The Fluid Dynamics of Authorial Identity: On Douglas Robinson’s “The Last Days of Maiju Lassila” and His Transcreation of Volter Kilpi’s “Gulliver’s Voyage to Phantomimia”

By Brendan RileyFebruary 12, 2023

The Fluid Dynamics of Authorial Identity: On Douglas Robinson’s “The Last Days of Maiju Lassila” and His Transcreation of Volter Kilpi’s “Gulliver’s Voyage to Phantomimia”

Gulliver’s Voyage to Phantomimia: A Transcreation by Douglas Robinson by Volter Kilpi
The Last Days of Maiju Lassila: A Memoir-Novel About the White Terror Following the Finnish Civil War by J. I. Vatanen; A Pseudotranslation by Douglas Robinson by Douglas Robinson

TWO RECENT WORKS of translation — or, more specifically, of “transcreation” and “pseudotranslation” — by scholar Douglas Robinson offer profound, multifaceted excursions into Finnish literature, literary history, criticism, and intertextual theory. Robinson’s 2020 “transcreation” of Volter Kilpi’s Gulliver’s Voyage to Phantomimia (1944) and his 2022 “pseudotranslation” of a “memoir-novel” ostensibly written a century earlier by J. I. Vatanen — a heteronym of Algot Untola (1868–1918), a Finnish writer and journalist who, according to Robinson, published only under a variety of detailed aliases, and who was arrested and executed for being a communist supporter during the White Terror that followed Finland’s 1918 Civil War — constitute profound, performative meditations on the art of literary translation.

Volter Kilpi (18741939) was a Finnish novelist known for modernist experimental fiction; his most famous work is his Archipelago trilogy, the first volume of which is the vast Joycean tome In the Alastalo Parlor (1933). Gulliver’s Voyage to Phantomimia was Kilpi’s final novel, left unfinished at his death. Robinson has undertaken the challenge of both translating Kilpi’s work and, with many a nod and wink, “finishing” it, in an impressive and “selcouth” 21st-century Swiftian English. The result is an impressive, sometimes boffo, metatextual production.

Kilpi’s scheme for this novel was to pretend, à la Don Quixote, that he had stumbled upon a lost Gulliver manuscript — written not by Jonathan Swift but by Gulliver himself — then translated it from the English into Finnish. Enlarging the game, Robinson has translated the Finnish text “back” into English, adding concluding episodes of his own devising. He has also produced an array of apocryphal introductory texts: an “Editors Foreword”; “anonymous, random notes toward a vorticist manifesto” dated 1914 that revisit the heyday of Ezra Pound’s Blast; Kilpi’s own 1938 “Translators Preface”; and a “Reader’s Report for Douglas Robinson’s travesty of Volter Kilpi’s unfinished Finnish novel Gulliverin matka Fantomimian mantereelle” by Professor “Julius Nyrkki” (nyrkki is Finnish for “fist”), in which the professor excoriates Robinson’s ignoble ineptitude, attacking the translator’s every semantic and stylistic choice — a censure that leads to a footnote war between the two.

As Kilpi’s novel opens, Gulliver relates that “I bound to-gether a Dozen or so Writing Booklets, too, stamp’d with the British Crown,” acknowledging the power of royal censorship. In his 1994 book Swift’s Politics: A Study in Disaffection, Ian Higgins explains that Swift published his great work pseudonymously, a common practice of the time to avoid censorship and persecution, and a dangerous game in which authorship could be known but not acknowledged — in which manuscripts would be deposited, like foundlings, at printers’ offices in the dead of night, though this might not be enough to persuade a wary printer, who could also be held liable. A book published anonymously in defiance of censorship sidesteps church and state, creating and granting access to unfettered history. One translated, or transcreated, further enriches the problematic. Robinson’s meticulous “transcreation” of Kilpi’s unfinished work is a dramatic, stimulating, and moving reflection on style, structure, rhetorical strategy, and the validity of translation itself.

