The Block / Pölkky

Teos 2007. 384 Pages

By Mikko Rimminen.

Rimminen’s second novel Pölkky (“The Block”) is a story about a park attendant in Helsinki whose inaction is narrated with extreme stylistic precision. Even the most insignificant move by the main character is shared with the reader. However, unlike Volter Kilpi’s tour de force Alastalon salissa (800 pages about a 6 hour span), or even Ulysses, you’re certain to finish The Block, rather than reading the CliffsNotes and then pretending you actually read the book. Rimminen’s second novel is breathtakingly funny and its language is pure genius.

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Review in Helsingin Sanomat 28.9.2007 by Kuisma Korhonen (NOT translated by me)

Mikko Rimminen’s second novel is a thrilling tragicomedy about loneliness

Mikko Rimminen’s debut novel three years ago was greeted with joy: it was a return of long sentences to Finnish prose. The old-fashioned, florid and almost perversely detailed style reminded many readers of the classic Alastalon salissa by Volter Kilpi. The story of beer-drinking trio of friends in summery Helsinki got epochal dimensions.

Pölkky (The Block) is a natural and successful next step in Rimminen’s writing career. The Block continues in the same style as Rimminen’s first novel but manages to sufficiently differentiate itself. The sensual slowness of the narrative is still there but whereas the main theme in Pussikaljaromaani was friendship, The Block tells a story of loneliness.

Comical and tragic nuances are the common factors in the two books although The Block contains more tragedy. The books manage to treat the main characters – people in the margins of society – in a mercilessly satirical manner as well as with unreserved compassion.

The main character in The Block is indeed a block-like character who personifies loneliness; he is frozen with depression and fear of humans. He struggles through the book from one ordeal to another, not unlike the heroes in silent comedies. If the reader was that little bit further removed from the story and its events, he would feel like laughing at it; a little bit closer, and he couldn’t but cry.

At the beginning of the book a man steps out of a train and settles down in a shed by the side of the Kaisaniemi sports field in Helsinki. He is the new caretaker of the sports field.

During the following weeks he sits, lies down, takes naps, wakes up, ventures cautiously outside the hut, comes back in, opens a cold can of tuna – and that’s about it. When the temperature drops below zero he tries to freeze the ice-rink in the park but when faced with problems he himself freezes into immobility.

The protagonist doesn’t meet many people and the rare encounters that do occur are painful. There is Vänätyinen, an obnoxious drunkard, and Anni, a wonderful woman. The main character can only produce uneasy grunts while communicating with them. Not that the other characters speak that much either.

The reader is held in suspense page after page wondering whether the main character is able to walk across the field or to find something approaching a toilet in the shed or merely extend his hand to a greeting. This kind of totally unsociable character is a rare phenomenon in Finnish literature, and it is rare that the readers are made to feel such a strong compassion for him.

And somewhere deep underneath the ice-rink strange noises can be heard. They act like a reminder of the unknown forms of lives, tunnels and quakes that exist underneath the outwardly measly appearances of the characters. Some day they may even reach the surface.

The other main character in the book is the narrator, an outsider but not an omnipotent force. He (or indeed it) almost appears to be some sort of angel or spiritual being that floats in the air, sees and hears what is going around him but can only understand parts of it.

The narrator is able to follow the main character behind closed doors and to see his most private moments but he has not got an inkling of the character’s name or personal history.

The narrator refers to “this absurd task of telling and following that has given to us” as if some greater being had indeed ordered him to follow and love the main character. The narrator also receives hints on future events, premonitions.

But the narrator cannot follow his character outside the park after the beginning of the book: when the man goes to a shop and leaves the park, he just disappears to the narrator’s horror and returns after a while with a shopping bag in his hand.

Instead of the big picture, the narrator concentrates on the details and comparisons. The autumnal fog over town feels like ”a working man’s mitten picked up from a muddy puddle and pushed into one’s mouth”, the tree-branches seem like ”veins crossing inside a dark, jelly-like form of life”. The boyish verbal acrobatics familiar from Pussikaljaromaani can be found in this novel as well.

Like his main character, the narrator proves to be a tragicomic character himself, one with good heart and compassion but without the power to influence the future events. He openly feels sorry for the character; he is wishing for a happy ending but fearing for the worst.

While the character he describes has difficulties in getting up from his bed and opening his mouth, the narrator himself finds it hard to cope with his own story-telling task; to actually move from one event to another and get over the consistent babble, hair-splitting and his obsession with comparisons.

And so the novel advances while the reader is waiting for something to happen.

I hope I don’t give too much away when I say that a lot does happen finally, and in a very fast pace indeed.

But before that, the reader must get used to the slow ticking of time, the fear of people, the sprinkle of vapor on one’s breath, the freezing ice of loneliness and the narrator’s agonizing and thrilling journey in a jungle of words.