FeedBurner makes it easy to receive content updates in My Yahoo!, Newsgator, Bloglines, and other news readers.
At the centre of Riikka Pelo’s second novel are the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892–1941) and her daughter Ariadna Efron (1912–1975). This broad historical novel depicts the mental landscape of Russia during the period between the two great wars, from the 1920s to the 1940s. The mother is a religious believer and idealist, her daughter a more pragmatic empiricist. The family’s fate is controlled by the Soviet state apparatus, which sends it into exile in Paris where Tsvetaeva’s husband Sergei Efron takes a job as a secret police informer in an organisation devoted to the repatriation of Soviet emigrés. In the 1930s they return to Moscow, where life under the watchful eye of Stalin is filled with difficulty and paranoia. Pelo portrays the awkward relationship between mother and daughter with particular vividness. The indisputable star of the family is the mother – her ambition extends to her daughter, who to her disappointment is more interested in the visual arts than in poetry. The historical characters of Pelo’s impressive novel live their contradictory lives in decades of social upheaval.
Translated by David McDuff
For 41 years, from 1967 to 2008, Books from Finland was a printed journal. In 1976, after a decade of existence as not much more than a pamphlet, it began to expand: with more editorial staff and more pages, hundreds of Finnish books and authors were featured in the following decades.
Those texts remain archive treasures.
In 1998 Books from Finland went online, partially: we set up a website of our own, offering a few samples of text from each printed issue. In January 2009 Books from Finland became an online journal in its entirety, now accessible to everyone.
We then decided that we would digitise material from the printed volumes of 1976 to 2008: samples of fiction and related interviews, reviews, and articles should become part of the new website.
The process took a couple of years – thank you, diligent Finnish Literature Exchange (FILI) interns (and Johanna Sillanpää) : Claire Saint-Germain, Bruna di Pastena, Merethe Kristiansen, Franziska Fiebig, Saara Wille and Claire Dickenson! – and now it’s time to start publishing the results. We’re going to do so volume by volume, going backwards.
Next to go online is the fiction published in 2008: among the authors are the poets Tomi Kontio and Rakel Liehu and prose writers Helvi Hämäläinen (1907–1998), Sirpa Kähkönen, Maritta Lintunen, Arne Nevanlinna, Hagar Olsson (1893–1979), Juhani Peltonen (1941–1998) and Mika Waltari (1908–1979).
To introduce these new texts, we will feature a box on our website, entitled New from the archives, where links will take you to the new material. The digitised texts work in the same way as the rest of the posts, using the website’s search engine (although for technical reasons we have been unable to include all the original pictures).
By the time we reach the year 1976, there will be texts by more than 400 fiction authors on our website. We are proud and delighted that the printed treasures of past decades – the best of the Finnish literature published over the period – will be available to all readers of Books from Finland.
The small world of Finnish fiction will be even more accessible to the great English-speaking universe. Read on!
Author Veikko Huovinen (1927–2009) became widely popular with the publication of his novel Havukka-ahon ajattelija (‘The backwoods philosopher’, 1952). Huovinen, who trained as a forest ranger, spent his life mainly in north-eastern Finland and did not like publicity; the author and theatre scholar Panu Rajala deals with Huovinen’s biography relatively briefly, focusing on a thematic analysis of Huovinen’s extensive and thematically rich output of novels and short stories. He places the the books in the context of Finnish literature, and also examines their film and television adaptations. Huovinen was an intellectually conservative, a highly original humorist; among his books are satirical biographies of Hitler and Stalin. His prose fiction, set in the natural wilds of the North, has not always won the appreciation of pro-modernist critics. Huovinen’s lively and original language is not easy to translate – for example, his only work published in English is a beautiful documentary novel Puukansan tarina (‘Tale of the forest folk’), which received a Finlandia Prize nomination in 1984.
Translated by David McDuff
Marjo Niemi’s third novel may be described with the adjective ‘intemperate’. The book’s narrator is a thirty-something woman who is inclined to ranting. A friend’s suicide drives her to depression, which breaks out in endless criticism of her friends’ lifestyles. Her tolerance is tested not only by her hedonistic friends but also by an entire continent: she wallows in endless diatribes about the history of Europe and its injustices. The bubbling text forms a meta-level, a book within a book. Only writing seems meaningful: ‘I am really not going to write about my life, because life is a ridiculous joke compared to literature.’ The Great Novel that is being built by the narrator gradually opens out into a story about a mental hospital psychiatrist and one of his patients who has suffered a loss of memory. The author sees her work as a ‘poetic allegory of Europe ‘, but it is also a study of friendship, guilt, envy, and the difficulty of doing good. Caricature of an almost grotesque kind is skilfully combined with straight talking in this clever contemporary novel. Niemi (born 1978) is a dramaturge by training.
