Island epic

Issue 1/1990 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Ulla-Lena Lundberg‘s novel Leo was one of last autumn’s best-sellers: written in Swedish, it was published simultaneously in Finnish, and praised unanimously by critics in both languages. The first volume of a trilogy, Leo tells of the lives of Åland shipowners and their families at a time when men sailed the seas and women’s lot was to wait at home. Lundberg’s story is at the same time old-fashioned, with its finely drawn portraits, and a modernist structured novel that rises above everyday realism.

‘In Åland literature is peripheral;’ says Ulla-Lena Lundberg in the Helsinki bookshop where she is signing copies of Leo. Nevertheless, the Åland (in Finnish, Ahvenanmaa) islands, between Finland and Sweden, have bred some important writers. I am thinking, for example, of Sally Salminen, whose Katrina (1936) is one of the most translated Finnish novels. And at present there is the influential writer Johannes Salminen, an essayist and pointed polemicist in many areas (he also happens to be Ulla-Lena Lundberg’s publisher).

These writers moved away from Åland at a young age: Lundberg as young as two, after the death of her father. Why, then, does she return in her books to Åland? Her own answer is to quote Ibsen: ‘Perhaps one owns only that which one has lost.’

Åland has not meant merely the limitations of a small community. Åland writers testify to the opposite: the fact that Åland is not spiritually or intellectually part of Finland, but still less of Sweden, brings with it a fruitful outsider’s status, from which in the best cases follows excellent literature, and sharp comments on conditions in the mother country. And although Ulla-Lena Lundberg, when she sets her books in Åland, shows extreme sensitivity in understanding and communicating local conditions and modes of speech, it is her critical distance that is the quality that makes her a good writer.

Ulla-Lena Lundberg (born 1947) was a literary prodigy. At 15 she published her first book, a collection of poetry. She has never been anything but a writer. Even in this promised land of financial support for creative activity, this is unusual. She says she knew she wanted to be a writer from the age of live, when she sat under the table and listened to the stories the adults were telling. They are the basis of her sixth novel. Many of the stories tell of voyages on the world’s seas. The harbours of far-flung continents were more familiar to Lundberg as a child than anywhere in Finland. It was no wonder that Lundberg early became one of Finland-Swedish, and perhaps Finnish, literatures most cosmopolitan writers. She travelled to Japan, England, Africa.

To be a stranger in an unknown culture is a role Lundberg enjoys, partly on account of her anthropological studies. These studies have perhaps had an influence on one of the dominant qualities of Lundberg’s work: her capacity to watch from the wings and make acute comments without losing her warmth.

Artistic empathy and almost scientific detachment meet in, for example, her book Öar i Afrikas inre (‘Islands within Africa’, 1981). Her empathy with the destiny of an Åland woman, on the other hand, is to the fore in her two novels about Anna of Kökar, a strong and independent woman of a type that features often in Lundberg’s work. In Leo one of the central characters, Kristina, chooses and courts a man who subsequently becomes a major figure in the l9th-century boom in Åland shipping.

Lundberg is a master of style. Her collection of short stories, Tre afrikanska berättelser (‘Three African stories’), demonstrates a positive relationship with Anglo-Saxon literature (Joseph Conrad is among the authors who spring to mind). In another novel, Sand (‘Sand’), which takes place in the Kalahari desert in Africa, Lundberg makes good use of the technique of the psychological thriller.

The new novel breaks new ground above all in its use of language: it communicates the ways of speech typical of the time, but rises above everyday realism and often takes on poetic qualities.

Leo is the first volume of a trilogy. In Finland’s leading Swedish-language newspaper, Hufvudstadsbladet, the critic Merete Mazzarella hailed it as the long-awaited ‘great Finland-Swedish novel’. Mazzarella surely does not wish to belittle, for example, the importance of Bo Carpelan or Christer Kihlman by using this epithet: she appears rather to be referring to the narrative, which rises to epic proportions, a quality that has always been much in evidence on the Finnish side.

Can we expect a Finnish Forsyte Saga from this series? The author smiles at the question asked by a bookshop customer.

The book differs from light reading above all in that it does not follow a mechanical chronology: the structure is largely thematic. The silver thread running through it is the narrator’s voice, which communicates a lively oral tradition. The descriptions of 18th-century Åland reality, its shipbuilders, its seafarers, its fishermen and farmers, the social history of the time as much as psychological insights into individuals, are exceptionally strong and well-documented.

Why does Lundberg’s novel, which is not an avant-garde or iconoclastic work, charm even the most intellectual critics? Can one discern the contemporary individual’s desire to gather up the pieces of his or her shattered life into some kind of meaningful whole, a nostalgia for small communities in which, despite arguments and feuds, people in the last analysis always cared for and looked after each other?

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