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When I was seventeen, I yearned to leave behind the small town where I grew up. I heard the owl hooting in the forest: go to Europe.
I heard the dirt-track gravel crunching beneath my shoes: run, lad, run.
The birch in the yard rustled and whispered: if you spend one more summer hanging around the garden of your childhood, you’ll stay here forever.
A frog in the ditch gave a stern croak: look at your father; if you don’t escape you’ll end up an old codger just like him.
Even the smoke twirling up from the sauna chimney spoke to me in billows: I’ll show you the right direction, head south, and don’t stop until you see the first camel.
I spent the month of June digging graves to scrape together enough money for an Interrail ticket. Grave digging was a painfully slow pursuit. The only person allowed to use the Bobcat was the full-time employee, Anttonen. He drove the thing up and down the lanes, its forklift in the air, while a guy called Jussi and I shovelled earth, sweat running down our spine. The earth was still frozen at the beginning of June, and Jussi and I spent hours battering the ground with iron spades to hew out even the smallest of pits. To round off the afternoon, Anttonen would pull up beside the pit in his Bobcat and shake his head. No, boys, no, he said. Kids these days can’t do a thing. Then he and the Bobcat would finish off the pit in five minutes. It was our job to clear up all the sand and mud and clay that Anttonen had scattered around him, gather it into a pile and hide any exposed bones so as not to scare the relatives. All this as unpaid overtime. Anttonen careered out of the gates in his Bobcat.
On one occasion, in a pile of mud left by Anttonen’s Bobcat I found the skull of a woman with only a few blond hairs left in its scalp. The skull spoke to me: why haven’t you left already, lad? If you don’t leave soon, you’ll rot in this place just like me. First the flesh, then the hair.
I quit the very next day. I had less money than I’d hoped for. I managed to buy my Interrail ticket and had a bit left over. I packed a few hunks of salami and a head of cabbage. My travelling companion ended up being a punk girl from my home town whom I barely knew and who said she wanted get the hell out of Europe and head for Africa. The girl’s name was Donald. First we ate the head of cabbage; that kept us full for four days. It made us fart a lot, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to fart in a six-person carriage because we didn’t really know one another, so instead we took turns going out into the corridor. We got as far as Avignon. Women didn’t dance along Avignon Bridge, as I’d been taught to sing at school. On the bridge we ate the remains of the cabbage and started on the salami. It made us thirsty, we had to drink from a nearby fountain. In the south, water is pumped into fountains straight from pure mountain springs, and people drink the water.
They didn’t drink from this fountain though. I ended up with terrible stomach cramps, it felt as though the muscles were wrenching themselves free from my ribcage, and I was forced to lie in a bug-infested hostel bed for three days. Donald drank from the same fountain every day but didn’t get ill. Bloody duck. Eventually they moved me from the ten-person room into a single room, because my groans were apparently scaring off all the guests. Our host tried to explain that his hundred-year-old grandmother was dying. He asked me for an extra payment; I said I couldn’t give him anything because someone had pinched my wallet while I’d been lying there ill. He kicked me out; you could hear the curses two blocks away.
Of course nobody had taken my wallet. All my money was in a stomach pouch, which I had kept in my underpants. The pouch had changed colour with the progression of my stomach bug, as had the money inside it. Down at the riverside I soaked the banknotes until they were clean, above me the curve of Avignon Bridge, where there were still no women dancing. They must have moved to the local discos.
Eventually the banknotes turned from brown to green. I dried them on the embankment of the River Avignon, and placed small pebbles on top of them so that they wouldn’t be blown away. I watched the people fishing. Two dark-skinned men came up to me, their faces like the surface of a shrivelled raisin. They had noticed my money and had come to rob me. I hastily gathered up the notes and decided to jump into the river. The waves gushed at me: swim, lad, swim, we’ll carry you to the first palm tree. I never managed to wade out into the current; the men were already right next to me.
I decided to kick the one closest to me in the nuts before he could ask me anything. My thighs were so stiff from all the crouching that I couldn’t raise my leg more than five centimetres. The men asked me to look after their things while they went swimming. They piled up their clothes and wallets and glasses and jute shoulder bags and a pocket camera right there in front of me and went splashing into the water. I could easily have made off with their possessions and they wouldn’t have had time to run after me.
I waited for them to climb back up the embankment. I didn’t have the energy to run. The men thanked me and offered me some food from their bag. One of them took a photograph of me with the pocket camera. He asked for an address so he could send me the picture. I’d been warned against giving my address to strangers. As a precaution I gave them my grandmother’s address. If they turned up in Finland with the intention of robbing me, let them rob Grandma’s place, let them take all the hideous ornamental glass vases and the cuckoo clock that startled guests twenty-four times a day.
Later that autumn Grandma received a letter containing a photograph of me standing on the river embankment. Grandma said that I looked like a prisoner released from the Bergen–Belsen concentration camp. After my stomach bug I was nothing but skin and bones, and as I’d lain there ill the hostel owner had cropped my hair short because he’d thought I might have lice. Donald thought my shorn hair made me look like Johnny Rotten; it seemed a stomach bug suited me.
On the back of the photograph was a text. I had been certain that the men were after my money, that they would threaten to come to Finland all the way from Avignon and kill me if I didn’t give them anything. I gave the text to Tuija, a girl at school who studied French, and asked her to translate it. She told me it read: Heartfelt greetings to the boy from the North. Ahmed & Abdul.
When I look at that photograph I still hear the waves whispering: swim, lad, swim, we’ll carry you to the first palm tree. We’ll take you to Paradise.
Translated by David Hackston
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.
The first to go online was 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!
The red sphere of the sun plopped into the sea.
At 23.09 official summertime Köpi announced the reading from his wind-up pocket-watch.
‘There she goes,’ commented Aimo, gazing at the sunken red of the horizon, ‘but don’t you think it’ll pop back up again in another quarter of an hour, unless something absolutely amazing and new happens in the universe and the solar system tonight!’
Aimo pulled long, accelerating sweeps with his oars, slurped the phlegm in his throat, spat a gob overboard, smacked his lips and adjusted his tongue on its marks behind his teeth. There’s a respectable amount of talk about to come out of there, thought Köpi about his old friend’s gestures, and he was right.
‘Sure thing,’ was Aimo’s opening move, ‘darkness. Darkness, that’s the thing. I want to talk about it and on its behalf just now, now in particular, while we’re rowing on the shimmering sea at the lightest point of the summer.
‘A good 4.5 billion years ago there was a massive jolt in the Milky Way in roughly these regions. A lump of space-matter about the size of Mars – an asteroid – had strayed into the orbit of a planet-in-formation called Earth, driving towards it full speed ahead, slap-bang-wallop. The collision was so huge that the cores of both participants melted together in the heat it generated, after which they gradually cooled down and solidified into the core of the Earth, upon which, some considerable time later, the pyramids, the Uusimaa Bonk Centre and the Isokari lighthouse were built.
‘Fragments and other loose stuff was thrown into space to orbit the Earth in a disc. Gradually they came together as a result of the laws of gravity and formed a little ball, the Moon.
‘It’s this cosmic shock we have to thank for both our existence and the length of our days and our months.
‘The collision also slanted our revised planet’s axis of rotation to a slant of 23.5 degrees. And it’s like this, individually rotating on our tilted axis, that we still roll our orbit around the Sun, and the Moon does its own trustworthy work around us. And our speed has remained constant for billions of years: a full orbit takes exactly a year.
