The elan that draws humans toward islands extends the double movement that produces islands in themselves. Dreaming of islands—whether with joy or in fear, it doesn't matter—is dreaming of pulling away, of being already separate, far from any continent, of being lost and alone—or it is dreaming of starting from scratch, recreating, beginning anew. Some islands drifted away from the continent, but the island is also that toward which one drifts; other islands originated in the ocean, but the island is also the origin, radical and absolute. Certainly, separating and creating are not mutually exclusive:
one has to hold one's own when one is separated, and had better be separate to create anew; nevertheless, one of the two tendencies always predominates.
—Gilles Deleuze, Desert Islands and Other Texts (1953–1974)
When exploring stories about life on Vallisaari island during the decades when Gilles Deleuze wrote down his thoughts about islands, one can see recurring characteristics in them. Attention is drawn to the island’s underaged residents, the children. Memories of childhood summers and winters have, in a way, preserved the time lived on the island. That preserved time is something that only children can experience in their naive lightness and euphoric openness.
The adventures and everyday life of children who lived on Vallisaari are not much different from memories recorded on other islands of Finland. If places like Santahamina, Suomen- linna, or “the mainland”, the shore of Helsinki, did not occur in stories from time to time, the childhood Vallisaari could be located anywhere – on any sea or in any decade of the last century. Life on an island that cannot be left whenever one wants, not even in an emer- gency, was not the children’s free choice. Life on an island on which, in the literal sense of the saying, a dangerous time bomb was ticking, was not, in many cases, their parents’
free choice either.
Part of our Vallisaari is receding, and part of it is coming closer, gliding, to Deleuze’s definition of a desert island. An island that can only be entered with special permission and where moving around at night is forbidden becomes a child’s only world – a world without longing for wider shores or anywhere else.
Life on an island is like childhood itself. A child just lives it in the here-and-now, within limited possibilities, avidly running through it without judgement. A child does not have a measuring tape of experiences or a point of comparison for what a “real” childhood in all its goodness and tragedy should be like. None of us knows, neither now nor two hundred years ago, what life on an island should be like. Returning to Deleuze and his term elan, the thirst for life pushes the island’s residents to seek creative solutions, both legal and illegal, for their everyday lives.
Separated by decades, the stories of the island’s children – the descendants of Suo- menlinna’s shipbuilders, armed forces, their servants, and the pilot house residents – echo the same phases, joys, and fears: simple meals of fish, potatoes, and crispbread
in the poor residents’ modest rooms, always at the same time, and the lake swimming lessons where, to pass the final test successfully, one had not only to swim forward and backward, on one’s back and belly, but also jump and dive into the lake’s depths. Trousers made of light fabric, simple gym shoes, and coarse sweaters were the children’s only outer clothing in the island’s storms and hot summers, too, if, for example, recently developed breasts had to be hidden under the father’s order.
The children on the island grow up listening to adults’ horror stories. The island has a grand lime-tree alley overflowing with lime flower tea in July – tea that no one collects because exactly on that alley is the lime tree on which the island’s most important ghost, the headless colonel, was hanged; the body was riddled with bullets and finally thrown into the sea. Nearby are also metallic spiral stairs which the mother of Annamari, who spent her childhood on the island, used to take her children downstairs to listen to the singing of Russian soldiers who were dead but still drinking. The adults who were fright- ening the children with horror stories were well accustomed themselves and were only laughing at the restrictions. On bilberry and raspberry foraging trips, adults encouraged children to go to the other side of a barbed-wire fence: “If you want jam with pancakes, the berries must be picked between the patrolling rounds, chop-chop!”
Children see everything: the father’s fondness for regimentation at home or the
summer cottage; a naked woman, the mother, who sunbathes daily on forbidden rocks and quickly wraps herself in a towel and hides when the patrol passes by once per hour. The island children are waiting for guests who might bring gooseberries, of which sauce is made and served with porridge, or a bun that is shared on a blanket on top of the rocks and enjoyed with coffee.
One generation after another, children on Vallisaari look for a tunnel that does not exist. Children from other, nearby islands also search for the mouth of a secret tunnel. They draw maps, slide along the shore cliffs in the darkness, snoop around in the bunkers, and never give up on searching.
In the island night, children climb out of the windows only to notice that in this island’s darkness, there is nothing to do and nowhere to go, and they climb back inside. The only difference from the recollections of children on other islands is that on this island, there are no self-caught smoked fish or boat trips. The shore in the part of the island where children are allowed is marked with barbed wire and military boats.
In the memories of small children, the island’s plants, butterflies, snakes, and hedgehogs are huge and numerous. Worms dug out from the graveyard of pallets are also huge.
The liquorice bites that boys bought from the island shop were probably also large.
The island had one absolute prohibition: finds were not allowed. Touching found objects was not allowed because they could be, for example, misfired explosives. However, child- ren often found treasures, and, as we know, only those who seek shall find. Boys found money and bought liquorice, but it was taken away from them because it was bought with money found on the ground. It must have been a big disappointment for the children to be left without liquorice, but it did not prevent them from continuing their search of the tunnel. Just like young trees tied into knots by the retreating Russian soldiers, the children determinedly continued growing up and chasing dreams at possibly the happiest and most colourful time of their lives, childhood.
Perhaps, after all, Deleuze’s elan is childhood and a desert island; the entire long life that must be reached quickly.
In collaboration with Maira Dobele, Latvian freelance writer, researcher and documentary film maker for Helsinki Biennial 2021.