Friday, September 8, 2006

Don Juan in Helsinki: 24

But when she took the ferry to Estonia the next weekend, Maarit didn't take me with her.

Now, there is something you must know about me--I hate detective shows on television. Or detective novels. They are all nonsense; any policeman will tell you that. Most of the time when there is a murder, like those two gangsters we found dead in Gatchina, for instance, the police may have a good idea of who did it, but only once in every ten times or in some countries, almost never, is the right person ever caught. Or convicted. And even when they are, well, the victim is often so much like his killer that it's hard for the cops to care. The cops who haven't been paid to forget all about it anyway, that is. Yet all over the world, people right at this very instant are watching TV shows about detectives, some of them gay-blade Hollywood actors, some of them little old English ladies, who solve such crimes.

But why? What is the appeal? No one cares about the victims, they are just pieces of meat. I never even found out the names of the two dead Russians in the X-ray shop. Perhaps they were brothers. Perhaps they were named Boris and Arkady. Had they drifted into crime just to support their mother? Were they Zenit Leningrad football fans? Did they enjoy reading the novels of Bulgakov? Or going to the theatre to see 'White Guard' or 'The Ascent of Mt. Fuji'? What did they think of 'Solyaris'? You see? Who cares? You don't; they are just dead meat. The story is over for them, and they are already forgotten. No, no, mystery is about something else altogether. For women, I think it has more to do with the riddle of birth; for men, perhaps, that of death (and, after all, the two are really the same thing; one is a point of origin, the other a final destination, but both are the same dark hole). The police procedures are merely a ritual, the same that people used to hear every Sunday in church. After all, until a few hundred years ago, there were no police detectives at all--and the word 'mystery' was used only in religion, as in the Medieval 'mystery plays'. Their central mystery was that of the 'Saviour', Jesus Christ, and before that, divine figures like Orpheus. The 'Crime Scene Investigation' is like a Neolithic burial rite for the soul's final journey; the autopsy like the Christian Communion. That is why such television shows are now so popular--the modern, secular human still misses this in his life.

So, if this were a detective novel, here is what would happen. I would 'tail' Maarit to Tartu and discover the identities of the gangsters who had 'framed' her cousin Märkko for the 'hit'. I would be clubbed over the head breaking into Peko's villa looking for evidence, perhaps, I would be questioned by the police, get into a fist-fight, and there would be a shootout at the end. Or a car-chase. Or both. And, of course, I would get the girl. All these pictures, I admit it, were in my head at the time. Because I am just as stupid as everyone else. Of course, if I had tried to play detective, it would have been even stupider for me; today Tiu Silves is the most famous female gangster in the world. She is the biggest crimelord in Estonia and travels everywhere with twenty armed bodyguards, more even than George Bush has. I have learned the hard way that life is not a detective novel. It reveals its mysteries very slowly over time, and by the time you learn them, mostly they no longer matter--or you no longer care. And you never get the girl, or if you do, you never keep her for very long. Because, OK, OK, I will be totally honest with you; after Maarit and I had a big fight over my coming with her to Estonia--after she said no--I decided to follow her on the ferry anyway. Just to keep her in sight and make sure she was safe. The reason for this was that after seeing those two dead bodies, for the first time in my life, I was feeling a new and very strange emotion: I was worrying about somebody besides myself. I didn't like it very much, and later, after Maarit left me, I never did it again. Because, actually it is not any fun at all to feel this way. In fact, it hurts. That is why I stopped; I may enjoy many kinky sexual turn-ons, but masochism is not one of them. In this, I think I am a true Finn.

In addition, none of this will make very good sense to a modern person, this following another person on the ferry, for example. But this was in the age before the invention of the cell-phone or the Internet. It's hard to understand, I know, but another person could walk away from you on a city street or a ferry pier and you might never hear a word from them again for the rest of your life. Truly, we lived like savages in those days.

