The main reason I went to Finland was to do something with my hands. In 1973, doing something with your hands meant something different from what it does today, in 2020. I had put an end to high school six months earlier. That’s how it’s always felt to me too, as putting an end to something: an end was put to something that had already been going on far too long. There’s a dream I have occasionally. You often hear of people who dream about having to repeat their finals. They wake up in a sweat: fortunately, they’re lying in their own room, in their own bed, it’s the middle of the night, true, but those finals really don’t have to be done all over again, they already did that half a lifetime ago. Anyone who wants to know what that dream signifies should make an appointment with their local mental health clinic, or write a letter to ‘Ask the Expert’.
My own finals dream is a very different one. In my dream, I have to go to school. Pocket diaries are opened, class schedules filled out. The bell rings. Next hour we have German with Mrs Van Aakerinden-Hagenau. Still within the dream, I break out in a cold sweat. I cycle home. And then something starts to dawn on me. The house I’m cycling to is one I haven’t lived in for ages. I’m a writer. I don’t have to go to school at all. In fact, if I go to school for a whole year, I won’t have nearly enough time to write. I’m not going to do it, I tell myself as I cycle to the house I no longer live in. Tomorrow I’m not going back at all. They can all take a flying fuck. Now, still in my dream, I’m overcome by a deep, warm sense of happiness. I’m sure that I’m smiling, both in my dream and in real life, sleeping in my own bed, in my own home. Never do I wake in a cold sweat. There is no sense of relief. The sense of relief was already there, within the dream itself. I wake up each time with the feeling that, just like on all those previous occasions, I made the only right decision.
A few years back I wrote to ‘Ask the Expert’. I wanted to know what the dream signified. Within three days I got a reply, and two weeks later it was in abridged form in the newspaper. I was feeling regret, the dream interpreter said. I regretted not having made the decision earlier. While I was still at high school. Life could have begun much earlier. By hanging around in high school (and doing my finals), the period in which my real life would take place had been shortened by at least three years.
When I look at photos from back then, I see someone who only ever-so-vaguely has anything to do with me myself. A gangly, bit-too-skinny boy in a faded grey jacket that could, with a bit of fantasy, be called a ‘peasant blouse’. The legs of the ditto-faded jeans are tucked into nearly knee-high black rubber boots. Leaning nonchalantly against a yellow trailer with one arm, a little further in the background you can just make out the muddy back wheels of a red tractor.
The pose looks tough, but it isn’t. The boy is really too thin and gangly for that. What was he doing there, anyway, you ask yourself? Or: is he actually up to that kind of work? In later years, too, those were the questions that pursued me. After a while, even without the photographs, people (my own family members, friends) started grinning when I brought up my Finnish period. After a few quick forays (‘It was the winter of 1973, at ten at night the thermometer said it was -27ºC’ ‘I went there to work with my hands’ ‘I almost cut off my leg one time with that chainsaw’), I would try to change the subject. But sometimes it was too late. ‘Are you sure you really want to hear this?’ I’d ask. Yeah, yeah, come on, tell us, the listeners nodded me on. Each and every time I started in again with the boat trip straight past the Baltic ice floes, until our arrival at the iced-in port of Helsinki, knowing full well that the grinning would start sooner or later. I often felt like that uncle of mine who had worked on the Burma Railway during the war, especially when he would recount, each time anew, how, during his escape, he had cut the throats of two Japanese guards with his own hands. Between the ages of five and fifteen, I probably heard that story about thirty times, and each time I tried to combine my uncle’s pudding face with the truly evocative image of the Japanese soldiers, blood gushing from their slashed throats. I couldn’t see the grin of disbelief on my own face, but I could certainly feel it; I had to cover my mouth to hide it from the implausible uncle.
Are you sure you really want to hear this? Besides courtesy, my question had everything to do with the implausibility of my stay in Finland. With the photos that did indeed show me posing beside a trailer pulled by a red tractor, but didn’t show me ripping down snow-covered roads through the Finnish forest at the wheel of that same tractor. Yes, actually ripping. Always too fast, especially on the curves. I was nineteen. Not so very long before, things had happened that had upset my life completely, to say nothing of knocking the bottom out of it. I was hoping for something, there on my own, on that tractor in the woods. An accident, at the very least. An accident that would leave me gravely injured – cost me my life, in a pinch. It was a liberating feeling, a feeling I would never regain. There was no danger, or more rightly: the danger was there, but it was a friend – perhaps even the best friend I had, back in 1973.
By Herman Koch
Translated by Sam Garrett
From FINSE DAGEN (‘FINNISH DAYS’)
Published by Ambo Anthos (2020)
Herman Koch is an internationally bestselling author. His 2009 novel, The Dinner, was translated into forty-two languages and was followed by bestsellers such as Summer House with Swimming Pool, Dear Mr M. and The Ditch. His latest Dutch-language novel is Finse dagen (‘Finnish Days’), published in 2020.
Sam Garrett is a prolific translator of Dutch literature, the only translator to have twice won the British Society of Authors’ Vondel Prize for Dutch-English translation. In 2012, his translation of The Dinner by Herman Koch spent two months on the New York Times bestseller list and became the most popular Dutch novel ever translated into English.