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  KALTIO 6/2000: Kalle Päätalo and a Twice-Lived Life

In English

Kalle Päätalo and
a Twice-Lived Life

The last interview given by Kalle Päätalo in the fall of 2000

Kaltio 6/00

Finnish text: Jussi Vilkuna
English translation: Anniina Vuori
Image: Petri Nuutinen

The train arrived in Tampere four minutes past nine in the morning. Yawn. Usually I sleep well in the couchetee, but last night I stayed up reading and making notes.

I have arranged to meet with photographer Petri Nuutinen in front of the station, city side. Busy people stride past from every direction, enough to make a crowd. I don't know Nuutinen. Somehow in my mind, I had thought there'd only be us at the station.

I met Kalle Päätalo at the annual Päätalo days last July. He said he was in Taivalkoski for the last time. That was probably due to his bad condition, although he had been saing so already for years. Nevertheless, he answered yes when I asked for an interview.

A couple of weeks later, Kalle called. I tried to offer another person to do the interview. I hadn't read his books, and I was too ashamed to tell that to him. Kalle didn't like the thought. As our meeting grew closer in mid August, Kalle's wife Leena Päätalo called and told me Kalle was in a bad shape in the hospital. We would have to give up the interview altogether. I had already moved the date once because I had been busy.
- Looks like this is just how it is now.

At the end of August, Matti Kaarlejärvi said on the phone that Kalle was home again and in better shape. Päätalo was apparently pondering the faith of his spiritual heritage.

A man who looks like a photographer walks from the parking lot towards the station. He is wearing dark trousers, a dark polo shirt and a shabby, gray jacket. The hair is short and he has a stubble. We shake hands.

We cross the road and step into a cafe. The meeting is at ten, so we have half an hour. I pay the coffee and we sit down.

Nuutinen is not happy with the fare our poor culture magazine offers. But to get to photograph Kalle Päätalo, perhaps the last photos of him, that is something else.

We drive towards Kirvestie [Axe Road]. I have changed my clothes in the cafe toilet, khakis bought in New York ten years ago, a blue and white chequered shirt and a jacket. As we are turning into Kirvestie, I notice I forgot to bring anything. Darn, - it's already five to! We turn around to the nearest mall - and run to buy flowers.

Finally, we are at the steps of a house built by Kalle. I ring the bell.

Author Kalle Päätalo opens the door.

If he is annoyed about us being late, he does not show it. He is wearing a bluish gray suit and a dark tie. Yikes!

Leena comes to the front hall to shake hands in normal clothes. I hand over the packet of President coffee and flowers: roses and Finnish gerberas. We sit down on the sofa. I recall feeling festive and stiff. Kalle strikes up a conversation. Later on, I don't even remember what we talked about, for I was so nervous.

Leena seems cross. Why did you come to bother a sick man, she is obviously thinking. I get an idea; how about if we take the photos right away, the atmosphere might relax a bit too.

Nuutinen takes pictures from near and far, against an apple tree and the house, Päätalo in the garden and on the steps. Every now and then he puts the camera so close to Kalle it almost touches his nose. I would like to say that's enough already, but let the professional finish his job.

After three or four rolls, we walk inside.
- It's useless to take so many photos of Kalle's bony face, Leena says, now a bit friendlier.
- The missus is plump for both of us, Kalle says.

Kalle weighed 102 kilos at his most. Now, he weighs 65.

We drink coffee
, three cups, perhaps President. Leena has prepared sandwiches and there is cake as well. Päätalo says he knew president Kekkonen. They had been at log drivings at Oulu river at the same time as young men.  In addition to logs, Kekkonen had been eager to drive snakes and jump over fences.

Kalle tells stories from the war. After he got injured, he had met a Skolt named Pekka Gavrilov at an Oulu school which worked as a hospital. He was full of shell splinters. Once, a splinter pierced Gavrilov's skin and blood suddenly spurted several meters. And so the Skolt had been sent away, and Kalle hasn't heard from him since.

The coffee has been drunk, and I feel a bit more relaxed. I sit on the sofa. Kalle and the photographer sit on armchairs similar to the sofa, and Leena sits down on the rocking chair. Above Kalle's head is a portrait of him painted in his prime. It's been said that Kalle had such a strong upper body that he barely fit through doors.

Kalle leans forward... I awake from my thoughts.
- Let's face it, I'm waiting for that last journey! This is a huge thing, and other huge things are those of religion and whether my soul will panic. I can't, nor do I want to brag about it, but I'm surprisingly calm and wonder that I have been allowed to live this long with all these difficult illnesses, Kalle utters.