‘The seasons are the result of the fact that the Earth’s axis was permanently stuck in a slant, however much we orbit the nuclear power station of the Sun along our beautiful elliptical spatial track. So at different points on the track the rays from this hydrogen generating plant hit the surface of our globe at different angles. A large angle means long days and heat waves, a small one long nights, darkness and cold.
‘In what relation and what intervals these occur depends on what part of the globe you happen to live on. For us, living near the north pole, the radiation of the Sun’s nuclear reactor reaches us, on average, at a small angle. And just as well!
‘It is the climates generated by the annual variation in this radiation angle that have offered the possibility for the development of life on our planet. We must be grateful for light and heat, but just as grateful for darkness and the essential cooling it allows.
‘More than once, in the process of evolution, darkness and cold have turned out to be saviours of our developing species. The dinosaurs celebrated tens of millions fo years as autocrats of our spherical plot in entirely tropical conditions, until, 65 million years ago, Mexico was hit by a sufficiently large object from space to raise a cloud of dust that obscured the Sun. Plants died and the food-chain of the gluttonousdinosaurs was severed at the stem. So they, too, kicked the bucket, in hunger and cold.
‘Rat-like small mammals, our grandparents, coped better with these cold, dark conditions, feasting on the carcasses of the dinosaurs, multiplying and covering the Earth. In 50 million years, evolution rattled on, making apes from primal rats.
‘The present day began five million years ago, when humankind got up on its back feet near the Great Rift Valley of Africa. The cooler climates played tricks, bringing about every now and then – at least once in a hundred thousand years – ice ages an other irritations. We big-brained, dexterous swots had a good chance of doing well in the savannah’s battle for survival in these varying, difficult surroundings, these chilly, dim mists.
‘And after many exciting and sometimes hairy adventures, we conquered all our competitors and invented fire, the combustion engine, industry, the pocket computer, reality TV and insatiable markets. This gave the dinosaurs the opportunity for revenge from beyond the grave.
‘In our factories and in our cars, we’ve burned so many of the hydrocarbons that condensed out their carcasses in the bowels of the earth that the carbon cycle of our space garden, rotating on its tilted axis, has been disturbed. The carbon that was locked away in the earth has been sprinkled on the winds to clog the system’s natural ventilation. The thermostat is broken and the greenhouse is getting hotter.
‘We shall have to see what happens.
‘As we wait for the thrilling finale, it’s worth enjoying the cold, dark season whenever we have it. Nothing is more refreshing than horizontal hail on a slippery road on the way to work in the pitch dark! You really feel you’re alive – la condition humaine!’
‘And what about dark literature,’ interjected Köpi at the helm, refreshed by the mental image of late autumn. ‘Who do you think is the world’s darkest writer?’
Aimo rested his oars and thought for a moment before answering. ‘The American Ambrose Bierce. He is such a dark writer that he sheds a clear light from more than one hundred years ago. Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary is a colourful smear campaign of civilisation, one of a kind. This work has even been translated into Finnish, but so messily and modestly that I have left it be and translated it from the original as much as I’ve been able. It has a great definition of November: NOVEMBER (noun) The eleventh twelfth of a weariness.’
‘I remember those too,’ said Köpi delightedly. ‘That book is one of my favourites.’
The oarsman and the helmsman began to remember Bierce’s dictionary entries and definitions. A considerable hullaballoo and tumult of laughter spread over the calm waters of Hamskerinaukko, but never mind – the nearest human habitation was kilometres away. The following Bierce definitions, at least, were recalled through two-headed collaboration and collective fraternal effort:
MARRIAGE (noun): the state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress, and two slaves, making, in all, two.
LIFE (noun): a spiritual pickle preserving the body from decay.
PHILOSOPHY (noun): a route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.
TRUTHFUL (adjective): dumb and illiterate.
‘To read a good book is a work of art,’ said Köpi, ‘A good book turns its reader into an artist. If you can’t read well, enthusiastically and fearlessly even when the text happens to be strange, you will never learn to write, in other words to live. Without readers there would be no literary texts. The text itself is a bunch of clues offered to the reader, enticing him or her to form a chain of black marks into meaning.
‘Modern physics shows us that the world is empty.
‘Modern aesthetics shows us that literature consists of gaps.
‘The masterworks of world literature are really strange, shapeless, uneven, scabby and feral: Don Quijote, Oblomov, Huckleberry Finn, Pride and Prejudice! A good reader and citizen trains over the course of his lifetime in the capacity to encounter strangeness fearlessly.
‘In Finnish, the root of the most important doing word of our lives, tietää, to know, is tie, road. The word entered the Finnish language at a time when the road was not a four-lane asphalt canyon dug out of the ground, signposted and lit, but a route through virgin forest and swamp that you had to know in order to follow. True knowledge, tietäminen, is independent wandering, route-finding, rambling, continual travelling to new, often unknown destinations.
‘Everyone is a traveller, a writer, an eternal student, an eternal writer, an eternal sceptic.
‘The terrain is difficult.
‘We live in a cultural space in which anything can be anything. Things only have exchange value. Whatever is on top at a given moment is true. Our production institutions do not produce things that are good to use, but things that generate the most profit.
‘The artist, in other words the poet, in other words the human being, makes cracks in this mass delusion, cracks through which the world flows into our lives. True knowledge flows. Unknowedge, the lack of true knowledge, is the root of all evil. Wise laughter is the source of all good.
‘The funniest Finnish plays, Nummisuutarit [Heath Cobblers] and its little sister, Kihlaus [The engagement], are made up of tragic materials, unsuccessful love and final loneliness. Aleksis Kivi’s laughter, however, is not mocking but comforting. The first laughter in the universe came from a cavewoman who laughed at her self-important caveman, the tribe’s Great Hunter; she taught him to laugh, even at himself.
‘In the beginning was Error. Life is a matter of stumbling and wandering. The world isn’t complete until the day we die. Until then all we can do is row bravely on. The destination, however, is fixed: our own grave. It is comforting to think that we will find our way there and that even the weaker oarsman will find it and have the energy to reach it. Everyone will get there! The reindeer herder of Lake Sevettijärvi, Sofi Oksanen and the former Communist Björn ‘Nalle’ Wahlroos are all on their way to the same place.
‘In America there are apparently some rich materialists who do not consent to this, but have instead given instructions for their bodies to be frozen at the moment of death, in order that future science should bring them back to life. There is the risk that the world will end first. If I were God, in other words the Greatest Humorist, I would, wilfully, bring everyone back to life, the most drunken Sevetti reindeer herdsman and the most sinful person ever, but I would let the frozen ones stay frozen forever, as a monument to the greatest stupidity and selfishness, the denial of death. In a word: capitalism.’
The prow of the boat bumped against the jetty terrace of the Wild Rose restaurant. Aimo moored the boat to a stake and the oarsmen climbed onto the terrace and ordered some beers.
Köpi woke up on the morning of 17 July and, unusually, remembered his dream. He had dreamed an angel had appeared to him and given him a lecture on the sausage, the long jump and the work of art. Thus spake the angel:
‘In the case of the sausage you can cut a slice, weigh it, wrap it up, estimate the price per kilo as defined by the conjunctures of the market forces and laws of supply and demand, and sell it. In the same way, the long jump is a clear case, governed by agreed rules. You measure the distance between the front edge of the plank and the rear edge of the mark in the sand and obtain result measured in centimetres. The sausage becomes problematic when you begin to talk about what it tastes like. What is good, what is better, what is unacceptable. The long-jump debate rapidly becomes chaotic if you start to award points for style – whose performance was the most daring, the springiest, the most complete, the most organic leap from plank to sand?
