Birdbrainby Johanna Sinisalo
From the author of the critically acclaimed Troll, the new novel from Johanna Sinisalo is full of her trademark style, surreal invention, and savage humor
Set in Australasia, this is the story of a young Finnish couple who have embarked on the hiking trip of a lifetime, with Heart of Darkness as their only reading matter./i>/b>/i>
From the author of the critically acclaimed Troll, the new novel from Johanna Sinisalo is full of her trademark style, surreal invention, and savage humor
Set in Australasia, this is the story of a young Finnish couple who have embarked on the hiking trip of a lifetime, with Heart of Darkness as their only reading matter. Conrad’s dark odyssey turns out to be a prescient choice as their trip turns into a tortuous thriller, with belongings disappearing, and they soon find themselves at the mercy of untamed nature, seemingly directed by the local kakapoa highly intellegent parrot threatened with extinction. This is a skillful portrait of the unquenchable desire of Westerners for the pure and the primitive, revealing the dark side of the explorer’s desirethe insatiable need to control, to invade, and leave one’s mark on the landscape. But what happens when nature starts to fight back?
- Owen, Peter Limited
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- 5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.70(d)
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By Johanna Sinisalo, David Hackston
Peter Owen PublishersCopyright © 2008 Johanna Sinisalo
All rights reserved.
SOUTH COAST TRACK, TASMANIA
Cockle Creek to South Cape Rivulet
Monday, March 2007
Hanging around a modest distance from the Tassielink minibus terminus is a group of guys, their shorts boasting rips and tears, their T-shirts with stains, their armpits and backs with patches of sweat, their hiking boots with layers of dried mud. Jyrki gets out of the bus first, looks around, his brow furrowed, but as soon as he sees the row of trekkers his face brightens. He raises his hand in a gesture of calculated nonchalance, as if to say Hi, we're cut from the same cloth, and the group manages a few mumbled greetings.
They're standing in the shade at the edge of the dust track, a group of six young blokes, their bags a collection of bundles and straps, their beards scruffy and unkempt, as I step out into the sunshine and stretch my arms and legs. The drive from Hobart has taken over three hours. We're the only passengers to travel all the way to the end of the line. The driver lifts the tarpaulin covering the trailer and dumps our rucksacks on the dusty verge.
The midday sky is like a bright-blue dome. Cockle Creek is full of gentle, grassy slopes, tidy bushes, footbridges across narrow, sandy channels of sea, families enjoying a picnic. Toddlers squealing with excitement and fear of the cool water are splashing about in the wash with their brightly coloured floats. My eyes automatically start scanning around for a café, a restaurant, an icecream stand, a souvenir shop. The only sign of civilization is an outdoor toilet cubicle hidden in the thicket.
I can't help wondering what it must be like to be one of those grime-covered guys, the smell of sweat lingering in the air metres around them, to arrive here from South Coast Track only to discover that you've missed the only minibus of the day by a few minutes. From Cockle Creek it must be a good thirty kilometres to the nearest place offering any kind of facilities. You'll have to wait a day for the next bus, sometimes two days, enjoying the pleasures of the non-existent local infrastructure. There is no through-traffic here, so even hitch-hiking would be limited to the cars of the families out on a day trip.
Still, I know exactly what Jyrki would say in a situation like that. We'll walk, he'd say.
OK, now you can open your eyes. Three guesses where we are.
Beep! Wrong answer.
This was supposed to be the edge of the Southwest National Park. This was supposed to be almost in the Great Outback.
Correct answer: this is a nothing but a spruced-up, sanitized, middle-class playground.
Take that campsite over there, the one we just passed. Enormous caravans parked on the grassy parkland; giant awnings with multiple rooms and plastic windows hoisted up alongside them, tents bigger that your average downtown flat, crammed full of functional furniture fashioned in the best traditions of cheap plastic design. Wheezing outdoor barbeques, guzzling gas from cylinders, turning the air glassy and shimmering. On the camping table, the antennae of a travel television points up towards the sky like a victory sign.
These people leave their concrete suburban hell behind them, billowing litre upon litre of petrol into the atmosphere in the process, and for a brief moment set up a plastic hell here at the edge of the bush. All this so that they can tell their friends about how great it was roughing it for a couple of nights — standing there taking their GM-soya-fattened pork chops out of their polystyrene packaging and throwing them on the barbie to sizzle; fetching a six-pack of Fosters from the Winnebago fridge, chilled by keeping the car's engine idling all day. It's wild out there and oh so liberating. A real tale of survival.
If we put up our Hilleberg tent out here, it would look like a kennel on Millionaires' Row. Someone might accidentally step on it, crush it like an ant.
At Overland Track the scent of untouched nature was much more distinct. Although there was a large guide centre, a café and even a hotel at the start of the track, everything about the place said that you only needed to walk a hundred metres and the sense of being in the outback would whistle in your ears like a bone flute.
