March 2011

Bonnie B. Lee


Lit in a Cold Climate: Novels from Finland

Even when occasion gives rise to considering the Nordic countries, those snow-covered eaves hanging off the house of Europe, no one gives much thought to Finland. It’s often confused with its neighbor, Sweden. Its impenetrable language, which is not Scandinavian, sounds like the Black Speech of Mordor. The average person would be hard pressed to name three famous Finns. And like all small countries precariously situated next to larger superpowers, the destiny of geography figures prominently in its history and imagination. Despite its considerable physical size, only 5.3 million people live there among the tall trees and lofty mountains that Monty Python extols, coming out to just 17 persons per square kilometer; most are huddled in the south near the urban centers, as fully a third of the country lies above the Arctic circle.

One would think that such a land of dense pine forests, deep snows, and abundant reindeer would have a correspondingly quiet literary landscape. Three recent Finnish novels have challenged that notion by providing insight into their world through new English translations.

Purge by Sofi Oksanen was translated by Lola Rogers and published stateside in 2010 by Grove Atlantic’s Black Cat imprint. The most devastating of the three, and frankly of all the novels I have read in awhile, Purge cuts between the early Soviet occupation of Estonia in 1950 and the early days of independence in 1992. Though the primary action takes place in Koluvere, Estonia, the dream of Finland -- and of Westernization, commerce, and middle-class prosperity -- looms large for those awaking from decades-long Soviet dystopia. The main protagonist, Aliide Truu, is introduced as she awaits a visit from her daughter Talvi, who has forsaken her parents’ sturdy Communist lineage and emigrated to Finland at her first chance. (In fact, Finland, Estonia, and Hungary loosely form a linguistic and cultural family that stands apart from the Romantic, Germanic, and Slavic clans of the rest of Europe; Oksanen herself is Finnish-Estonian.) Aliide’s story is of both hope and humiliation, the echoes of which are repeated when an unexpected stranger appears at her door in 1992, a young prostitute fleeing from her john and who turns out to be Aliide’s grand-niece. Zara was trafficked from Siberia, where she grew up in a family living in political exile, and was exploited as a sex worker in Berlin. Aliide is forced to recall and reckon with her own past and the many ways that she too was exploited -- and also willingly compromised herself. We discover that a young Aliide falls in love with her sister Ingel’s husband Hans, a nationalist farmboy whose stint in the Finnish army to oppose the Soviets makes him an enemy of the state once the Red Army marches in. Aliide resorts to increasingly desperate measures to hide and protect Hans and to earn his exclusive love in return.

The past is present for these Finns, especially with regard to Russia. Russia is Finland’s formidable next-door neighbor whom it fought several times to maintain autonomy, most recently in the Winter War of 1939-40. The outcome of the Winter War aligned Finland against Russia and therefore, against the Allied forces of World War II. The uneasy implications of this fact, that Finland found itself on the wrong side, heightens a sense of displacement and distrust of any political situation for character, author, and reader.

On the other hand, the Soviet regime exacted so much suffering that an alliance with Russia seemed unthinkable, the battle lines seemed inevitable, and the irresolution of those atrocities destabilizes successive generations of Finns. This inherited malaise is explored through the father of Anna Louhiniitty, the central character of When I Forgot by Elina Hirvonen, translated by Douglas Robinson and published by Tin House Books in 2009. Irrevocably damaged by the effects of World War II, her veteran father rages and strikes out against his fragile family, which includes a mentally ill son Joona, Anna’s brother. If history is not past, then politics is certainly present. Not only is it present, it’s personal. Joona begins to unravel after seeing repeated footage of the September 11 attacks, and Anna later intercepts him at an anti-war rally in Helsinki in protest of the Iraq invasion of 2003. The memory of war, its futility and its inspired nihilism, also breaks Anna’s boyfriend Ian’s father, who as an American fought in the Vietnam War. He too, had to live in the shadow of war in the small political arena of the private home with his unstable father. Memory, we come to understand, is a searing, open wound; when memory is a gash split open by the trauma of war, the infection never properly heals. In her writing class, Anna thinks: “I wanted to raise my hand and tell [the writing instructor] that remembering isn’t really all that great. Memory is one of life’s burdens that we can do nothing about. I wanted to stand up, make the note-taking and enthusiastic nods stop and shout that all I want is an escape from memory.” In some ways, a direct confrontation with the overtly political in When I Forgot may be a way of stanching the wound; by opposing another war, the sins of our fathers are not only forgiven but repaid, and another generation does not have to suffer through its psychological devastation.

