Archive for April, 2010

Grim(m) stories?

30 April 2010 | Letter from the Editors

‘There’s not been much wit and not much joy, there’s a lot of grimness out there.’

This comment on new fiction could have been presented by anyone who’s been reading new Finnish novels or short stories. The commentator was, however, the 2010 British Orange Prize judge Daisy Goodwin, who in March complained about the miserabilist tendencies in new English-language women’s writing. More…

Mikko Ylikangas: Unileipää, kuolonvettä, spiidiä. Huumeet Suomessa 1800–1950 [Opium, death’s tincture, speed. Drugs in Finland 1800–1950]

29 April 2010 | Mini reviews, Reviews

Unileipää, kuolonvettä, spiidiä. Huumeet Suomessa 1800–1950
[Opium, death’s tincture, speed. Drugs in Finland 1800–1950]
Jyväskylä: Atena, 2009. 264 p., ill.
ISBN 978-951-796-578-1
€ 34, hardback

This book presents an account of the history of drugs in Finland, as well as changes in legal and illegal drug use. Even in the early 19th century, the authorities were concerned about opium abuse. Medical doctor Elias Lönnrot – best known for collecting the folk poems that make up the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic – coined the name ‘unileipä’, ‘the staff of dreams’, for opium. A period of prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s spurred a huge increase in the sale of cocaine; in the 1930s Finland led the Western world in consumption of heroin as a cough suppressant. In the late 1940s, the United Nations investigated why Finland, with a population of four million, consumed as much heroin in a year as other countries did over an average of 25 years. This was explained by the severity of wartime conditions: drugs were used to maintain battle readiness and to combat anxiety, sleeplessness and tuberculosis. Social problems caused by misuse did not, however, get out of control. This book was awarded a prize for the best science book of the year in Finland in 2009.

Nature’s own

22 April 2010 | Extracts, Non-fiction

As night falls, the silence is broken by pattering of small feet on the greying windowsill of an old, abandoned house: entire families may live under the rotten floorboards. Houses now inhabited not by humans but by wild animals are observed by Kai Fagerström and Heikki Willamo

The wolf's hour? An abandoned house is alive...

Extracts from Viimeiset vieraat. Elämää autiotaloissa [The last visitors. Life in abandoned houses, Maahenki, 2010] by Kai Fagerström, Risto Rasa & Heikki Willamo. Text by Willamo, poems by Rasa, photographs by Fagerström and Willamo

Some thirty years later I found the badgers’ cottage again – it wasn’t the same one, but the mood of my childhood still floated there. Grey walls and a shingle roof, bare gaping windows, the door creaking on its single hinge. Oak tree in the yard, lilacs flourishing wild. The forest was rapidly reclaiming its own behind the cottage. The mounds of sand beside the wall bases showed prints of strong-clawed paws and a number of paths, hardened from use, led into the woods. More…

Juha Seppälä: Takla Makan

22 April 2010 | Mini reviews, Reviews

Takla Makan
Helsinki: WSOY, 2010. 149 p.
ISBN 978-951-0-36322-5
€ 27, hardback

Author Juha Seppälä’s manner of portraying the world is often characterised as harsh and desolate, and this certainly applies to this, his twentieth work. ‘Jesus’ mother was a woman,’ declares the first-person narrator in ‘Ristin tie’ (‘The path of Christ’) in the second novella in Takla Makan. This true but erotically charged statement sums up the themes of the two texts that make up the work. As the narrator of that story bears the cross in an Easter procession, issues of life and death, faith and worldliness, spirit and flesh, masculinity and femininity, are all present. The man carrying the cross, who has recently lost his job, has taken on a greater burden to bear. The other novella in this book, which takes its title from the name of a desert in China, tells of a terminally ill man who has withdrawn to a small rural community and lets his life slowly slip away. In Seppälä’s narratives anguished men are thrown into the world to ponder the big issues of life and death, expressing themselves with admirably precise sentences stripped of everything inessential.

Ihmisten eläinkirja. Muuttuva eläinkulttuuri [The people’s book of animals. Our changing relationship with the animal kingdom]

22 April 2010 | Mini reviews, Reviews

Ihmisten eläinkirja. Muuttuva eläinkulttuuri
[The people’s book of animals. Our changing relationship with the animal kingdom]
Toimittaneet [Ed. by]: Pauliina Kainulainen & Yrjö Sepänmaa
Helsinki: Gaudeamus Helsinki University Press. 235 p., ill.
ISBN 978-951-570-786-4
€ 31, paperback

This book adopts a multidisciplinary approach in its examination of the relationship between humans and animals, highlighting historical, ethical and philosophical connections. The authors include humanists, theologians, anthropologists and artists. They address issues such as animal and nature conservation, animal breeding and husbandry, attitudes towards animals in myth and religion, and depictions of animals in Finnish art. Humans’ relationship to animals can hardly be said to have been consistent: in some religions, certain animals were worshipped as gods, whereas others viewed them as symbols of evil. We treat our pets as members of the family, while livestock animals are subjected to more and more cost-effective production methods. The architect Juhani Pallasmaa introduces readers to the master architects of the animal world and their highly refined, diverse architectural solutions, from which people have learnt a great deal.

Women and the city

17 April 2010 | This 'n' that

Jolly good! Young women celebrating the First of May in Helsinki in 1912. Photo: Ivan Timiryasev

How was city life for the single woman a hundred years ago in Helsinki?

She could ride a bike, for example, provided it was equipped with an ‘alarm system’ and the speed was not high. Socially she could have fun as long as she obeyed the rules. No admittance to restaurants without male company, for example.