Leena rocks faster in her chair.

- I feel like I must be a burden. To be honest, when my mother and father were in bad shape, I must say it was a relief when I could see that they saw there was nothing more for them. That they wished for death themselves.

Leena starts to cough in the background.

- That's how I've been until now, that all I've known is to see if it's been selfishness that I've done in my life, achieving more than enough.

I glance at Nuutinen in a way that makes him start to collect his things and look for the front door.
- I think I'll leave at this point. Take care, there are still days to come.
- Hopefully. Thank you, Kalle replies.

Nuutinen says he will be in contact about the photos later on.

Kalle has written 45 books, over 26,000 pages. Fifty million punches on a type writer. Everything written, the whole long life from end to beginning is in dialogue and events in his memory.
- How amazingly much comes out of your memory once you get started. It (Iijoki series) took twenty-five years. The brain is as if it's full of little lockers, and a small event awakes another memory right away, Kalle wonders himself.

Päätalo is dubbed one of the last folk memoirists and storytellers. The radio came to Taivalkoski only in the 1930s and it wasn't used for listening to stories, only the news and Sunday mass. Kalle's literary talent grew as he listened to men tell stories.
-There were three benches in the big house. That's where the village men gathered on Sundays. The stories were always true, and depended on how good the storyteller was. Often it crossed my mind that I could have told that better.

The writers of the 21st century have too good an opportunity to write everything down. What-I-thought-today style of writing is more popular than ever. The task of memory as the communicator of the value of information, emotions, experiences and ranking has disappeared.

Kalle says he was an eager reader ever since he learned to read, but he had to hide his story books and notebooks from his father his whole childhood. When he was a young teenager, his father got sick, which has been stressed almost too much, but which happened at Kalle's most sensitive period of development.
- My father was mentally ill for four and a half years, crazy as they said back then. Our finances crashed, and we had to be taken care of by the municipality. That made me uneager to go visit anyone, and I became something of a hermit. Because people were so soulless, they started to inquire what bad I had done and if I was in a mental hospital in Oulu or in Pelso penitentiary.

When Kalle was in fourth class, the will to write took him over.
- I scribbled a lot by myself, I got a huge urge to talk with my own images. There was one road where I could, nicely put, express myself.

Kalle had started working as a lumberjack when he was 13, starved, slept on the cold floor of lumberjack cottages, and escaped in writing. Kalle didn't stay in Taivalkoski to be a lumberjack. Need brought along the will for social up-grade, literal talent gave the means, and humiliation gave him overwhelming guts to start his writing career.

The whole family life of the Päätalos was organised according to Kalle's writing. Kalle says he has written pretty much the whole time they have lived together, since 1955.
- It's not pretty much, but rather all the time, Leena points out.
- I've taken care of the whole household and finances, but when there are things we need to decide together, then I have to specifically ask if you are listening to me. Because he can claim next that nothing's been said to him.

I start to feel the weight of several cups of coffee. We have a short break. I walk from the living wing to the old side of the house, where I find a toilet right at the left. Kalle goes in the other one.


Over 3,5 million copies of Kalle's books have been sold, which is over 7,000 sold books for each month, if we even the sales. The absolute sales figures are notable even internationally, and in proportion to the Finnish population they are close to a world record.

Especially the older generations have needed Väinö Linna and Kalle Päätalo to portray the era and environment they have come from. Then both Laila Hietamies and Arto Paasilinna, to write who they were. And now Tervo and Tabermann to tell what kind of Bumtsibum people Finns have turned into in the population centres.

Will the younger generations find Päätalo?

The experience of modernity has gotten stronger again, as it did in the beginning of the 20th century in the area of the capital city, and in the remote countryside in the 1930s.

Professor of literature, Liisi Huhtala, defines the experience of modern as follows: "It has been described as a feeling of everything that used to be stable and unquestioned dissolving in the air. This feeling has two sides: it is, on one hand, an optimistic belief in the endless development of reason, knowledge and humanity, but on the other hand it's the pressure of change, doubt, and melancholic feeling of loss. In modernisation, you lose life's communality and identity's unity, which are replaced by constant movement and a promise of a new, free individual and world."

Kalle Päätalo, who describes the Finnish society's latest period of modernisation in his books, is a topical writer right now. In the current structural change in Finland, people move to centres of growth even more actively than to population centres in the 1960s and 1970s.