Translated by David McDuff
Now I need to get another beat into my head. What can help me forget those morose, curled up creatures, their strange commands and scents? I remember the roller-coaster. And I remember the ancient lore that it’s good to ride the roller-coaster with a lover before you attempt anything else. I go home quickly, throw down my sketch-book and my unnecessarily businesslike briefcase, exchange my suit, which was supposed to indicate devotion, for a windcheater, arrange my hair more carelessly, get on my bike and cycle to the funfair where I know the roller-coaster, the genuine, real, old-fashioned, clanking roller-coaster, to be.
Who could have been the first person to imagine the delights of the roller-coaster? Into whose happy capacity for daydreaming did it fall? Who saw those massive iron tentacles in their figure-eight shapes, those stretched and knotted rings of eternal joy? Who understood that on such a ride shame and anxiety would fall out of one’s pockets? It’s claimed that the first roller-coaster was invented by Catherine the Great. The monarch, with her multifarious patronage of culture, commissioned in Oranienbaum, St Petersburg, the first Montagne Russe amid the amusements of the wise: a Russian mountain with its ice-paths, raised into the air, which melted with the coming of spring. Who else could understand this organ-stirring amusement as deeply as the Great Wife with her hundreds of lovers. In the grip of mortal fear, I too always pray: before I am laid in earth, before the crematorium’s oven, take me once more to the roller-coaster.
When I arrive at the funfair entrance, the till-girl tells me that I won’t have time for many rides. The funfair will be closing in an hour. I say an hour will be plenty of time for me. Just five goes on the roller-coaster, that’s all. I try to hurry by the most direct route to the corner of the park where I know the roller-coaster to be. The winding alleyways with their twinkling lights slow my progress. I would like to free my path of every cone-like lamp construction, demolish all the ice-cream and candy-floss kiosks. Then I am at the roller-coaster’s tills. I ask for five tickets, but am sold only one. You have to go to the till for each ride. One ticket at the time, the till-girl says, one ticket at a time, they always check whether I am still in a fit state for the next turn. You will see, I say, lick the ticket and make a dash for the platform.
On the roller-coaster platform there is really no one but me. It is a beautiful early August evening, the sun already so low that the entire tight, elaborate wood-and-iron structure of the roller-coaster is bathed in reddish light and looks more enticing and more supple than the Golden Gate bridge in the camera’s panning shot of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. On top of the structure twists the track itself, like a capricious string of licorice lifted into the air. All the wooden components have clearly recently been treated with tar, for the lovely scent of tar floats in the warm air, making the roller-coaster even more enticing, like a newly completed boat for shooting the rapids. Behind the graphic pattern formed by the supporting structure a part of the city is visible. The iron obliques, planks, gratings and winding tracks form a great, fine abstraction which is reminiscent of early Pollock, and at the same time a stomach-churning image of exorcism on which, in a moment, I must ride.
Somewhere above a string of cars is travelling at full speed. Although I cannot see the faces of the people sitting in it, I can imagine what is happening there, and I smile. It is clanking beautifully, and there are, all mixed up, screaming mouths, loose wigs, handkerchiefs, berets, glasses cases, staring eyes, eyes squeezed tight shut, tears and spit. There are couples whom the rapid motion unites, and others for whom it is the last straw. There are young men, squaddies, who have arrived proudly, girlfriend on arm, intending to show their courage, who have slid to the bottom of the car, weeping, while the girl, supposedly fearful, lives deeply and heroically, her soul swelling with each bend and bump, waving happily to her girlfriends below…. I watch the cars arrive at the platform and see their human cargo leave, stumbling, seeking balance and direction, drunk with the whisking experience, heading toward other madnesses. Suddenly I remember my worries about the church. How I would have liked to bring the entire parish council with me to the roller-coaster, offer them a ride. I am sure that the negotiations about my paintings would proceed on a completely different basis.
I climb into the car, telling the driver that I would like to be alone. It is an unnecessary comment. Only three people get into the cars that could hold a couple of dozen: me and a middle-aged couple who, at the driver’s request, relinquish their candy-floss. They can have them back after the ride, the brake-man says. If they still want to fumble them with their lips.
Then I am on board, looking at the red and green curves of my car. What a wonderful thing the roller-coaster is! No one can do anything about physics, everyone is helpless when the laws of gravity take hold on the steep descents. Becoming helpless is very good for you, being forced into positions you would never otherwise take up. For the roller-coaster is not made with an eye only for costly terror, in fact it is not really a form of entertainment. It is ordinary everyday life, the bitterness of everyday life squeezed into a large lemonade-bottle which some fist more powerful than the human hand shakes, turns upside down and finally makes the contents froth.
