”.

A heaven for writers and a hell for books

Being a nation of lots of space but few people, the Scandinavians butt up against the same problem as Lithuanians: how do you make your small voice heard in such a noisy world? The documentary filmmaker from Tromso, Knut Erik, became famous when he created a film about a men’s choir from a small northern Norwegian fishing village. He attempted to film the men singing in unfamiliar surroundings. One of the most beautiful scenes in the film is when the choir recites its repertoire outdoors, in the middle of a blizzard, with the wind howling, and the snow beating against their faces. Once, when Knut Erik’s producer told him that what he was doing was too provincial and had no future, Knut Erik replied that he knew of a man who travelled through the villages in Nordland, writing about the people he met along the way. And that now the entire world reads that book. When the producer asked what that man’s name was, Erik answered: “Hamsun”.

The Scandinavians have an enviable talent for knowing how to talk so that the world hears them. Ibsen, Strindberg, Bergman, Lagerlof, Lindgren, Sibelius, Kirkegaard, Andersen, von Tyra. Those are just a few of the names of famous Scandinavians that immediately come to mind. Even today, to be an artist in Scandinavia is like living in heaven. Take Liv for example, the poet from Tromso. In addition to the salary she receives for teaching creative writing at Tromso University, she receives a generous state stipend. As long as she writes, no one will take it away. When a Norwegian writer publishes a book, the Norwegian government buys a thousand copies right away and distributes them to all the libraries in the country. Therefore, publishers can publish their own authors and not worry about losing money on the enterprise. I have to admit that this system allows for lesser quality works to be published and propagated. The publishing houses burn the books that are not sold – without regrets. The young Swedish writer Boel tried to do some research and find out where her books were scheduled to be burned, so that she could gather a few for herself, but her publisher wouldn’t reveal the location of the crematorium. It was a state secret. Only, it’s not so easy to reach this heaven. Many young writers I met who’d already published their first books in Scandinavia felt that their literary futures were not financially secure. The fiction writer, Klara, from Gothenburg, earns a living delivering mail; the young novelist, Pale, from Copenhagen, works as a projectionist in a movie theatre. Sometimes at night he gets together with his poet friends and goes through the daily newspapers, checking exchange rates and stock prices, so that by morning they could beat the businessmen at their own game and earn as much money for themselves as possible.

Ditte lives in Copenhagen, has already published a few books with Denmark’s largest publishing house, but nonetheless is preparing to travel this summer to the island of Bornholm to earn some money working in a cafe. The director, Kirsten, has established a theatre in a former tobacco factory. She works there and she lives there too. Her latest work is about the Russian, Leon Termin, who discovered electronic music. This engineer and artist was praised by Lenin, who had promoted electricity as one of the cornerstones of the new Soviet order. Later, Stalin exiled him to Siberia, where he found out that electricity could be put to much more painful uses. Ninna, a dancer who’d acted in some of Kirsten’s earlier plays, during this play, which implements voice more than dance, would sell tickets at the door.

In 2005, Denmark celebrated the anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen’s birth. Huge state funding was allocated to support this event. At the time, Kirsten was putting together a play about Andersen. Kirsten glances at Ninna’s profile and says, “Ninna, you’ll play Hans Christian. You look just like him.” That’s not much of a compliment for a woman. First, because Andersen was a man, and second, because Anderson was known for frightening women away with his looks. Legend has it that once, Hans Christian declared his love for a woman, and she, instead of answering him, handed him a mirror and told him to take a look at his reflection. But Ninna agrees to take the part. Its much more interesting than selling tickets at the door. Especially since the play would be staged in the royal stables, and the queen of Denmark had granted her personal permission for the use of the stable.

Mission universal consciousness

The Scandinavians have noticed that their region has changed dramatically over the past decade. Tourists from across the Atlantic arrive and ask, “What is this holy socialism all about?” Socialism as an experiment is coming to an end in Scandinavia, even though there socialism had a human face, rather than the grimace that had spread across other parts of the world.

Scandinavia not only built its socialism, it made an effort to be the world’s conscience. The declarations that came from the leaders of these nations often exasperated the rest of the Western world into exasperation, because very often that opinion differed greatly from the general course of events. If the United States and its partners in the name of world domination in the name of democracy applied double standards and violated human rights, the Scandinavians would stand atop their mountains and wag their finger at them.

But all that was in the twentieth century, and who knows if it will last. After all, in the nineteenth century, Scandinavia was a completely different entity both economically and socially. But it was still Scandinavia. In the eighteenth century, the social order was different again, but still Scandinavia. What is Scandinavia then?

The truth is that that the Norwegian fishing village choir out of Knut Erik’s film, standing there in the middle of a blizzard, singing as their faces are covered with snow, is Scandinavia. Scandinavia is nature in its harshest form, and it is man before nature, with an absolutely calm face.

This winter, while in Visby, I went for a walk on the beach and found myself in the middle of such a blizzard. Heaven and earth mingled, waves crashed against the shore, and snow pelted my face. Just then I noticed a car. It parked on the ice-covered cement barrier and turned off its engine and lights. I couldn’t fight back my curiosity, so I came closer. Waves crashed with fury against the windshield, as though it were the bow of a boat. Inside the car sat a pair of lovers, kissing passionately. Is that Scandinavia?

Published 14 November 2005
Original in Lithuanian
Translated by Laima Sruoginis
First published by Siaures Atenai 12.06.2004 (Lithuanian version)

Contributed by Magyar Lettre Internationale © Marius Ivaskevicius/Siaures Atenai Eurozine


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