The driver, a friendly man with a freckled bald patch, is already lugging the returning hikers' rucksacks into the trailer at the back of the minibus. I exchange a few words with our fellow trekkers. The words 'mud' and 'Ironbound' come up again and again. The weather has apparently been all right. It's rained a bit, but there's been no flooding. At Cox Bight a wombat had spent all evening grazing right next to the campsite.
The guys' chilled-out, relaxed, indirect way of bragging is an unspoken indication that we're not quite in the same league. Picking up on their carefully suppressed blokish chest-beating makes the bottom of my stomach tingle, that same sense of expectation as when I was younger, going out on the pull after an evening shift. Without saying a word, the group's body language makes it clear that they'd served their time while we were just arriving at the barracks.
She's standing next to me, listening solemnly to our colleagues' stories. They've reached that ecstatic phase, raving on about the first things they want once they reach Hobart: a cold beer, a hot shower, a bed with crisp linen and fresh food seem to be at the top of everyone's list.
I tell them that in Finland the first thing men coming back from the front wanted was sex; only after that did they take their skis off. The lads give an uncertain chuckle.
I hoick my rucksack from the sand and up over my shoulder. You have to do this quickly, without any obvious effort, without catching your breath.
The driver says his compulsory farewells and wishes us luck. The doors of the minibus slam shut.
In a cloud of dust and exhaust fumes, our umbilical cord is severed.
I ask her if we're ready. She nods, almost imperceptibly.
At the start of the track there is a wooden shelter with three walls featuring laminated guides to the national park and a couple of information notices. Also, on a small shelf, there is a registration book with a pen on the end of a piece of string.
She flicks through the book and asks whether we ought to write our names down.
Standing there, holding that book, she's holding on to Cockle Creek with both hands, delaying our departure like a small child on her way to the dentist. When you leave something difficult alone, avoid it and procrastinate long enough, eventually it'll go away.
I hesitate, shifting my weight from one foot to the other, because I want the group of three energetic-looking guys that arrived shortly after us in a car to go first so they'll get enough of a head start on us. Then I might be spared the inevitable embarrassment of people trekking behind us first overtaking us, then hanging around taking photographs or stopping for a piss, then, before you know it, breathing down your neck again. Excuse me, but would the lady mind letting us past? It's obvious they'll be faster than us — faster than me, that is. We'll meet them in South Cape Bay later that evening anyway — and why shouldn't we meet them? It's already half past twelve, and I doubt even a herd of testosterone-fuelled bulls like them could make it any further by nightfall.
Jyrki comes and stands beside me, rests a heavy, purposeful arm on my shoulder and looks around. In the battered old ring-binder someone has taken a ruler and a biro and drawn columns where people fill in their names, the date and an estimate of how long they think they're going to be out on the trail.
Shattering the whiteness of the registration book and drawing a pen across the paper feels almost like taking an oath, a deed that would have repercussions far beyond the act of simply writing down my name.
But isn't it precisely those kind of deeds I've come here to take on?
Jyrki's fingers brush across the columns as casually as a tornado might whip through the American Midwest.
'Nobody knows at this stage how long they're going to be on the trail. They might have a fair idea, but the weather could play up, or you could sprain your ankle. Some people might even move faster than they'd planned,' he says.
'But if something happens ... they'll know to come and search for us.'
'Think about it. We write down the day we expect to arrive at Melaleuca. Then we don't turn up because the river's burst its banks, leaving us stranded on the other side for a day. Before you know it there'll be rescue helicopters chattering their way out here looking for people that are in no trouble whatsoever.'
'So there actually will be such things, right?'
Jyrki squeezes my shoulder.
'Of course. We'll be crossing rivers and creeks, even a stretch of the sea. There could be strong winds or a freak high tide. You've just got to stay put and stick it out.'
'I meant rescue helicopters.'
Jyrki gives a snort.
We'll be covering our backs, I say.
We'll be smothering our freedom, says Jyrki.
Neither of us says it out loud.
Jyrki leans down towards me; his lips gently touch mine.
'Time to go, babe.'
A word that has never once passed his lips before now. Not love, not sweetheart. Nothing.
I look at him and his smile, a smile that exudes a steely inner resolve, a great, burning enthusiasm, penetrating and deliberate.
At some point I started to know that Joseph Conrad book off by heart. It whispers to me.
I wondered whether the stillness on the face of the immensity looking at us two were meant as an appeal or as a menace. What were we who had strayed in here? Could we handle that dumb thing, or would it handle us? I felt how big, how confoundedly big, was that thing that couldn't talk, and perhaps was deaf as well. What was in there?
At first the track is the ultimate piece of cake, all duckboards and steps — we'd be lucky to encounter as much as a tree root once every kilometre. I know that the beginning of the trail gives us the wrong impression. The leg from Cockle Creek to the campsite at Lion Rock is clearly cut for people out on a Sunday-afternoon stroll. On the trail we pass plodding retired couples dressed in everyday clothes and shoes and families out on holiday. We even see a couple pushing their kids in a pram, which almost makes me want to cover my head with a paper bag for fear of ending up in a photograph with them.
