- Now I know who you should talk to!, our contact in Pasvik exclaimed after a thinking for a while.
- Abraham! Abraham at Skogfoss!
In our hunt for a suitable person to inteview for Rural Readers, we had been considering what could be found of local historians and environmental scientists in the Pasvik valley. We needed someone that could tell us something about this peculiar part of Norway, but considering our slightly romantical expectations, the person in question should not only supply us with the bare facts, but also, to some extent, embody the history of the area.
As in many other local communities in this country, local history keeps people's consciousness in a tight grip. Bloodlines, dates and chronologies give easy answers to most questions of identity or history, and in the local museum old wooden tools and stuffed animals is the only possible way of representing this history. Our man Abraham was also a local historian of rank. But we were entirely unprepared for the manner in which he would tell his stories, and of how this would open up an entirely new understanding of this area.
At the end of the narrow path, outside their tiny wooden house, Abraham and his wife Agnes was already waiting for us. Our contact had told him that there were some "youths" that wanted to know a bit more about Pasvik as a border area, and it was obvious that Abraham, waiting with a strange tool in his hand, was looking forward to teaching us city-folk a thing or two.
- This is a "guakka", he said and held up the tool as we came out of the car. Then he went into a lengthy lecture about how Finnish workers had brought this tool with them, and how it was used. Frantically, we fumbled for our digital equpment, digital cameras and minidisc-players , but it was already too late. Abraham had already started telling other stories, about the geology of the surrounding marshland, how he had been removing rocks by heating them up until they cracked, and imitating a special kind of barking that the local bear would make when they were pregnant.
At first sight, the area around Abraham's house could very well resemble a scrapyard. As in many other places in Finnmark, it seems that if a car or a snowmobile has ended its days, the easiest solution is to park it the garden and leave it there as a rusting and overgrown monument for the past. As very little effort is made in deleting the traces of the present - be it lived lives, closed down mines or or fishing villages - it seems that Finnmark will be an interesting place for future archeologists. If life consists in hiding the unwanted traces of our lives and enhancing the wanted, then this is not the kind of life that the Finnmarkers live. The Finnmarker lives a seemingly open life where what you see it was you get. A half-finished barn, an overgrown moped, a worn out caravan, some old skis, a carved out reindeer head and small heaps of unknown material were scattered around the house. But as our eyes got used to this, we could see that the things were not as random as they had seemed. Flowerpots circled the caravan, and the different objects were actually nicely arranged, as if after a certain landscaping plan.
After following a line for drying clothes from one tree to another, to see a special kind of well that Abraham explained the use of, coffee was ready and we went inside to start the interview.
- So, what was it that you wanted to hear about?, Abraham began while he unfolded a map of the northern area, covering both coffee-cups and cakes.
- So, when they started coming here, he continued without waiting for our reply, - at first this was quite a desolate place, and there were no borders, and first they were taxed by the Russians, then it was the bailiff of Vardø that rode his reindeer all around the Varanger fjord to the town of Kola, in the Murmansk fjord, and in the 1700s he met the big man there and stated his business. Then they served all kinds of dishes. There was oven fried perch with onionbutter and... almost like the Arabian nights. And they didn't agree about where they should be taxing, the Swedes and Denmark-Norway and... for a long time, they were taxed by three states.
Abraham continued in this manner for 3 hours, without us hardly being able to open our mouths, except for sipping coffee, and only interrupted by taking down the numbers from the national lottery.
After a while we became aware of one of the most distinctive features of Abraham's storytelling technique. With great speed, he tells about borders that have moved and people that have been migrating here and there, Finns, Russians, Samis, Kvens and Swedes and people from the south of Norway. The story is told with abrupt changes in speed and time, free associations that criss-cross each other continuously, moving back and forth across geographical and chronological borders, thereby making it difficult for us to follow him. But at the same time, just before our city-brains collapsed under the mass of information, we started getting small flashes of a new understanding for both Abraham and the area.
We felt safe with our recording equipment running, extra batteries in our pockets. Our idea was to record and store as many of these stories as possible - something that would later prove impossible, as Abraham's way of storytelling made the recordings practically undecipherable. As if it were an extreme version of the Arabian nights, Abraham's different stories are interwoven and unfinished to such a degree that it is impossible to extract any coherent meaning from them.
- So, it was really desolate here. And when they started settling here - a lot of Finnish people and such, the Norwegian state thought they should bring up some people from Østerdalen [from the south of Norway] to make sure that this was still Norwegian land, and then they said that you could have 4000 riksdaler to come up here in 1880 - they said that one riksdaler was worth 4 kroner, and that was a huge sum of money back then. 17 came to the Svanvik area. Only 3 remained, but more people travelled at their own expense when Sydvaranger [the local mining company] started up. Then there was a group in the 30s. It was so desolate here, and only the toughest southerners were able to stay. The teacher, he was from Nøtterø, but he got tuberculosis in the hard climate!
Even if the most distintive feature of Sør-Varanger is the many national borders, we understood through Abraham's continuous movement in place and time, that the borders we are faced with today, and which in the end became the state of Norway, was very much a construction. Sør-Varanger, as it came into being through Abraham's storytelling, was a borderless place, rather than a borderland.