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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!
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
Sahlberg’s short, concise novels about Finland’s recent past are here followed by a massive volume set in the early days of Christianity, in Judea and Galilee. Sahlberg’s accurate use of language, his pithy dialogue and vivid sense of history guarantee a reading experience. John the Baptist is the novel’s great prophet; the short, bow-legged Jeshua remains in his shadow. The main character, however, is Herod Antipas, the Roman tetrarch, and Herod’s wife and his servant are also central. Representing the imperial power in the Judea area is the prefect Pontius Pilate. Herod is a sympathetic character who has, throughout his life, alternately enjoyed and suffered from the use of power. How does power change a man? What is the meaning of trust and loyalty – not to mention love – when life is full of fear, doubt and extortion, poisoners and agitators? Sahlberg (born 1964) also opens up perspectives on the examination of our own time. The novel was on the Finlandia Prize shortlist.
Translated by Hildi Hawkins
Welcome to Twilight Grove, a Helsinki home for the elderly – the bright, institutional lighting in its parlour creating an atmosphere like a dentist’s office, the odd resident dozing on the sofas, waiting for the next meal. The menu often includes mashed potatoes, easy for those with bad teeth. Residents seeking recreation are offered chair aerobics, accordion recitals, and crafts. A very ordinary assisted living centre, or is it? In Minna Lindgren’s novel, Kuolema Ehtoolehdossa (‘Death at Twilight Grove’, Teos), the everyday life of a home for the elderly is the setting for absurd and even criminal happenings, suspicious deaths and medical mix-ups.
Anna-Leena Ekroos: You’re a journalist and writer. Formerly you worked for the Finnish Broadcasting Company. In 2009 you won the Bonnier journalism prize for an article of yours about the last phases of your father’s life, and his death. Kuolema Ehtoolehdossa is your first novel. How did it come into being?
Minna Lindgren: I’ve always known I was a writer but the mere urge to write isn’t enough for a novel – you have to have a meaningful story. The more absorbed I became in the life of the old, the more important it felt to me to write this story. Writing a novel turned out to be carefree compared to working as a journalist. Many of the stories I heard would have become bad social porn in the media, dissolved into banality, but in a novel they become genuinely tragic, or tragicomic, as the case may be.
A-L E: This book could be classified as a mystery, but is it above all a description of aging and society’s attitudes about the aged?
M.L: I didn’t know I was writing a mystery, but you could think of it that way. Perhaps it’s an adventure satire. Of course, an assisted living centre is an environment conducive to criminal activity; the residents’ medications are powerful drugs, monetary transactions are handled without the residents’ knowledge, and no one is monitoring what the private sector is up to when it provides elderly care.
A-L E: There are three main characters in the novel: Siiri, who always makes the best of things, Irma, who is fond of red wine and music, and the realistic Anna-Liisa, who’s always correcting their grammar. How did you come up with this charming trio?
M-L: I used the same technique that Richard Wagner used in his operas – I put my own characteristics into every person. Irma was actually based on my own mother; Siiri was probably more a portrait of my own future; and Anna-Liisa’s personality reminds me of my father, who liked to concentrate on the matter at hand and not get sidetracked, and used to give us long lectures. Anna-Liisa’s tremendous interest in Finnish language is also my own passion.
A-L E: Irma, Siiri and Anna-Liisa are in their nineties. It is quite rare nowadays to read a novel with protagonists who were born at the beginning of the previous century.
ML: I wanted them to be unmistakably old. Nowadays even a 85-year-olds can get offended if they’re called old. Someone who’s over 90 had seen war and seen the progress from times of real want to today’s over-consumption. Members of the younger generations are travelling all the time to different parts of the world, but nobody has any money to spare for taking care of the elderly. 93 years of life gives the problems we wrestle with a suitable sense of proportion.
A-L E: The vast technological changes over the course of Irma, Siiri, and Anna-Liisa’s lives cause difficulties but also create humorous situations in everyday life. You have to remember your one code to pay for groceries with your debit card, another code to turn on your phone. Attempting to deposit money into your own bank account nowadays is an unusual thing to do.
ML: Yes, my three characters were already retired before computers conquered the world. They don’t even know how to look for a lost walking stick online, so they’re completely isolated from modern society.