Päätalo has nurtured the feeling of loss that hundreds of thousands of Finns born during the war or right after it experience by offering them a return to life's minimum and to functioning village community in his books. The opportunity to recognise, in who they are, the trees falling into the horizon, paths that have been over-grown unused, and bridges that have fallen.

Now in the period of the new modern, Päätalo and his books function as an opportunity, even for a younger reader, to explore the long currents of their own being: the belief in their own opportunities and spiritual growth in difficult circumstances, the relationship with work and success, the choice between communality and individual values, and the values of humanity, equality, and righteousness with other people.

Once the children of the large generations start respecting their parents' heritage, a part of them will realise that Kalle Päätalo is rock even as a writer, not only as a rock band (as in the movie Pitkä kuuma kesä).


I flush the toilet, open the door and walk back. In a moment, Kalle returns too. As he walks past a table, he straightens a newspaper lying on it exactly according to the edges of the table.


Kalle Päätalo has lived his life twice, first for real, and then in his memories. After the war, he attempted to return to Taivalkoski after a few years in Tampere because he was so homesick. He started working as the building master of the municipality in 1951. However, he soon realised there was no return to the past. The friends of his childhood had gone south, and the community of caring, all that calmness and beautiful memories of the time before war had disappeared. Kalle returned to Tampere.

There is one way back to the past: the way of writing.

Päätalo's first book, Ihmisiä telineillä, tells about his first years in the building site in Tampere. In the Koillismaa series, made of 5 books, Päätalo returns further back and describes the lives of people before and after wars.

In the Iijoki series, Päätalo makes a new and even more thorough return to his youth. After 25 books and years of writing, the writer gets to year 1958 in Hyvästi Iijoki (1995) which was supposed to be the last book of the series. That is the year he turned 39 and published his first book. In the final book of the series, Pölhökanto Iijoen törmässä, the writer takes a leap from the sixties to the nineties.

Why didn't Päätalo start his 40-year-long writing career straight from the birth of his own children, describing their daily family life in Tampere?

He couldn't.

Leena says that often when Kalle came down from his study upstairs to eat or drink, he could start crying, was very grumpy or suddenly burst out laughing.

Kalle Päätalo, 81 (11th November), does not write anymore. He gave up writing in 1998, when he finished the last book of the Iijoki series. The three latest books (1999-2001) were written earlier.

I hesitate.

He got his first heart attack after the publication of his first book, after which there have been dozens of them. He got a heart pacemaker in 1979, his other lung was removed in 1994 and the cancer has gotten to his other lung too. His sight and hearing worsened a couple of years ago. He has been sick for the past 40 years.

But sickness couldn't stop him from writing. In the book Päätalo (1978) by Kalle Vehviläinen Kalle Päätalo tells that whenever he reaches an inner peace, he cannot write anymore.
- I'm living that period right now, Päätalo says. - I believe still that I'd have creative ability and my writing style would be ok, but now the time has come when I have emptied myself.

Kalle Päätalo has not visited downtown Tampere and its events much in the past decades. A couple of times a year Kalle has gotten drunk with one of his friends at home. And discussed until dawn.

Now Päätalo lies in bed in the evenings and stares at the ceiling. Satisfied with the knowledge that it for sure is a square, he thinks about his life.
- Whatever joy there was, I have never danced in my life.
- Well, we went to Norway a few times and Sweden back in the days. I even went to Leningrad once. But I've never wanted to go abroad. If I had wanted to really live, Live, I'm sure I would have written less.

Päätalo shows me his library as I wait for the taxi to pick me up. If I dared, I would ask him to show me his study. We have talked for a long time and I don't want to strain the tired writer by asking him to come upstairs with me.

We shake hands as the taxi arrives. Maybe this was the last meeting of the short time we've known each other. Maybe not. I close the front door and notice that I forgot to ask Päätalo to sign his book for me.

I sit in the taxi. The driver, about 30 years old, wants to know whose door that was. His father reads Päätalo, he himself hasn't.

Kalle Päätalo has been strict at himself. Writer Jaakko Syrjä has said that the Iijoki series is the confession that the writer, who comes from a lestadian area, did not do in that community. He could have afforded as nice a life as ever, but he couldn't do that. Self-confession and work has freed him. And a sense of honour to the reader has tied him.

Pirjo Leppänen, who played Kalle's mother in films, has told how you can see how many people want to get close to Kalle, perhaps even talk to him in the annual Päätalo days. For some people, it is enough to get to touch his jacket or shirt without him noticing. Or even a sleeve.