So there I was on the ferry from Länsisatama, Helsinki's western port terminal, wearing a grey trilby hat and a bone-white 'Imper' trench-coat I had borrowed from my father's closet for a bit of a disguise. I had considered taking one of his pipes as well, but decided that would have looked too ridiculous for someone my age. Even more ridiculous than I already looked, I should say. I stood at the rail in the sea-spray feeling like Orpheus following Eurydice into Hades, ignoring the stares of the other passengers, smoking, and staring down into the urine-dark sea. Naturally, it took Maarit less than 15 minutes to spot me standing there (just as she had on that first evening just six weeks before), and so naturally, we had another big fight, much to their amusement. At the end of it, however, she was giggling again at the sight of me. 'I don't think they'll even let you into Talinn looking like that,' she said. 'Certainly you don't have a visa to go anywhere else. I have to take to take the train to Tartu, in the south. What were you thinking?'

'I was worried about you,' I said miserably.

'There's no need, these people are my family. If you had any, you would understand. I'll be perfectly safe--this is just about business.' But it was she who didn't understand. I was in love--I couldn't bear to let her out of my sight. She was the foundation stone on which all my happiness rested. And it was a very flimsy one, indeed, so not very much happiness was fated in the future for poor Likkanen. On this occasion, however, she took pity on me, invited me into the ship's lounge, bought us both coffees, and told me a bit more about her business. Women fancy themselves much smarter than men, and it's no wonder, because we are so easy for them to manipulate when they are young. However, most women are actually quite stupid and ignorant of the real world. Not Maarit, though. She was born knowing everything. Perhaps I have given you the false impression that she was talkative. Nothing could be further from the truth; for a woman, she was actually very quiet. So when she spoke, I was always careful to listen. That is why I have faithfully recorded so many of her words. 'It's about metal,' she said.

The USSR, she explained to me, was not only rotting apart, it was tipping over onto its side, so that all the pieces were falling out, like loose change being shaken from trouser pockets. And a lot of it was falling into Estonia. At the beginning, most of the metal was discarded or rusting junk from factories, but nowadays it was obsolete machinery, old cars and lorries, sometimes even whole ships. Estonians smashed them up and resmelted them, then sold the metals back again or else smuggled them out. And increasingly, it wasn't just junk being sold--it was arms, tanks, sometimes airplanes. All the military bases were being plundered, nearby Kaliningrad most of all. 'My family doesn't have much to do with any of this part of the business,' Maarit told me. 'My Finnish family, I mean. Coffee for me, spirits and cigarettes for the others, never narcotics. But Communism makes it impossible not to cheat, because it is based on unsound economics. For example, take sugar.'

'Sugar?' I thought she meant in my coffee.

'Yes, because of politics, the Russians subsidize the Cuban sugar cane industry. But the main product of Byelorussia is beet sugar, so importing it is impossible; instead it is distilled by the Cubans into cheap rum, which anyone can buy up for a few rubles all over the Eastern Bloc. So my family brings that in from Russia by the truckload, then ships it to Sweden and West Germany, where it's resold at high prices.'

'But how can you do that?' I asked her. The bus had been searched thoroughly at the border post at Nuijamaa; several of the Finnish farmers had openly wept as their contraband vodka bottles were poured out onto the road in front of them.

'What is the main legal export of the Soviet Union to Finland, aside from ore?' said Maarit.

'Wood?'

'Jaap. The Russians hollow out the logs and stuff liquor bottles inside them, then glue the logs back together. Probably two per cent of all lumber shipments are false ones. No one notices so long as they get paid off. Or so long as nobody gets killed. My grandfather was very upset about Gatchina--that's why I'm here.' She was right about my papers. When we docked, I wasn't even allowed off the ship. I spent a lousy night sleeping on a deck chair, then was returned to Helsinki the next morning. Maarit had smiled nastily at me in farewell, then tied on her canary yellow scarf and swaggered down the gangplank, her secret roll of dollars no doubt snug inside her vagina. I forced myself not to look after her. If I do, I thought, it will be like it was with Eurydice: she will never come back to me. This was the last time in my life, I think, that I have ever allowed myself to be superstitious. I do not believe in religion--or in magic. Maarit cured me of that.

Because, of course, she did return from Tartarus. On Monday night she telephoned. 'I'm home,' she said. 'But I can't talk. I'll see you on Friday.' But when she did, things were not quite the same between us. And I didn't know why. This feeling went on for many months, then changed and became better again--but too late to save us, as you will see. And the mystery? Oh yes, Cousin Märkko was quite honest about the killings; he had shot them. He said that he had good reasons--but would only tell them to Tiu, who afterwards agreed that, yes, his reasons were perfectly sound indeed and reflected well on the family. But that's all either of them would say on the subject, even to Peko, and it would have to be enough. Eventually, I suppose, word got back to the Russian gangs from the 'chicken-farmers' that Märkko had done it, then perhaps to the Police Militia of the Leningrad Oblast. Maybe a warrant was even put out for Märkko, who can say? But I doubt it. This is how mysteries are solved in the real world. But if you want to believe in the little old English ladies, go ahead. Maybe for you they are like the Norns.

