Article published on June 25, 2015.
Jade Craddock is still ‘in’ Scandinavia, early
days in her world tour.
Finland. Home of the sauna, Santa Claus and of course, who
could forget, the annual July wife-carrying contest. Not to
mention the fact that we have the Finns to thank (or not!)
for, amongst other things, Angry Birds. But this is also the
land of the thousand lakes, a mecca for seeing the Northern
Lights and the quintessential winter wonderland. Amongst
its greatest exports, one of a literary ilk, the Moomins.
But shamefully that was where my knowledge of Finnish
literature dried up. For as with Iceland, my reading of books
from this country is pitifully non-existent. As much as I don’t want to take away from the delights of the Moomins, I was pretty sure there would be more to the country’s literary output than a group of strange-looking white creatures. And indeed there was. (Although you have to hand it to the loveable hippo-like beings they’ve done pretty well for themselves!)
Given the relative sparsity of the country, it’s not surprising that the Finnish literary tradition is a fairly short one, really taking off in the nineteenth century with what remains today one of the most well-known of Finnish literatures, the epic poem and national saga, Kalevala. Aleksis Kivi is often named as the author of the first novel in Finland, Seven Brothers, published in 1870, and other early writers included Juhani Aho, Frans Eemil Sillanpää who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1939, Finland’s national poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg, and notable female writer Minna Canth. Vaino Linna also rose to eminence with his novel The Unknown Soldier. Today, despite the seeming dominance of Nordic crime fiction, literary fiction has a strong hold in Finland and is seen in the works translated into English, including The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (the very same author who created the Moomins), Arto Paasilinna’s The Year of the Hare, Riikka Pulkkinen’s The Limit, Rosa Liksom’s Compartment No. 6 and the recently released When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen. Other recent imports have included Katri Lipson’s The Ice Cream Man, which was the winner of 2013 European Prize for Literature, and Kristina Carlson’s Mr Darwin’s Gardener which is described as a ‘postmodern Victorian novel about faith, knowledge and our inner needs.’ And for science-fiction readers, there’s Hannu Rajaniemi’s Jean Le Flambeur Trilogy, whose final instalment The Casual Angel will be published in the UK in June. And talking of trilogies, Salla Simukka’s Snow White trilogy offers an introduction to Finnish YA, with the first two instalments As Red as Blood and As White as Snow published in the last year, and the final part As Black as Ebony due for release in August.
My own personal reading choice for Finland was The Winter War – the debut from the highly regarded writer Philip Teir – although there were certainly others on the list vying for contention and which I plan on following up (at some point!). The novel takes its title from a defining conflict in Finland’s history, but it’s a metaphorical sleight of hand from the author whose war is played out on the domestic front between husband and wife Max and Katriina Paul whose grown-up daughters Helen and Eva are caught in the crossfire while dealing with their own battles. Teir plays on the metaphor by using a comparative timeline for his novel – beginning in November and reaching its peak in March – as that of the Winter War. The novel’s opening epitaph, a quotation from Swedish playwright August Strindberg, is a fitting summation of what is to follow: ‘And yet those trivial matters were not without significance in life, because life consists of trivial matters.’
Indeed, nothing especially surprising or earth-shattering takes place but Teir tracks those ‘trivial matters’ of family life that soon escalate into significance. Whilst the novel has its fair share of adultery, drugs and angst, the plot is rather prosaic with little in the way of edge-of-your-seat tension, but the outcome is resounding as is Teir’s intention. This is not supposed to be a high-octane epic but a building, cumulative narrative that shows how the seemingly minor incidences of daily domestic life, the creeping discontent can over time become something much bigger and more destructive. The four main characters are each given their place in the spotlight with interweaving chapters from their perspectives and although each of their testimonies feel authentic and honest in their own way, Katriina and Helen lack the development of Max and Eva. Whilst Teir’s novel is an easy, accessible and universal piece, and his portrayal of a family and its dysfunction feels astute, the characters don’t necessarily win you over and the plot is perhaps a bit too underplayed and safe. Nevertheless it’s clear to see why this is a writer admired in Finland and worthy of a bigger audience.
Personal read 3
Group read 3
The Winter War by Philip Teir is published by Serpent’s Tail