‘A work of art has neither weight nor length. There is nothing measurable about it. It is a human creation, a cultural tool, an artefact like the sausage or the long jump, but it differs in one essential respect. The work of art is a shout. It is the opening of a conversation. It is the first term in a dialogue. After that, the conversation is continued by experiencers and experiencers’ experiencers. This conversation is articulated in many different ways and may continue for thousands of years. It is both in invisible and visible, conscious and unconscious. It takes the form of thought, speech, writing, criticism, scholarship, parody, interpretation, interpretation of interpretation and even interpretation of interpretation, which will eventually be examined by some future PhD student. The shout of a work of art brings echoes from other artists, who begin their own fields of conversation and echoes.
‘The role of the human being is to eat tofu sausage, do the long jump and participate in the unending conversation about art, which will never be complete. Time’s judgement is merciless. Ben Jonson was the cash cow of Shakespeare’s London. The poet V.A. Koskenniemi was feted in the 1930s; no one noticed Volter Kilpi. The ultimate truth is still unrecognised. It is known only by God the Mother.’
At this point Köpi woke up, happy. He awarded his dream, and his unconscious, an excellent grade. The transformation of sausage into tofu and God’s femininity were particularly charming details. The angel was also unforgettable: a sixtyish, stout, very short-sighted transvestite with thick glasses. He had wings on his back, and on his bottom was a long tail.
Progress was darkling. The nights had drawn in and summer had turned to autumn. Aimo’s nightlight glimmered in the prow as the boat progressed stroke by stroke, metre by metre, towards Raahe. A big tanker came towards them and they circled it humbly from a distance on the landward side. The harbour waters of Raahe concealed treacherous rocks, which they avoided and circled successfully. Aimo tricked the night wind into blowing a little, much needed help into the sail; Köpi put all the strength of his body into long, forward-moving strokes of the oars.
At three o’clock in the morning of 20 July the boat was moored in the centre of Raahe, at the Naval Museum’s jetty. Raahe was dreaming. The oarsmen had mattresses and sleeping bags in the boat and made their beds on the jetty, beneath the sky of space. Aimo fell asleep in a second; it took Köpi a minute….
The oarsmen were now ready for the last lap of the voyage…. Set-off at 1pm. They had noticed from the map, and confirmed through observation, that a short-cut canal had been dug from the city basin that would save them many a sweaty kilometre: it ran from the Pikkulahti swimming beach via an angle bend directly northwards. That’s the way they pointed their prow. Aimo rowed, Köpi steered.
‘It can’t be true,’ said Köpi. From the tone of his voice, Aimo understood immediately. A glance over the shoulder and the matter was clear. No words were needed. Köpi steered them to the swimming beach. Clothes off, swimming trunks on. A climb up the ten-metre diving platform. Aimo in front, Köpi behind. Dizziness, dive, flight, splash. Wild joy at daring to do it once more. The body and the body’s strangest part, the brain, refreshed, they continued on the last lap.
Popping through the canal and Kylmälahti bay, they found themselves on the open sea, and took a northerly course. A light following breeze helped them enough that they hoisted a sail, which gave the oarsman some background support. They had to circle Tauvonneimi peninsula, hooking a long way to the west to avoid fishing nets and shallows. Small disagreements as to course. Aimo thought he could see a sandbank ahead. Köpi thought Aimo was blind and lilylivered. The conflict was resolved tactfully and a compromise, which proved useful, made about direction….
They were already just a couple of kilometres away. Triumphant strokes with the oars, knowing exactly where they were going, heading there. Hailuoto was known territory for both of them. They had been hiking in this unique spot together and separately at all seasons. The only tree, a rowan, was a certain landmark. Nevertheless they came ashore on a sandbank when they tried enthusiastically to take a short cut. Never mind, they pushed the boat off into deeper waters, threading their way back into the channel demarcated by the buoys and whizzed into the lee of Pöllänlahti bay. And that is how, with celebratory strokes of the oar, they made land at Pöllä at 21.56 according to Köpi’s pocket watch. A recount gave the result of 20 days and 26 minutes. They reflected that no one could have rowed the distance between Kustavi and Hailuoto faster since the Vikings and Väinämöinen, and were satisfied.
Translated by Hildi Hawkins
At the top of the list of best-selling books – compiled by the Finnish Booksellers’ Association – in March was the first novel by Tommi Kinnunen, a teacher of Finnish language and literature from Turku. In Neljäntienristeys (‘The crossing of four roads’, WSOY) the narrative spans a century beginning in the late 19th century and is set mainly in Northern Finland, focusing on the lives of four people related to each other. Undoubtedly well-written, it continues the popular tradition of realistic novels set in the 20th-century Finland.
Finland is a small country with one exceptionally large newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat (read by more than 800,000 people daily). The annual literary prize that carries the paper’s name is awarded to a best first work, and candidates are assessed throughout the year.
In February the paper’s literary critic Antti Majander declared in his review of Kinnunen’s book: ’Such weighty and sure-footed prose debuts appear seldom. If I were to say a couple of times in a decade, I would probably be being over-enthusiastic. But let it be. Critics’ measuring sticks are destined for the bonfire.’
In March, Kinnunen’s book immediately shot to number one on the list of the best-selling books. (Other professional critics have also noted the mature skills of the author.)
Number two was another first novel, published last autumn and still exceptionally popular, about problems arising in a religious family, Taivaslaulu (‘Heaven song’, Gummerus) by Pauliina Rauhala. Number three was February’s number one, Fingerpori 7, a comic book by Pertti Jarla.
A Dance with Dragons by the American sci-fi and fantasy writer George R.R. Martin led the list of translated fiction. On the non-fiction list of 20 books there were eight books on cooking and food, and one on slimming…. To the second place rose the biography of the artist, writer and creator of the Moomins Tove Jansson (1914–2001) compiled by Tuula Karjalainen.
The architect and writer Arne Nevanlinna (born 1925) published his first novel, Marie,in 2008; it became one of the six finalists for the Finlandia Prize of Fiction. His fourth novel, Heta, is set in Helsinki in the late 20th century. It depicts the Swedish-speaking Celerius family: Gustava’s seven children – three have died – and their spouses come to celebrate her 70th birthday. Noblesse oblige – the general’s widow is not wealthy, but Gustava has to keep up appearances, so she has four servants. One of them is the bright orphan girl Heta, too often called Clubfoot, because her left leg is shorter than the right, and who, to her surprise, finds out she can read people’s minds. When Gustava dies unexpectedly, poor Heta becomes a murder suspect. The plot takes surprising turns, and the epilogue, in which Heta herself is the narrator, presents the reader with even more revelations; love, it turns out, does conquer all. Nevanlinna’s depictions of the milieu and the era are colourful, and his narrative is laced with plenty of satirical comedy.
When Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s largest newspaper, asked its readers and critics in 2013 to list the ten best novels of the 2000s, the result was a surprisingly unanimous victory for the historical novel.
Both groups listed as their top choices – in the very same order – the following books: Sofi Oksanen: Puhdistus (English translation Purge; WSOY, 2008), Ulla-Lena Lundberg: Is (Finnish translation Jää, ‘Ice’, Schildts & Söderströms, 2012) and Kjell Westö: Där vi en gång gått (Finnish translation Missä kuljimme kerran; ‘Where we once walked‘, Söderströms, 2006).
