31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 3: “My Creator, My Creation” by Tiina Raevaara (trans. by Hildi Hawkins and Soila Lehtonen)

May 3, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From Best European Fiction 2013

Best_European_Fiction_2013“For the past few years,” writes Aleksandar Hemon in his introduction to Best European Fiction 2013, “every single review of the anthology brought up the question: What is European fiction? I am happy to report I have no clue.” Hemon continues:

True, there are intellectual domains or formal approaches European writers are conspicuously comfortable with, particularly when compared to their American colleagues: fragmentariness; dialogue with other writers across cultures and history; experimental cheekiness and love of absurdity; disinclination to entertain by deploying TV-friendly banalities masked as social commentary; presumption of the reader’s intelligence; willingness to reach for the far ranges of both humor and seriousness; a firm conviction in the transformative powers of literature. … Perhaps one constant and unchanging aspect of European literature is precisely its slipperiness – it cannot be collared, reduced to a marketable formula, or posited as the absolute opposite to American literature.

Hemon’s description can certainly be applied to Tiina Raevaara’s curious story, “My Creator, My Creation,” about an inventor’s relationship with his humanoid automaton, told in the first-person from the perspective of the automaton.

To a North American audience, the most famous Finnish writer is surely Tove Jansson, author of the Moomin books for children and the adult novels The Summer Book, The Dangerous Journey, and An Unwanted Guest. Much younger than Jansson, Tiina Raevaara (born 1979) “stands apart from the largely realistic mainstream of contemporary Finnish literature,” according to a short biography in the back of Best European Fiction 2013. Employing tropes and tactics from dystopian science fiction and surrealism, her 2010 story collection, En tunne sinua vierelläni (I Don’t Feel You Beside Me), which includes “My Creator, My Creation,” won Finland’s prestigious Runeberg prize.

In the journal Books from Finland, Mervi Kantokorpi posits that “the hidden fears and traumas of the human mind, and the dregs that only come to the surface in dreams, are the area that Raevaara’s short stories examine.” In the specific case of “My Creator, My Creation,” a story Kantokorpi calls “strongly gendered,” Raevaara’s concern is the power dynamics and potential for individuation in male/female relationships. “Its narrator is an artifical female intelligence,” Kantokorpi writes, “who is always switched off at night, a kind of gynoid whose self resides within a hard case. The man is her creator and her owner, and men rule the technical world which the literate machine dazzles with her achievements. But for the man she is merely a saleable, unfeeling object, devoid of any tangible selfhood.”

Indeed, the story opens with an act of penetration that is described in frankly sexual language: “Sticks his finger into me and adjusts something, tok-tok, fiddles some tiny part inside me and gets me moving better – last evening apparently I had been shaking.” The sexual imagery immediately confirms the unequal power structure of the relationship: the male is the creator, and the prime mover; his creation submits completely and unquestioningly to his ministrations. If there were any doubt about Raevaara’s intention, it is erased in a subsequent scene in which the man and his creation attend an exhibition. The creation walks behind him and does not raise its eyes (or, its “sensors”) or execute any action without first being granted permission. When a group of male inventors gather at the creator’s home to display their newest inventions, the creation’s purpose is stated unequivocally: “I walk into the middle of the room and look pretty damn good.”

It should be noted that nowhere in the story does Raevaara categorically stipulate that the man’s creation is female; this implication becomes fairly obvious through the language and situation. The fact that the author need not make it explicit is perhaps one of the most damning aspects of her fable.

The sexual imagery is extended later in the story, in a scene that also underlines the essential docility required of the creation: “After that he keeps me on later in the evenings, strokes me more slowly than before, maybe he wants to smooth my lumps and bumps, remove the dark oxides from my case, maybe he wants to make me gleam. When it is already far into the night – I have never been on so late in the night – he sighs, touches my innards, and switches me off.”

Importantly, this is also one of the first scenes in which the man’s creation begins to display an agency of its own: “Everything I think feels to me as if my shoulder joint is loosening. I do not report the fault. Sometimes I find such astonishing little actions within myself.” Earlier in the story, the creation mentions in passing its attempt to refer to the man by name or title, a transgression that resulted in a slap hard enough to dent the creation’s outer shell. “Let’s not get too close,” the man admonishes. He teaches his creation to read, not for the creation’s own edification or education, but because he thinks the skill will increase its monetary value. The passages the creation reads, excerpts from Dante’s Paradiso, provide yet another layer of irony to Raevaara’s tale.

There are aspects of Isaac Asimov’s fiction at work here, but Raevaara’s most important literary influence is the work of a female writer. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein examines notions of generativity and humanity in much the same terms as Raevaara does. “Creation,” the man says, echoing Shelley, ” … makes a person into something sublime. Almost a god. If one can create, one can no longer be an ordinary person.” In its ultimate act of rebellion and individuation, the creation draws a picture, which elicits uproarious laughter from the man. Whereas the latter sees only scribbled lines, when the creation turns its “visual sensors” on its artwork, it sees “galloping dog-snakes, mouse-people, trees blossoming gaily, cloud-light birds flying in the sky.” If the man is correct in his assessment, this creative act renders his creation into “something sublime.” His laughter denigrates the creation’s achievement – in part because he is unable to see in it the same things the creation sees – but it also masks an unease at the prospect that the creation’s ability places the two on a level plane, the one no longer subservient to the other.

The final gesture in the story – the creation reaching out its arm – is ambiguous: does it reach out in friendship, or violence? In a compliment to her readers, Raevaara leaves this question provocatively open.