White Hunger, by Aki Ollikainen

Review published on January 31, 2015. Reviewed by Kirsty Hewitt

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Aki Ollikainen’s White Hunger is the first book in Peirene Press’ Chance Encounter series, and the 16th publication on their list. It has been hailed an ‘extraordinary Finnish novella that has taken the Nordic literary scene by storm’. The novella is also the recipient of several prizes, including the Best Finnish Debut Novel of 2012.

As ever with a Peirene publication, one knows that the story which awaits will be intelligent, thought-provoking and difficult to put down. Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene, compares White Hunger to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: ‘this apocalyptic story deals with the human will to survive’.

Set in 1867, White Hunger deals with a devastating famine which swept across Finland, affecting everyone in its wake. The novella’s main protagonist is Marja, a mother and farmer’s wife from the north of the country. She and her family are slowly starving, and as she has heard that there is bread in St Petersburg, she decides to travel there with her children, Mataleena and Juho. Her husband Juhani’s impending death is the crux which leads her to leave her home. Ollikainen uses colour marvellously to describe his final moments: ‘The colour is being drained from Juhani’s face. The first to go was red, the colour of blood. Red changed into yellow, then yellow, too, vanished, leaving grey, which is now fading gradually into white’.

Alongside Marja’s story, we learn about others whom she comes across on her journey. A subplot deals with that of assistant accountant to Finland’s senator, a man named Lars, who is trying desperately to hold everything together: ‘Lars was a mere messenger, but the senator directed his anger at him… Finally, he [Lars] cursed the stupid farmers in the country’s interior – fat, lazy landowners who threw out their workers so they would have more for themselves, even though by rights they should have fed their poor’. Ollikainen also speaks about Lars’ brother Teo, a local doctor, whose methods of practice add more historical perspective to the whole.

The descriptions throughout White Hunger show the desolation and starkness of the surroundings, and the power which nature has upon the people: ‘The wind tugs waves out of the water. The sky reflected there is patchy, fragmentary, as if smashed’. The rural and bleak situation of the unnamed Finnish town are well built too: ‘Your hometown’s a miserable village on a wretched little island’, Teo is told. The author’s building of scenes in this manner adds an almost claustrophobic feel to the whole. The presence of snow, which is described as a ‘suffocating blanket of white’, is sinister in itself: ‘The door is the worst. Snow pushes in through the chinks and forms a frame, like a cadaver bent on settling in the cottage… They need to get as far away as possible from their miserable patch of land. All that is left here is death’.

Ollikainen’s occasional use of present tense adds an immediacy to the whole, and makes it feel almost contemporary at times, despite its historical setting. The comparisons which he makes between humans and animals is so perceptive; images such as one character ‘grinning wolf-like’, and another ‘hunching his narrow shoulders in the manner of a dog caught by his master up to no good’ are prevalent.

White Hunger has been translated from its original Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah. Both translators are fabulously thoughtful at what they do, and the whole has a marvellous flow to it. The novella is quite tender in places, and this contrasts well with the more frightening elements. As one might expect with a plot such as this, darker aspects of life have been woven throughout – prostitution, murder, and the objectification of women, for example. The bleak and powerful plot and almost compulsive readability make White Hunger a good fit upon the Peirene Press list.

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