Lyser och lågar
(Light and Flame)
by Ulla-Lena Lundberg
reviewed by Anna Paterson
Reviewed alongside En handful vind (A Handful of Wind) By Negar Naseh.
Lyser och lågar. (Light and Flame)
What does the title ‘Light and Flame’ mean? Perhaps ‘the human spirit’ or, more specifically, ‘the female spirit’. Or it might describe the idealism driving the liberal policies of the mid to late 19th century in Scandinavia.
The novel begins with a heart-rending, gripping story of five young women setting out on the 500-kilometre walk from their home city of Vaasa to Helsinki. When the 1852 firestorm had reduced Vaasa to ashes, Finland’s bustling capital stood for a future without poverty – for hope. Four of the girls are lost to the story – one falls ill, another ensnares a man with a fairly prosperous farm, and two vanish in the city crowds. Bitt strikes lucky: a kind, handsome and resourceful soldier falls in love with her. Valentin Nyström has to leave home to fight for the Tsar in Crimea, just like the author’s great-grandmother’s father and Valentin’s namesake. Unlike many of the Finnish Guardsmen in that miserable campaign, Valentin returns to his wife and builds a home for her and their children.
These parts of the story – the girls walking through the deep Finnish countryside of long ago, and Valentin’s epic efforts to survive, together with as many of his men as possible, on the endless march through south-west Russia and then back home – are set-pieces, exciting, lyrical and humorous and suspenseful by turns.
Of Valentin and Bitt’s four children, the boys have no meaningful role in the story. Both go off to sea and stay there. The two girls, Olga and Ida, grow into brave, intelligent women. Sporty Ida becomes a pioneer of physical education for women, and Olga dedicates herself to supporting her bipolar, driven and idealistic husband Robert in his venture to introduce ‘people’s boarding schools’ to Finland. The social history of one such school, Finns, is affectionately recreated in the novel. As headmaster and headmaster’s wife (with real-life counterparts – Lundberg’s grandmother’s father was headmaster at Finns), Robert and Olga make a success of it. He is the leader, the man of ideas and an inspirational speaker; she, unflappable and warm-hearted, runs the household, teaches domestic science and brings up their daughter Karin. After Robert’s death in consumption, his successors seem disappointing, but Olga carries on.
Young Karin’s love of performance has flourished in the school’s liberal atmosphere, but instead of devoting herself to the stage – which she loves – she loves and marries a difficult man, a local farmer with alarming anger management issues. They endure the threat to their farm from roving militiamen fighting on one side or the other in the Civil War of 1917. To her elderly mother’s delight, Karin gives birth two girls – one of whom – Mona - turns up as a minister’s wife in another Lundberg novel, Is (Ice).
In this part of the book, Lundberg’s traditional, linear story-telling still keeps the reader engaged in ‘what happens next’ to the hard-working, grown-up protagonists but the inserted extracts from school debates and letters add a whiff of social history lessons.
En handful vind (A Handful of Wind)
We are in Tehran in 1978, the year of the revolution against the rule of the Shah. A pregnant woman, Minou, and her little son, Nima, lead tightly intertwined lives in their flat, hidden by the plants they grow on the balcony for pleasure as well as shelter. The writing is gentle, intent, focused on the elements of their secluded lives – on Minou’s anxious memories of her first experience of labour, her symptoms and visits to the midwife, on her finding pleasure in concoctions of Iranian fruits and herbs. In the street below, militant demonstrators shout slogans against the Shah, whose brutal security police go for them with truncheons and watercannons – and worse, as Minou learns, when a left-wing demonstrator, Vandad, seeks refuge in her building and later brings Akram, a political woman companion.
Minou’s husband, Hassan, has left to work as a scientist in Sweden. He worries about his family as the autumn days grow wintry and violence increases on both sides. Vandad becomes one of ‘the disappeared’ (into prison and then a mass grave), and Akram, pregnant with his child, joins Minou in the flat. In early 1979, the Shah and his family flee Iran, and Ayatollah Khomeini is welcomed by ecstatic crowds. Soon, sharia law is imposed and fear stalks Teheran once more.
But all goes well for Minou. She gives birth to her daughter Narges, and takes the new baby and Nima to her family home in the countryside. Then Minou and the children are ready to leave for Sweden, where they join sociable Hassan and his circle. In a clever snapshot of the Iranian enclave in Uppsala, they watch as David Frost interviews the isolated, ill Shah – once King of Kings of Iran, now in exile in Panama. That traitor! Hassan and his friends are angry, but Minou is stung by pity: the man tries so hard to project pride and hide his discomfort.
