Mika Waltari and Byzant

Congress in Alexandrea Bibliotheca 22.9.2004 / Panu Rajala

Mika Waltari, born in 1908 in Helsinki, is the best-known Finnish writer internationally, his works being translated to approximately 30 languages. Frans Emil Sillanpää got the Nobel Prize in 1939, he is the other writer some readers and critics still know at least in Europe, mainly in France and in the Northern countries. But there are not many, some perhaps know Tove Jansson and her Mumin-goblins and Väinö Linna, the writer of our national novel The Unknown Soldier, and of course Aleksis Kivi, the author of The Seven Brothers.

The career of young Mika Waltari already began in an international way. He wrote his first novel Suuri illusioni (The great illusion) in Paris in the summar of 1928 when he was only 19 years old. Before that he had published a religious story, a collection of mystery and horror stories, and poems in several journals. Soon he had also given up his studies in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Helsinki. The complicated relation to the religion and Christianity was to be the main stream, often latent, in his thinking and writing.

Like other young poets of his generation Waltari wanted to open windows to Europe in postwar Finland – after the World War I. His first novel captured the immediacy of the zest for life set free, and the sentiments of pleasurable tragedy in the 1920s. In the metropolis of the European intelligentsia his prose took on a modern, heated breath. Older contemporaries and stylistic models included Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Paul Morand and Michael Arlen.

With his first novels Waltari introduced urban romanticism into Finnish litterature, where the main stream had been the realistic depiction of the rural people. Waltari said farewell to the days of his youth in his travel book Yksinäisen miehen juna (A lonely man’s train) 1929. He travelled alone across Europe from Helsinki to Istanbul, and that was his first touch to the Islamic world, though very short and surfish. He could not guess, yet, how much Istanbul ment to him later and how important works he was going to write about this eastern mystic city.

At the beginning of the 1930s Waltari completed his M.A. degree in no time (1,5 years) at Helsinki University, his principal subjects were practical philosophy and aesthetics. In the economic depression year 1930 Waltari started his military service and the following year he got married. Now he was a real professional writer, very hard-working and very many-sided. His family got one daughter, and he wanted to show that he could support his family by honest work. He wrote novels, short stories, plays, film manuscrpits, radio features, fairy-tails, detective stories, even poems and articles to several magazines.

But all the time Waltari had two or three latent important plans: he had to write great books about the Egyptians, about the Islamic World contra Western World and about the essence of Christianity. All these he fullfilled.

Since the early ’30s Waltari had been doing preliminary work for a historical novel dealing with ancient Egypt. Already as a school boy he eagerly read articles about Tutankhamon tomb just been found, and soon he wrote a poem Pyramidiuni (Pyramid dream) and some horror stories happening inside a pyramide. Egypt was, as we know, a subject for universal enthusiasm and mode during the ’20s and later on. There were films, jewelleries, songs, clothes, musicals, every kind of shows bringing inspiration from the ancient Egypt. Young Mika Waltari in Helsinki, travelling to Berlin and Paris and Istanbul, was one who was hit by this infection. On his travels he had examined Egyptian art and objects in museums, especially in Louvre Paris. In 1937 he wrote a play Akhnaton auringosta syntynyt (Akhnaton, born of the Sun), which was presented in the Finnish National Theatre in Helsinki. There were already Pharaoh Ekhnaton and Nefritite and Horemheb, but not the physician Sinuhe, yet. So the material for a major Egyptian novel had been gathered by the late ’30s and Waltari could have started writing the novel if the war had not intervened. He has admitted, that Sinuhe then would not have been as good as it was five years later 1945, after the events of the World War II had sharpened and deepened his outlook.