What kind of historical novel wins over a large readership today, and conversely, why don’t all of the many well-received novels set in the past become bestsellers?
In the 2000s, Finnish novels built on a historical foundation have stepped firmly outside the country’s borders. Kristina Carlson, Katri Lipson and Sofi Oksanen have all written effectively about human destinies outside of Finland. Of the three, Oksanen is already an international success story, but Carlson and Lipson have also been critically praised, translated and awarded prizes.
Riikka Pelo’s Jokapäiväinen elämämme (‘Our everyday lives’, Teos, 2013) is a new chapter in this spate of novels situated in European history, a broad spectacle of the Russian psychological landscape that opens in the 1920s and ends in the 1940s. Through the main character, poet Marina Tsvetayeva, and her daughter Ariadna (Alya) Efron, the novel tells the story of a region split by war. Like Oksanen’s Estonian series, Pelo’s novel is a labour camp story, part of the genre she calls gulag literature.
The narrative style of Jokapäiväinen elämämme is that of the modern personal history. Its point of view is quite free in its assemblage, combining various narrative strategies and layers of reality. Winner of last year’s Finlandia Prize for Fiction, the book has been greeted with critical acclaim although its text, often poetic, with shifting points of view, has also been called ‘unwieldy’. It eschews an objective, analytical perspective on historical reality, leaving, for example, the relationships among the characters up to the reader’s interpretation.
An extract from Jokapäiväinen elämämme:
When the lights of the fast train to Paris struck the attic window Marina woke up next to Alya. The child was deep asleep, and didn’t awaken with her movements. The lamp flame flickered; it would go out soon, sucking the last of the oil with it like the darkness sucked away the time itself, the order of things.
She didn’t used to be afraid of the dark, had been incapable of fearing anything, but since she’d been here she had often gone to bed when Alya did, to cover up the darkness with sleep. But there was a new, gentler quality in the darkness now, it felt like she had become a child again, like she might not remember the names people gave to objects and things as they changed their shapes in the dusk, but she could hear how they breathed, what their names were. She could hear the trees outside breathing, too, saying goodbye.
Winter was an endless night, filled with alienation and oddness, the days opening just a crack for a few hours from within a grey fog. There wasn’t even any snow at first. In Moscow there was always light somewhere, someone shouting, whispering, fighting, singing, but here, in this place that thought it was in the middle of Europe but was in fact a blind spot, far flung, out in the woods, there was nothing but darkness. When the hood of night slid over the hills and villages the whole rest of the world ceased to exist and they were all alone in the dark, just she and Alya and the gas furnace she was supposed to keep watch over through the night so it didn’t go out, so the flame wouldn’t escape, and the lights from trains between Prague and Beroun ate up the snowy river shore every hour or two, and even they stopped running by ten o’clock.
It was difficult to write at night; she needed mornings, and even the morning dark was a long one. The church was right next to the house and there the lights came on early, in the dark and slush, you could cross the road no matter how icy the weather was, however dark it was, even in your nightie, at an hour when you couldn’t go into the forest or the mountains, but you could go to the first mass at six o’clock. And the forest frightened her at night, even though the moon shone and she was starting to learn the paths. But it was like going into her deepest self, into what she didn’t want to see, didn’t want to hear, though the night sounds followed her into her dreams, too – a bird, a night moth, deer and roe, whatever it was that was stirring there, even the animals had no names or histories. And Alya was afraid of bands of thieves and the people who hated them, hated all Russians, came stinking from the taverns and went from house to house and took whatever they could find, leaving humiliation behind. But she wasn’t afraid of them. She only feared her own dreams, waking with a scream that had no sound.
Pelo’s novel, which has been described as ‘challenging but rewarding’, wasn’t expected to receive the commercial success of Oksanen, Lundberg and Westö’s Finlandia Prize winner, but its Finnish readership has surprised the pessimists; as of the end of 2013 the book had sold more than 50,000 copies.
War and the environment surrounding war are the most important narrative canvas for the Finnish historical novel. Väinö Linna’s (1920–1992) novels Tuntematon sotilas (The Unknown Soldier, WSOY, 1954) and Täällä Pohjantähden alla I–III (Under the North Star, 1959–62) in many ways form the literary historical background on which later wartime narratives have been written.
The inception of the modern Finnish historical war novel, however, can be traced to the novel Vuoden 1918 tapahtumat (‘The incidents of 1918’, Otava, 1960) by Veijo Meri, a leading modernist prose writer of the 1950s. Its narrative makes use of a problematicisation of story, viewpoint, and character that is seen in many other later books in the genre. The civil war has been portrayed many times before and after Meri, but neve had a historical novel so freely rejected the traditional pillars of the form. The contradictions of its anecdotes and scattered points of view test the concepts of character, point of view and plot.
Meri consciously left the war’s background of class conflict unanalysed – no one within the world of his novel provides a political historical explanation for the events of 1918, the year of the Civil War. Meri’s modernist break with realism is a powerful predecessor for today’s historical novel. The book has always been described as ‘disconnected’ and ‘associative’. The best analysis of the novel in recent years is author and theatremaker Juha Hurme’s afterword to the 2006 reissue: ‘This is vexing, brain taxing literature that demands effort and carries its trademark impudence and mischievousness with pride.”
Jenni Linturi’s second novel Malmi, 1917 (Teos, 2013) is set on the eve of the Finnish Civil War, in the autumn of the general strike, when the first violent confrontations between the ‘reds’ and the ‘whites’ were occurring around Helsinki and the parties in the conflict were gathering their forces. The central characters are two families of whites, the young members in particular. Linturi (born 1979) doesn’t provide a portrait of any of the reds; they are merely potato thieves and starving beggar children seen in quick glimpses.
Linturi’s thematic idea is to use social conflict as a window on a turning point of the modern era, as the young people of the story, balanced on the dividing line between the old and the new world, make very different choices than their parents. Linturi’s treatment of the language question is one interesting aspect of the story. The Finnish and Swedish languages have at different times been tied up with themes of class difference and even today language is still not a neutral issue in this bilingual country.
An extract from Malmi, 1917:
The spray of raindrops bounced against the lighted bookstore display window. He stood next to Antero and stared at the play of drops. The weather was like the shoemaker’s new bride, heavy and ugly. The trees were sweating – lime and pine trees. Inside the window was a classroom display – a desk covered in non-fiction, pulp fiction, 25-penny books for boys, Jack London, Kipling’s adventures. Where the blackboard should be was a map like the one his father had. Two big roads tugging a bunch of smaller ones along like clotheslines. That’s what Malmi village looked like from above.
‘What’s that supposed to be?’
Antero was pointing to a green book, Blad ur min tänkebok by Zacharias Topelius. A picture painted on glass hung behind it, a hazy bare-chested angel with pale curls. His wings looked like they were growing out of his ears. Maybe it was painted by the shopkeeper’s wife or daughter. The all-hearing ear angel. Antero thought the creature bore a striking resemblance to a homo person.
‘Some people say angels don’t have a sex.’
‘People say all kinds of things nowadays. These red bows, for instance. Perfectly rational people have started wearing them right here.’
