A SWEATY BOOK THAT SMELLS OF LIFE
With unapologetic abandon, Sonia O. Was Here by Anja Snellman tested and crossed the line of what was considered appropriate back in 1981. I had read the book previously and decided to read it again to see how it has stood the test of time.
When I first read the book, I was still young and living my wild years of adventure and experimentation. Some of my experiences came close to those of Sonia O., and I choose not to reminisce about them that much—all I can really do is shake my head in disbelief.
BACK THEN, I don’t remember paying much attention to Sonia’s family background, but this time it stood out to me. Most of the book takes place in Kallio, a traditional working-class district of Helsinki. Sonia’s family struggles to make ends meet. The family finances largely depend on her mother, who provides for the family by juggling two jobs, while her father mainly focuses on drinking and crawling back home from a neighborhood dive.
Sonia’s brother, Leo, has Down syndrome and lives in an institution. The family also includes her grandmother, Babushka, and grandfather, Dedushka, from who Sonia inherits a rich Russian storytelling tradition and comforting lullabies.
For Sonia’s parents, life is a struggle for daily survival, and their sphere of life is limited to covering the basics. They don’t have much care or attention for their daughter, and their detachment continues in her.
Sonia responds to this lack of caring by thinking about herself as two girls: Sofia is immaculate, while Sonia is bad and cannot do anything right. Sonia’s “weapon” is her body: she takes what she wants, but also feels obliged to keep giving until she has nothing left to give.
The novel is mostly about Sonia, who encounters and enjoys, more or less, a gallery of partners on her journey into adulthood: Mikael Barefoot (her “shortsighted archangel”), Catman, Leonid Pavlovich, Karri (“James Dean of the eighties”), Ilari the Potential Poet, Dr. Erik, Reijo the Sailor with his sturdy mustache, and many others. A “litany of men”—and a woman.
SONIA O. IS A SWEATY BOOK that smells of life: dirty underwear, vomit, bodily fluids. This novel trembles with passion, panting, and heat with a breathlessness that was not expected from a woman back in the 1980s—and may still remain unequalled in Finnish literature.
Sonia’s parents throw her out; she ends up in a mental institution for a year and half, and becomes pregnant. She looks at her situation with taboo-breaking honesty and decides to have an abortion.
Sonia O. doesn’t hold back, and her words haven’t lost their weight over the years. Back then, Sonia explored her body and let her body be explored, and Snellman entered the Finnish literary scene with a bang, their trademark red hair waving like a flag of revolution.
Sonia O. is loaded with meaning, shaped with both hands deep in the clay—it’s Södergran’s poem “Vierge moderne” come to life. It’s a loud book that refuses to be forgotten. Finding your identity and place in the world is an eternal theme, and it’s not any easier for young women today than it was for Sonia. Even though the rules and the differences between genders have become less rigid, women’s sexuality continues to be monitored and controlled more strictly.
Phallocentrism is the main genre, while vulvacentrism is still waiting to take off.
THIS NOVEL STRONGLY and accurately conveys the society of its time. It is as though Snellman has preserved in a glass jar the years preceding the writing of the book. When you open the jar, you can sense an entire era: the hot asphalt of the streets, the sterile scent of a mental institution, the urine in gateways, the heavy nights of Leningrad that almost swallow you alive.
Sonia O. Was Here has not lost any of its hunger for life over the years. The sweat has not dried, and the heart is beating as passionately and fervently as before. From the perspective of the present, Sonia’s story seems like a documentary of an era. Something absolutely essential would be missing from our literature without this book. Its language is inventive, and the book proudly takes its place in the literary canon, with refreshing abandon and lack of pretense.
By Omppu Martin, the book blogger at Reader, why did I marry him?
Photo: Danny G
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