Waltari was able to sit down for writing this long-projected work in the early spring 1945. The Manuscript of more than 900 pages was completed in a couple of months under the powerful sway of creative inspiration. The last echos of war were sounding from afar in the consciousness of the writer, but he did not pay any attention to these current happenings. He lived in the ancient Egypt, his only companies in his lonely villa deep in the countryside were the physician Sinuhe and other caharacters from the increasing story. They were so lively, that his dachshund didn’t dare to come up to his working room. As he was revising the manuscript he heard the news of the first atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima. Devastation and horrors of war, the fall of European civilization and the disillusionment of millions of people were rendered afresh in the events that had occured 3300 years ago. The fall of the new pacifistic ideology of Pharaoh Ekhnaton, the collapse of his empire in bloodshed and massacre, the marching forth and the conquests of Commander Horemheb’s troops vividly brought to mind the upheavals of modern times. That was the technique by Waltari later on too, to bring history near his own time: to give a picture of his own time through the history.

It is true that Waltari never in his life came to Egypt. Why was that? When he was young and not very rich, Egypt was far away. When he started to write, the war had changed many things and it was difficutl to get money or visa in Finland for travelleing abroad. However, he could travel to Paris, Rome, Istanbul and so on. Why not Egypt he was so keen on? I think the modern nowadays Egypt did not interest him enough. He knew the ancient Egypt was gone and he got plenty of material, pictures, art, litterature in Europe libraries and museums. He dide not want to mix his growing imagination with nowadays reality. Even after Sinuhe had been published and become a world wide best-seller (two years the top book in US best-seller list) and president Nasser invited him to come to visit Egypt, he politely refused. He did not go to America as well. I think he was a little afraid of official events, lively attention and the crowds of admiring readers. He was a shy man and not used to appear in front of an audience. Maybe he did not support the politics of president Nasser and was afraid to become abused in the political publicity. But the main reason was he had already lived so deeply in the ancient Egypt he did not want to see it in his own time.

Besides, he was already thinking of new books and histories. He made a second travel to Istanbul in 1947 and wrote a book about this journeyLähdin Istanbuliin (I left for Istanbul) in 1948. Now the Byzant arose for the main topic in his writing. The immense success of Sinuhe gave him more opportunities to make studies and concentrate to the new subjects.

After Sinuhe (The Egyptian) Mika Waltari continued to be occupied by historical subjects, and his creative power and inventiveness gained in intensity all the time. The lively and colourful picaresques Mikael Karvajalka (Publ. in 1948, Engl. translations The adventurer and Michael the Finn, 1950) and Mikael Hakim (Publ. in 1949, Engl. translations The sultan’s renegade and The wanderer, 1951) appeared in several translations, the former in 15, the latter in 13 languages. Commercial success and praise from the critics did not reach the level of Sinuhe, and Waltari did not write the sequel to the extended adventures of Hakim he had planned.

His hero Michael the Finn travels all around Europe, meets peculiar people and tragic events on the 16. century before he goes to Turkey and turns to the Islamic beleaf. He becomes a renegade from the western point of view. So Waltari had an opportunity to watch the foreign and strange culture from inside already during 40’s, just after the World War II. The mighty Eastern Power (Russia) was a big threat to Finland, and perhaps Waltari also wanted to show some positive (or at least strength giving) features of the Great Unknown to his readers: the good order, purity and even puritanism in the habits of the people living under Islam.

The unhistorical parallel between old Turkey and Soviet Russia is here notable. It was not possible for Waltari to picture straight Russia. He never went to Russia or the Soviet Union where he was persona non grata after writing so much official propaganda during the war time. Waltari was then occupied by the Official Information Bureau of Finland. Waltari wrote one book about the Baltic countries and their destiny under the Russian regime and another about the Soviet espionage in Finland. So he was an officially unknown writer in Soviet for decades; Sinuhe was finally translated to Russia on ’90s after the collapse of Soviet Union.

Waltari wanted to examine an eastern totalitarian system through the historical Turkey in the 16. Century, and he showed the naive western individual who wants to believe on such a system and even fight on its side. Micael the Finn, and Michael Hakim, is one of these ”useful idiots” the communists got to their side from Western Europe during the cold war and under Stalins’ regime. In his way Waltari examined how this happened, how it was possible and what the intellectual process really was. That is the ideological background of Michael Hakim, if we put it short and simple.

