A tree of life gleams gold, rubies ready to be plucked from its branches. Around the trunk swirls a snake, ready to strike. Not life, then, but knowledge of good and evil. Plucking the rubies out, stripping the branches, is not a good idea. If you try, it won’t end well.
And so it proves. The jewel belongs to a noblewoman in Renaissance Florence. It passes through many hands, ending up in Cold War Finland. Passio (Passion) is the story of the people that wear it, possess it, steal it, find it… but none of them can keep it. It keeps them.
I read Passion over the winter break, for which it was perfect. My eyes were tired after too much on-screen translating and editing. I wanted an ink-and-paper epic to sweep me away but I didn’t want to have to struggle too much to get into it. Like The Map, one object links people and places across a continent and centuries. But no individual story is too long. As soon as you get under someone’s skin and into their context, you’re whisked elsewhere. Only after multiple stories do you start to see the connections between them.
I quibbled over some linguistic and cultural details (why is it bat mistva, not mitsva? Would a Polish gentleman spell his name -ky?) but with a sweep this wide, one mightn’t expect in-depth knowledge of every period and setting. And the sweep moves east and north, which is lovely. For readers in or to the west of Europe, it’s a journey into the unknown. From my perspective, it feels like coming gradually home – with the harshness might take that home away.
It’s great to have the queers written back into history, especially the lesbians. I most enjoyed meeting Aunt Simeon in early twentieth-century Helsinki. Some people’s stories don’t reach a mainstream audience until long after they’ve happened. This novel will help those stories reach some of those readers. But is reading the best route to empathy? The brilliant Silvia Hosseini recently asked this. She took a stab at the privileged readers who have time to curl up with a fat novel, to and feel edified and emotionally satisfied by it. She had a point to make about who and what reading is for. I’d finished Passion when I read Hosseini’s comments, and they hit home, but I still relished it.
Pirkko Saisio is a literary heavyweight in Finland, but only emerging in English translation. For a taste of her voice in English, see Mia Spangenberg’s excerpt in Asymptote. And look out for Spangenberg’s translation of Saisio’s classic, The Red Book of Farewells. Will Passion be next? We will have to wait and see, because a good story has deep roots and wide branches. It takes time.
PS The jewel pictured belonged to my maternal grandmother, who was swept up in that grand narrative of the twentieth century. Where it came from before she owned it, I couldn’t say…