A-L E: These old women’s families are noticeable mostly by their absence in the book. They’re in too much of a hurry, can’t fit them into their weekly schedule.
ML: I’ve visited a lot of assisted living facilities, and I haven’t run into people’s relatives – many of them store their older relatives in assisted living precisely just because they won’t have to worry about them. Grandma’s supposedly safe and sound. Lately there’s been a lot of interest in technological possibilities for increasing the safety of the elderly: floor sensors, motion sensors and timers that allow a family to relax and monitor their beloved mother’s life from thousands of kilometres away.
A-L E: Your novel has quite serious themes, but it is by no means gloomy. There’s plenty of humour in it, verging on parody. Friendship also brings its light to the story – friendship among the three women, between Siiri and her grandchild’s boyfriend, for example. In the words of poet Aale Tynni, ‘Of all, of all that we can have, friendship is the greatest.’
M.L: That’s right. A person can make friends, and even fall in love, at any age they want.
A-L E: This book is also a portrait of Helsinki by tram: Siiri takes several trams every day, and her tram rides are also journeys into her memories of the city.
M.L: My grandmother was run over by a tram when she was 10 years old and lost one of her legs. In the 1970s she had a crude, heavy prosthesis, but she wanted to see the world. So she used to take one of us grandchildren with her, tear the map of Helsinki from the front of the phone book and put it in her purse, and we would go for tram rides. I loved that, and I’ve always lived near a tram line. Siiri Kettunen seeks meaning and adventure in her life by riding the tram around her beloved city, most of it built during her own lifetime.
A-L E: Is it possible that Siiri, Irma, and Anna-Liisa’s saga could continue?
M-L: I’ve promised to write a trilogy, because it sounds impressive: The Twilight Grove Trilogy. In the next installment the characters are the victims of a plumbing remodel and they encounter home care and consider euthanasia.
Translated by Lola Rogers
At the Health Clinic, Siiri Kettunen once more found a new ‘personal physician’ waiting for her. The doctor was so young that Siiri had to ask whether a little girl like her could be a real doctor at all, but that was a mistake. By the time she remembered that there had been a series of articles in the paper about fake doctors, the girl doctor had already taken offence.
‘Shall we get down to business?’ the unknown personal physician said, after a brief lecture. She told Siiri to take off her blouse, then listened to her lungs with an ice-cold stethoscope that almost stopped her heart, and wrote a referral to Meilahti hospital for urgent tests. Apparently the stethoscope was the gizmo that gave the doctor the same kind of certainty that the blood pressure cuff had given the nurse.
‘I can order an ambulance,’ the doctor said, but that was a bit much, in Siiri’s opinion, so she thanked her politely for listening to her lungs and promised to catch the very next tram to the heart exam.
When she got to Meilahti she waited for two and a half hours. She read some Donald Duck comics, solved seven sudokus, and had learned two long articles from last year’s Health News by heart – one about sea buckthorn oil and another on dry mucous membranes – before she got in for her urgent tests. The handsome specialist figured out what Siiri already knew: she had a heart arrhythmia. He spoke in a strained voice and wanted Siiri to have more tests and have a pacemaker installed to normalise her rhythm.
‘What rhythm will I be set for? I hope it’s not a waltz, although there is a song about a waltzing heart. It would be hard to use two feet to walk in threes.’ She was trying to make a joke, but this doctor too was very serious.
‘Generator node and electrical impulse pathways, at which point the sinoatrial node and frequency limit, respectively, in which case an elective surgery or microprocess, perhaps also a telemetry device, all in all a nearly risk-free procedure.’
Siiri listened for a while and then said that she was 94 years old and they couldn’t install some gadget inside her to make her live longer.
‘This is a very small operation that is done under local anesthesia. The pacemaker is placed under the skin and the electrodes are threaded through a vein to the heart. It will remove the unpleasant symptoms and increase your quality of life,’ the doctor said.
‘Are you sure about that?’ Siiri asked. ‘What kinds of things do you think would give and old person’s life quality?’
‘Well… studies show that for the aged… after all, good health is the first step to a quality life. An untreated heart arrhythmia can be life threatening.’