In this reimagining of an imaginary voyage, Gulliver joins an Arctic-bound excursion aboard the whaler Swallow Bird, hoping to discover the North Pole. Instead, the good ship and crew are drawn into a “Polar Vortex” modeled on Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelström” (1841), and while the episode paints an appropriately eerie setting — nautical tales are frequently siege narratives, the microcosmic ship ever beset by dangers — Kilpi’s Gulliver dwells as much on the problem of the space-time continuum as on nature’s awesome power, resisting “Tho’ts from beyond the present Moment.” The harrowing descent into this narrowing gyre spares only four crewmen. In chapters suggestive more of Jules Verne than Poe, they travel to a future London of 1938, the capital of Phantomimia, a mysterious transit Kilpi uses to satirize early-20th-century geographical exploration and the social alienation and moral vacuity of a hypertechnological society.

Annexing Kilpi’s unfinished story, Robinson develops the London setting into an increasingly madcap Swiftian satire on tyrannical pomp, debased currency, paper wars of political intrigue and censorship, and xenophobia. Gulliver, Captain Cartwright and his precocious son Ethel, and the ship’s boatswain Higgins find themselves hapless, helpless guests of the lardy, pigheaded tyrant King Dick the Stiff, who lords over London from a 200-story golden tower, commanding the construction of a chain-link dome to protect Phantomimia from an invasion by the compassionate, symbiotic, telepathic Venusians who want to help humanity evolve. Zany? Vortically so, including footnotes pondering temporally impossible textual influences from the likes of high theorists Deleuze and Guattari to conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

With Venusian assistance, the Swallow Bird crew returns to the vortex. After using Gulliver’s father’s King James Bible as ballast to tether their airplane to the water, they find themselves literally “translated” into the book itself during the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan. Fluid travelers in a seemingly fixed history, Gulliver and his fellows cannot survive within the confines of a biblical “past”; their only escape from the savage strictures of a literarily codified and divinely sanctioned war lies in breaking with the narrative through mutual betrayal and self-destruction.

Robinson’s Yahweh is a terrifying and comical caricature of the “all-powerful” author as creator and destroyer, and the abundant figures involved in this transcreation — author, characters, translator(s), critics, scholars, readers — are all in thrall to the power of his book. But the genius of their deliverance is Cartwright’s son Ethel, who not only engineers their technological and metaphysical escape from beyond the bookish bourn but also turns out to be the publisher of Robinson’s transcreation.

In The Last Days of Maiju Lassila’s “Translator’s Preface,” Robinson explains that he is actually “Douglas Robinson Pandemonium” (DRP), a complex of multiple heteronyms, including DR, the translator and transcreator of Kilpi; the clenched fist who composed his polemical archnemesis, Professor Nyrkki; publisher Ethel Cartwright; and DR, the “not half-paranoid” editor of Phantomimia itself. This pandemonic amanuensis informs readers that Maiju Lassila, a female name, was the most successful of Untola’s many heteronyms, while J. I. Vatanen, the “author” of this heretofore unedited manuscript, was the least. Regardless, DRP presents a “pseudotranslation” of a text he claims to have discovered “untyped, unpublished, unclaimed, and mislabeled in the Algot Untola/Maiju Lassila archive at the National Library of Finland.” And yet, a pseudotranslation is a hoax translation, one for which no source text exists.

Untola was indeed executed, apparently as Maiju Lassila, during the Finnish White Terror in 1918, but the manuscript in question was, apparently, written in 1922. How does one write a heteronymous novel about their own death four years after the fact? Can the compositional power of the heteronym outlive the author’s mortal coil? And those are only among the most immediate complications DRP introduces in the preface to this apocryphal, transtextual house of mirrors.

Narrator J. I. Vatanen, not yet a heteronym for Untola, is a country bumpkin whose love for the theater brings him to Helsinki, where he becomes one third of a platonic love triangle involving a pair of fellow thespians, androgynous identical twins, Maiju and M. Lassila.

