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Röda rummet review

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Issue number: 2022:1

Book cover of Röda rummet

Röda rummet

(The Red Room)

by Kaj Korkea-aho
reviewed by Michael O. Jones

Korkea-aho’s Röda rummet details the sacrifices society demands of its citizens and the things we sometimes have to do to get by. The novel’s unnamed protagonist lives in present-day Helsinki, and the titular Red Room is a fictional BDSM room in a Helsinki flat renowned amongst the city’s gay BDSM subculture in the 1980s-1990s. The central character becomes involved in a story whose set-up promises a twisted depiction of power struggles, exploitation, and abuse within Helsinki’s gay subculture. Unfortunately, the story fails to deliver on its promises.

The 29-year-old main protagonist returns from Berlin after a whirlwind romance ends in lies, prostitution, and violent abuse. He places an ad in a Helsinki newspaper offering to write a novel in exchange for a place to live. Eventually, an older man named Aimo responds, and the protagonist moves into his rental flat. However, there are forebodings from their very first meeting: something is wrong with Aimo’s home-help Emmanuel and the relationship between the two, while Aimo’s motivations for accepting the main protagonist’s offer appear not to be wholly above board.

As with Korkea-aho’s other writings, the story is told in easily-read, no-frills modern prose. This makes it easily accessible to a general audience, a positive given the book’s niche nature. A downside of this prose style is that it feels both transitory and functionalist, serving a purpose rather than being an art in itself. In this, it doesn’t offer its own aesthetic pleasure as the writing of other authors might, and it does little to impress itself on my mind.

The novel begins well, setting the stage by introducing important events from the protagonist’s life such as his abusive relationship, his willingness to ignore bad treatment in order to avoid loneliness, Helsinki’s desperate housing market, and the asymmetric nature of Aimo and Emmanuel’s relationship. The first act suggests an examination of those aspects of gay communities that we are often uncomfortable revealing even among ourselves, for fear of having them weaponised: the multitude of traumas, dysfunctions, and mental illnesses which plague the marginalised and oppressed gay, bi, and trans communities. How refreshing, then, for somebody to drag our demons out into the sunlight, for sunlight is the best cleanser.

However, after the 150-page mark the novel quickly loses steam, becoming a series of scenes with people sitting in various rooms discussing events 20-40 years in the past. I could have forgiven this disappointment if the conversations were relevant to the plot, and if there were serious stakes.

For example, it is made abundantly clear early on that Aimo is into BDSM, and it is implied he has coerced Emmanuel into indulging his fetishes with the leverage of accommodation. Aimo does not dangle this sword of Damocles over the main protagonist’s head, even when the latter makes no progress on the novel Aimo wants him to write. The young man gets a nice flat in a brilliant location for peanuts, but his failure to deliver has no consequences, thereby neutering the narrative.

This was especially disappointing given that the central character previously stuck with his abusive, deceptive, narcissistic boyfriend out of loneliness, desperation, and a lack of self-worth. Had his arc over the novel been a metaphorical descent into Hell though submitting to exploitation, manipulation, and violation, only to eventually stand up for himself and take control back into his own hands, I would be writing a very different review. The psychological damage of his previous relationship is mostly told, not shown, and the backstory which seemed so ominous in Act 1 is unceremoniously dropped, momentarily picked up later by the main protagonist’s friend in an argument, and then dropped again.

The main reason the plot is less than stellar is the main protagonist’s passivity. After accepting Aimo’s offer, he takes no steps to advance his own position. His budding relationship with Eino Oliveri could have been a chance for him to escape the need to ever deal with Aimo ever again, but this opportunity goes to waste. The reader could have seen the main protagonist turn the tables on Aimo and begin exploiting him and his sexual interest in young men in order to keep his home and – perhaps – to feel powerful and in control after his disastrous relationship in Berlin. These narrative possibilities are, however, squandered. Even the conclusion of the novel allows him to avoid proactivity, the conflict being solved by an accidental fall down a flight of stairs.

One positive thing about this book is in its treatment of gay men’s lives. Said men happen to be few and far between in the media I consume and am exposed to, but their suicide and murder rates are astronomical. I am heartily sick of stories about gay and bi men almost always ending in certain kinds of death, such as the (probable) murder of Jack in Brokeback Mountain and the killing of Harvey Milk in Milk; suicide (direct or otherwise) like Dean and Castiel in Supernatural or Robert in Utvandrarna (The Emigrants); or AIDS-related death as in Torka aldrig tårar utan handskar (Don’t Ever Dry Tears without Gloves). Thankfully, such things are absent from this novel, but Aimo’s erstwhile partner Toivo suffocated to death in a BDSM basement, his death stemming from his sexuality. Further comment should not be necessary at this point.

Some might complain (and indeed have complained) about the shortage of female characters in this novel and others by the author’s peers e.g. Pajtim Statovci or even Mats Strandberg. However, since homosexual men are all too frequently reduced to negative stereotypes or bit-parts in other people’s stories, many may find it refreshing to read gay men talking to gay men about gay men’s experiences, and to have them presented and taken seriously in a novel written by a gay man. However, having spent far more time among bisexual men than gay men, I noticed a certain sexual minority which was – as always – conspicuous by its absence.

This book has met with commercial success, so I may well be in the minority for not being wholly taken with it. I found little to relate to after the first third, and the main protagonist’s story did nothing to resonate with me in any way. It was nominated for the Runeberg Prize 2022, so clearly people like it, but my own guess is that this has more to do with nebulous ‛themes’ of homosexuality and BDSM than with any real literary merit.

Kaj Korkea-aho against black background
Kaj Korkea-aho. Photo: Niklas Sandström.

Röda rummet

Förlaget (Finland), 2021

322 pages

Foreign rights: Elina Ahlbäck Agency

Nominated for the 2022 Nordic Council Literature Prize and the 2022 Runeberg Prize.

Kaj Korkea-aho won the Arvid Mörne competition (2007) and the Society of Swedish Literature in Finland award (2010), as well as the Swedish Cultural Foundation in Finland’s future prize (2012). He was shortlisted for the Finlandia Junior prize in 2017 (together with Ted Forsström for Zoo. Virala genier). Röda rummet is his fourth novel.