A radical stage change: the set shifts from cool Sweden to hot, clammy Panama. Mohammad Reza, the ex-Shah, struggles to deal with what he knows to be the last stages of chronic lymphocytic leukaemia. With his family and faithful servant, he is hemmed in by USA-led international resentment. His slow bodily decay is described in knowing, chilling detail and, as we follow his preparation for the Frost interview, we suffer with him, are made to share Minou’s pity.
Another abrupt change of scene, but not of tempo: we are back in Sweden with Nima and the painful obsessions that dominate his life. His gay man’s vanity and bipolar mood-swings drive a routine of alienation, semi-starvation and body-punishing running. His mother, now a trusted midwife and his sister, happily married and with a teenage son, try to help him. When they finally manage to persuade him to be cared for in a psychiatric clinic, the outcome is successful – at least in the short term.
Then, the novel’s tempo accelerates.
First, we join Mohammad Reza in fragrant, warm Egypt, where he is welcomed and allowed to die in peace, surrounded by friends and family.
Next, to Tehran, where we meet Anahita. She is the daughter of Minou’s old friend Akram, who went to Canada, where Anahita grew up and trained in psychotherapy. Now, she is back in the country of her birth and has opened a practice. We follow episodes from her life as a professional woman in Khomeini’s, now Khamenei’s, Iran.
Back in Sweden, Minou and Hassan are painlessly slipping away from each other. Hassan amiably supports his wife’s decision to go to Iran to join her three sisters. While there, Minou befriends Anahita, which closes another circle. She makes a new, life-changing decision: she will move to Tehran, and never live in Sweden again.
The endgame, then, is to find peace in company of your own people. True, Minou leaves some of ‘her people’ behind and it saddens her, but in Iran the loss is made up for by the daily, unforced presence of the emotion-laden, sensual things she loves because they are part of her: the language, the foods and scents of herbs and spices, the gardens and the distant mountains.
This is the essence of this fascinatingly restless but controlled study of what matters in life: the warmth of woman’s friendship and care, and the bitter-sweetness of mementoes.
The main connection between these two novels is that both are about women who follow their instinct for creating private lives while History happens elsewhere – even if ‘elsewhere’ is just the street outside your windows.
Minou retreats into the semi-secluded world of women in Iran. The men in her life have lacked emotional depth or, at worst, caused grief or violence. Anahita, in an uncertain relationship with a man - avoidance and attraction mixed – makes the same choice and, in a sense, repeats her mother’s flight from confrontation and political commitment.
In the Finland of the 1850s, restrictions of women’s options were not dissimilar to today’s Iran. The five Finnish girls in search of a future were brave and knew the importance of being supportive of each other – until they found a man. Men run the world; men believe in ideas, become involved in political wrangling, violence, wars.
History keeps happening, of course, but the only time it makes the storyline is Valentin’s stressful military campaign. The central period in the novel deals with Olga’s patience, competence and kindness as she supports her Robert. She doesn’t ‘do’ politics, despite the dramatic developments in Finland, from law reforms to concerted attempts to rid Finland of Russian overlordship. The First World War and its almost as ruinous consequence, the Finnish Civil War, get mentions, as events interfere with the orderly running of the school and family life in general.
The writers’ respective university disciplines – Lundberg studied ethnology, Naseh medicine – inform their writing, perhaps more than they are prepared to admit. Their three generations of women – Bitt-Olga-Karin, and Leila-Minou-Narges – reflect the female capacity for caring on while their creativity enriches national customs, languages and identities. Both have drawn on their family histories to create fictional versions of the past. Lundberg identifies the family links while Naseh, the Swedish-born daughter of Iranian parents, relies on imagining places and people – though she has learnt much about Mohammad Reza’s fate and taken it to heart.
These two novels are woman’s stories, truthful to their subjects and to the worlds they recreate.
Lyser och lågar
Förlaget M, August 2022.
Foreign rights: Urpu Strellman / Urte Liepuoniute, Helsinki Literary Agency
Ulla-Lena Lundberg (b 1947) is a Finland-Swedish author of more than twenty works of fiction and essays. She has lived in Japan, Africa, Siberia and, most recently, in Finland. Her 2012 novel Is (Ice) received the Finlandia prize. An extract translated by Thomas Teal, who later translated the book (Sort of Books, London 2016) was published in the 2013 Finland-Swedish Special Edition of SBR, which also had a review by Sarah Death.