Synopsis of the novella collection The Snow King and Other Stories by Antti Jaatinen
United by the common themes of money and architecture, Antti Jaatinen’s three novellas are characterised by dark humour and cutting irony. In the title story, The Snow King, architect Jaakko Vasara starts planning an insane building project for Finland’s richest man, Vasara’s megalomaniacal childhood friend Zacharias Lieska. Lieksa is obsessed with the idea of constructing an exact copy of Fonthill Abbey, a neogothic castle commissioned by Lord Beckford at the beginning of the nineteenth century, which was one of the grandest architectural projects of its time. The commission balloons to mighty proportions, and on top of everything else is to be built out of snow and ice in the mountains of a national park in Lapland.
Just like the building in the novella, the narrative style of The Snow King is a reconstructed one. It is an excellent imitation of the chronicle style and ominous atmosphere of nineteenth-century gothic romances. As the construction progresses, Lieska’s eccentric personality takes on ever more obsessive traits as he hammers his way through his project, even demanding the establishment of a new ice-building department at the School of Engineering. But despite all the odds, the snow palace is completed in ten years. The fabulous opening ceremonies are attended by the president along with the country’s political and economic elite. But will the fulfilment of his perfect dream make Zacharias Lieska happy?
The childless bachelor Lieska, accustomed to worshipping his own body, also experiences a kind of romantic or erotic attraction towards his friend and chief architect. Vasara states that these feelings are not returned, but the reader cannot be certain of this. At the end of the novella, the wealthy Zacharias Lieska is found dangling from the top of his ice tower, his hands frozen to the roof after a feat of ascetic athletics. Lieska’s snow palace, that display of power, money, architecture and ice-building, collapses along with its owner, in a roll of splendid but lonely thunder.
In contrast, the architect Vasara feels neither shame nor regret. He defends himself furiously to the end, which places his status as narrator in a rather untrustworthy light. Perhaps he is not as innocent as he would have us believe after all. Not once does he try to talk his friend out of his fanatical notions; on the contrary, he increases the scale of the project because his salary is to be commensurate with the total budget. Is it then Lieska or Vasara who is the suffering victim, Lieska or Vasara who is the seducer, tempting the other into hubris?
The second novella, Tuomas Korhonen’s Last Day, traces the bizarre series of events that occur during the last day in the life of building contractor Korhonen. The novella opens with Korhonen trapped in a nightmare in which Satan himself has come to carry him off. He has the dream after a drinking session with some new, rather shadowy business acquaintances. Throughout the day, macabre allusions to Hell, sin and the devil appear before Korhonen as if from nowhere; for example, he finds in his pocket an old airline ticket from Singapore to Helsinki: From: SIN, To: HEL.
Korhonen spends his last day on earth wandering around his old home town, where he bumps into people who were important to him in the past, school friends and a girlfriend from his youth, and finds his great aunt, whom he has left forgotten in an old people’s home. Korhonen discovers that he was a bully at school and a hard-hearted young man who took advantage of his loved ones and then abandoned them. The story draws a picture of a relentless, ambitious, greedy man, whose top priority has always been himself. Korhonen is shocked by this image of himself and wonders how it can possibly be accurate, since he has only been diligently following his own father’s wishes: the sacrifices he has made include his art studies and all aesthetic concerns in his building projects.
At the beginning of the day, inspired by his nightmare, Korhonen had caused some serious problems for his new business partners and creditors. For one thing, he threw their car keys in a lake. The novella accelerates towards its wild climax when a biker gang sent by his partners start chasing Korhonen just as he’s spending the day with his gentle great aunt. The elements of black humour and tragedy collide explosively. Korhonen flees through the centre of his hometown carrying the demented old woman, a powerful image of a businessman who, seeking after material pleasures, has misplaced the inner meaning of his life and now finds that very life is going off the rails.
