Out of the box

Issue 2/1992 | Archives online, Authors

Finns like to categorise everything, including writers and books. One author writes ‘realist prose’; another, ‘historical women’s fiction’; Finnish also has a special term, viihderomaani, meaning, literally, ‘entertainment’ or ‘pastime’ novel, a genre that includes, for example, the work of Barbara Cartland, Jeffrey Archer or Sidney Sheldon (and is recognised as an Anglo-Saxon speciality).

A writer who has been categorised in the ‘entertainment’ section of literature may find it surprisingly difficult to fight his or her way out.

It looks as if Leena Lander (born 1955) has succeeded. Tummien perhosten koti (‘Home of the dark butterflies’, Kirjayhtymä, 1991), her seventh novel – her first appeared ten years ago – was a finalist for this year’s Finlandia prize, and is now in its fifth printing. The book has also received the Kalevi Jäntti prize for young writers.

Lander’s earlier novels have been set in the 1930s, the turn of the century or the 17th and 18th centuries. Romantic elements are not absent: Lander has generally been classed as a ‘women’s writer’. Her most recent book, on the other hand, moves between the 1960s and the present: the past of the main character, Juhani Johansson, is examined as he himself is making progress toward becoming a company manager. Johansson’s childhood was spent in a boys’ home in a place called 
the Island: insuperable conflicts and alcohol destroy his own family. Life on the Island is dominated by its director, the ‘Lord of Sabaoth’. Lander describes the worlds of the matriarchal family of the director (wife, four daughters) and the ‘lost boys’, which seldom meet:
 when they do, the result is disaster.

Further: film and television rights have been bought by Hollywood, and a film script is being prepared. Previously, the only Finnish writers to have gained entry to the wonderland of Hollywood have been Mika Waltari, a writer of historical ‘entertainment-novels’ – although, in his case, read by both men and women – with his novel Sinuhe the Egyptian in the 1950s, and die Estonian-born Hella Wuolijoki, whose Cinderella-story, Juurakon Hulda, was released as The Farmer’s Daughter in 1947.

Translation rights to Lander’s novel are being negotiated with the Nordic countries, Germany, France, Holland and Italy. A play based on the novel will have its first night at Turku City Theatre this autumn.

An interesting process: the development of a writer. An author does not, it seems, write the same book throughout his or her career; one does not have to sit in the same pigeonhole throughout one’s productive life.

What is it about Lander’s book that has opened so many doors? It is a proper narrative (which even has a killing), and Lander has succeeded in structuring it in layers, telling the story from many different perspectives: her psychology is convincing and, in relation to children, exhibits a sound empathy. Good and evil appear on different sides of the same coin. One imagines Hollywood being particularly interested in the the romantically coloured plot and its symbolism: Juhani Johansson and the Lord of Sabaoth grow silkworms, which begin to symbolise a great, achievable dream. Everyone awaits the wondrous birth of the white butterflies. But the butterflies turn out to be dark…

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