Kreetta Onkeli (born in 1970 in Jyväskylä) is a Finnish writer who won several awards and has been a bit of a critical darling. This year she won the Finladia Junior Prize (one of the major literary prizes in Finland for young adult/children’s books) and also received the “Kalevi Jänti” award for her debut novel, “Iloinen Talo” (“A Happy House”). Her work has encompassed narrative satire, biographical novels, shorter essays as well as opinion journalism.
Onkeli’s debut novel, “Iloinen Talo” (1996), was based on her childhood memories and chronicles the life of two young girls living with an alcoholic mother and the occasional foster family. In Finnish the title plays on the ironic and inclines to the double entendre. The novel is anything but happy and the context of the word “happy” in its “double sense” alludes to prostitution (prostitutes are sometimes referred to as Ilotyttö, “Happygirl”). Ironic tittles are a favorite trope of Ms. Onkelis; her fifth work “Beige: Eroottinen Kesä Helsingisä”(2005), in English “Beige: An Erotic Summer in Helsinki”) does take place in Helsinki, but it is anything but erotic.
“Beige” focuses on the protagonist Vappu, an overweight girl who is painfully insecure. She is a complete outcast, being nearly completely friendless. Her homelife, mirroring her disconnection with humanity, is composed solely of a oblivious father with whom she has no real connection. Onkeli starts her novel describing the depth of this disconnection with Vappu declaring the sun “was not a friend. It laughed at my figure, my pale and clumsy body.” Musing about a previous and unseen scene in the narrative Vappu reflects on being unable to find a swimming suit and whether the reality was a purposeful forgetting to hide her shape from others. Attempting to get into the building she lives in, at the end of this dire contemplation, her landlady denies she recognizes her and refuses her admittance to the building claiming she doesn’t know anything “that fat”. Already on the first two pages Ms. Onkeli establishes two of the most important themes in “Beige”: Vappu’s immobilizing belief that her “undesirability” justifies her rejection by others and how others around her define and magnify this self-doubt through their commonplace cruelty.
Vappu lives in a small town, where she develops a habit of escaping into daydreaming mixed in with her awakening sexuality. Vappu deeply desires sexual intimacy, but, due to the compounding of her unfortunate circumstances and the mental state this creates, is unable to. She invents an imaginative boyfriend, which she then goes onto graphically describe having imaginative sex with. She tells people around her she has a boyfriend, even if no one believes her. As times goes on, Vappu turns 18, which means she is no longer a minor. Her father takes advantage of this fact and sends her off to live in Helsinki so he can have more time with his new girlfriend. Vappu’s father informs his daughter that in Helsinki she will find a guy quite easily. Using the details of language Onkeli lets the reader know that Vappu is aware of her father’s true motivations but Vappu cannot but help to embrace a hope of finding love and sex in Helsinki. Onkeli masterfully indicates each of her characters motivation while showing how the crux of the human relationships revolving around Vappu is far from the ideal and is founded on a grim combination of the malicious, deceit and hope . It works perfectly for setting up the main conflict in the book as well as getting the reader to sympathize with Vappu.
However nothing goes as Vappu hoped. She is ridiculed and mocked at work. When the few episodes of kindness are expressed to Vappu, her reaction is based on the rejections she has endured and she becomes too frozen to respond. Her time in Helsinki becomes a spiral into the paranoid about herself, and even the exposure of being outdoors becomes saturated with the feeling of shame for Vappu. A continual monologue is channeled through those around Vappu detailing how she resembles a man and how she should exercise to counter all of the faults which she has. Pushed by this continual stream of chatter about her defects Vappu begins to lose control of her situation and dwells more and more within her sexual daydreaming, which begins to take a violent turn.
The usage of people daydreaming to escape their reality is a common theme in fiction. Such as the short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber, where a bored man has regular daydreams and fantasies as a means of escapism. The man is timid in life, but fearless in his daydreams, much like Vappu who, though remaining a virgin throughout “Beige”, has constant sex with every man she meets in her daydreamed life. Other literary examples are the Finnish writer Joel Lehtonens “Rakastunut Rampa” (1922, “A Lame in Love”) where a poverty-stricken hunchback fantasizes about being a ladykiller while in real life he faces prejudice and hatred. This theme also appears in a Moomin novel, “Moominpappa at Sea” (1965) by Tove Jansson . In the novel Moominmamma, who can barely stand having to leave Moominvalley, paints a garden similar to the one in Moominvalley as a wall mural, which, motivated by her extreme homesickness, she finds she enter. Onkeli takes this classic theme and does an incredible twist to it. She uses it to describe female sexual frustration, a nearly unrecognized subject in literature. She also makes the subject modern by making the person who faces constant rejection from society an overweight person. An acerbated problem of the contemporary era as consumerist culture endeavors to create a model of the “attractive women” more and more out of reach to the normal human.
Kreetta Onkeli illustrates a world where Vappu is constantly being punished for being overweight. People shun her, laugh at her and ignore her. She is mistreated because she doesn’t fit a norm and standard others expect her to. Onkeli goes into detail regarding the shame that is placed on Vappu, how Vappu internalizes this monologue into herself (and how she only “sees” through this horrible model), and how this sends her into a horrible spiral of impossible resolutions. She slowly loses grips on reality. As time passes, her self-hatred overwhelms her, as it must in this skewed image of self, ending in tragedy.
That this novelette is not translated is unbelievable. It has a great main character while dealing with intense, current and timely issues. This narrative erupts to the surface of our real experience as it speaks of a society which ridicules people who don’t have the perfect body, a society which openly despises people outside of the norm. Vappu represents women who are not considered beautiful or desirable in the narrow perimeters which are aggressively set by a culture of consumption and image. Vappu’s narrative exposes a world where women are constantly judged on the altar of advertising media normativity for their body. Vappu is laid bare in the story as the excluded and ultimate other, as her father’s girlfriend states, “a different type of women”. Vappu becomes sexually frustrated since society does not allow her to be sexual, to be a desirable woman. She is not allowed to be a whole person, a person whose sexuality is equal to others.
“Beige” is a perfect depiction of how women are stripped of their sexual positions and possibilities and how this is founded on the obliteration of even the most meager right to exist as their own persons established on their own considerations of being.
“Beige: An Erotic Summer in Helsinki” is a real gem that should be much, much more known. It speaks of people who face a new and terrible form of alienation. It should be translated; it is a crime that it is only available in Finnish.