Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sonja O. Was Here (A Review)

Anja Snellman is a leading figure in contemporary Finnish literature, renown as “a skilful [sic] teller of urban stories, a bold breaker of taboos and a shaker up of the traditional form of the novel” who “has developed from the cult writer of her generation to a challenging chronicler of the moral state of fermentation of contemporary humanity.” Sonja O. Was Here, her bestselling debut novel translated by Timo Luhtanen (103 pages), was first published in the early eighties as Sonja O. kävi täällä.

My initial response to Sonja O. Was Here was that of a dizzying, fast-paced exploration of female sexuality and Cold War communism. Though she comes across as a hard-hitting protagonist who does ask for sympathy, Sonja’s endless series of loveless sexual encounters, juxtaposed against scenes of her difficult childhood, come across uncomfortably as a litany of exploitation and emotional abuse (she even wonders if she was raped after losing her virginity). Snellman is generally seen as a no-holds-barred feminist author (her novel Pelon maantiede caused a bit roversy for its graphic depiction of vengeful sexual violence committed by several women against one man) who wrote Sonja O. Was Here as a female version of the proverbial Intrepid Boy Becomes a Man yarn that sought to raise the question of why, in the words of Luhtanen, an “adventurous man continues to be a hero – [yet] an adventurous woman [is] still called unprintable names?”

Soooo . . . in other words . . . this meant to be the celebratory tale of an independent woman? Sonja is supposed embody some form of feminism? Um, what?

Basically, I’m confused. Would Snellman argue that my negative reaction to Sonja’s behavior is simply the result of social conditioning as to the “proper” female role and the internalization of the double standard? Judging from her background, Snellman is trying to make a case, and one that I’m just not getting. Again, all I see when I look at Sonja is an emotionally apathetic woman who is repeatedly taken advantage of until she ends up (literally) in a mental hospital. And all that, in a crux, is the problem with Sonja O. Was Here: its overall muddled message. (I think there’s a difference between confusion and deliberate, thought-provoking moral ambiguity.)

Now, I am not saying at all that Snellman is a poor writer from a strictly aesthetic point of view. Quite the opposite. Her prose itself is fabulous: energetic, evocative, and razor-edged. Indeed, the first several pages are positively riveting, setting the reader up for what should be a brashly unapologetic tale of independence and sexual adventure. Obviously, some would argue that that does precisely describe Sonja O. Was Here, but I disagree because Sonja never truly owns her sexuality. What Snellman tries to present as toughness struck me as simply psychological indifference. Ultimately, therefore, the reader is disappointed and the most radiant prose in the world can't make up for a sad, befuddled story.


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