My life is entirely in the hands of the brakeman. I would like to throw my passport and my bunch of keys into the air, abandon my name even. What other activity could bring about the same feelings of bliss and impersonality in stomach and head as a turn on the roller-coaster driven by the brakeman. You feel as if you have gone through purgatory and paradise in the space of three minutes. After a moment’s regrouping you want to go back to purgatory.
When the brakeman, a little man who looks like a jockey, a professional provider of joy dressed in the costume and tail of Lucifer, has taken the car to the top of the track, and when the car then rolls slowly along the upper curve, showing the capital as exceptionally beautiful, as if for the last time, I feel at the same time a little excited and extraordinarily calm. I know I will soon feel an ice-cold ball expanding in my diaphragm, I know the wind will strip tears from my eyes, I know I will shout louder than ever, I know my mouth and adenoids will rip once again and I know I will enjoy it like mad, enjoy every curve and swoop. The flashing lights gleam either side of the track, the city is putting on its street lights as it prepares to rest, and soon an enormous witch’s cauldron, with its tracks twisting inwards, on top of each other and in knots, will suck my cares away.
I grasp the locking bar of the seat like a treasure. I sit in the first car, as always, because I do not wish to see anyone’s neck in front of me. I want to rise alone, head heavy, legs cold in the ascent, to swoop downwards alone into the tar-scented tunnel. Here is the first hill, the first swoop. Quickly I thank every carpenter and welder who built this temple of experiences. I thank the brakeman and hope that he does not use his brake too often. I would like to make the sign of the cross, but it is impossible. It is forbidden to take your hands off the bar. If there is a God, I think, he must be amused, must enjoy seeing people, in their free time, screaming in those beautifully whining and shuddering cars, and even paying for it.
Some people pay to have themselves whipped, bound to equipment of a different sort, or crawl before their scourgers in a red room, dressed in collars and rubber overalls with a large hole at the buttocks, weep for joy and pay for that, too. I do not wish to whip or be whipped, but I skitter towards the roller-coaster as a circus seal scurries toward a Baltic herring.
Another hill, another swoop. What is my miserable Abloy key* in the altarpiece? That’s what they seem to be so worried about. The parish council is afraid it will cause dizziness. But what is the aim of art? You look at an image which you immediately delete from your mind since you know you are soon going to gossip about everything else while you drink your weak church coffee and hold a bun in your other hand. The roller-coaster, on the other hand, holds you and twists you in its grasp for three minutes, empties your mind and your heart and remains, pulsing, in your diaphragm, which it has expanded and contracted.
The car dashes into its last tunnel, warm and black. All I can hear is my own screaming, mixed with the screeching of the car. There is a strong smell of fresh tar, which the darkness seems to intensify. I know that I have no wish for Catherine the Great’s icy Russian mountains. In my mind, the roller-coaster is linked with eternal summer, a summer evening, and with solitude rather than company. For what can be better, on a beautiful summer evening, than experiencing your own gravity and the associated redemption from sins in all possible positions. Every time, as I come out of the dark wooden tunnel, I feel myself to be exactly the right weight, and I believe in the authenticity of the tears the wind rips from my eyes.
Translated by Hildi Hawkins
The immigrant novel has not played a significant role in contemporary Finnish literature; since the wave of Russian refugees in the early 19th century, there have been few immigrants to Finland. In her short story collection Camera Obscura (2009) Johanna Holmström (born 1981) managed to combine realism and fantasy in a fascinating way; her new novel, Asfaltsänglar, is the directly yet eloquently told story of two young immigrant sisters. Leila, bullied at school, is becoming a drop-out, while Samira, who has tried to live according to western norms, lies unconscious after an unexplained accident. Their Finnish mother is a fanatical convert to Islam and their father comes from the Maghreb region. The novel confronts claustrophobic Arabic family culture and western ideals of freedom, taken so far that people completely lose any sense of responsibility for one another, with the adults’ betrayal of their children playing a key role. Holmström goes to great lengths to give a balanced portrayal of both cultures and show why her characters act as they do, even when the results are tragic.
Translated by Claire Dickenson
The fog banks have dissipated; the sky is empty. I cannot see the sails or swells in its heights, nor the golden cathedrals or teetering towers. I would not have believed I could miss a fog bank, but that’s exactly what it’s like: its disappearance is making me uneasy. For all its flimsiness and perforations it was our protection, our shield against the sun’s fire and the stars’ stings. Now the relentlessly blazing sun has awakened colours and extracted shadows from their hiding places. The moist warmth has dried into heat and the Flower Seller’s herb spirals have dried up into skeletons. The leaves on the trees are full of bronze, sickly red and black spots. Though there is no wind and autumn is not yet here, they come loose as if of their own volition, as if they wanted to die.