Antero tapped his chest with a finger. Just then a bell rang, high and clear, as if his heart had played the notes. The shopkeeper walked into the street wearing a striped pullover, his shirt sleeves rolled up. Oiva nodded faintly, just to avoid pointless misunderstandings. The shopkeeper looked past him and took off his hat. A horse with a blaze on its nose came around a tall building and turned onto the street pulling a row of open black cars behind it. The white casket was closed, its lower half covered in flowers and a black and yellow flag. Oiva quickly removed his own cap. The hatband was yellowed from sweat. He didn’t let that bother him. Discomfort meant life, at least, instead of death, which was nothing but darkness, the end of everything.
When the procession had turned into the station and the whistle of the funeral train trailed off mournfully, Oiva put his cap back on and pushed it to the back of his head. The bookseller continued to grip his own hat, as if its narrow brim were made of anger. He said that a week ago the unemployed had started demanding resignations from the police force. When the police refused, three officers were stabbed near the cemetery. After that bit of news, Antero didn’t feel like correcting the man’s poor Finnish. The disgusting thought of minds wallowing in Swedish language was overriden by the even more revolting thought of hearts wallowing in Ruskie ideas. That was why decent men had ended up in a pine box. The shopkeeper looked like he was thinking the same thing. He shook his head once, as if that wordless gesture was meant to say that horror united them more than their languages divided them. Then he turned and went back into the bookstore.
Linturi’s novel has had a somewhat mixed reception. It has been praised for its skillfully constructed dramatic narrative as well as its characterisations and the way it freely shifts among differing points of view. On the other hand, reviewers have been critical of the novel’s lack of new perspectives and historical interpretations, as if the story is attempting to avoid taking any side at all in the Civil War. The sparse style of the characterisations has also upset some readers who feel that the book lacks characters they can identify with.
Linturi seems to write over earlier narratives of the Civil War – Väinö Linna’s two worlds of the reds and the whites are not presented. This very aspect is, in the spirit of Veijo Meri, the novel’s strength.
A thought-provoking historical novel is different than other kinds of ‘challenging’ prose. Stories set in the past are expected to rest on historiography. Readers expect the narration to be a commentary, an analysis that follows the course of events and keeps its characters distinct. If they cannot identify with the characters, they don’t feel the story has succeeded. Unusual, unreliable points of view in a political-historical novel caused strong reactions half a century ago, and they still do today.
Translated by Lola Rogers
The airport is a fertile environment for a contemporary novel: a crucible of chance encounters. In his sixth, extensive novel, Hannu Raittila (born 1956) masterfully combines plot and structure: there is adventure, personal relationships, hard living, a love affair, life on a remote Swedish-speaking island. Commodore Lampen sets out to look for his daughter Paula, who has been forcibly brought back to Finland after spending years touring foreign airports. Back in the 1990s Paula and her friend Sara spent a lot of time at Helsinki airport, which developed its own culture of international encounters; this then took them abroad – by accident, on 11 September 2001. Various adventures ensued, including an involvement with the Syrian civil war. Globalisation is based on the free mobility of goods and people, but it also means crumbling of societal structures, and in Raittila’s novel – paradoxically enough – the growing rarity of human encounter.
It seems that the Finlandia Prize does, as intended, have a strong influence in book sales. In December, a novel about the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva by Riikka Pelo, Jokapäiväinen elämämme (’Our everyday life’), which won the fiction prize in December, reached number one on the list of best-selling Finnish fiction.
The next four books on the list – compiled by the Finnish Booksellers’ Association – were the latest thriller by Ilkka Remes, Omertan liitto (‘The Omerta union’), a novel Me, keisarinna (‘We, the tsarina’), about the Russian empress Catherine the Great by Laila Hirvisaari, a novel, Hägring 38 (‘Mirage 38’), by Kjell Westö, and a novel, Kunkku (‘The king’), by Tuomas Kyrö.
The winner of the Finlandia Prize for Non-Fiction, Murtuneet mielet (‘Broken minds’), about the mentally crippled Finnish soldiers in the Second World War, also did well: it was number two on the non-fiction list. (Number one was a book about a Finnish actor and television presenter, Ville Haapasalo, who trained at the theatre academy in St Petersburg and became a film star in Russia.)
The ten best-selling books for children and young people were all Finnish (and written in Finnish): it seems that this time the buyers of Christmas presents favoured books written by Finnish authors.
This novel is a satirical alternative history of successful Finland and self-destructive Sweden. It is also the story of the king of Finland – the protagonist, Kalle XIV Penttinen, is driven by his instincts, which causes him to fail as a family man. Pena, as he is called, would like to play tennis all day long and watch pole dancing at night. Finland is a fantastic wonderland of film and music industry, tennis, space technology and innovative legal usage, whereas Sweden, ravaged by war, suffers from the trauma that passes from one generation to the next. Estonia has done well for a long time, and the Soviet Union (sic) is a stronghold of democracy. Chuckling, Kyrö turns history upside down. As a writer of short prose and tragicomic novels he is currently a very popular author. However, this time his typically witty associations and inventive comedy suffer from the sheer size of this novel.
Leena Parkkinen’s first novel, Sinun jälkeesi, Max (‘After you, Max’) was awarded the Helsingin Sanomat literature prize for best first work of 2009. Her new novel contains crime story ingredients, but the focus is on love between siblings, loss and the demand for truth. The story begins in 1947, after the war, on an island in the south-western Finnish archipelago. Sebastian, brother of Karen, has returned from the front; it’s time to mend the best clothes and dancing shoes. But to the horror of the island community, the body of a young girl is found on the shore, and Sebastian gets the blame. Sixty-five years later her brother’s fate has not left Karen alone, and she sets out to find the truth. Capable of handling different times, Parkkinen (born 1979) is also a skilful interpreter of conflicting sentiments, as unexpected twists develop towards the end.
Johanna Sinisalo’s new novel Auringon ydin (‘The core of the sun‘, Teos, 2013), invites readers to take part in a thought experiment: What if a few minor details in the course of history had set things on a different track?
If Finnish society were built on the same principle of sisu, or inner grit, as it is now but with an emphasis on slightly different aspects, Finland in 2017 might be a ‘eusistocracy’. This term comes from the ancient Greek and Latin roots eu (meaning ‘good’) and sistere (‘stop, stand’), and it means an extreme welfare state.
In the alternative Finland portrayed in Auringon ydin, individual freedoms have been drastically restricted in the name of the public good. Restrictions have been placed on dangerous foreign influences: no internet, no mobile phones. All mood-enhancing substances such as alcohol and nicotine have been eradicated. Only one such substance remains in the authorities’ sights: chilli, which continues to make it over the border on occasion.
Vanna, the book’s protagonist, is hooked on chilli – or more precisely, the capsaicin contained within chillies. She needs ever-larger doses to feel a proper ‘hit’. In order to ensure a regular supply of chilli fixes, Vanna becomes a dealer. No one would suspect her of committing a crime, because she is an Eloi, a woman ‘who is active in the mating market and for whom the promotion of all aspects of male well-being is key’.
In this eusistocratic society, women have been divided into two groups on the basis of their utility. The feminine Eloi focus on pleasing men, looking after the home and giving birth to children. Morlocks, on the other hand, are sterilised so that they do not carry on their line of ‘defective’ women, and instead focus on performing work. Sinisalo has borrowed these designations from H.G. Wells’ classic 1895 science fiction novella The Time Machine.
In Auringon ydin there are two types of men as well: the super-manly Mascus (from the word masculine) and the wimpy Minusmen. Jare, another chilli addict and a Mascu, falls in love with Vanna, and their relationship leads them into life-threatening situations.
