Salminen, Johannes

Salminen, Johannes Image 1

Photo Kimmo Räisänen © Schildts & Söderströms
His father was a fervid Finn and his mother an Ålander, and this made issues of belonging a vital part of his formative years in the Åland islands. Johannes Salminen’s (1925 Hammarland, Åland – 2015 Helsinki) first language was Swedish, which he put to subtle and stylish use in some twenty books. The vast majority of these were themed collections of essays, but his œuvre also includes a Ph.D. thesis in literary history, biographical studies, and epistolary dialogues. Two of these dialogic correspondences are very Baltic indeed, consisting of letters exchanged between Salminen and Jaan Kaplinski (Estonia). They resulted in Sjunger näktergalen än i Dorpat? (Can you still hear the nightingale in Tartu?) 1990 and Vita nätter och svarta (Nights white and black) 2002.
Salminen moved to the Finnish mainland for academic studies, and remained there for the rest of his life and throughout his long career with the publishing house of Söderström & Co (1956–1991). He headed this firm for thirty years, attracting writers of renown or making them such. One of his many interests as a writer in his own right was Finland-Swedish literature. Yet he firmly refused to be enlisted as a Finland-Swede: he was happy to be an Ålander based in Helsinki, a non-co-opted observer.
This stance is closely related to a recurrent motif in Salminen’s essays, that of cultural mix, cross-fertilization, overt impurity, and of liminal space. Gränsland (Borderland) 1984 deals with the threats and opportunities Finland is and has been exposed to, squeezed in between east and west. Minnet av Alexandria (Remembering Alexandria) 1988 widens the scope but the gist of the matter remains the same: the potentials of alterity, of foreign influence, even of marginality. Undret i Bagdad (The Baghdad miracle) 1997 and Islams två ansikten (The two faces of Islam) 2010 include further exercises in counterfactual thinking: e.g., what if the battle of Poitiers in 732 had ended in Arab victory?
Johannes Salminen as an essayist started out in the early sixties with a close look at Finland-Swedish positions in the country’s civil war of 1918. The subject obviously was a highly sensitive one, and backing up his case against onslaughts he honed his writing in the art of alternative reasoning. Salminen rapidly grew into a celebrated columnist and polemicist, but his main claim to fame rests on the deftly argued essay, more often than not with strong cosmopolitan underpinnings. It may look sardonic on the surface, because of opportunities lost, but there is something joyful about it because thinking makes it so.

Clas Zilliacus