This morning, as I was strolling up and down the park path as usual, I saw another shadow alongside my own.
– Ah, you’re back! I said. – I wondered what had happened to you after you lost your shadow; how did you manage to change into your own shadow yourself?
– Here’s how it happened, he eagerly began to recount. – I saw an advert for a car salesman in the area where I was living. It was my bad luck that it happened to be sunny that very morning. The head of the dealership himself approached me in the car lot, which was still empty, as the dust danced and sparkled in the sunlight. Once we had exchanged greetings, he started blathering on about the change to the inspection regulations and the difficulties of marketing a new make of car. But he broke off right in the middle of what he was saying and his face darkened. I saw him staring, disgruntled, at my feet. The full outlines of his own jet-black silhouette were sharply defined in the gravel. A beetle made its way in front of our shoes and the quavering shadow of its antennae advanced in time with its multiple pairs of legs. Only my contours were surrounded by a blinding sheen of the spring day. I was already anticipating a nasty remark.
– What kind of man are you to let go of your shadow? Did you sell it or pawn it? Or did it run away when you weren’t able to bring it into line? he demanded.
– It had errands to run… it’ll be back soon, I found myself stammering.
– Oh, I see, he said, spitefully drawing out his words, clearly not believing a bit of it.
– You wait there, he barked and disappeared into the office. I already knew I wasn’t going to have any luck. Sure enough, the head of the dealership returned and said: – Sorry, the position’s already been filled.
He knew that I knew he was lying, but there was no use in saying anything more. The next morning, when I was taking my last twenty out of the cash machine, I saw my own shadow against a brick wall.
– So there you are, I said. – You really left me in it yesterday. Don’t you feel ashamed of yourself?
To my surprise, it replied to me in a voice befitting a shadow: whispered, yet fully comprehensible.
– Sorry about that, it said. – I had some expenditures of my own to deal with.
– I’ve never heard of a shadow having its own expenditures, I commented. – To say nothing of income.
– Even a shadow needs a day off now and then.
– Well, you’ve had one, so now let’s get back to business as usual.
– I don’t know, it sighed. – I’m really fed up with my current existence.
– We’ve all got our problems, I said coolly.
– Sure, it agreed. – I’ve noticed you’ve got plenty. Debts, woman trouble, you like a drink and can’t find work.
– Those are private matters and are none of your business, I said, starting to get worked up.
– If only they weren’t my business and weren’t plain to see. But in my position I can’t help seeing and hearing things, it grumbled. – It’s extremely frustrating to follow you everywhere and be forced to copy your every gesture. So yes, I have distanced myself a bit. And, if I may, I’d like to make a suggestion.
– Let’s hear it, I said.
– What if we swapped places? came the whisper.
– How? I couldn’t help laughing. – Are you proposing that I should become my own shadow? Or rather, your shadow?
– I think it would come as a relief to you, it said. – You don’t deserve to be a person, if I may be so bold. You’re a dreamer and a loafer, not a man of action. A Taugenichts, as the Germans would say. You’re caught in a trap, literally. And all your instant loans? Work doesn’t appeal to you, that’s obvious. And you’ve been unlucky in love. You haven’t succeeded as a person. I’m offering you a release from the burden of your species. Join the ranks of the shadows! Seize the opportunity!
– And you would take on my burden, is that the deal?
– I’ve got all sorts of ideas, it replied vaguely. – I’ll go and do things.
– You think people are free to do whatever they want. Well, you’re wrong! We end up wanting to do what we’re doing.
– I’m waiting, it whispered impatiently.
To my surprise, I heard myself say: – On one condition. I get to drift around wherever I want. You’ll take on my role and I yours, but we will no longer live together. You’ll get to find out what it’s like to live without a shadow, too.
– Agreed, it whispered.
No sooner had it said that than I felt myself changing and dissipating. The parts of me that were flesh began to melt; the parts that were bone began to soften and blood to cool. My limbs dissolved into a stream of darkness and I ceased to feel the air, temperature and gravity. I instantly lost one dimension – mass, without which we are not human. I lost the burden of my flesh, while my former shadow took up that cross with delight.
The previous day, I had still been a man without a shadow. Now I had become a shadow without a man.
I was surprised at how appealing this sort of metamorphosis proved to be. I was now completely flat, merely two-dimensional. Part of me was vertical against the brick wall of the bank, while my legs were refracted into horizontal bands on the pavement.