Ok, now I have left the Angleterre pub. Outside on Frederikinkatu, feeling a bit dizzy from being inside drinking all day, I make a strange discovery: a very scary weather condition has fallen over the city, like a spell from an evil sorcerer. It is as though I have walked through a door into Mordor. The sky has darkened to the colour of a bruise, and a thick, choking haze has descended over the streets. Overhead, the dark clouds boil and churn as if in a cauldron; the sun bleeds through them like the red eye of Sauron. And on the sidewalks, bathed in this eerie half-light, everyone looks like characters from the 'Lord of the Rings'. I have noticed this more and more lately, anyway, that strangers increasingly resemble to me cartoons or figures from action films or TV commercials. I had assumed that this was a feature of travel--or perhaps of age on my part. But now, suddenly I am not so sure. Maybe it's the way they dress. The other day, for example, in Hawaii, I passed a five-foot tall young Mexican body-builder dressed exactly like a Star Trek Klingon, complete with body armour, who clanked as he walked. The world has gone quite mad, IMHO--so it's no surprise that the weather has, as well.

Two Finnish guys are standing there staring at me like they know me. They are strong fellows badly run to fat, both are about my height and age and look like they've been sleeping rough, as so many Finnish drunks do in the summer months in parks and dumpsters and lean-tos beside lakes. They are dressed like biker gang members in torn jeans and vests bearing faded regalia with the word 'Bandidos' sewn on them. The 'leader', the more talkative one, has a merry, open face stitched with laugh lines like an old football boot, and resembles Frodo's companion, the hobbit Sam Gamgee. He is missing a few teeth and is unshaven; unlike my designer stubble, his just looks like white toothbrush bristles all over his face and scalp. The other, the silent one, who has a long grey beard and shoulder-length hair, reminds me of Gimli the dwarf, with dark, scowling brows and a big nose. 'What's going on with the sky?' I ask them on an impulse in Finnish. They glance at each other.

'Don't you know?' Sam Gamgee replies after a minute. 'It's the Russians.'

'They've blown themselves up at last?'

'No, no, it's their forest fires. The smoke blows over here, straight from their arse-holes. They can't afford to pay fire-fighters to put them out, so this has been going on all summer, on and off.'

'I've been out of the country,' I tell them.

'You know, I could swear I've seen you somewhere before,' says the silent one unexpectedly. 'Didn't we do our "intti" together? In '71 maybe?' There is something just a little bit shifty in the way his eyes focus slightly to the side of me. Well, he is an alcoholic, obviously. They are always shifty. What can one expect???

'I did mine in '72,' I say, and they nod. Their names, they tell me, are Esa-Pekka and Stig. I tell them to call me Lemo, and they nod again and look at each other in bafflement. What's going on with these guys? Then, Esa-Pekka, the friendly hobbity one, asks me if I want to go drinking with them. He's had a bit of luck and is buying, he says. This is most curious of all. Friendly Finns? Willing to pay for drinks? Perhaps they are on some new government-approved anti-depressant pill, LOL.

'I have a little drinking problem,' I tell them. 'My problem is that I plan to drink continuously for the next 18 hours or so, but it's important that i don't fall asleep at any point. So I will stick to little drinks with lots of coffee. Keep me awake, and I'll pay for everything.' After a moment's consideration, this strikes both of them as a very admirable and worthy plan, and they are willing to fully commit themselves to it. But there is a secret reason for my sudden generosity; behind a crowd of Orc-like teenagers, I have just spotted the blue beret of the Gollum again. Now I have a Fellowship to protect me from his mad Master.

Besides, I will confess this to you--I like them. They are the first people I have met in many years I have felt immediately comfortable with. They remind me of 'Hietanen' and 'Koskela' in Vaino Linna's classic Finnish novel, 'The Unknown Soldier'. They are like a pair of old slippers; they get along with me very companionably. You think they are stupid and boring simply because they are a couple of old Finnish drunks? How wrong you would be. I will prove this to you. But we will have to wait until we are inside the next bar.