Johanna Sinisalo’s satire is bitingly on-target in the scenes where the Eloi’s education is reminiscent of dog obedience classes. The image of a country where the Health Authority decides what people require is pure black humour – it would be hilarious if it weren’t so frightening.
Sinisalo is a social critic, but her writing is very tangible, appealing to the senses. It makes for a unique reading experience: highly immersive, almost breath-taking. Vanna has the condition known as synaesthesia. She can smell other people’s emotions – delight smells like freshly mown grass, while love smells of rosemary – and she experiences the fire of capsaicin as colours and sounds. Sinisalo’s highly sensory prose achieves brilliance when one day Vanna gets hold of a fresh chilli – something she has never even seen before.
Tracking down the source of the chilli, Vanna discovers a mystical cult known as Gaianism. She witnesses the Gaianists developing the world’s hottest chilli variety, called the Core of the Sun. When she samples the new variety, Vanna finally comes to realise why chillies have been banned in the Eusistocratic Republic of Finland.
Johanna Sinisalo’s debut work, Not Before Sundown (original Finnish title: Ennen päivänlaskua ei voi, Tammi, 2000), is about a man who brings a troll home and falls under its woodland spell. That novel also features themes central to all of Sinisalo’s writing: fantasy, folklore and the mysticism of nature, as well as equality and the means of exercising power. Sinisalo was awarded the Finlandia Prize for Fiction for Not Before Sundown (now translated into 13 languages). Auringon ydin is her seventh novel.
Sinisalo is responsible for introducing a new boundary-breaking subgenre known as Finnish weird to literature in Finland. In her novels, fantasy serves as the catalyst for laying bare the dark sides of human nature and power structures. Then again, truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction: Auringon ydin contains an article on eugenics which was published in a Finnish magazine in 1935. Sinisalo demonstrates that ‘weird’ is never very far from everyday reality.
Translated by Ruth Urbom
‘We call the chilli the Inner Fire that we try to tame, just as our forefathers tamed the Worldly Fire before it.’
Mirko pauses dramatically, and Valtteri interrupts. ‘Eusistocratic Finland offers us unique opportunities for experimentation and development. Once all those intoxicants affecting our neurochemistry and the nervous system have been eradicated from society, we will be able to conduct our experiments from a perfectly clean slate.’
‘We fully understand the need to ban alcohol and tobacco. These substances have had significant negative societal impact. And though in hedonistic societies it is claimed that drinks such as red wine can, in small amounts, promote better health, there is always the risk of slipping towards excessive use. All substances that cause states of restlessness and a loss of control over the body have been understandably outlawed, because they can cause harm not only to abusers themselves but also to innocent bystanders,’ Mirko continues.
This is nothing new to me, but I must admit that the criminalisation of chillies has always been a mystery to me. By all accounts it is extremely healthy and contains all necessary vitamins and antioxidants. A dealer that I met once told me that people in foreign countries think eating chillies can lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels – and even prevent cancer. If someone makes a pot of tom yam soup, sweats and pants over it and enjoys the rush it gives him, how is that a threat, either to society or to our health?
What the hell does it matter if somebody ends up with a capsaicin addiction, if feeding that addiction neither causes increased crime rates nor weakens that person’s health? I’ll bet you, even in hedonistic societies there are plenty of caffeine addicts who don’t go around robbing banks to get their next fix of espresso. Perhaps coffee is banned in Finland because it’s viewed as a luxury import item that unsettles the balance of trade. That I could understand. But why chillies? After all, Finland imports expensive oranges too.
There has to be some other variable that I didn’t know about. But Mirko doesn’t appear to have a stance on this.
‘Here, both body and mind are unsullied and thus more receptive to the Inner Fire. And then, in turn, to the Lower World,’ Mirko continued his liturgy.
‘Finland has a noble past, one that is closer than we remember. Now merged with the general population, the ancient peoples of the north knew of methods to help people abandon their fragile shells, leaving their souls to roam freely.’
I raise my eyebrows. Though I’ve learnt large chunks of the Gaians’ so-called philosophy and opinions by rote, just so I can pass for one a bona fide nut-job believer if necessary, this nonsense was completely new to me.
‘The shamans of Lapland had a variety of practices used to achieve that nirvana, like drumming and singing to induce a state of trance. Sometimes they even tried to free their spirits using intoxicating mushrooms, which, our research shows, were both insufficient for the purpose and poisonous, and could even harm the individual. But the chilli works differently. It produces pure pain and pure rapture. In high density, capsaicin can produce a valuable sensitisation. It fosters calmness and sharpens the senses to the extreme. Focus my eyes, Chilli, and I shall See. And that, indeed, is what happens.’
‘Our goal is to find the strongest possible chilli, one with which we can ignite the Inner Fire at will and spread it throughout our midst,’ Valtteri chimes in.
V chuckles. The amused smirk is like a punch. Mirko’s eyes flash, his high forehead wrinkles, but V seems unperturbed:
‘This is all highly fascinating, but sadly doesn’t hold up to scrutiny one bit. If we were to forget the shaman nonsense for a minute and concentrate on physiologically proven effects, then why don’t you simply extract pure capsaicin from the chilli fruit and enjoy that? The strength of chemically distilled crystalline capsaicin is around 16 million Scoville units. You can reach a few million Scovilles simply by isolating the oleoresins from the fruit. Why take the trouble to refine new strands, when you could much more easily separate the alkaloids from plants technically?’
I expect Mirko to snap something livid in return, but instead he simply gazes at the calmly arrogant figure of V as though she were a child who doesn’t yet understand matters. ‘First of all, pure capsaicin is so strong that even a few grams can render the body in shock. In testing, some animals even died after their respiratory system went into paralysis. Secondly, any living plant, grown in fertile soil, has a unique energy all of its own that will be destroyed when we try to chemically condense its constituent parts. I knew how wholly unscientific this must sound to your ears, but it is for precisely this reason that, for instance, the health benefits of the Vitamin C in carrots is significantly reduced when the vegetable is boiled. Certain handling methods destroy the fundamental essence of certain substances. The artificial rendering of capsaicin from the chilli itself destroys its natural Inner Fire, the fruit’s bio-aura, leaving nothing but a cold, soulless, mechanical and chemical impact behind….’
Valtteri has been following the conversation alertly and clears his throat. ‘I know of no other plant that has more myths and beliefs associated with it that the chilli. Much of our oral tradition is nothing but superstition and plain nonsense, but some ancient beliefs actually have a firm scientific basis…. People have sought out the chilli in virtually all cultures, as it was considered an almost magically potent aide and companion. Now we know it has an effect on the dopamine receptors in the brain, so it should come as no surprise that chillies have been used throughout the centuries to cure all manner of ailments. And in addition to curing bodily ills, it has been used to stave off witches and the evil eye, and to exorcise demons.’
This changes V’s expression. She becomes serious and bites her lip as though momentarily lost in thought. ‘All right. Of course, the matter doesn’t remotely concern me, except that you say you need to find a test subject. Why don’t you test it yourselves?’
‘We don’t wish to enjoy it yet. We shall restrain ourselves until we have enriched the perfect strand. There would be no sense in building up our own tolerance – we wish to surrender to the Inner Fire like virgins, when it is ready to receive us.’
‘I can only imagine,’ retorts V drily.
‘We seek a lost, seamless unity with nature. A state in which humans are removed from what some might call civilised society. A state known only too well to the shamans. Being completely at one with the world. Release from the shackles of humanity. How much we shall then learn of the reality beyond our limited bodies, just as the shamans knew before us!’