‘You mean that in the worse case scenario, I could die?’ Siiri said, feeling very brisk and strong. ‘You’re still a young person, so maybe you don’t know that getting old is mostly unpleasant. Days pass slowly and nothing happens. Your friends and relatives are dead and gone, and your food has no flavour. There’s nothing worth watching on television and your eyes get tired when you read. You feel sleepy, but sleep doesn’t come, so you end up lying awake all night and dozing off all day. You feel all kinds of aches and pains, constantly – small pains, but still. Even the most ordinary tasks become slow and difficult. Like cutting your toenails. You can hardly imagine. It’s a huge, all day operation that you do almost anything to put off.’
The doctor glanced nervously at his watch and promised to write Siiri a referral for a pedicure, for which she could request state health compensation. He turned his back to her and became absorbed in his computer screen.
‘As far as the pacemaker is concerned, studies show that these small matters affecting health can be crucially important in increasing well-being, not to mention that a pacemaker would go a long way to increasing the length of your life. According to Current Care Guidelines…’
‘In that case the answer is clear,’ Siiri interrupted with relief. ‘Install the pacemaker in someone younger, some fat person who feels too well and makes the mistake of going for a run and dies. Even my sons died. And Reino the foreman’s son. And a lot of other people. We old people don’t die from anything, even if we would like to. Sometimes at the home we talk about how you doctors don’t seem to understand that death is a natural thing. Life ends in death, and there’s no sense in offering longer life to someone my age and denying me sugar for my coffee. It isn’t a failure of medicine when people eventually die of old age.’
The doctor turned around and looked at her in surprise.
‘But you’re a lively person in good health. Why in the world should you die? Current Care Guidelines…’
‘Because everybody has to die,’ Siiri said. She squeezed the doctor’s muscular hands, holding them in her own wrinkled ones, so he would understand that guidelines and studies and pacemakers can’t change this fact about the world.
‘One day you’ll die, too. And I hope that you’ll be old enough then to know what dying is, and not fight it. Maybe you’ll even be waiting for it, like me and my friends at Twilight Grove. Even if you put pacemakers in all of us you won’t change our everyday life one bit. So I thank you, from the bottom of my heart. I need your report and I’m grateful that you’re writing it. May I have two copies of that paper? That’s all I need from you, and I hope that you’ll take care of young people who are too tired to even work anymore. The nurses at Twilight Grove are so overworked that we’re practically left alone there.’
The doctor looked anguished. He tugged his hands forcefully out of Siiri’s well-intentioned grip, rushed to the sink, disinfected his hands, tightened his necktie, straightened his doctor’s coat, and sat back down in his chair to stare at the computer screen as if the machine actually knew something and would give him the solution to this dilemma. Then he straightened up, picked up his dictaphone, and started to murmur into it, glancing now and then at Siiri.
‘…otherwise healthy for her age comma memory functional and the patient is alert period refuses pacemaker however period in respect of the patient’s wishes taking into account her advanced age period.’ The doctor turned off the dictaphone and asked her if she wanted some depression medication in addition to the heart medicine.
‘What for?’ Siiri asked, sincerely surprised.
‘They can help your… condition. You might regain your desire to live.’
Siiri got up. She was about to put the dumb lug straight about the the hard facts of life and death, but she remembered her heart and its raggedy impulse pathways and took a deep breath before saying to him that she didn’t need any of his silly pills. She didn’t need them now and she hadn’t needed them back when her husband died. The doctor was persistent.
‘Some sleep medication might be helpful. You said that you weren’t sleeping at night, and there’s no point in that.’
Siiri started to have the desperate feeling that she would never get out of there without a stack of prescriptions. There had been something in the papers about responsibility for outcomes, how it was becoming a problem for public sector employees. Outcomes were measured in numbers, so child protective services was considered more effective when more children were reported to state custody officials, and doctors apparently were only earning their salaries if they sent patients for surgery and wrote them an adequate number of prescriptions.
‘That’s not what this is about,’ the doctor said wearily. ‘I’m just trying to help you and do my job as well as I possibly can.’
Siiri realised she’d behaved badly. The doctor surely had enough work to do without her making more work for him. He had studied hard to be able to prescribe sleeping pills to old people, and what would happen if all his patients refused his pills and pacemakers? He had no need, at his age, to know what a 90-year-old’s life was like. It wasn’t his fault that Siiri had lived to be too old. She thanked him for a job well done and left, headed for the tram stop. It was such a beautiful early winter day that she decided to walk one stop further toward town just so she could look at the majestic Aura Building, designed by Erkko Virkkunen, which was still handsome even though they had ruined the window frames a long time ago when they renovated it.
