from Autumn Apples
by Peter Sandström
translated and introduced by Deborah Bragan-Turner
Peter Sandström is a highly regarded Finland-Swedish author who has published more than ten novels and is the winner of numerous accolades and awards.
Laudatur (Autumn Apples), published in 2016, is the portrait of a middle-aged man reflecting on his past and trying to make sense of the present. 51-year-old Peter has left his job as editor of a journal and is gradually coming to terms with the slow collapse of his marriage and alienation from his children. It can be read as a companion novel to Sandström’s previous book, Transparente blanche, though both stand equally well independently.
The narrative moves between Turku in 2014 and a key scene with his parents in Nykarleby in 1988. In the extract below, chapter 2, Peter discovers his parents’ seemingly stable, loving marriage is more complicated than it appears. In Sandström’s beautiful prose the incongruous and the mundane details of the characters’ lives — and the importance of what they leave unsaid — are conveyed with a comic melancholy.
from Autumn Apples
At that stage I was twenty-five and my father was still a gardener.
One day I took the bus north from the town of Vaasa, where I had been doing my stint of unarmed military service. I was betwixt and between, waiting to start work as an editor in Turku in the autumn. My fiancée had gone to the Faroes to gut fish. My sister was working as an air stewardess based in Las Palmas. I felt very much alone.
On the bus to Nykarleby I chuckled to myself. I thought it was a wonderful idea to stay with my parents for a week or two. I had always considered them quiet people who kept themselves to themselves and didn’t interfere in other people’s business. I thought about the way they worked together, the obvious warmth there between them. They could turn over a potato plot in spring, moving along abreast, and then, in a break between clods, suddenly let go of the forks and exchange an embrace, short but firm, before bending down again to the work in hand. In the same way they could sit side by side at the potting bench in the greenhouse as they propagated plants, each now and then stealing a glance at the other, a light stroke on the back of the hand or shoulder, a smile in the light under the sloping glass roof, under the sun. I thought it looked ridiculous, but I had soon come to understand they had a wordless communication of their own. Two people could live together like this, day after day, in a way that might perhaps be called natural.
Father met me at the bus station in the square, his face beaming with joy when he saw me. I was the only one getting off in Nykarleby, a fact the driver commented upon after he had unloaded my boxes onto the platform. Not many people want to come here, he said. I said nothing, but I could have informed him I wouldn’t be stopping long either. Just as I was about to open my mouth, he turned and climbed back in, the engine roared into life and the bus continued its journey northward. Father had walked up to me then and for some reason he reached forward; it was unclear whether he wanted to shake my hand or thought I was going to give him the canvas bag I had over my shoulder, but we ended up shaking hands, and then we hugged. As usual he was wearing a cap – he loved caps of all kinds – and this one looked like a souvenir from a war long since waged, a remnant of uniform with at least captain’s rank, and I wondered where Father had found it, but I didn’t ask. Father did quite a few deals, buying and selling clocks and silver cutlery and solid gold jewellery, but he never stole from anyone, he had been at pains to tell me. He often had some odd things on his hands in connection with his business affairs. I remember that over the years he had come home with a caravan, two homebuilt snowmobiles, a Zündapp motorcycle from the year dot and, for some reason, a billy goat delivered in a wooden crate with vents in the sides. The goat had been inside the crate, trying to butt its way out, but it didn’t get very far, at least not in our yard. Mother said she couldn’t abide billy goats or nanny goats or any other dumb creatures. Father shrugged. Then he made a telephone call and the goat was collected by a chap in a van. He was wearing a long white coat and I thought it looked as though the animal was being taken away in an ambulance. Mother and Father and the man in the white coat loaded the crate onto the van together. For a while after that Father played down his business dealings. He devoted himself to his apples, he planned gardens, bought brown suitcases, cooked soup from green tomatoes over a bonfire in the garden. There were some occasions in his life when that man could sit still.
Now you’ve served the state, Father said, and perhaps he thought it was a solemn occasion, because Father was an old veteran and had never said a bad word about my being a conscientious objector; maybe he would have done the same thing if he had had the chance.
It’s been raining here nearly all summer, Father said, in dialect. But now it’s warm and dry at last.
