In Sweden

Mikael Niemi
In which tongues are loosened after the Saturday sauna, and what every young man should know.

In our family we used to have a sauna every Saturday evening, a tradition that no doubt went back to prehistoric times. On this particular night, though, everything was different. I realized afterward that Dad had planned it all; there was something in the air. Nervousness. We sat down in the changing room, where the washing machine was standing in one corner. Mum was in a hurry to get away; it was obvious she wanted to leave us on our own.

There was a fire burning and crackling away on the stove, making it cozy. A fir log occasionally spit lumps of charcoal out onto the floor, and Dad put them out with his bare feet. We each grilled a sausage or two and really enjoyed them --- we were hungry after all that sweating that had drained us of salt. Dad finished off his post-sauna beer, and then went over to grog: Koskenkorva schnapps and lemonade. He hadn't said a word from start to finish.

I would normally have gone and left Dad in peace. I knew he liked to be on his own, and enjoyed sitting for hours, looking at the flames and filling his Ugrian brain with melancholy thoughts. On this occasion, though, I had a feeling that something was up. There was that intuitive contact that often develops between father and son when you're not chattering away all the time.

Dad cleared his throat, but then said nothing for several minutes. Cleared his throat once more, to soften up his tongue. Drank. I put another lump of wood on the fire. Watched the condensation trickling down the cold glass.

"Anyhow, now that you're not a little lad any more..." he eventually started, speaking in Finnish.

I glanced at him in astonishment, and could see his jaw muscles working.

"Asked yourself ... about life ... about people ... Now that you've grown a bit older you ought to know ..."

He paused, took another swig, and avoided looking at me. He's going to go on about the birds and the bees, I thought. Condoms.

Now he looked at me for the first time, bleary-eyed. I nodded. He stared back at the fire.

"My father, your granddad that is, was a real stallion when he was a young man. That's why I have two half sisters," he said abruptly. "They're my age, and have children of their own. That means that around here, in the Pajala area, you have five first cousins you didn't know about: three of them are girls, and you ought to know who they are so as to avoid in-breeding."

He spelled out who they were. One of them was in my year at school and was pretty.

"Anyway, another thing. There are two families in this district that have caused us a lot of harm, and you're going to have to hate them for ever and a day. In one case it all goes back to a perjury suit in 1929, and in the other it's got to do with some grazing rights that a neighbor cheated your granddad's father out of in 1902, and both of these injustices have to be avenged at all costs, whenever you get the chance; and you must keep going until them bastards have confessed and paid, and also gone down on their bare knees to beg for forgiveness."

He named the families, and spelled out all their offshoots and all those who'd married and sometimes changed their last names as a result, but whose blood was nevertheless the same poisonous sort as before. Once again I was given the name of a fellow pupil, a skinny little chap from one of the outlying small villages who didn't seem to have paid me any attention at all so far. Dad said that was just a front: they appeared to be quite harmless and instilled a false sense of security, and then your back was exposed. More than one of our relatives had been made to regret bitterly his gullibility by being stabbed or having bones broken.

I committed all this to memory, then Dad tested me on it as it was important that nothing be forgotten or forgiven through sheer carelessness. He took another swig or two and did a bit of ranting, then got me to grunt and snort and help him to work out a few crafty plots. He suggested I might like to make a career for myself in local government, because that would put you in a position where you could create merry hell and, even better, they couldn't sack you; if you played your cards right you could exploit a bit of nepotism and get the rest of the clan into position of authority until it was impossible for these perjurers and land thieves to stay around.

There was another mass of families to keep an eye on, and once again some of my schoolmates were involved. Dad reckoned we ought to review all the names, which we duly did with great thoroughness. Then he continued with a more general history of the labor movement, including explanations of why socialists with long memories still avoid reading newspapers such as the Haparanda Daily News and the Norrbotten Courier, why one should shop at the Co-op and not at Spar, and why customs officers, foresters, primary school teachers, and religious revivalists of the Laestadian persuasion should be regarded with suspicion even today.

The whole of Tornedalen seemed to be transformed before my very eyes. The place where I'd grown up was apparently criss-crossed by a mass of threads enmeshing all who lived there. A vast and powerful spider's web of hatred, lust, fear, memories. A four-dimensional web whose sticky threads extended both back and forward through time, down to the dead bodies buried under the earth and up to the as-yet-unborn in the heavens, and it was going to envelop me with its field of force whether I liked it or not.

Dad finally got around to accounting for the inherent weaknesses in our own family. There were drinkers among us. That's why he wasn't going to offer me anything just now: I ought to wait until I came of age before getting involved with the poison known as alcohol, since the art of intoxication was a complicated one and needed a degree of maturity.

Then he started going through a list of all the family idiots. I'd already met some of them; one was in the psychiatric hospital in Gällivare, and another in Piteň. In medical jargon it was called schizophrenia, and it seemed to run in the family. It would appear when you reached the age of eighteen or so, and was due to certain causes. Frustrated love was one, and Dad begged me to be very wary of complicated women who were scared of sex. Dad urged me never to be too persistent with the fair sex if they declined to open their legs, but rather to follow his own example and find myself an unabashed peasant girl with a big ass.

The other cause of lunacy was brooding. Dad strongly advised me never to start thinking too much, but to do as little as possible of it, since thinking was a menace that only got worse the more of it you did. He could recommend hard manual labor as an antidote: shoveling snow, chopping firewood, skiing cross-country, and that kind of thing, because thinking usually affected people when they were lolling about on the sofa or sitting back to rest in some other way. Getting up early was also recommended, especially on weekends and when you had a hangover, because all kinds of nasty thoughts could worm their way into your mind then.

The most dangerous thing of all, and something he wanted to warn me about above all else, the one thing that had consigned whole regiments of unfortunate young people to the twilight world of insanity, was reading books. This objectionable practice had increased among the younger generation, and Dad was more pleased than he could say to see that I had not yet displayed any such tendencies. Lunatic asylums were overflowing with folk who'd been reading too much. Once upon a time they'd been just like you and me, physically strong, straightforward, cheerful, and well-balanced. Then they'd started reading. Most often by chance. A bout of flu perhaps, with a few days in bed. An attractive book cover that had aroused some curiosity. And suddenly the bad habit had taken hold. The first book had led to another. Then another, and another, all links in a chain that led straight down into the eternal night of mental illness. It was impossible to stop. It was worse than drugs.

It might just be possible, if you were very careful, to look at the occasional book that could teach you something, such as encyclopedias or repair manuals. The most dangerous kind of book was fiction --- that's where all the brooding was sparked and encouraged. Damnit all! Addictive and risky products like books should only be available in state-regulated monopoly stores, rationed and sold only to those with a license, and mature in age.

At that point Mum shouted down the stairs that it was time to eat. We wrapped ourselves in towels and made our way up. Dad was swaying a bit, and stubbed his big toes, but he didn't seem to feel the pain.

--- From Popular Music from Vittula,
Mikael Niemi
Seven Stories Press
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