As I grew darker, I could see my former shadow growing and getting brighter and clearer, filling out. It assumed my weak-willed contours, got my sparse hair, put on my former unstylish clothes. But oh, how it knew how to wear them!
– See ya round, it said, turning towards the boulevard, its arms swinging casually, in my trench coat, my stripy scarf knitted by my wife flapping in the west wind. I was left with just the shadow of the scarf, and it had been standing on my shadow neck since then.
With good posture, self-confidence and full of a desire for victory, but without a shadow, it stepped into the world of people as if it had always lived there. As I watched it, I recalled the lyrics of an old May Day song:
As if into the sun
Stride along your path
As if you were kings
And yours was every land!
I watched my former shadow walking along the sunny street until the crowd obstructed him from my view, and I thought: that’s how a person ought to live! I just didn’t know how.
I haven’t seen him since. Let him go on living with his own fate. Maybe he managed to pay off my loans and my rent; maybe he made my wife happier than I knew how. But what business are their lives of mine any longer? I’ve changed species, left my humanness behind and now I drift wherever I drift. I am not a doer but a watcher; I went across into the audience. I look, I listen, I observe – that’s where I get my pleasure. I quickly got used to my new role and developed a liking for it. I hadn’t guessed the lightness, almost cheerfulness, which two-dimensionality brought with it. Of course, I’ve had to give up many of the benefits of having a physical body, such as pleasures of the palate and the flesh, but what harm is there in that when I also shed the desire for those human pastimes? I am spared numerous addictions and stomach complaints, discomfort, jealousy and sorrow. I no longer own anything, not even a body; but neither do I owe anything to anyone. The role of a shadow, in all its irresponsibility, seems to me all the more fortunate. I cannot influence the course of events, merely follow the development of matters. But did I actually influence anything when I was a person? The way I see it, most people live something of a similar life to us shadows, the only difference being that they think they are constantly changing the course of events.
I don’t need anywhere to live, anything to eat or drink. I can thrive outdoors, if need be, even in the depths of winter. I am invulnerable; illness cannot strike me down, nor fire burn me, nor floods drown me. I do not yet know whether shadows also grow old and die. I’m inclined to think that sooner or later I will fade and become less distinct, so that when my time is over, I will no longer be distinguishable from my surroundings.
I am an invisible witness. It is rewarding, as you can believe. I am amazed by the species into which I myself was born back in the day. When I was living as a person, my own kind did not interest me very much, but now that I’ve changed into a shadow, I see them as an onlooker, I observe them for the sheer pleasure of it, and if I deepen my attention a bit, I can even hear what they’re thinking. That way I can sense the memories not only of my own acts, but theirs as well.
You may wonder why I stick around with you here, as no one can force a shadow to go where it doesn’t want to go. At first I stayed out of pure curiosity, but since then I’ve stayed with you out of habit, even attachment. When I watch you, I believe that people can adapt to anything, to any conditions at all. That’s what people live on, what they subsist on, even here at the Hotel Sapiens.
And then he was gone again. The leaves were swirling around in the sand in front of the steps to the Hotel Sapiens; they danced as if they had a spirit and a life-force, and their shadows danced as well. I watched one of them, a yellow one with black hieroglyphs. Could I predict where that playful leaf would end up when its whirl was over? It chooses nothing, swirled by the whims of the circumstances. Even if I knew the mathematics of chaos, I still wouldn’t be able to calculate its endpoint or learn the number of alternatives.
I myself still make choices, albeit increasingly rarely here at the Hotel Sapiens, from an ever-smaller number of alternatives.
As for what is true, the mind knows very little. Growing into a person is growing into imagination. What is it that we imagined? That which we called reality.
A well-meaning bookseller’s idealism, inspired by Tolstoyan ideology, is brought crashing down by the laziness and ingratitude of the man hired to look after his estate: conflicts between the bourgeoisie and the ‘ordinary folk’ are played out in heart of the Finnish lakeside summer idyll in Savo province.
Taking place within a single day, the novel Putkinotko (an invented, onomatopoetic place name: ‘Hogweed Hollow’) is one of the most important classics of Finnish literature. Putkinotko was also the title of a series (1917–1920) of three prose works – two novels and a collection of short stories – sharing many of the same characters [here, a translation of ‘A happy day’ from Kuolleet omenapuut, ‘Dead apple trees’, 1918] .
In 1905 Joel Lehtonen bought a farmstead in Savo which he named Putkinotko: it became the place of inspiration for his writing. With an output that is both extensive and somewhat uneven, the reputation of Joel Lehtonen (1881–1934) rests largely on the merits of his Putkinotko, written between 1917 and 1920.