He didn’t make a habit of talking about the weather; if he had nothing to say, he kept quiet. We were sitting in his car now, a white Taunus. He had always liked that car, said that maybe it would be his last, but before we had driven out of the square he said he was thinking about changing it, he was tired of all the hassle with old Fords. There wasn’t enough weight at the back for winter driving, so you had to put a hundred-kilo sandbag in the boot to keep it on the road round bends, and as he said this he swung the steering wheel gently back and forth, as if he were a boy pretending to be a rally driver. Perhaps he could have been a rally driver, or a tango soloist, or a portrait artist. Life had made a soldier of him and then a herb gardener, and now he was old and he drove like an old man, sinking down into his seat, his gnarled hands on the wheel, his cap at an angle on his head, but he was clean-shaven and his teeth still shone when he smiled. You’ve always had Fords, I said.
He asked about my new job. We drove over the bridge. The water level in the river was high. It was obviously because of the rain. I had listened to the rain when I was in my room in Vaasa, writing poetry in the evenings. I had left that room behind me now, with no regrets. Your job, Father said. Yes, I said, it’s in Turku, starting in a few weeks. You’ll miss the harvest then, he said. Yes, I said.
At the end of August Mother and Father would be picking the Transparent Whites and they generally liked to have help. It was a kind of ritual for them, their son gathering the fruit, wiping it and laying it neatly in wooden boxes to be collected by the Vietnamese who sold fruit and vegetables and fried fish on the square. Seeing their own child at work was perhaps affirmation that they had made the right choices in life, they hadn’t fallen short or violated the rule of order. Father drove his old Taunus, and he did it lovingly; when he missed a gear and the gearbox screamed, he said ‘sorry’ in Finnish, one of the few Finnish words I ever heard him use.
There’s a lot of water in the river, I said. Yes, Father said, isn’t there.
I had been thinking about rain that last week I spent in Vaasa. As a child I had always disliked rain, but now I realised I no longer did. I wrote a poem about it teeming down, about letting it enter my room, wash over the walls, rinse the dust from my throat, heave me out of bed where I lay tucked up and dressed, prepared to be evacuated once again. Because I knew it was just a question of time before war would come back, perhaps it had never wholly gone away, living on in the deeds of returning veterans, decade after decade since the darkness of the forties, in the actions they performed to exorcise that darkness and move forward. But equally, those actions might mean the darkness wouldn’t capitulate, but would spread to their sons, to their daughters, to all of us whose lives had been so much easier. And the rain had spilled down over Vaasa, and it was dark in August, and I lay in bed fully clothed, shoes on the floor, boxes packed and the bag full of letters and postcards my fiancée had sent me from Turku and Reykjavik and Gdansk and other places in the world. It’s the rain that will take me out of here, I thought, and I was young then, and could have such thoughts, truisms that would appear ludicrous in time or at least naïve, and yet would enable me later to countenance the idea that I had once been full of hope for the life ahead, never-ending and filled with possibilities.
And Father drove his car. He had come home with models called Cortina, Capri and Taunus and I had seen that as part of his personality; Father would always have a Ford.
So this is the last Ford then, I said. Father grinned, reducing his speed as we approached home. He changed down and the car pulled up the hill in first gear. I saw white sheets billowing on the line, I saw the cat sleeping on the mound of stones facing north. Mother wasn’t there. She’s probably cooking something, I thought. She must be in the kitchen.
Father had begun speaking, maybe in reply to my question, because I heard him mention a make of car that sounded Japanese. What d’you think? he said. What? I said.
Mebbe a Mazda then, Father said. I looked at him. I saw his blue eyes, his wry smile. I shrugged. Mebbe, I said.
He brought the Taunus to a stop with its bonnet in the rose bush, as usual, and threw open the door, climbing out of the car as if he was in a hurry, not in grown-up way, more like a youth, as if his body still held the agitation associated with restless, uncontrollable growth. He went up to the line of flapping washing and for a moment I thought he was going to bring it in, but he walked straight through, as if it were a curtain.
When I got out of the car I saw her. She was sitting on the roof. It looked as though she was keeping a northerly lookout.