Left to their own devices, Esa-Pekka and Stig would no doubt stop at an Alko and buy cheap viina by the bag. But that does not suit me. Of course, I would save a great deal of money this way, but that would be a false economy. It is important as a health precaution that I drink the purest-proof viina along with a good class of coffee, and perhaps even a bit of food as well in order that I do not pass out puking again. So we must only drink at the best bars. This is based on sound scientific principles, I explain to them as we walk north on Frederikinkatu, and I can see at once that they are struck by my genius. Well, I must be modest; I apply my natural gift for introspective thinking to drinking as well as bonking. In my opinion, it is only a fool who does not learn important lessons from his actions, after repeating them over and over again for forty years.

'Why don't you want to fall asleep?' Esa-Pekka asks me, rather humbly.

'So that I don't lose control of myself and become some kind of crazy cannibal,' I tell him, and they both have a good laugh. But silently, of course, Finnish-style. It's good to be with my own kind again.

We turn on Eerinkatu to the Corona bar, which is also a billiards hall, and go inside. Now I am right back where I started, near the Torni again. It is a much hipper place than the other bars, judging from the music; they are playing the Pinker Tones' 'Million Colour Revolution'. 'This place is full of juppis,' complains Esa-Pekka. 'Yuppies', that is in English.

'Well, just do your best to fit in,' I tell him. I notice that while he's ordering at the bar, he makes a call on his Nokia cell-phone. From this distance, I can't hear what he's saying. Then he sets to work to woo the bar-girl with a shy, gap-toothed smile that makes his battered old face look surprisingly boyish.

'Typical of him,' the silent Stig suddenly tells me. 'Esa-Pekka and I have been pals since we were in nursery school together. He can charm the birds off the trees. Mind you, he has a very dark side to him--I live with my elderly mother, you see; she's disabled and has a heart condition, but I won't let him sleep on the couch.' He lowers his voice to a whisper, his sad, tired bloodhound eyes shifting from side to side. 'He's a hard man to live with, sometimes. It's the scorn, you see--the scorn...'

Esa-Pekka arrives with our first round, and while we wait for a table, we discuss science-fiction novels. Apparently he is a terrific reader of these, though his tastes appear to be in no way highbrow; he is a fan of Robert Heinlein and Philip Jose Farmer's 'Riverworld' series, which I've never read. He hates 'cyber-punk'. 'I can't make any sense of William Gibson,' he says, as we thread our way through a maze of pool tables to our booth. 'But hey, I'm a moron--I can't even turn on a computer, not even to read webmail, or whatever you call it.' He used to be a union electrician, but no longer works, probably because of habitual drunkenness. 'I kept electrocuting myself. Know what the most voltage I ever survived was? Easily 500 volts. H. R. Giger, the artist who created "Alien", used to fry himself just for fun.'

'"Alien" was the definitive science-fiction film,' adds Stig, who is apparently a great film buff. Yes, this fellow drowning like a troll in a foam of grey hair, his great beer belly hanging out of his tattered biker vest, collects film criticism magazines. He used to be a roofer, he has told me, but no longer works because of a bad back. Neither of them knows me well enough yet to tell me anything but the same sort of lies they tell social workers. Esa-Pekka has just begun to heap scorn on Stig's assertion about 'Alien' when suddenly I come face to face with Dr. Pretorius, who is wedged into a dark booth in the corner from which the central table has somehow been removed. A full meal is spread across a row of white linen napkins on the bench beside him.

'I must speak to you at once!' he hisses at me in French. 'Alone, if you please!'

'Perkele,' I say in Stadi, rolling my eyes. 'Mind if I talk to this guy for a few minutes? He's a harmless nutcase.'

'Hyee, he's a remarkable fatty,' Esa-Pekka replies ( 'jokinorsu'), and they find a table nearby where they can keep an eye on us.

'You took your time getting here,' Pretorius says, waving me to the seat across from him. 'Your life is in very great danger, Herr Likkanen. Those two are planning to kill you.'

I sigh and look at the ceiling. To watch this man eat is too disgusting. 'Come on, those two aren't killers. They couldn't scare a hen into laying an egg.'