From a publication on dangerous and undesirable substances, disseminated by the State Health Authority
As the capsaicin found in chilli fruits and their derivatives can withstand extended periods of preservation, e.g. in dried, frozen or cooked states, the isolation and complete extermination of such a treacherous substance presents significant challenges. Through its dogged and tireless work, the State Health Authority has nonetheless succeeded in eradicating this substance from Finland almost entirely.
V’s voice is dripping with sarcasm. For the first time ever, I see Valtteri agitated. ‘Let’s talk your language for a moment. This state is known as a possession trance, something that has been the subject of some very serious research. Fakirs and shamans sought a state of possession trance, often by cutting themselves. However, using chillies they would have been able to activate their pain receptors just as effectively – by using capsaicin to stimulate the trigeminal cells of the mouth and stomach. These cells release certain neuropeptides, which in turn accelerate dopamine metabolism. These very neuropeptides may produce other kinds of neurological effects which we shall attempt to research empirically.’
Valtteri and V stare at one another; in their ongoing jousting match Valtteri has just scored a hit. Suddenly V smirks.
‘Then why didn’t you say so in the first place?’
Valtteri bursts into laughter, but Mirko is still serious.
‘Take me, Chilli, and I shall Escape. We shall seek the path and take many others with us,’ he says, and Terhi chimes in: ‘But our escape shall be inwards, not outwards.’
I take the Core of the Sun from my dress pocket and look at it from all sides, dangling it from the stalk careful not to touch the flesh with my bare fingers. Chillies can usually be handled without protective gloves as long as the surface of the skin hasn’t been cut. A thin, strong wax-like shell keeps the capsaicin nicely inside. But I wouldn’t be so sure about this particular specimen. The way of the chilli is not the way of the finger.
Is this what it feels like to touch an unexploded bomb?
On the desk in front of me is a pair of disposable plastic gloves from the secret stash beneath the living-room floor. For us, though, they’re not disposable; we’ll reuse them as long as they don’t break. Wearing a protective mask we wash them outside with hot water, which produces such capsaicin-rich steam that you’ll cough and your eyes start to water, and sometimes you’ll even get the tiniest fix just from inhaling it.
Beside me are the small chopping board I took from the kitchen and a knife I’ve sharpened with great care. The knife is so sharp that I easily cut a wafer-thin slice of the Core of the Sun. The smell doesn’t have that same penetrating fruitiness, that almost citrus quality that you find in habañeros, but there’s a similar sense of the tropical, with added spice and smoke. My nostrils itch. I blurt out a sneeze and have to catch my breath for a moment.
This baby’s capsaicin is apparently so strong that I can sense it a metre away.
Is this really such a good idea, I ask myself as I stare at the almost invisible sliver of fruit on the wooden chopping board.
I snatch up the slice and pop it in my mouth.
I bite into it.
I can’t feel anything in my mouth.
Something happens all the same, as my heart speeds up to a gallop and time slows to a crawl –
My head is immersed in white light. The fire is so bright that I imagine it glowing through the seams of my skull.
In fact, it is so white that there is no word for it; it is beyond white. Fresh snow on a bright winter’s day seems grey in comparison; this is searingly white, blindingly white, ultra-white, it is the simultaneous combination and negation of all the colours in the world, and my head starts to ring with excruciatingly high tinnitus, as though I had suddenly acquired the ability to hear a dog’s whistle, one whose sound is so taut and beyond all other sensations that it is like a beam from a distant star translated into sound.
The sound becomes so high that I can no longer hear it.
I stand still as my sight gradually returns, and time has stopped. Though my mouth is full of spit and my entire body is sweating, my tongue isn’t burning, lava doesn’t seem to be heaving along my throat, my stomach isn’t constricted by a great iron belt.
This stuff is off my sensory spectrum.
And because the needle is so far off the scale, the brain doesn’t know how to react. And because it doesn’t know what to do with such a strong sensory experience, it decides not to do anything. Rendered helpless, the brain simply throws in the towel.
My head spins and I feel light, I’m so full of endorphins that I’ll soon rise up into the air. I really do float upwards, and it feels rather nice, I’m weightless, almost carried by the wind, and I can see a thick layer of dust on top of the wardrobe – it hasn’t been dusted, probably because it’s too tall, reaching up almost to the ceiling – and there in the dust is a spider carcass, while beneath me an Eloi stands stock still, in front of her a small chopping board, a knife and an ominous-looking chilli.
It takes me a moment to realise that, wow, that’s me.
I try to move, I could slip out through the opened window if I wanted to, I can sense the life buzzing on the other side of the windowpane, birches and spruces and grass and roses and worms and beetles and midges, somewhere a fox is skulking and somewhere a hare is hopping and I could hop beside it, ride pillion in its guts, a part of its brain as it hops towards the sun; hear what it hears, see what it sees.
Somewhere on the periphery of my sensory world there come ghost-like, booming clusters, like distant echoes. It must be the Gaians.
A fly is buzzing in the window, its sound pealing, penetrating, hypnotic. I move, only ever so slightly, and for a fraction of a second I am within someone else, and that other person is like a dogged, determined, dexterous little set of cogs that sees the world as an intoxicating pattern of flickering dots. Then I move further away, as light as a breath.
This is the breakthrough.
The Core of the Sun works.
Unity with nature. So it wasn’t some mytho-magical hogwash after all, but a perfectly clear, practical objective.
Being at one with the world. Releasing the shackles of the body.
‘Our escape shall be inwards, not outwards.’
I flinch with shock, and it takes a millisecond before my eyes are able to focus. There he is, Jare, his face only a few centimetres from my face, his hands shaking my shoulders, his mouth bellowing sound into my locked ears. V v v v v, what’s the matter what’s happened what
Another flinch, and though I can’t hear anything, I can sense the change in pressure in my blocked ear canals; someone has walked inside, and in the tunnel of vision before my eyes I see Terhi, who immediately starts agitatedly opening her mouth and gesturing to Jare, and they’re talking about me, I realise it must be lunchtime and they’ve come in from the plantations, but it doesn’t matter because I’m still floating half outside my own body and nothing particularly matters. Jare and Terhi pick me up and drag me towards the living room, the sofa, and set me down and cover me with two blankets, and Jare brings me some warm sugar water and half forces me to drink it. The hot liquid stings my mouth, burns like fire, for a moment I wonder whether this contains capsaicin too, but it must be because the inside of my mouth is so delicate and tender.
Through a fug of sweat and tremors and the piercing pain running through my mouth I make out the figures of Jare and Terhi and Valtteri and Mirko gathered around me. Quite the palaver of tribal elders.
Terhi’s voice. ‘You just had to go and try it.’
I don’t answer. I’m not sure I’d be able to, as the chatter of my teeth has become incontrollable.
Terhi looks at Jare. ‘Did you know about this?’
Jare seems highly distressed, I can smell it. He’s on overdrive. Why? This can’t be such a terrible crime, can it?
‘Vanna isn’t an Eloi with her own Mascu responsible for her! I didn’t know!’
‘Don’t piss your pants. I was only asking.’
Terhi is sitting on the edge of the sofa. The blankets and the sugar water, and the fact that the Core of the Sun has been doing its job for a while, mean that the worst of the shivers has subsided. She fishes my hand out from beneath the blankets and takes hold of it.
‘I was released from my body.’
Terhi pushes my shoulders back to get a good look at my face, to check whether I’m serious. A ruddiness flushes her cheeks. ‘What happened?’