Johannes Angelos (Publ. in 1952, Engl. translation The dark angel, 1953) was another kind of novel, condensed and written in a renewed style in a diary form, dealing with the siege of Constantinople of 1453. Readers and critics again searched for points in common with the world events of their own time, and not in vain. The encounter of the Oriental and Occidental world powers suggested, in a startling way, the situation in Europe on the treshold of the Cold War. Some could even see in this valiant fight and desperate collapse the picture of the Winter War between Finland and Russia of 1939. The picture is bigger, there is the whole struggle between West and East through centuries. The time in the novel is very critical: the western latin church and the greek orthodox church have been united after a long and heavy quarrel about one single word in the confession(filioque) – there was the difficult question about the status of Gods Son – but now in 1453 the religious peace and status quo had been reached, west and east were together and gathered troops against the new threat: Turkey, the aggressive Islamic power which was prepared to conquer Constantinople and beat both the western and eastern churches. These were not in fact together: the head of the Greeks Lucas Notaras is prepared to go to Mohammeds side and Johannes has run away from the Turkish camp. There are many renegates and the picture is complicated. The philosophy of Nicolas Cusanus says that West and East are the same, they belong together. You sometimes feel like reading nowadays newspaper when you read Johannes Angelos today! So Waltaris prophesy is still alive 50 years after the novel came out. People in the novel have feeling that the whole world is now ending and they may live the last days of mankind; nevertheless, so have people thought many times after and so do we perhaps feel again in 2004. Waltari shows, at least, that the immense cruelities of mankind are not a new invention. The dark angel, which also contained a strong and melancholy love story between Johannes and Anna Notaras, some kind of an adult Romeo and Julia -adaptation, was translated into 18 languages.

Waltari again had a larger plan when he began this work. He wrote one whole novel about the Youth and wandering years of Johannes before he comes to Constantinople. But he was not satisfied with this novel, he wrote too much as many times before, but so he became acquainted with his hero, Johannes Angelos. He never published the first part, the manuscript was found and published about 10 years after his death. Waltar tried to continue this subject, the confrontation between west and east, and he gathered material for a novel concerning the knights of Malta, but this plan was never conpleted. It is told Waltari burned his manuscript twice. The self-critic grew too high. It is a parallel to Sibelius’ eighth symphony.

The last historical novels Waltari published returned to the religious problems and Christianity. His relation to Christianity has been the burning question on his life and it has appeared from time to time in his works. His father, who died when Mika was 8 years old, was a priest and a prison chaplain, and he himself had intended to follow his example when he first chose his line to study. The name of his first published storyJumalaa paossa (Fleeing from God) characterizes his later personal developement and much of his works, too. In his two last historical novels Valtakunnan salaisuus (publ. in 1959, Engl. translation The secret of the kingdom 1961) and Ihmiskunnan viholliset (publ. in 1964, Engl. translation The Roman 1966) Waltari shifted in time to the birth and early years of Christianity. Waltari is both a constant seeker and an agnostic or a mystic; neither do the views in his novels fall in with the conventional theology of any particular church. Waltari was near to the catholic church in his mind and visited often Rome, but still remained to his father’s lutheran church in Finland. These religious novels, which also caused some confusion, were translated into 10-11 languages.

Mika Waltari was a western thinker and intellectual, who was keenly interested in what happened in the eastern countries. What they were like, what people thought, how they lived. He lived in the middle on the great drama of the 20. Century, three wars striking heavily his home country Finland. All this he depicted through the history, through the ancient Egypt and the medieval Turkey as well. After all cruelities he had seen and lived through in the real life and by writing his outlook, his values were finally quite simple, he put them in three words: humanity, tolerance and the beautiful vanity.