The late president Urho Kaleva Kekkonen – whose centenary has been celebrated recently – was internationally known for his role in world politics during the Cold War. Fewer people abroad have been aware of his role as a patron of literature and a father-figure of a whole generation of writers and artists.
Writing in Helsingin Sanomat (9 September 2000), the novelist Anja Snellman reminds readers of an interview in which Kekkonen said that he reads fiction to know what is really happening in the country.
For Kekkonen, books by writers like Väinö Linna, Kalle Päätalo, Henrik Tikkanen and Christer Kihlman were important tools in helping to understand the mood in the country. Through his novelist wife, Sylvi Kekkonen, the president got to know the young modernists of the 1950s, among them Marja-Liisa Vartio, Paavo Haavikko and Eeva Joenpelto.
The next generation, according to Snellman, approached Kekkonen with undisguised enthusiasm. The poet Pentti Saarikoski became such a frenzied admirer that some people started to mockingly talk about the Kekkonen-Saarikoski Line – a pun on the Paasikivi-Kekkonen line, the title of the official policy towards the Soviet Union.
In the 1960s, a large number of radical intellectuals started to see Kekkonen as their father-figure. According to Snellman, he increased his popularity by granting amnesty to the writer Hannu Salama who had been prosecuted for blasphemy. Even the pro-Soviet “Taistoists” jumped on the Kekkonen bandwagon in the 70s.
Snellman says that many writers approached Kekkonen who often gave them feedback, even advice.
“Often Kekkonen asked writers to produce socially significant books like “The Seven Brothers” [by Aleksis Kivi] and “Under the Northern Star” [Väinö Linna]. However, not even president’s ultimatum helped: literature could not put together something which time had broken up, Finland.”
Undoubtedly Kekkonen used writers’ admiration for his own purposes as well, Snellman says. But he did help to make known many writers by mentioning theh in his famous New Year’s speeches – writers from Paavo Haavikko to Jorma Etto became more widely known among the population.
Koivisto and James Bond
During Mauno Koivisto’s presidency a clear change took place, Snellman writes. Right at the beginning he made known that he had seen a James Bond film and the Cats musical. He invited popular entertainers to the Independence Day parties. According to Snellman, this reflected well the new spirit of the 80s with the narrowing of the gap between high- and low-brow cultures, postmodernists’ fascination with all sorts of games and growing commercialism.
Some writers like Veijo Meri and Antti Tuuri protested against the carneval atmosphere of the new era but they were shouted down and laughed at. At the same time, Finnish literature was labelled as boring and old-fashioned. Many writers now denied having been Kekkonen’s admirers.
Snellman says that with Kekkonen a great Finnish national project died. In it, writers had had an important role in answering questions about “where we came from, who we are and where are we going?”
“There was no more a common fate, there was no more a need to ponder upon a common direction. Selling had become more important than content. Fewer and fewer writers participated in social debates: It paid to avoid annoying anyone because one didn’t want to lose one’s market value, to risk sales worth of thousands. Instead of kowtowing to power one sucked up to the media and the public.”
And so it goes on. Snellman says that during Martti Ahtisaari’s and Tarja Halonen’s presidencies, writers come as poor second behind showbiz celebrities and sports heroes.
“Writers are no more part of the intelligentsia”, Snellman says and adds that they have been silenced. During Kekkonen’s era they sensed a certain kind of affinity with the president. Kekkonen’s art was the use of power, Snellman writes.
However, she sees no return to national literature in the old sense.
“We have to find the meaning of literature elsewhere, we have to learn to ask new questions in literature and accept the answers which literature can give in these times.”
“We don’t need a Great Narration any more than we need a new Kekkonen.”
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