Fools and devils

Issue 2/2007 | Archives online, Authors, Interviews, Reviews

Anneli Kanto.

Anneli Kanto. Photo: Gummerus/Milka Alanen

Witch trials began to be history in 17th century Finland, thanks to the arrival of the country’s first university and an enlightened Governor-general. A new novel by Anneli Kanto is in those times, with a wandering theatre troupe as its focus. Anna-Leena Ekroos talks to the author

Laurentius Petrus Bircalensis, a poor boy from a backwoods village, is accepted to study at the recently founded Åbo Academy, the first university in Finland, in the town of Åbo (known as Turku in Finnish). The young studiosus, greedy for money, is more interested in occult than in theological studies, and becomes charged with witchcraft. Desperate, Laurentius flees a death sentence to wander the countryside with the Comet theatre troupe.

Journalist, theatre critic and playwright Anneli Kanto’s mischievous and adventurous first novel Piru, kreivi, noita ja näyttelijä (‘The devil, the count, the witch and the actor’) takes us to 17th-century Finland, to the days of the Swedish Count Per (Petrus) Brahe, the Governor-General of Finland. At that time the eradication of the ignorance and superstition of the peasantry was beginning in earnest.

A-L E: Where did the idea for a historical novel come from, and what was it like to work on it?

AK: About twenty years ago at Easter, when I was writing an article about witches and witchcraft for a newspaper, a text about Turku University fell into my hands. Almost immediately after the university was founded in 1640, its professors and students started to be accused of occult activities. The accused were taken to court. I found it extremely interesting and I decided to research the subject later. The novel was a formidable task, for I am not a historian. I had to make the world of the 17th century my own; how money was used, what units of measurement were in use, what people ate, how they dressed. It sometimes felt like I had to read 400 pages of source material before I was ready to write ten pages of the novel. But luckily the exasperating background work started to bear fruit. The moment of triumph was when I needed a young swindler for the plot, and one fell from the pages of history right into my lap: the poet and adventurer Lars Vivallius – who in the novel uses the stage name Ericus Gyllenstjerna – and became the leading man in the theatre troupe of my novel.

A-L E: What is the relationship between fact and fiction in your book?

AK: The heroes and heroines are my own creations, but many of the other characters, such as the bishop Rothovius and Lars Vivallius, as well as many of the events, are historical. Per Brahe, too, of course – but he’s present only by way of his letters and memoirs. Among the plays performed in the book, Studentes was performed at the opening of Turku University, and Surge, a play attributed to Jacob Chronander, from which I’ve translated a couple of scenes for the text, was the first known play to have been written in Finland.

A-L E: Laurentius Petrus Bircalensis, the novel’s narrator, does not seem to be an unselfishly heroic character, does he?

AK: No, he doesn’t, Laurentius is a fool full of himself. He is touchingly certain of his own genius and assumes that the rest of the world exists solely for his sake. I got a surprise when he showed signs of repenting of his deeds as he got older. A novel’s characters will often begin to live their own lives.

A-L E: One tenacious little devil keeps popping up at turns in the plot. He makes a deal for Laurentius’s soul, à la Mephisto. Why is the devil named Och – the word happens to mean ‘and’ in Swedish, which confuses Laurentius at first?

AK: When I was researching the novel, I read some Kabbalistic books, and I got the name from them. Och is not a terribly frightening demon, rather like one of hell’s devilishly exacting bureaucrats.

A-L E: You paint an amusing picture of the arrival of theatre to Finland. As the Comet theatre troupe tours this cold country, there’s no shortage of sex or violence in the pieces they perform – and their audiences are enthralled. The gimmicks used to attract audiences haven’t changed all that much over the passing centuries, have they?

AK: Sex and violence have always interested people. You can see it in old paintings as well, with their lions gnawing on Christians’ arms. It was fun as I was writing to imagine what Finland’s first theatre troupe would have been like. Actors, of course, were very suspicious characters, living on the edges of society.

A-L E: In the novel, Laurentius joins the theatre group and narrowly escapes being tortured and killed. How common were witch trials?

AK: There were more than 700 of them, but only a hundred or so resulted in a death sentence. During the period of Swedish rule, there were three times more sentences in Sweden than there were in Finland. I think that the reason for that was the strength of the Finnish belief in traditional folk magic: if one person was as likely as another to believe in it, there was no point in taking your neighbour to court.

A-L E: ‘Drunkenness flourishes. Residents of the interior sit all winter in their smoke huts and don’t even bother to go out to chop the ice away from their fishing holes. They work hard as long as they feel like it, but they have no perseverance. Instead, they love idleness and triviality.’ That was the Count Per Brahe’s judgement of the Finns. He shepherded Finland through three Swedish rulers, Gustavus Adolphus, Queen Christina, and Charles X – what kind of a man was this Governor-General?

AK: He was very conscious of rank and of his own worth, but without a doubt successful in supporting Finland. He set modernisation in motion, founded schools and a university, factories, towns, postal services, and began the first collection of taxes. Brahe focused on witch trials at Turku University because he thought that any superstition, like belief in witches, should be litigated against. I’ve sometimes wondered what would have happened to Finland if, instead of the enlightened Brahe, we had had some lout in his position. What direction would that have pushed Finland and where would we be now?

Translated by Lola Rogers

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