Published in 5/2021 - Extensions


Idea and Facade

Ulla Engman

The biofiction novel written by Jari Järvelä is based on Aino Marsio-Aalto’s life.

Jari Järvelä: Aino A., Tammi 2021. 395 p.

The novel written by Jari Järvelä begins with a pointed voice from the grave. The less famous wife – also an architect herself – of the famous architect finally has her say, and the setting of the book is spelled out for the reader: it is biofiction, i.e. a novel based on a real-life person, Aino Marsio-Aalto. Hence, it is not true. 

Of course, Aino A. deals with taking the genius myth apart.In Polusteekki, the former main building of Helsinki University of Technology, male professors explain to female students that if they continue in the field, their share will be restricted to carrying out assistant design work. In the working life, Aino notes that PR appears to be a precondition for professional development. The daughter of a train conductor has no access to gentlemen’s clubs, but, luckily, she meets Alvar, who studies on a lower course. They agree that Alvar is a facade who markets the ideas to clients and Aino quietly serves the ideas to him. 

The life of the main character of the novel is largely determined by her relationship with Alvar as his wife and colleague. Over the course of years, their relationship is intertwined with various kinds of conflicting ideas of equality and esteem. Järvelä describes Aino as a person who knows what she is going to get when marrying Alvar. She gets a charmingly energetic but childish husband and a background role at the office, as well as an opportunity to practise her profession ambitiously. As an architect, Aino is described as a profound thinker who is, above all, motivated by the human dimension of architecture, and as a professional who brings ideas to completion in a determined manner. In the novel, Alvar is seen as a titmouse skipping from one impulse to another. While Alvar becomes inspired by another new architectural style – in the same way as “a child who finds his willy for the first time”, as Järvelä makes architect Wivi Lönn talk in the novel – Aino creates, on the quiet, Paimio Sanatorium, a three-leg stool, and a large number of other iconic designs. 

However, the burdensome banality of daily life surprises the main character. Because Aino is able to pay the invoices on time, manage the office and transform wrinkled sketches into buildings, she finds herself in a situation where she spends her time paying bills, managing the company and working on sketches. This is particularly so as at home, Aino quickly becomes “Mummy” not only for their children but also for Alvar and she only has time for her creative work in the small hours. Over the course of years, the professional success of the couple increases but, at the same time, the setting between the spouses becomes ever more established. The game is also getting tougher in their private life. The male genius frolics abroad and Aino feels – increasingly often – that she is left alone and is not respected. 

The tension is not so much created by events but by the relationship of the fiction to the information that has previously been provided for the reader.

To a large degree, the writing of biofiction deals with addressing the material in a way that has been chosen by the author. The tension in the novel is not so much created by events but by the relationship of the fiction to the prior information that has previously been provided for the reader. Järvelä’s narration continues to flirt with the so-called truth, and occasionally, he openly writes contrary to his material. For instance, the letters in which Aino assures her love for her husband, are regarded as ironic. There is, no doubt, a large amount of material available regarding Aino and Alvar Aalto, which is why limiting the scope of the material has surely required a great deal of thought. Especially when writing about a supporting character who remains in the shadow of the cloak of a genius, there is always a risk of becoming entangled in the hems of the cloak. Except for a couple of anecdotes, Järvelä has aptly managed to abstain from telling racy stories of Alvar and has remained focussed on Aino. 

The novel could have become a melodrama of a genius bad guy and his victim. In a way, this setting exists in the novel, but Järvelä’s grasp of comical elements saves the main character from ending up in the role of a victim. Alvar Aalto’s adventures are briskly carnivalized, but the spearhead of criticism does not hit the person, but the structures that lay down – like party treats – the role of a winner in front of him, making him boisterous, like a child with a sugar rush. The uppermost feeling of both Aino and the reader is one of impatient amusement. You just have to laugh it off. ↙

Architect SAFA. Building designer by day and prose writer by night.