The effects of war leave its scar not only in the minds of its unwilling participants but also on the landscape itself. In Arto Paasilinna’s aptly named The Year of the Hare, the journalist Vatanen goes “off the grid” and travels all over his native Finland with a wild hare as his companion, encountering the folly of his fellow countrymen and the pristine yet savage natural world that they have just barely tamed. While in Rovaniemi, in Lapland territory on the Arctic circle, Vatanen gets a temporary job with the Water and Forest Authority working with an old lumberjack named Kurko, the Finnish name for an evil spirit. While diving in the Ounasjoki River, Kurko discovers German artillery that must have been dumped during the Lapland War of 1944-45, when the Germans were forced out of Finland’s northern territory and eventually retreated to Norway. What was evidence of Finland’s difficult position as enemy to both the Germans and Soviets during this trying time is blithely excavated by Kurko and sold off for cold profit. He crunches the numbers of his little scheme with Vatanen. “In the afternoon, the check arrived. Kurko was so happy, he wept in the bank. ‘I haven’t had money like this since 1964, when I spent three months straight felling at Kairijoki. Now, pal, I can take off… God knows where… Oulu, even!’ Kurko departed.” We’re meant to contrast Kurko’s attitude here to Vatanen’s experience, whose domestic Grand Tour was initially spurred by the sale of his boat but is fueled by the wages of honest manual labor. In fact, Vatanen’s reticence, his preternatural relationship with a wild animal, and his utter disengagement from other humans all set him up to be more like an idealized creature (“the Finn”) than like a man who lives in the modern world. For him, history is past, both political and personal histories, once he sheds the trappings of society and heads out into the woods.

The Year of the Hare has probably been displayed on center aisle tables in large bookstores recently because, according to the lunar calendar, we just entered the Year of the Rabbit in February. Though the novel was first published in 1975, the latest edition in English by Penguin was published in 2010 with a new introduction by Pico Iyer. Part allegory, part satire, part in-praise-of-folly, Paasilinna reinforces the idea that the forest has a powerful hold over the Finnish imagination. As Vatanen travels deeper north into the pine, human figures recede and animals become the more sentient, conscientious, and formidable presence. A pilfering raven requires all of Vatanen’s ingenuity to defeat, and at the end he hunts a thieving bear all the way over the Russian border, only to be caught as a spy by bumbling Red Army soldiers. For Aliide and Hans of Purge, the forest holds the threat and the promise of their ideals. The Forest Brothers, a band of renegade nationalists hiding out in the woods from Soviet forces, try to lure Hans out of hiding to get them to join their independence cause. “Then Hans suddenly announced that he wanted to go into the woods. Where the other Estonian men were. Where he belonged. ‘What are you talking about?’ Aliide couldn’t believe her ears. Apparently the oath was still binding. The oath! The oath of the Estonian army? Why talk about an oath to a country that doesn’t exist anymore?… Let the other dreamers wander around the woods, with the authorities after them, hungry, in clothes stiff with dirt, cold with the horror of that final bullet. Instead here he was, a gentleman, twirling his spoon in a dish of honey!”

But it is in those same woods at the edge of Aliide’s house that Hans was allegedly murdered (a story concocted to protect his whereabouts) and where Hans unluckily encounters and kills a potential informant. It is where Aliide, picking mushrooms, is carted off to an interrogation at town hall and sexually tortured. The forest is not netural, it is not forgiving, but it is also necessary. The dangers of the forest press right up against the hearth and home, pooling inward toward the tenuous illusion of civilization and peace. Not for nothing do the latest paperback edition of The Year of the Hare and the British edition of When I Forgot depict a retreating figure heading into the woods. The edge of the forest, as illustrated explicitly by these book covers -- as well as Finland itself -- is ultimately a borderland. Because it remained apart from the Soviet Union, Finland was considered “the West,” and yet it also stands apart from the rest of blonde and cheerful Scandinavia. Monolingual and often misunderstood, melancholy pervades the Finnish psyche. Finland vies with Hungary for highest suicide rate in Europe, though it does not remarkably have fewer hours of sunlight, higher unemployment, or worse pension and healthcare systems than Sweden, Norway, or Russia. Its recent economic successes reflect a constant striving to establish itself as a presence not defined by its relation to its more famous neighbors. Only in the 19th century did Finland gain full independence from the kingdom of Sweden, only to be annexed by Russia for another hundred years. The search for identity, a reckoning with a troubled past, and an outsider’s view looking in are all the stuff of great writing, and Finland is poised to continue to produce poignant and introspective literature that we can appreciate now that English translators have begun the work. It is nice, Elina Hirvonen said at reading in New York last year, to sell more than 500 copies of your novel. Writers often create characters who love to read and write, and Purge, When I Forgot, and The Year of the Hare are no exceptions. Writing is essential for reporting, shaping, and finally narrating the intricate story of their subtle homeland.