Translated by Lola Rogers
More and more new Finnish fiction is seeing the light of day. Does quantity equal quality?
Fewer and fewer critical evaluations of those fiction books are published in the traditional print media. Is criticism needed any more?
At the Helsinki Book Fair in late October the latest issue of the weekly magazine Suomen Kuvalehti was removed from the stand of its publisher, Otavamedia, by the chief executive officer of Otava Publishing Company Ltd. Both belong to the same Otava Group.
The cover featured a drawing of a book in the form of a toilet roll, referring to an article entitled ‘The ailing novel’, by Riitta Kylänpää, in which new Finnish fiction and literary life were discussed, with a critical tone at places. CEO Pasi Vainio said he made the decision out of respect for the work of Finnish authors.
His action was consequently assessed by the author Elina Hirvonen who, in her column in the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, criticised the decision. ‘The attempt to conceal the article was incomprehensible. Authors are not children. The Finnish novel is not doing so badly that it collapses if somebody criticises it. Even a rambling reflection is better for literature than the same old articles about the same old writers’ personal lives.’
‘The ailing novel’ takes a look at new Finnish fiction and at the decline of literary criticism in the media – where there seems to be little space for ‘unfavourable’ criticism. (Why indeed annoy readers, authors and publishers with derogatory comments? Besides, an ‘unfavourable’ critical judgment always requires lots of words, more print space, in order to be balanced and well-validated.)
But isn’t it the duty of the news media to present the readers with, well, news about what is happening in the world? This includes works of art that appear in public, and shouldn’t newspaper arts page be dealing with both their quantity and their quality, and not just those that are assumed to please the readers?
In his blog Turmio ja perikato (‘Downfall and ruin’; in Finnish), Putte Wilhelmsson, writer and critic, analyses the attempts of the Finnish newspapers to attract more readers to their cultural pages, as it is the quantity of consumers that matters to publishers: the contents have begun to be aimed at those readers who don’t read the cultural pages. ‘This results in segmented reviewing directed at the focus groups used in market research,’ he says. ‘The economic management of the newspapers guides editorial work either from above or by forcing the producers of the cultural pages to be part of the economic decision making process in a way that was unknown a couple of decades ago.’
The number of fiction titles published in Finland has recently grown rapidly, the number of publishers’ editors has not. The status of an author is considered very media sexy, and the media are more than willing to feature new writers – making no separations between their work and their personal lives.
It seems things are no better in the neighbouring Sweden either. The critic Åsa Beckman complained in an article in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper (30 October) that the talk about literary value of works – language, tone, form, conceptualisation, dialogue, narrative – is very much avoided in contemporary literary life. However, literary criticism which is able to assess the aesthetic and formal quality is absolutely vital.
Writer and blogger Tommi Melender quotes Beckman in a blog post (in Finnish) entitled ‘The slow death of newspaper criticism?’. He argues that writing in novels often resembles scripts for television: short scenes, limited surroundings, lack of the wider perspective. Novels are critically discussed on the level of subject and theme only: authors are seen as specialists on any subject they have been writing about – burnout, various relationships, alcoholism etc. – so they become people who are able to generate potential public interest and thus help fill newspaper pages and broadcast schedules.
The fact is that a small country just cannot produce a great number of masterpieces. When the number of books published grows, this will result in a greater number of less carefully and skilfully edited, mediocre works.
Bad criticism, for its part, shrinks to short summaries of plots and themes – of books that the cultural editors think might be ‘good’ enough to be reviewed, because it is not economic to publish reviews of books that either are (in advance) considered ‘bad’ or ‘uninteresting’ or too ‘difficult’ for the ‘average’ reader.
’Average’ novels, for ‘average’ readers? Never. Literature is an art, and there are no limitations to what art can do. Criticism, for its part, is able to rise above the average when it is not limited. Literature and criticism are like Siamese twins, as Åsa Beckman puts it; they share a common bloodstream.
Readers need books, books need reviews – and of course debate is needed by both. Good writing happens all the time, despite doubts and debates.And so does good reading.