‘I saw myself from outside, from up by the ceiling. Look and see whether there’s a dead spider on top of the wardrobe. I can’t reach up that far, but I still saw it.’
In unison Valtteri and Mirko make a sound somewhere between a sigh and a moan, then they both start talking over one another, and eventually Terhi joins the choir.
‘A possession trance!’
‘But what if this was only some kind of… auto-hypnosis?’ Jare’s voice was doubtful.
‘No. That state involves genuine neuro-physiological changes that can be measured on an EEG. And just as with Vanna, they come together with specific physical symptoms: spasms, shivers, tremors. For the ancient shamans, the possession trance was the first stage of losing consciousness. With a little practice, you can deepen the state so much that your connection to the conscious world is severed altogether.’
Valtteri looks inside my mouth with a small torch. ‘Your mouth is inflamed. The insides of your lips are swollen. But, of course, this is all normal. It’ll pass in a few days.’
‘We have to remember Vanna’s tolerance levels. If it works for her…’ said Mirko, almost to himself. ‘It’s a breakthrough.’
‘It certainly is a breakthrough.’
‘We concentrate our efforts on this strand.’
‘We need to establish it as quickly as possible.’
‘It’s just a question of time.’
‘We have it.’
‘The Core of the Sun is ours!’
The Core of the Sun is throbbing within me, bleeding into me its eternal fire.
This is why. This is why the chilli is outlawed. This is why the Gaians were in such a rush. They didn’t want us to find out about their ultimate objectives.
The out-of-body experience was only part of the breakthrough. This is what they were looking for. The migration of the spirit. Breaking into other levels of consciousness.
I almost laugh out loud at the simplicity of my revelation and at the fact that I hadn’t grasped this the first time I tried the Core of the Sun.
Of course the State Authority has known about it. Of course the Authority has realised that, in sufficient doses, capsaicin can give people certain… abilities.
Abilities that are no good for law and order.
Like giving terrorists a nuclear weapon…
A domesticated animal living amongst another species, it’s always been like this. They shrink, their antlers grow shorter, their muzzles flatten, their teeth shrink, their coats turn lighter, their behaviour becomes calm, meek, docile, nuanced. Dogs, pigs, cows, goats, water buffaloes, rabbits, Eloi.
Anything that can be of use.
And if they were to rebel, what then?
Beat them into subservience, nail them to the tethers, brand them.
Buy and sell them.
Shut them away in the dark where they will fester in their own filth and wait, passive and numbed and helpless, until their can be used again.
They can be used in any way imaginable. Any way at all. Everything is possible.
All for the enjoyment of those who enjoy total subjugation.
To quieten the noisy you brought a certain intoxicant within reach.
You thought you were liberating sex. You liberated something else entirely.
Taste it once and you need ever larger doses.
Doses so large that our brains can no longer comprehend them.
Our heads are simply immersed in white light.
My boat is light and swift! The core of the sun, give me your fire for my long journey: I desire to hasten through all lands, to travel to realms where the suns are moons….
Extract from the work A Short History of Women’s Domestication, State Publishing 1997
Naturally, one of the fundamental pillars of Finnish society has been the prohibition law, implemented in 1919 and whose remit has subsequently been widened to encompass not only alcohol but many other ‘enjoyable substances’ that affect health and wellbeing and of whose horrors we hear every now and then from neighbouring hedonistic states for our own enlightenment.
The prohibition law might be considered a separate result of women’s domestication, but these two important pillars of eusistocratic society are in fact inseparable. While the health of the nation can be ensured by restricting access to damaging substances, we must also admit that human beings’ ability to live a happy and balanced life has direct links to certain sources of pleasure. Such neurologically important sources are physical exercise, regular and satisfying sexual activity, the ability to serve as head of the family, and, for the weaker sex, the joys of motherhood. It is the duty of eusistocratic society to support by any means possible this search for a good life and to seek to lower any obstacles to its successful achievement.
Through a determined project of control and prevention and by considerably toughening sentences, smuggling has been brought under control. Used to control the flow both of people and contraband, the thorough border control system, initially a significant element of the prohibition law and largely created to support this, has subsequently proved a blessing. Eusistocratic Finland does not need luxury items and substances, so troublesome in decadent democracies and hedonistic states, that besmirch the nation’s health or hinder people’s natural wellbeing, neither does it have a place for the soulless human molluscs who aim to garner personal wealth from these products. By strictly enforcing border controls we have ensured that writings and other distorted propaganda that rots away at the eusistocratic system do not have an effect on the propitious development of our society.
Translated by David Hackston
A religious revivalist movement is the framework for this skilfully written first novel. A young couple, Vilja and Aleksi, dream of a brood of children. Nine years and four children later Vilja feels that all joy and strength has drained away from her life. Living the reality of their religion’s ban on family planning, the couple is hit hard by the fact that Vilja is expecting twins. This is too much for her; she feels crushed by anxiety and fatigue. The ethical ground of parenthood, the good and bad sides of a religious community as well as the myths and expectations surrounding motherhood are Rauhala’s main themes. This impressive tale also contains a love story; Aleksi is a credible and sympathetic husband who first and foremost wants to believe in his wife and his family.
The director general of the Helsinki City Theatre, Asko Sarkola, announced the winner of the 30th Finlandia Literature Prize for Fiction, chosen from a shortlist of six novels, on 2 December in Helsinki. The prize, worth €30,000, was awarded to Riikka Pelo for her novel Jokapäiväinen elämämme (‘Our everyday life’, Teos).
In his award speech Sarkola – and actor by training – characterised the six novels as ‘six different roles’:
‘They are united by a bold and deep understanding of individuality and humanity against the surrounding period. They are the perspectives of fictive individuals, new interpretations of the reality we imagine or suppose. Viewfinders on the present, warnings of the future.
‘Riikka Pelo‘s Jokapäiväinen elämämme is wound around two periods and places, Czechoslovakia in 1923 and the Soviet Union in 1939–41. The central characters are the poet Marina Tsvetaeva and her daughter Alya. This novel has the widest scope: from stream of consciousness to interrogations in torture chambers and the labour camps of Vorkuta; always moving, heart-stopping, irrespective of the settings.’
The five other novels were Ystäväni Rasputin (’My friend Rasputin’) by JP Koskinen, Hotel Sapiens (Teos) by Leena Krohn, Terminaali (‘The terminal’, Siltala) by Hannu Raittila, Herodes (‘Herod’, WSOY) by Asko Sahlberg and Hägring 38 (‘Mirage 38’, Schildts & Söderströms; Finnish translation, Kangastus, Otava) by Kjell Westö (see In the news for brief features).
Prophet, healer, mystic – and political player and lecher. The hectic life of the Russian Rasputin, which ended in 1916 in assassination, offers excellent material for JP Koskinen’s novel. The fictive narrator is the young Vasili, who Rasputin hopes will be a follower. The mix of fear and adulation and wild events, described from the point of view of the young boy, are persuasive. At the court of Tsar Nicholas II Rasputin gained favour because the Tsarina trusted almost blindly in his healing abilities: the imperial family’s son Alexei was a haemophiliac. JP Koskinen’s earlier works include science fiction. Ystäväni Rasputin is a skilful writer’s description of historial events on the eve of the Russian revolution; it paints an interesting and intense portait of the atmosphere and events of the St Petersburg court. Koskinen does not over-explain; interpretation is left to the reader. The novel was on the Finlandia Prize shortlist.
Translated by Hildi Hawkins