Originally published in two volumes, this massive novel is, on the one hand, a chronicle of the tense relationship between Lehtonen (who had himself risen from the ranks of the ‘ordinary folk’) and his half brother and, in more general terms, an exploration of the question of land ownership, which was the subject of heated social debate at the time the novel was written.
Combining elements of naturalist, humorist and lyrical narrative, Putkinotko reinvented the image of ‘the people’ which had dominated Finnish prose since the 1880s – and which re-emerged in the 1950s and 1960s with Väinö Linna’s expansive novels (Täällä Pohjantähden alla, I-III, ‘Here under the North Star’) on national themes.
The sheer modernity of Putkinotko was something new in Finland, and at first the novel was received with confusion and scepticism – in contrast to the work’s reception in Finland’s neighbouring countries when the novel appeared in translation.
The journalist, critic and writer Pekka Tarkka has undertaken the arduous task of researching the life and works of Joel Lehtonen. His doctoral thesis (published in 1977) examined the cast of characters in Putkinotko.
In 2009 Tarkka published the first part of his biography of Joel Lehtonen, concentrating on the first 36 years of the author’s life and on the literary output from the earlier part of his career. The second part of the biography (2012) continues from the Finnish Civil War of 1918 until 1934, when Lehtonen tragically took his own life.
The author’s life was filled with illness, bouts of depression and unhappy relationships. Indeed, Lehtonen’s life got off to a rather traumatic start: he had no knowledge of his father’s identity; his mother was a homeless woman who abandoned her six-month-old son by the side of a road. The boy who was eventually to become an author spent his first years in an orphanage and between numerous squalid foster homes. But his last foster mother was the wife of a priest, and it was from the Wallenius’s bourgeois household that Lehtonen was able to begin his education and undertake his entrance into ‘society’.
Even in Tarkka’s biography, it is the Putkinotko trilogy that receives the most attention. Generally considered of lesser artistic value, Lehtonen’s earlier works, displaying the influence of Nietzsche and foreshadowing the advent of existentialism, are described by Tarkka in traditional manner as written in a neo-romantic vein, and he takes pains to link them to more general trends in the Nordic artistic life of the day. In this way he challenges the notion, common to much previous research into Lehtonen’s work, that the primary context for Lehtonen’s earlier works was that of European decadence.
In the satirical novels that follow Putkinotko, Lehtonen’s laughter turns increasingly bitter as social conditions and the author’s health continued to worsen. Rakastunut rampa (‘The infatuated cripple’, 1922) is a grotesquely exaggerated self-portrait set against the social background of the Finnish Civil War of 1918. Henkien taistelu (‘The battle of souls’, 1933) is a critical take on the violent rise of the radical right wing in Finland and throughout Europe.
Lehtonen also published poetry; his final work was the poetry collection Hyvästijättö Lintukodolle (‘Farewell, the Haven’, 1934) in which Lehtonen explores the idea of approaching death and gives a melancholy appraisal of the life he has lived, a life filled with much hardship and much chasing after the wind.
As a researcher and biographer, Tarkka does not rigorously follow any particular method but writes rather freely following his own train of thoughts. Lehtonen’s friendships, relationships with women, financial affairs, his working relationship with publishers, his ever-changing apartments and summer cottages, trips abroad and illnesses are comprehensively outlined. Typically of the biographical genre, the author’s output is contextualised in terms of his own life, while the role of the Western literary tradition remains secondary. Influences and points of comparison are sought in paintings and music, and the relation of Lehtonen’s works to the contemporary social climate and literary works of the day is examined to a certain extent.
Tarkka is particularly interested in Lehtonen’s gallery of colourful characters, and much of his research concentrates on pinpointing their real-life inspirations. Tarkka’s extensive biography references Lehtonen’s works in fine detail; almost without our noticing, he imbues his commentary with observations that can be interpreted in numerous ways.
Translated by David Hackston
Contrary to the more agreeable expectations that might be prompted by its title, this book is dominated by the image of a masked anarchist raising his hand in a cloud of teargas. Korhonen (born 1972) is an analyst of social problems who in his most recent novels has expanded his field of vision from the realities of suburban Finland to the global centres of money and power. This novel, his fifth book, offers a pessimistic picture of Europe today. The collapse of the economy has left people with an inner sense of emptiness and anger. A young man travels to a central European financial centre to collect his brother’s corpse. The dead man had a management level job in banking, but his body is discovered with an anti- globalisation protest mask on its face. Analysis of the world situation is combined with elements of a detective thriller. The novel’s love affair is likened to a business deal: capital, profit and risk are equated with desire, hope and sorrow. This anti-capitalist metaphor is a typical theme of contemporary Finnish prose fiction.
