BLOG Christopher MeredithNWR Issue 98
Pictures, Tongues, Cities
After the seminar, I had a cup of tea with the Polish post-grad who’d given the paper.
The Café Libre in the university library is lightfilled, done in white with touches of bright yellow here and there. Signs around the library are bilingual, not in Finnish and Swedish as you might expect, as major roadsigns are, but with Finnish prominent and English discreetly but clearly underneath. The atrium of the library, to one side of which the café sits, gives an airy perspective up through the floors above, galleried with bookshelves and tables where students quietly toil. A mass of dark green rubber plants with their heartshaped scalloped leaves drapes the white parapets, breaking the geometry a little and warming the space.
Outside it was freezing. The snowy pavements had turned to ice and it was as grey as a November in Brynmawr.
We loosened our scarves and wiped our noses. She touched her glasses into place and told me more about the filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki, the subject of her thesis.
She’d learnt her Finnish in Warsaw and Poznan; now she was continuing her PhD here in Jyväskylä, through the medium of English. I’d been invited to the seminar by kindly, thoughtful Professor Tuomo Lahdelma of the Department of Art and Culture Studies. He’d joked with me that all his students spoke better English than he did. Ordinarily the paper would have been given in English and the discussion afterwards would have been in Finnish. This time the whole thing was in English for my benefit. It’s an extraordinary courtesy that those of us brought up with English as a first language are scarcely ever able to afford to others. A little earlier I’d talked to another student about her creative writing, a fascinating project for a novel. She was Finnish, the novel would be set largely in what’s now the Czech Republic with Czech and Finnish characters, and she was writing it in English. It all brought home to me in the gut what I already knew for a fact – English has become the lingua franca and is becoming a modern kind of Latin for academic discourse.
As I get older I spend more and more time plumbing the depths of my own ignorance. One bit of this is how little I know of languages, and now there was this filmmaker. In the seminar we’d watched a couple of clips of the work of this man of whom I knew nothing. It was clear he’s a major force and often very funny.
He was controversial. He stirred people up. An auteur with a talent for being provoking, steeped in cinema. His films were strong on tight focus on a few ensemble actors, very Finnish. Often his dialogue was in a very non-street kind of Finnish.
Like, say, Hoch Deutsch?
Yes, sort of. Not always, though.
The 1999 film Juha, silent, in black and white with stagy subtitles, was an outrageous exercise in simplified storytelling that juxtaposed rural and urban as much as it did light and dark. The parodic quality of the simplification and the use of a century’s worth of recognisable cinematic conventions undercut the whole thing with a sense of irony.
Both the irony, it seemed to me, and the submerged anxiety about the relationship between urban and rural were recognisably Finnish matters. And ones that are familiar in Wales. We could learn from this man.
Now of course, she said, he lived in Portugal.
By coincidence she was going to Portugal in a day or two to a conference, where she would speak in English.
Would she meet him?
No, she was interested in the work, not the man.
This, I reflected, was smart. It doesn’t do to meet your heroes.
So how was Jyväskylä after Warsaw, Poznan?
She sighed and pinched her hankie round her nose again. Some people here thought Poland was a backward country. In Jyväskylä they’d only had education like this a little while. They didn’t teach in Finnish till the nineteenth century. The university wasn’t that old. Not like Poland.
I thought of Cracow University, six hundred years old, of Copernicus, speaking German and Polish day to day, Latin with his masters and fellow students, then presumably Italian, as well as learning Greek when he crossed the Alps to the even older centres, Padua and the rest.
And she missed the bakers’ shops too. The energy. And in winter, the light. You must remember, she said, the ‘kylä’ in Jyväskylä means ‘village’. This was a small place.
Everything’s relative. Coming from Warsaw, population maybe two million, this place seems small. If you come from Brecon, population maybe 9,000….
Just over a year ago I was in Cairo briefly, dealing shakily with the bomb blast of that culture shock. Cairo was taking a short break from its revolution and still full of the electricity of new freedom. Mubarak’s compound was in darkness and under guard till his trial was done. The huge tenement of the National Democratic Party building was burned out, the winddragged smokemarks above its glassless windows giving it an appalled look. The crowds were still in Tahrir Square, just hanging out, one Cairene told me. But what struck me most was the fragility, the improbability of a city on this scale. The city’s daytime population is twenty million, and most of them seem to be in vast traffic jams on the enormous laneless roads. Sometimes bread sellers walk among the crawling, bumping cars, their circular loaves hooped like bangles on their arms, selling from window to window. It’s only on Saturday that the city’s quiet enough to see the elegant hieroglyphs of Egyptian magpies, come to pick over the rubbish. I remembered walking down a street on the lurching, uneven pavements of Zumalik and thinking there was thin, warm rain. Impossible in that dusty heat. When I looked up, the buildings on each side seemed to lean in, and, hanging crazily on rusting girders that looked just about to snap, were hundreds of antiquated air-con units. They spat their warm drizzle on me. You wonder how long this can go on, not just in Cairo, but anywhere, bringing food, power and water in on this scale and taking the waste out.
