June 2000

Responses to Liksom in different cultures

A young woman, after a one-night stand, ends up marrying a bloke who turns out to be a useless slob, miserable in his self-pity, and good for nothing at all. After rows and unsuccessful efforts to get rid of him, the woman stabs him to death, claims he has committed suicide and gets away with it.

The story is “We got hitched up the 14th of November…” by the Finnish writer Rosa Liksom. She writes using foul language, slang and a plethora of swear words. There is an air of brutal cynicism in the story. How would you react to it?

This question was put to groups of people in Finland, Estonia, Britain, France, Germany and Bulgaria. The responses revealed not only interesting differences in reactions to the story, but in attitudes to life and morals in general.

In the resulting book Reading Cultural Difference, edited by Urpo Kovala and Erkki Vainikkala, the cultural differences revealed in interviews with the readers of Liksom’s short story are put into national and historical contexts. The book ends with a transcription of a discussion at the Finnish Institute in 1996.

The underlying assumption for the research was that “there is a growing consciousness of different cultures and different ways of interpreting reality”.

The most common theme in the material gathered in Finland was the nature of modern life. This was described by the respondents in terms of contingency, superficiality, and indifference.

“Human relationships are short-lived, the way of life is characterised by transience, people are not in control of their lives, they are rootless, indifferent, cynical and emotionless.”

An overwhelming majority of the respondents were appalled by the harsh language. In the chapter on Finnish reactions, Raine Koskimaa and Kimmo Jokinen speculate that as the Finnish language and literature were central for the national awakening, attitudes to language used in fiction – and also to dialects and slang – are still quite conservative.

As to the gender aspect of Liksom’s story, the strong woman and the useless man are seen by readers in the light of recent debate about the tottering welfare state.

“Indeed, it has been stated that trying to bring down the welfare state is simultaneously negotiating about the gender pact.”

One respondent talked about superficiality of life today: “One’s own needs are central. Other people are not cared about. Strong sexuality is central. Women have become harder and harder. The so-called woman’s perspective has shifted from ‘human values’ into a competition for one’s own good. Life is hard. Another person’s opinions have no influence on one’s behaviour.”

British reactions

Liksom’s short story was singularly unpopular among a group of British readers in Sheffield. They were shocked at the extreme individualism and anomie, the lack of society and morality expressed in the story.

According to Rosalind Brunt, the comments of participants “demonstrated an underlying endorsement of a liberal humanist paradigm”. Speculatively, Brunt puts these attitudes in British political context.

“Whatever  the policies of the new [Labour] government, which many commentators describe as not that distinct from those of the Conservatives, it is clear that the success of ‘Blairism’ owes much to its insistence on politics as an ‘ethical’ mission. Its appeal to the British electorate draws heavily on the ‘residual’ elements of liberal humanism and social democracy that survived the dominant Thatcherite project and might now contribute to a re-emergent ‘structure of feeling’.”

International context

The material for the research was gathered around the middle of the 1990s. Thus the readers were obviously reacting not only to Liksom’s text but also reflecting on their own experiences in the turbulence of social and economic changes at the time.

In the discussions held at the Finnish Institute, Professor Stuart Hall, the eminent sociologist and pioneer of Cultural Studies, put the research findings in an international context. Picking up the idea of liberal humanist values, Hall talked about “the erosion of conventional values as a feature of postmodern society”. In the chaos of the modern world people might feel like returning to Victorian values.

“The truth is that globalisation is as much marked by defensive retreat to fundamentalism as it is by the sort of celebratory advance to late modernity. Everybody wants to get to late modernity, although many want to get there via some much more secure, stable cultural thing in the past!”

Urpo Kovala and Erkki Vainikkala (eds.), Reading Cultural Difference : The reception of a short story in six European countries. Publications of the Research Unit for Contemporary Culture, University of Jyväskylä, 2000.

Rosa Liksom’s short story is included in the collection One Night Stands, published by Serpent’s Tail in 1993, translated by Anselm Hollo. Reading Cultural Difference uses a different English translation.

See also: www.rosaliksom.com

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