Monday, December 22, 2008

Rachel Lebowitz' "Hannus"

Hannus (2006) is Rachel Lebowitz' creative biography of her great-grandmother Ida Hannus. I've found that this hybrid-genre works better (more seamless, with more fictive possibilities, while also keeping a genuine artfulness) than, say, creative big-event history or historical narrative fiction, where the author can have the best of both worlds, using the genre as an excuse for sloppy factual sequences as well as pinning character revelations on static known actions of those historical figures.

Lebowitz undercuts these problems by a foundational caring (the eponymous protagonist is her great-grandmother, as mentioned), and it pays off with a deeper concern in looking at Hannus not just as a historical curiosity, but as a complex woman caught in the trying circumstances of an emigrant sailing into the unknown without a pot to piss in. The generational hardships are carefully stitched together with local and continental Finnish history, and are further tied by daring structural and genre-bending approaches: news clippings alternate with quotes from the socialist founder (Matti Kurikka) of their commune, family prose-drama, brief lyrical spotlights on Ida's struggles and (occasional) joys, archival sepia photos, personal commemorative lyrics by the author, and even snippets from Ida's journal. It reminded me, in this way, but also by contrast, of Paul Metcalf's (1976) The Passage, though in that experimental work, the newspaper reports dominated the book, at the expense of authorial creativity. In other words, it was more a pure arrangement.

This book is fascinating to me not only because of its careful rendering, its infusions of life into sketchy history, but because as a second-generation Finn, there is much here I can relate to. And it rings true. Finland is a small country, the population not much greater than five million, but there are fierce concentrations of Finnish immigrants in areas which reminded the early settlers of where they were from: the cold lake- and fir-expanses of Minnesota and Thunder Bay, Ontario, as well as Vancouver Island, where both of my parents were born. Because of the relatively small presence of Finns in any context -- whether burgher or burglar -- the general non-Finnish population has little idea of their cultural "archetype" (to use that awful, hoary word). Hannus correctly details the complexity of the Finnish psychology, whether Old World or contemporary: taciturn, given to drink, either hard working or lazy, either weak or independently brave, possessing a droll humour, and above all, stoic.

I haven't quoted from the volume since it would be too difficult to get a feel for any brief passage without the multiple-voiced context involved, but many lines and images either sing with pain, or startle with interior, convincingly subjective, voice. OK, then, one such example from the initial sailing: "Those emigrants who stared out at the horizon did so to steady themselves, to hold back the taste of bile." (p. 23).

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