The ‘village’ outside in the darkening November cold was different, surely. Was the peatfired power station on the lakeshore, burning the ground from under us, really renewable as they claimed? A few hundred metres away the cobbled road outside gave way to tarmac and dual carriageways, where people drove not in a chaotic mass but in orderly lanes, but plenty of them, fast, with headlights on. Not all that long ago this village had eight or nine thousand people, the same size as the town where I live. Now there were 133,000. Living decently, it’s true, and well spread mostly in treed, parklike sub-suburbs among lakes, shopping parks and roads. Land is something they have plenty of in this country; Wales is more than eight times as densely populated. Maybe, in northern Europe, we’ll just be more efficient at helping cities grow to breaking point.
But it was strange to think of Poland as the warm south.
How was winter here?
You had to adjust. You had trouble with energy. You saw people jogging, getting on skis to go for a walk. You took vitamin D. There was that sound the cars made when it started to snow. The rumble on the roads. She thought it was the kind of grit they used.
I recognised the rumbling sound. I realised later it was the metal studs on the winter tyres. When cars slow down at junctions you can hear the rumble resolve into a decelerating tack-tack-tack. The rumble’s a kind of auditory pointillism. The studs cut tracks in the roads. The cobbled stretch just outside, if you looked closely, was scraped with shallow grooves as if, like the landscape, it had been glaciated.
That sound, and also the sound of the nylon overtrousers people wore in the cold. The sound of it rubbing as they walked.
I’d noticed that too. A whewing noise.
Yes, that. Those were the sounds of winter and the sounds of daylight shrinking. Then in summer everyone went crazy for two months.
I asked the question I’d asked many people. What should I not miss seeing while I’m here, this time of the year?
She thought briefly. She said something that showed she’d been here long enough to be as proudly self-deprecating as any Finn. Oh, forget it, stay in the sauna as much as you can and wait for spring.
A few days later, sitting in the same café on my own, writing postcards home, I overheard two students speaking English. One, a Finn, was wrapped in the sort of plaid shawl you’d find on a Welsh doll. She was making notes. The other did most of the talking. As I wrote addresses and selected Moomin stamps I heard Italian... German... regions... dialects... identities. She seemed keen for everyone to hear. Maybe she wanted everyone to pick out that it was fluent English.
Out of the rumble of half-heard talk I gradually got an impression that she spoke a small language and was giving a picture of this to the woman in the shawl. It was her turn of phrase that stood out most, though.
But, hey, let’s get this straight. Look, you got to understand that. Like, this is kinda tricky, right?
She didn’t have an American accent. Perhaps it was Romansch she was talking about. That seemed the mostly likely. She reeled off a list of areas where it was spoken – I didn’t quite catch them - talked about generations and numbers. Small numbers. Smaller than the number of people in this town. She spoke loudly, leaning forwards, choreographing the words with un-Finn-like expressive hand gestures.
You got to appreciate, it’s like, not that easy. Let me tell you, it’s - . Him? Yeah, he’s a nice guy, sort of, but sometimes, well, you know, he’s kind of a jerk. You get where I’m coming from?
Yes, where was she coming from?
I looked at the heartshaped leaves of the rubber plants climbing, abseiling and bifurcating from landing to landing of the library.
This was the modern Latin at work between two students. A sort of great, bland linguistic bus station that kept on growing, whose architecture didn’t matter so long as it more or less functioned, where ideas half met, where some of us attempted briefly to renegotiate a shifting journey through identities and sometimes ended up living, while far off outside, the chimneys smoked.
Christopher Meredith is the translator of the Welsh-language novel Melog
(Mihangel Morgan). His own latest novel is The Book of Idiots
, and his forthcoming poetry collection, Air Histories
, will be published by Seren this spring. His poem from that collection, ‘Twobeat Deathsong’ will appear in NWR 99 (spring 2013, published on 1 March).
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