Korhonen and his aunt fall from a bridge into a river during their flight, and Korhonen drowns – in accordance with the omens – but achieves redemption as he decomposes in the cycle of nature: “He felt the power of the great ocean’s salinity and the clarity of its waters, the startled humming of the plankton and krill, the pressure of the heavy tongue of the whale and the weighty movement of its tail as he journeyed into the deep blue.”
The last novella, Million, tells the miserly Eino’s life story, beginning even before the Finnish Civil War (1917-1918) and ending in a second political upheaval as Finland becomes a member of the EU in 1995. The simple, unschooled Eino, heir to a large farm, is born the youngest of the family and spends his childhood eternally in his brother Väinö’s shadow. After the destruction of his home in a fire and the subsequent deaths of his parents and brother, Eino sets out to fulfil his father’s dream of saving a million marks.
In the pursuit of his goal, Eino withdraws into himself, haggling over both the luxuries and the everyday enjoyments of life. After decades of saving and loneliness, Eino is about to reach his million marks, but when the currency changes in value his bank balance will never exceed six figures. When marks become euros, the balance announced by his bank statement shrinks to well below a million. For the elderly Eino, it’s a blow which he cannot survive. He has a stroke and perishes alone at home, his death going unnoticed by anyone.
Thematically and stylistically, The Snow King and Other Stories follows in the footsteps of Jaatinen’s first novel, Death Watch Beetle (2009), but the mode of expression and plot twists are even more inventive and polished. Like Death Watch Beetle, the novellas revolve around the built environment and the cultural, economic and aesthetic values of architecture. Both the novel and the new novellas deal intelligently, entertainingly and ultimately furiously with questions of conscience and the constraints of living a moral life.
A common thread in the novellas is the protagonists’ wealth, or desire for wealth, and the sufferings brought by money, such as loneliness. The Snow King and Tuomas Korhonen’s Last Day combine to form a modern-day Faust, with the first story relating the deal and the second the day of reckoning. Million, on the other hand, asks whether it is possible to leave choices unmade and life unlived. What happens when one becomes an onlooker in one’s own life?
Despite their light-hearted humour, the novellas are at their core dark tragedies in which the protagonists grapple with both their life choices and values and their gnawing consciences. The protagonists are united by their fixations on themselves – their own bodies, their work, their riches or their success.
Jaatinen examines his characters’ twisted and megalomanical self-images with a sharp eye, but also with warm irony and sympathy. The novellas’ protagonists suffer from an entirely human fear of death, and in their struggle for immortality they strive desperately – and ultimately unsuccessfully – to leave some legacy of themselves behind.
The novellas contain a great deal of Biblical symbolism, which manifests itself in shocking events. For example, in The Snow King Zacharias Lieska has to be thawed free from his icy cross, while at the same time his giant snow palace, his Tower of Babel, is melting. Korhonen’s deal with the devil, on the other hand, shows that Hell is here on earth, in the selfishness and greed of human beings. A reckoning is inevitable.
The Snow King and other Stories is a series of three novellas. All three grip the reader with an accelerating dramatic tension as the climax approaches. Jaatinen’s writing style is precise, colourful and passionately vivid. The inspiration derived from the author’s professional background is clear in his depictions of the details of buildings and architecture.
Jaatinen uses language skilfully both to reveal and to conceal. The protagonists of the novels are multifaceted and ambiguous, and the reader is privy to their inner thoughts due to the use of the first-person narration (or third-person limited). Jaatinen makes clever use of the dialogue between his characters, leading the reader through the untrustworthy narrator’s webs of self-deception. This is especially true in the title novella The Snow King, where the narrator Vasara defends himself doggedly, but the reader gets a very different picture of him through his dialogues with Lieska and other details. Nothing can stop Vasara, not even the horrifying demise of his childhood friend.
Jaatinen does not underestimate his audience; rather, the novellas are made captivating by their delicately constructed symbolism and multiple levels of meaning, and will stand the test of time and many readings.