Oneiron by Laura Lindstedt (tr. Owen Witesman)

 Oneworld Publications, April 2018, 368 pp

Oneworld Publications, April 2018, 368 pp

“Imagine you are partially blind. Minus eleven diopters. Imagine a dark exam room at an optometrist’s office. You’re sitting in a comfortable leather chair, afraid you’ll lose your sight entirely.” Laura Lindstedt does not steer away from authorial control at the onset of the novel, and righteously so. Her mission, in addressing the reader, is to paint an image of an undefined, white space, Oneiron’s main location inhabited by seven women. Soon it becomes clear that the women, unknown to each other, have all died, and are now learning to live in the new, abstract environment, while trying to remember their final seconds alive. It is a heterogeneous cast of women who all have different experiences of suffering, and their backstories are gradually revealed over the course of the novel.

Events occur in seemingly arbitrary order in the white space, and the sense of urgency is enhanced by the narrator’s use of the present tense. “The women barely have time to get comfortable and each stray into her own thoughts when with no warning a story begins,” and so one of the women, Polina, begins to tell about her life. “No one is prepared, and no one expected it.” There are strong feminist leanings, yet it seems that Lindstedt’s main interest lies in the philosophical exploration of death. Personally, I read the whiteness as a space of emancipation: here, without restraints and norms, the women are able to express themselves, though, ironically, only after they have died. If we agree with the Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre, who argued that space is a social product and not an empty container, the seven women in Oneiron defy that socially-controlled space (which is characterized by patriarchy and other power-related conventions), escaping into an emptiness where they slowly, over the course of the novel, begin to form a space of their own.

The women of the novel have differing ideas as to what the space stands for, shaped by their experiences of life. Maimuna hears about the Batammariba people who live in the Beni and Togo area, and their architecture of takienta: “The houses are three stories and built according to the architecture of the human mind. Every house has a bottom floor, the dark, animal subconscious, a middle floor for the ego, and round granary attics protected by hats made of straw for the superego.” Takienta does not necessarily explain the white state, yet it is clear that stories of superhuman space pervade the novel. The Tibetan Book of the Dead populates one section, where Pyotr and Serjoza, minor characters only part of an embedded narrative, hold a ritual for the approaching death and read from the book:

O child of noble family, Pyotr, the time has come for you to choose a path. After your breath stops, the basic luminosity of the first bardo, which your guru has already shown you, will appear to you. This is the dharmata, empty and open like space, a luminous void, pure, naked mind with neither center nor circumference.

Elsewhere, Polina is fascinated by the theories of Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th-century Swedish philosopher and mystic, who “divided the afterlife into three parts, heaven, hell, and some sort of intermediate space, the spirit world, a place where the dead go first.” The women are looking for explanation, and this uncertainty is a driving mystery of the novel. As expected, no ultimate answer is given and, by the second half of the novel, there is less time for philosophical musing as the plot accelerates to its satisfying denouement.

While strong in ideas, Oneiron halters in shaping characters evenly. To a large extent, this is a novel about Shlomith, a Hasidic Jewish woman, who has turned her anorexia into a controversial form of performance art that has brought her worldly fame. In the middle of Oneiron, Shlomith’s lecture performance on “Judaism and Anorexia” is presented in its full length, including footnotes with academic references. Such exposure to one character leaves the others relatively undeveloped. In addition, there is the dangerous presence of cultural appropriation in Shlomith, as well as in the whole international cast of characters, which is something that critics have pointed out in Finland. (Finnish readers might want to read Koko Hubara’s incisive criticism of the novel that she titles Othe(i)ron).

Despite these problems, Oneiron is a fine achievement, and a comparatively international novel for Finnish standards. The abstract location enables moving away from the common topos of Finnish novels, such as alcoholism (although even Oneiron does not manage to steer away from the ever-present booze completely), and Lindstedt is clearly rooted in a more Anglo-American and postmodern writing tradition. At one point in the white space, the women build a home out of their clothes, and each item of cloth they strip off is measured by length and reported on the page with Pynchonian precision. It might seem tacky, but in this case such reportage feels fresh, because, unlike Pynchon and his warfare, Lindstedt counts cardigans, maternity blouses, and bras, in a way reclaiming a mode of writing generally reserved for men. Everything suggests (and the acknowledgments in the back of the book support) that a lot of research has gone into the making of Oneiron. While not unproblematic, it is an important addition to the Finnish canon, and an English translation fits this internationally flavored novel perfectly.