Translated by David McDuff
Tove Jansson’s Moomin books are widely cherished by children and adults alike. They are funny and charming yet haunting and profound. Lovable Moomintroll; practical and sensible Moominmama; spiky Little My; the terrifying yet complex monster, Groke – Jansson’s creations linger in the mind.
The first ever Moomin book – The Moomins and the Great Flood (Småtrollen och den stora översvämningen, 1945) – was published in the UK in October by Sort Of Books, but Jansson’s writing for adults is also achieving recognition in the English-speaking world.
A Winter Book, a selection of 20 stories by Jansson (Sort Of Books, 2006) was the trigger for a recent event on London’s South Bank. Along with journalist Suzi Feay and writer Philip Ardagh, I was invited to talk about Jansson’s work in general and about these stories in particular.
As Ali Smith notes in her fine introduction to the collection, the texts are ‘beautifully crafted and deceptively simple-seeming’. They are, as she puts it ‘like pieces of scattered light’. She also refers to the stories’ ‘suppleness’ and ‘childlike wilfulness’.
‘The Dark’, for example, offers an apparently random set of snapshots of childhood. Arresting images abound – swaying lamps over an ice rink, swirls in the pattern of a carpet that turn into terrible snakes – to create a tapestry of childhood. It’s like a dream: of ice and fire, fear and safety, a mixture that recalls the secure yet scary world of Moomin valley.
‘Snow’, too, conjures childhood fear. The house that features in this story is unhomely or uncanny, to refer to Freud, and seems haunted by the ghosts of other families. The story ends with the shared resolution between mother and child to return to a place of safety: ‘So we went home.’
The combination of scariness and safety, of comfort and unease, is one of the things that makes Jansson (1914–2001) such a powerful writer, not only for children – although questions of security and fear might have especial resonance in early life – but also for adults, who continue to be haunted by the unknown, but also tempted by it.
The South Bank event also gave participants and audience the chance to talk about other works by Jansson. The Summer Book (Sommarboken, 1972) notably, is a delicate and deft evocation of a summer spent on an island.
The narrative charts the relationship between a grandmother and granddaughter, and at the same time probes such profoundly human questions as love and loss, hope and change and continuity. As always in Jansson, the descriptions are sharp and crisp, and the writing is at once spare and suggestive.
Novels like Fair Play (Rent spel, 1989) and The True Deceiver (Den ärliga bedragaren, 1982) reveal Jansson’s subversive, sly, and subtle sides, which sit alongside her playfulness, warmth, and humour to create a unique aesthetic. Fair Play is a book about the relationship between two women; it’s tender, funny and thoughtful. Never sentimental, it is nonetheless moving. And it’s quietly subversive in its matter-of-fact depiction of a same-sex relationship.
The True Deceiver is set in a snowbound hamlet. A young woman fakes a break-in at the house of an elderly artist, a children’s book illustrator, and a strange dynamic develops between the two women. It’s a book about being outside, about not belonging. The relationship between the women, which is never fully resolved or explained, is especially fascinating.
Jansson excels at showing the human need for both company and privacy, intimacy and autonomy. And her work is profoundly philosophical. In very light, nimble narratives, Jansson explores the meanings of our lives.
The winner of the 29th Finlandia Prize for Fiction 2012, worth €30,000, is Ulla-Lena Lundberg for her novel Is (‘Ice’, Schildts & Söderströms), Finnish translation Jää (Teos & Schildts & Söderströms). The prize was awarded on 4 December.
The winning novel – set in a young priest’s family in the Åland archipelago – was selected by Tarja Halonen, President of Finland between 2000 and 2012, from a shortlist of six.
In her award speech she said that she had read Lundberg’s novel as ‘purely fictive’, and that it was only later that she had heard that it was based on the history of the writer’s own family; ‘I fell in love with the book as a book. Lundberg’s language is in some inexplicable way ageless. The book depicts the islanders’ lives in the years of post-war austerity. Pastor Petter Kummel is, I believe, almost the symbol of the age of the new peace, an optimist who believes in goodness, but who needs others to put his visions into practice, above all his wife Mona.’
Author and ethnologist Ulla-Lena Lundberg (born 1947) has since 1962 written novels, short stories, radio plays and non-fiction books: here you will find extracts from her Jägarens leende. Resor in hällkonstens rymd (‘Smile of the hunter. Travels in the space of rock art’, Söderströms, 2010). Among her novels is a trilogy (1989–1995) set in her native Åland islands, which lie midway between Finland and Sweden. Her books have been translated into five languages.