'I'm afraid I see your death very clearly, as long as you remain in their company. The Invisibles have told me this very specifically. Listen, I know what you think of me. You think I am a madman, a figure of fun. You don't believe a word I say to you. But consider this, just for a moment or two--what if I am right, and you are wrong? What if magic really, truly exists? What if it actually works? This afternoon, when you went inside the English pub, the rain had stopped and the sun had come out, yes? Yet, by the time you left it, the skies were dark and filled with smoke. I summoned this darkness as a shield for my occultation.'

'For what?' I say. 'Occultation' is too much for my French. Why were we speaking it anyway?

'To make myself hidden on the astral plane to the warlock who rules over Finland; before, he could see everywhere here. "Tuuslar" is our name for him in the Chantry. But you know him far better than we do, I think.' He leans forward. 'He is the demon who seduced your wife, Likki, or "Linda" as we call her.'

I find that I, who thought myself free from any embarrassment on this subject, have flushed bright red. But perhaps it is merely from anger, I decide with relief. Yes, I have definitely lost my temper. A tantrum is very much in order here. 'I've had enough of this,' I hear myself saying, as if from a very great distance. 'Goodbye, Pretorius.'

'Six million. I will pay you six million Euros if you drop everything and come back to Stockholm with me right now. Please. Herr Likkanen, I am begging you,' says the fat man, starting to sweat. His pink forehead is shining with it. He appears to mean every single insane word he is saying. 'I'll be perfectly honest with you--whether you live or die matters not so much to me, though of course, personally, I wish to see the line of Frederik Wilander continue to the ultimate greatness that is destined for it. According to the Invisibles, your own son will usher in a new age on Earth in 2012. But my principal wish is to preserve the book inside your safe deposit box. If you die, that will be lost to us forever.'

'"A new age on Earth"?' I ask him, so distracted by his words that i actually forget to be angry. 'You mean like...like the Age of Aquarius?'

'Well, actually, yes. The Sixth Sun prophesied by the Mayas, in fact. Do you know anything about the precession of the planets?' This I ignore.

'What's in this book, exactly?'

'I'm afraid it would be dangerous for me to tell you that. In fact, one of the stipulations I must insist on is that you hand it over to me without looking at it. It is the most dangerous document in existence. And I can tell you this much--when you die, it will more than likely end up in the hands of Tuuslar.'

'I'm sorry,' I tell him. 'This conversation, it is finished.'

Dr. Pretorius rises to his feet heavily, and extricates himself from the booth, his feet careful not to touch any of the cracks on the flooring. He takes his cape from a wooden coat-hook on the post beside him, and swings it around his shoulders like a conjurer about to perform a trick. I notice they are speckled with dandruff.

'Who is your next of kin, Herr Likkanen? Who stands to gain the most from your death? Think about it. I'll talk to you again later tonight.' And he turns to lumber off like a dancing hippo past the pool players and out into the occultated night. I stand staring at the remains of his meal; he has obviously been sitting here eating it for at least an hour; he has even had dessert. How did he know I was coming here in the first place? How does he know I even speak French? And what was all that he said about Likki--'or "Linda", as we call her'? Since when has my marital life been common knowledge in Sweden--and since when has Likki had her very own Swedish name? For the first time, I am beginning to have that feeling of the Japanese poet again, that vague feeling of trepidation. I shake my head angrily to try to clear it and then rejoin Esa-Pekka and Stig, who now seem to me now to be my best friends on this earth--and very, very sane, as well. Well, stands to reason, doesn't it? They are sensible Finns, not crazy Swedes. I feel a surge of affection toward them. I am dying anyway, so if these two stout lads decide to kill me, well, perhaps they are really just doing me a big favour. Doing the whole world a favour, in fact. Who better to row me across the dark waters of Tuonela into the underground Land of the Dead than a pair of my own Finnish brothers? Besides, I think, having a good swallow of viina, Dr. Pretorius was quite wrong about one thing: I have no next of kin. These Invisibles of his apparently don't know everything.

'French fellow, eh,' says Esa-Pekka, when I sit down beside him. 'My favourite French film is the "Fifth Element".'