In Phantomimia, Ethel and Higgins are “translated” beyond recognition, put to death for, respectively, pilfering from the Jericho hoard and being the king of Ai. In Last Days, the three lovers “translate” themselves to survive the political turmoils that emanate from the Bolshevik Revolution. Translation, a studious activity that enlarges publication possibilities, here becomes public subterfuge as Vatanen and Maiju must abandon the theater, a public life of masquerade, and adopt disguises or hide out to survive the dangers of public upheaval and persecution. These strategies are complicated and compromised when they learn that their acquaintance Algot Untola — shot for being a Red supporter but executed under his heteronym Maiju Lassila — has returned from the dead to dog them for favors, thus drawing dangerous attention to Maiju, who is distressed to learn that the undead Untola previously published compromising works under “her” name, causing her to be suspected not only of authoring communist propaganda but, worse, of trying to cheat death (every writer’s dream) by surviving a death sentence. Every author aspires to immortality, and every pseudonymous or heteronymous writer aspires to anonymity. Are these conditions mutually exclusive? If, as the game goes, all translations are versions of a text, of which there inevitably exist multiple versions and no singular definitive source, then, as DRP demonstrates, all translations are both schizoid transcreations and ghostly pseudotranslations.

In addition to the fluid dynamics of authorial identity, gender roles both assigned and adopted (the pronouns he and she are replaced by ta), and theatrical and political masquerades, Robinson explores the outsider’s problem of penetrating the center of legitimacy — the scholar seeking access to the archive (DRP), the author outwitting censors (or self) to achieve publication (Swift/Untola) — as peasant/amateur Vatanen learns to curry favor among Helsinki’s cultured elite. He becomes intellectually, and telepathically, intimate with Maiju and M. Lassila but never as vital or as vulnerable as they are. The novel also treats the problem of shifting political identities among warring civil factions, the twins’ shock that Finns could wage war against Finns, and the question of whether Finland could become an independent modern nation or only remain a phantomimic Russian satellite state. The twins’ identities become additionally compromised, not just as heteronyms for a disgraced, doomed writer but also via a more spectral yet no less real danger, as M. dwells within the twilight world of espionage as a double agent (like Untola himself), while Maiju, in the grip of a merciless opium habit, becomes a ghost of her former self.

All of this points back to a playful footnote in Phantomimia citing a passage from Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (1980) on the notion of “lines of flight”:

A book has neither object nor subject; it is made of variously formed matters, and very different dates and speeds. To attribute the book to a subject is to overlook this working of matters, and the exteriority of their relations. It is to fabricate a beneficent God to explain geological movements. In a book, as in all things, there are lines of articulation or segmentarity, strata and territories; but also lines of flight, movements of deterritorialization and destratification. Comparative rates of flow on these lines produce phenomena of relative slowness and viscosity, or, on the contrary, of acceleration and rupture. All this, lines and measurable speeds, constitutes an assemblage. A book is an assemblage of this kind, and as such is unattributable. It is a multiplicity — but we don’t know yet what the multiple entails when it is no longer attributed, that is, after it has been elevated to the status of a substantive.

Robinson’s phantomimetic transcreation is concerned with, and demonstrates, such lines of flight, vanishing points into and out of space and time — physical, historical, textual, scholastic, imaginary; it is the passage through (if, indeed, through is the apt preposition) time into a past, if such exists, that reinterprets an as-yet-unknown/unknowable future. Robinson’s substantial, and substantially polyvalent, pseudotranslation of “Vatanen’s” account of the White Terror explores not only the historical fear of political reprisal but also any artist’s simultaneously commensurate fears of exposure and fading away, the desire to create something of substance that can elude the executioner.

Both of these books — each one an exegetical, tragicomic tour de force — replete with their many points of entrance, departure, and interpretation, are impressively erudite, playful, and enjoyable. Gulliver’s happy homecoming demands an agonic rupture with the familiar, and the last days of Maiju Lassila are, ultimately, really only the first ones.


Brendan Riley is a teacher, writer, and ATA-certified translator of Spanish to English. His published translations include The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuentes, Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue, Caterva by Juan Filloy, and Antagony by Luis Goytisolo.

LARB Contributor

Brendan Riley is a teacher, writer, and ATA-certified translator of Spanish to English. His published translations include The Great Latin American Novel (2016) by Carlos Fuentes, Hypothermia (2013) by Álvaro Enrigue, Caterva (2015) by Juan Filloy, and Antagony (2022) by Luis Goytisolo. Riley’s shorter translations and book reviews have appeared in ANMLY, Asymptote, The Believer, Best European Fiction, BOMBLOG, Bookslut, Drunken Boat, Little Star Journal, n+1, The New York TimesNuméro Cinq, Publishers Weekly, The Review of Contemporary FictionThree Percent, and The White Review.  


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