Appointed by the Finnish Book Foundation, the prize jury (researcher Janna Kantola, teacher of Finnish Riitta Kulmanen and film producer Lasse Saarinen) shortlisted the following novels: Maihinnousu (‘The landing’, Like) by Riikka Ala-Harja, Popula (Otava) by Pirjo Hassinen, Dora, Dora (Otava) by Heidi Köngäs, Nälkävuosi (‘The year of hunger’, Siltala) by Aki Ollikainen and Mr. Smith (WSOY) by Juha Seppälä.
What is happiness? According to the Western thought, happiness is to have, to own, and whenever possible to get even more – it is interesting to find out what our forefathers thought about the question before it was answered. This is precisely what Fredrik Lång does in this novel, the best since the ancient-inspired Mitt liv som Pythagoras (‘My life as Pythagoras’, 2005). Lång describes the Lydian king Kroisos, the richest man of his day, and his attempt to overthrow the wise Greek Solon’s idea that moderation and a contemplative lifestyle lead to happiness. Even if the driving force behind this novel is philosophical, it is brought alive with graphic depictions, extravagant battlefield scenes, intrigue and heartrending romance. Lång’s narrative is often ironic or comical, yet it still manages to emphasise the hard lives of its characters and the complete and utter inequality between master and slave, rich and poor, man and woman. Despite the immersion in the past, it is his own time Lång writes about, sometimes via shameless anachronism, sometimes subtle hints.
Translated by Claire Dickenson
Violence and darkness have always played an important role in the novels Robert Åsbacka (born 1961) writes, but up until now they have been accompanied by mitigating factors, tenderness, and warmer tones. His new novel is a dark story which goes deeper into the wound than any of the earlier novels. Tom, lonely boy and fatherless victim of bullying in a children’s world where adults neither see nor help, gets to know the young couple next door, Bo and Viola. Bo is friendly, Viola is nice and beautiful, and their life seems, for a while, to be the picture of a better future for a boy to grow up to, a life with a car, girlfriend, breathing room. But Åsbacka mercilessly reveals the grim truth about Bo and Viola; violence exists in the adult world too. In all its horror, Samlaren is one of the autumn’s best novels; the only comfort comes in the form of Åsbacka’s style, and well balanced and meticulous depictions. Åsbacka is careful in his choice of depictions, and he knows how to make sure the image remains etched into the reader’s memory.
Translated by Claire Dickenson
Their novels, respectively, are Maihinnousu (‘The landing’, Like), Popula (Otava), Dora, Dora (Otava), Is (‘Ice’, Schildts & Söderströms), Nälkävuosi (‘The year of hunger’, Siltala) and Mr. Smith (WSOY).
The jury – researcher Janna Kantola, teacher of Finnish Riitta Kulmanen and film producer Lasse Saarinen – made their choice out of ca. 130 novels. The winner, chosen by Tarja Halonen, who was President of Finland between 2000 and 2012, will be announced on 4 December. The prize, awarded since 1984, is worth 30,000 euros.
The jury’s chair, Janna Kantola, commented: ‘One of this year’s recurrent themes is the Lapland War [of 1944–1945]. Writers appear to be pondering the role of Germany in both the Second World War and in contemporary Europe. Social phenomena are examined using satire; the butt is the birth and activity of extremist political movements. Economics, the gutting of money and market forces, are present, as in previous years, but now increasingly with a sense of social responsibility.’
Popula deals with people involved in a contemporary populist political party. Dora, Dora describes Albert Speer’s journey to Finnish Lapland in 1943. Nälkävuosi depicts the year of hunger in Finland, 1868. Is takes place in the Finnish archipelago of the post-war years. Mr. Smith portrays greed and the destructive power of money both in Russian and Finnish history as well as in contemporary Finland. Maihinnousu, set in Normandy, depicts a child’s serious disease in a family that is going through divorce.
Finland, winter 1867, famine. The historical framework of this first novel by Aki Ollikainen (born 1973) is barren and the twists of the plot, almost without exception, are dark. The novella weaves together two stories: the poor people of the countryside live hand to mouth, whereas city businessmen, the brothers Teo and Lars Renqvist, agonise about their love problems in their well-heated houses. Of a family of four that sets out from the countryside on a begging mission, only one lives to see the following spring and the melting of the snow. The beast in people leaps forth: when there is no longer anything left to lose, humanity, an unnecessary burden, is trampled into the mud. The whiteness of the endless winter becomes the colour of hunger and of death. Ollikainen’s brief and tragically beautiful novel – which won the Helsingin Sanomat Prize for first works in November – tells its cruel tale with a warmth that is not in conflict with the events it describes. When the roads of city gents and country people entwine, humanity wins, light dawns.
Translated by Hildi Hawkins