'That's not really French, it just has a French director,' Stig says. 'I prefer that guy Godard, who made--what was it called--"Alphaville"? And "La Jetee". I've read they're part of some film movement called "Nuvoo Vaaku" or something. What's that mean in Finnish?"

'"Uusi Aika",' I reply. This is a joke--I have translated this as 'New Age'. OK, OK, it's hard to be funny in two languages. Or even one. IMHO, it is always a bad idea to learn a second language at all, really. Perhaps it is OK for women, they are natural actresses, but consider how you appear to others as a man when you are trying to speak a foreign tongue: French, let us say. You stand there with a stupid grin on your face like a baboon, bowing and pretending to understand what the other person is saying, looking like some moronic servile bell-boy waiting for a tip. It is no wonder that Parisians have nothing but contempt for the African and American students, for example, who behave in this fashion; by now the French have become used to such obsequiousness, which explains the madness of Chirac and de Villepin. Far better to act as the English, who expect everyone else to learn their language. This earns the respect of all. Of course, that is not possible for a Finn, so when we are abroad we are forced to act like mimes or clowns. It stands to reason, therefore, that we are mostly silent fellows. But not when we are drinking in bars.

'I can't believe you refuse to admit that "Twelve Monkeys" is a better remake!' Esa-Pekka is saying combatively to Stig. At first I think this is an act they are putting on for my benefit, but later I am to learn that, no, this is really how the two of them spend all their time together--arguing about anything they've ever seen on TV. Films, sports, game-shows, even commercials; it doesn't matter. It is a kind of Biblical interpretation, a bickering over arcane lore ever since day-care, I guess. They are like an old married couple. Yet they are true Finns, so they are not gay-blades. Sometimes they even seem ready to come to blows over some obscure point of this lore. 'Stig gets everything wrong anyway,' he is saying to me now. 'He's an even bigger moron than me. We didn't do our military service in '71, it was '72. So maybe we were all together at Porkkalan niemi for boot camp.'

'Maybe,' I said. But, strangely, I don't remember them at all. Of course, I was there with Bjorn. Like the true friend, he had taken off a year from his studies to volunteer for his service at the same time I was forced to have mine. In fact, all that summer he was determined to get us both into the proper physical shape for boot camp; making me wake up early to go running every morning and even give up cigarettes to improve our wind, though of course I cheated like mad whenever I was with Maarit. Naturally, I had dreaded their meeting at all after the disaster with my parents, and so kept them apart as long as I could, but when they did meet at last, he was had nothing but compliments to say about her after, though they argued constantly over politics.

'She's not like your other girls,' he told me. 'Especially that bitch Stina. Maarit's got a fine head on her shoulders. What's more, she really understands Capitalism.' From Bjorni, the devout neo-Marxist, this was the highest praise possible. Nonetheless, I felt a sting of jealousy hearing it. I had no proof of course, and she had never admitted to even kissing another guy on any of her weekends away, but I still couldn't really trust her, not even with Bjorni. Who obviously was 'smitten' by her. Well, luckily, I thought to myself, he would be stuck with me inside a military barracks for the next six weeks. He was even more worried than I at the prospect. Bjorni was convinced that we, being effeminate Helsinki Finland-Swedes, would be humiliated and beaten up by tough drill sergeants or a gang of Savo farm-boys, so he constantly practiced his boxing on me and every few days would produce some new trick for self-defense. 'Did you know you can splinter a man's nose with the heel of your palm--' (here he would demonstrate) '--and drive the jagged splinters into his brain?' Or, 'Did you know the best way to disable an opponent is to suddenly clap him over both ears at once--like this?'

I would not want you to think from this, however, that I was some sort of shy, sensitive, poetic weakling, like the heroes of so many modern novels. Not at all. Likkanen hates poetry. Likkanen despises sensitivity--except, of course, for his cosmical, almost supernatural, awareness of the many emotional and sexual moods of chicks. I often feel that I am rather like a human 'mood-ring' where women are concerned. But any other kind of sensitivity is strictly for the gay blades, though of course one cannot say that out loud these days, especially in New York. So I have found it wise to stay au courant with all the latest sensitive metrosexual language by occasionally reading womens' magazines; such jargon changes so often, you see, that it is hard to keep abreast. And, naturally, I often eavesdrop on conversations at Starbucks.

After all, I rarely have anything better to do these days.

Next time: In the Army.

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