I had never seen Mother on the roof before. There she sat, astride the ridge, under the sun. She was dressed in black, and there was something about the scene that made me think of her as someone who had been forced to climb up there to save herself; she sat, quiet and still, as if enjoying the sunshine, while she tried to catch sight of someone or something. At the same time, it was as if she were taking a rest after fleeing a very tangible danger, a fire, or rapidly rising water, circumstances that made it essential for her to make her way upwards, away from what would otherwise take her life.
Hello Mum, I said, but it was too low, more like a statement to myself, and I wasn’t sure she had heard me.
I opened the boot of the Taunus, which was filled with my black boxes. I thought they could stand outside in the open, it was so warm and dry. It was only a week or two before I would leave.
In the boxes were LPs in alphabetical order, there was poetry from Sweden and America, a leather belt with rivets, a goalkeeper’s face shield for ice hockey, a dog’s lead, and, of course, the letters and postcards from my fiancée. I hadn’t brought many clothes with me; most of them were in two plastic bags at the back of the boot, under the boxes and everything else, and I could see that Father had some tools in there, a hoe and a pair of shears, a hedge trimmer. It was all swept to one side, like unused props, there for the sake of appearances.
A chainsaw started up. It was Father, somewhere behind the sheets in the forest. That was where he cut firewood for heating the house during the winter. Father revved the chainsaw. He had never used earmuffs. He’ll soon be deaf, I thought.
Perhaps he wanted to go deaf. As I saw it, Mother and Father were too old to learn sign language. I supposed they might have to start writing notes to each other.
I didn’t notice Mother come down from the roof, but when I turned she was there, right beside me. She stared me squarely in the eye, her look dark, and it was as if I could see straight into her blackness, a darkness that shouldn’t have been there, as if I had contemplated the firmament and with my eye sought a star that had always existed, but understanding that its position was now void brought a realisation that might grow into sheer despair. Then Mother blinked. She gave me a hug and started to lift the boxes out of the car. I helped her. She said nothing. I said nothing. Speaking was impossible against the noise from the chainsaw.
Mother picked up one of the boxes and carried it into the house.
The chainsaw fell silent and Father made another appearance, walking through the sheets. He removed his cap and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. He came up to me, leaned against the car, sighed and said he would try to sell it now, as soon as possible, there would definitely be people wanting a Taunus in mint condition. It’s white an’ all, he said, but I couldn’t understand what role colour played in the grand rationale.
Father had never actually understood cars. I had seen him change a tyre on one occasion only, and it took him all day. He looked like the sort of bloke who shouldn’t be messing about with cars. If he was obliged to open the bonnet, he would shut his eyes, as if fearing the burden of beholding what lay beneath. His hands got no purchase on the spanner or screwdriver or pliers, and if he did manage to loosen any part of the engine, he didn’t know how to put it back. He had to ring the garage, and that was presumably humiliating for him, and then they would come, the guys in overalls with oil on their hands, and they peered into the engine and hummed and smoked cigarettes, and then they did something with their hands and the car started.
Who’ll fix a Japanese one for you? I said, and Father raised his hands, to indicate he had thought of everything. Anyone can fix a Japanese one, he said. Maybe you can do it yourself, I said. Father shrugged.
He should have stuck to mopeds instead. I had thought for a long time Father looked like a moped rider, a chap who knocked around on something with hand gears, with a bomber hat on his head, dark glasses, a papirosa in his mouth. There was nothing intimidating about the mechanics of a moped, and its speed was low enough to allow for riding and smoking at the same time. But guys on mopeds were often weirdos, men who distilled spirits in their own homes or went trapping for otters in the marshes on the other side of Murjas and Svarv.
Father wasn’t one of them.
Schildts & Söderströms, 2021, 316 pages.
Foreign rights: Helsinki Literary Agency.
We are grateful to Helsinki Literary Agency for permission to publish this translated extract.
Winner of the 2017 Runeberg Prize and nominated for the 2016 Finlandia prize.
Peter Sandström is a highly regarded Finland-Swedish author who has published over ten novels. Laudatur (Autumn Apples, 2016) was reviewed by Deborah Bragan-Turner in SBR 2017:2. His latest novel, Den stora blondinens sista sommar (The Big Blonde’s Last Summer), is nominated for the 2023 Nordic Council Literature Prize.
Deborah Bragan-Turner is a translator working from Swedish to English. Her published translations include works by Per Olov Enquist, Mikael Niemi, Sara Stridsberg and Anne Swärd.