Interview with Anita Konkka

Context N°19

by Ana Lucic

Anita Konkka, who currently lives and writes in Helsinki, is the author of eleven books that have made her one of Finland’s most important contemporary writers. CONTEXT 17 included her correspondence with French author Jacques Jouet, and this July, Dalkey Archive Press will publish her novel A Fool’s Paradise—her first book to be translated into English. Having an affair with a married man, forced to apply and interview for jobs she doesn’t want in order to keep her unemployment checks coming, the narrator’s untethered and unstable life becomes increasingly indistinguishable from a long, waking dream. A Fool’s Paradise is a cutting and intensely personal novel that will introduce a vital and insightful writer to American and British readers.

Ana Lucic: Could you tell us something of the origins of A Fool’s Paradise?

Anita Konkka: The name of the book came first—usually it’s just the opposite: the name comes last.

“Alexander” (the hero and “muse” of the story) had a book by Madame Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophical Society in New York, and I happened to see it in his bookcase. I can’t remember the title. I picked it up and it opened to a page where I read that somebody or other lived their life in a Fool’s Paradise. Like me or Alexander, I thought.

Shortly afterward I got a travel grant to Moscow. I stayed in a hotel called Peking and started the first draft of the story. I worked by hand, writing down all kinds of ideas and remarks that popped into my head. When I got home, I rewrote it on the computer. Next spring, a year after finishing the first draft, the manuscript was ready. Usually it takes three or four years to write a novel, with few exceptions.

By the way: A Fool’s Paradise was translated into Russian in 1990. It was supposed to be published in Baku, Azerbaidjan, but the freight wagon carrying the paper was hijacked, so the publisher had no paper to print my book on. The publication was delayed a year. This was typical at that time in Russia.

Last autumn (2005), A Fool’s Paradise was published in Moscow. It’s also been translated into French, but doesn’t have a publisher yet.

AL: The main character of A Fool’s Paradise is a single woman who is having an affair with a married man. She’s thirty-eight years old and unemployed. Which of these two topics, in your opinion, is a weightier one in the book: her pangs of unrequited love, or the burdens of unemployment?

AK: I think that the dreams—what’s happening in the protagonist’s mind—are more important than unemployment. It provides a background and contrast to the amour fou. At that time, unemployment wasn’t serious. It was a boom-time in Finland. The deep economic depression began two years later. But in the seventies, I was unemployed for a while. Ever since then, I’ve had the ambition to write a great social novel. But somehow, I never wrote it, and the material of my unwritten social novel merged into my novel about unrequited love.

AL: A Fool’s Paradise was first published in 1988. How was the book received at the time?

AK: It was an amazing success. It was short-listed for the Finlandia Prize, which is the biggest literary award in Finland (like the Booker in England). My book didn’t win, unfortunately, but it did receive the State Prize, which is a very prestigious award in Finnish literary circles. I’d already written four novels, but it was A Fool’s Paradise that made me well known.

AL: Who would you identify as your literary influences?

AK: I was fifteen years old when I read Crime and Punishment. Dostoyevsky made a great impression on me. I thought, Wow, I want to become a writer. I’d never read anything so impressive. After that, I gave up mysteries. I read many Russian classics, because my father translated them into Finnish (he was born near Saint Petersburg). In my teens I read a number of American writers, like John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, and Ernst Hemingway, but my favorite at the time was Carson McCullers, and a little bit later Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs, because they were all great dreamers. My favorites in French were Colette and André Gide. At university I took a course in French literature and fell in love with surrealist poetry. But the two writers who have had the greatest influence on me are Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett. Their novels opened up new means of expression for me. I found my own style through reading their books, and I’m very grateful for them.

AL: You were one of the representatives of Finland on the Literature Express Europe 2000 train, taking writers from forty-three countries on a tour through Europe, from Lisbon to Berlin. The trip lasted a month and half. Is there anything else you would like to add about this trip, apart from the dialogue with Jacques Jouet that we ran in CONTEXT?

AK: Ha! I’ll put my additions about this trip into my next novel.

AL: Do you take an interest in or do you have any particular affinities to the Oulipo, aside from your friendship with Jouet?

AK: I took an interest even before that I knew anything about the Oulipo group, reading books by Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, and Italo Calvino with great admiration. Maybe I do have some affinities to them, and most especially to Jacques Jouet.

AL: Is being published in the United States important to you as a writer in any way?

AK: For the sake of the cultural exchange and reciprocity, it’s important to European and Finnish literature to be published in the US. European readers know American writers quite well, they are translated here and their books are readily available, but I think that modern (in particular female) European writers are not so well known in your country. I’m particularly happy on behalf of Finnish literature, because it is indeed exceptionally rare for any to be published in America. The language gap is wider than the Atlantic. Personally, too, it’s a great pleasure that my book will be published alongside the best contemporary novels as represented by Dalkey Archive Press. It means a lot to me as a writer to be among so many other authors I appreciate so highly.

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Selected Works by Anita Konkka in Translation:

A Fool’s Paradise. Trans. A. D. Haun & Owen Witesman. Dalkey Archive Press, 2006. $12.95.

Selected Untranslated Works:

Irti Break Free. WSOY, 1970.
Tytar The Daughter. Tammi, 1983.
Samaa sukua The Same Family. Tammi, 1985.
Talvi Ravennassa Winter in Ravenna. Tammi, 1986.
Kolme muistikirjaa Three Notebooks. Tammi, 1990.
Halujen puutarha The Garden of Desires. Tammi, 1992.
Johanneksen tunnustukset The Confessions of Johannes. Tammi, 1995.
Rakkaus, kestava kiusaus Love, The Everlasting Temptation. Tammi, 1997.
Musta passi Black Passport. Tammi, 2001.

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