I take a deep breath. I know this isn't the start of the concert; this isn't even the overture. This is just the murmur of the audience taking their places. That's not the reason we've come all this way. This is just a necessary step we have to take, a stage that has little to do with what's still in store for us. That's when the real show begins.
They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force — nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others.
— Joseph Conrad, Heart of DarknessCHAPTER 2
Levi, The Rabid Reindeer
Saturday, April 2006
The guests were beginning to get pretty wasted. By this point they wanted to see who could drink the others under the table, ordering rounds of vodka shots flavoured with Turkish pepper or Fisherman's Friends and challenging each other to knock them back in one. The atmosphere at the table was loud and raucous. They referred to the alcohol content of their various drinks in 'octane ratings', as though the other customers in the bar hadn't realized from the logos on their college sweaters that the group of revellers worked for an oil company.
The company was the biggest catch our PR firm had reeled in. They had been clients of ours for over two years, and the relationship of trust between us had finally been sealed in a scandal involving the accidental dumping of something unwanted into the Baltic Sea. On an impossibly tight schedule, our team came up with a press release that was such an effective combination of admitting making the mistake in the first place, expressing the necessary level of regret and resolving to improve company procedure — combined with just the right expression of hurt pride ('After all, our company is responsible for alleviating the bulk of the energy burden in Finland's challenging climatic circumstances and, in doing so, plays a vital role in upholding the very infrastructure that supports the wellbeing of our nation ...') — that what do you know? It's a surprise the company didn't receive a public apology for the damage the scandal had caused them.
As an assistant who had only recently joined the team, I didn't have all that much to do with the success story, but the donation of a substantial sum of money to Greenpeace and the 'accidental' leaking of the story to the press had been my idea. Apparently, the gesture's PR value had played a part in hushing up the fact, much touted by Greenpeace itself, that the company was buying oil from a supplier drilling in the Yosemite National Park.
According to a recently published study, the image of our oil sheikhs was more glowing than it had been for years — and even a bit greener. Because of our work, every citizen who drives a car or warms their house with an oil burner might feel that their conscience — and perhaps even the environment — was just a little bit cleaner. And it was the triumph of that tiny change in public perception that we had travelled north to celebrate. It was only because this, too, had been my idea (I'd just happened to be bringing coffee into the conference room when the team was talking about it and said something along the lines of Hey, never mind a stuffy champers party, we should take them skiing in Lapland for the weekend ...) that I'd ended up being one of the group of six that was to spend the weekend giving our tanker boys a not-so deserved pat on the back. Because I was the company new girl, and because I happened to be a woman, I traipsed backwards and forwards to and from the bar as soon as the glasses started to look half empty. Or maybe I'd drawn the short straw because, even though I thought I'd done pretty well in the job so far, everyone seemed a bit too certain that Daddy Dearest had swung me the job in the first place.
Working as a cocktail waitress and trying to stay relatively sober could have mightily pissed me off, but I didn't have a problem with my constant trips to the bar: the bloke behind the counter was a fairly decent specimen. He was tall, about 190 centimetres, slim with broad shoulders. His eyes were a light-grey colour, and there was a darker circle around his irises that gave his stare an almost paralysing intensity. No ring on his left hand, but he had a large golden earring dangling at the side of his shiny, shaved head. The most impressive thing about him was that he never seemed to make a single unnecessary or unconsidered movement.
I glanced back towards the rabble sitting at our table and tried my best to suppress a shudder. Erkki had given our merry troop very specific instructions to do anything and everything to make sure our guests had a good time. This was one gig that we couldn't afford to screw up, despite the fact that I'd noticed Riitta was already displaying obvious signs of tedium.
She was small and nicely proportioned. Black hair flowed evenly down past her shoulders. There was just enough blue in the colour that you could tell some of the tint had come from a bottle. A bit too much sirloin around the rump. A nice pair of apples bobbed on the upper shelf.
Her eyes bore the expression of the most pissed-off person in the world as she appeared at the bar and ordered eight shots of salt-liquorice vodka. She told me they had a tab open. I took the glasses out of the freezer, poured the shots and fished around for the right credit card in a glass on the shelf behind the counter.
I made a joke about how thirsty the young lady must be. She gave an exhausted, crooked smile. By now the racket at the table in the corner had increased as they broke into a round of rowdy drinking songs.
I said I'd bring the shots to the table. I didn't really have the time — the joint was packed, just like every weekend during the skiing-holiday season.
Excerpted from Birdbrain by Johanna Sinisalo, David Hackston. Copyright © 2008 Johanna Sinisalo. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
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Meet the Author
Johanna Sinisalo is a Finnish science fiction and fantasy writer who won the James Tiptree Jr. Award, as well as the most acclaimed Finnish literary prize, the Finlandia, for her novel Troll. She also edited The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy and she was nominated for a Nebula Award for her short story "Baby Doll."
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Tedious at best, no character development, not informative..a big fat goose egg