Some young women in those days had to make a living by teaching or by working in an office – before they got married, of course.

A new exhibition (25 March–29 August) at Helsinki’s Ateneum art museum, entitled Kaupungin naiset (‘Women of the city’), focuses on the cultural life of young women in Helsinki in the 1910s through the eyes of the writer and critic L. Onerva (aka Hilja Onerva Lehtinen, 1882–1972). More…

Comics turns

16 April 2010 | In the news

Comics make frequent appearances on the lists of best-selling Finnish books: on the ‘What Finland reads’ list in March, Pertti Jarla’s new comic strip book, Fingerpori 3, about the eponymous, weird city of Fingerpori (‘Fingerborg’), is number one. His two other Fingerpori books are number eight and ten on the list. The zany comedy in them is verbal, based on puns – and therefore not easily exportable.

The new and final volume of Hannu Väisänen’s autobiographical, fictional trilogy about the young wannabe artist Antero, Kuperat ja koverat (‘Convex and concave’) made its way into the top ten right away, making its appearance at number two.

The Finlandia Prize -winning novel, Gå inte ensam ut i natten (‘Don’t go out into the night alone’, translated into Finnish as Älä käy yöhön yksin) by Kjell Westö, is number three – the novel was published in September 2009, and this reappearance is partly explained by special campaigns in the bookstores, says Westö’s publisher, Otava.

Sofi Oksanen’s prize-winning novel Puhdistus (Purge, now published in English) from 2008, is back on the list again, now at number four. Kari Hotakainen’s latest novel, Ihmisen osa (‘Human lot’, 2009, to appear in English in 2012) is at number six.


16 April 2010 | Authors, Reviews

Vilja-Tuulia Huotarinen. Photo: Heini Lehväslaiho

One of the most exciting features of Finnish poetry since 2000 has been the wealth and breadth of poetry by young women. Compared to literature written by women in earlier decades, contemporary poetry appears to have freed itself from one-track feminism and knotted brow earnestness to become a literature with a richer approach to womanhood, its forms and history.

The first collection by Vilja-Tuulia Huotarinen (born 1977), Sakset kädessä ei saa juosta (‘You mustn’t run with scissors in your hand’, 2004) was a glimpse into the culturally restricted but nevertheless autonomous world of young girls. Mother’s instructions and Father’s advice will be broken down as one grows up; in spite of the genderised system, it is still possible for a young woman to make her own choices. More…

Bear-faced cheek

16 April 2010 | This 'n' that

Hello? A bear cub at the Predator Centre in Kuusamo. Photo: Pasi Jäntti

Spring is here at long last, and the bears have woken up: this frightening beast has got out of the lair in Kuusamo, at the Predator Centre in north-eastern Finland (800 kilometres from Helsinki).

Some of our readers may remember Niisku, the brown bear portrayed in the print version of Books from Finland, issues 4/2006 and 1/2007 – very sleepy, contemplating hibernation.

There are probably about a thousand bears in Finland, and they usually hit the hay (aka the spruce branches in their lair) in November. Tiny bear cubs are born in late January or early February. The family will emerge from the lair when the snow melts. Niisku gave birth to two babies in the spring of 2007.

The Predator Centre in Kuusamo is a private orphanage for wild bears, lynxes and wolverines which have been brought there after being injured and/or orphaned.

Morning, pal. Sulo Karjalainen and Juuso in the Predator Centre, Kuusamo. Photo: Pasi Jäntti

Specimens of Ursus arctos has become a lifelong friends of Sulo Karjalainen (in the photo, right, with Juuso, c. 400 kilos) In summer he may go for forest walks and even fishing with Vyöti, 16, who was brought to the Centre as a small orphan.

The brown bear plays an important role in Finnish mythology, and often features in folk poetry. We are fans! But we never go into the woods alone when mother bear takes her babies out for a walk. Or, if we do, we keep making noises so that the bear family will know to avoid us. After all, if they can choose, they prefer carrots to humans (see the video on the photo page of the Centre video entitled ‘Porkkanat ja karhut’ [‘Carrots and bears’]).

Asking for more

14 April 2010 | Fiction, poetry

The heroines in Vilja-Tuulia Huotarinen’s new collection, Iloisen lehmän runot (‘Happy cow poems’, 2009), are timeless creatures, mythical and archaic, and yet our contemporaries, living their lives alongside us (see Ruminations)

Let the cows out on Monday
and they’ll enter the forest, wander far
aim for the waterfalls, the hole in the rock and down the precipice.
The dead come back along our the road to our yard:
Rebecca, Isolde, Rosamunda.
Allison, Eulalia, Euphrosyne.
Not as ghosts but as old friends.
Whom will they, the wingless ones, protect here?
A lean lass, a lean lass. More…

Slowly does it – or not?

9 April 2010 | Authors, Essays, Non-fiction, On writing and not writing

Writer's block

In this series, Finnish authors ponder their profession. One day Kristina Carlson – a self-confessed slow writer – found her imagination so strongly inhabited by one of her own, as yet non-existent, characters that she was finally impelled to complete her novel

‘The answer grows like the spring light. / In my desk drawer there’s something, important. / I slowly remember it.’ I wrote these words in my first published work, my collection of poetry Hämärän valo (‘Light of dusk’) from 1986. I was born in 1949, so I was something of a late bloomer.

Still I had been writing ever since I was a child. After a ten-year break, I published my first children’s book under a pseudonym. In the space of three years after that, a total of twelve books appeared in the Anni series. In 1999 I published my first novel, Maan ääreen (‘To the end of the earth’). Another ten years passed; my second novel, Herra Darwinin puutarhuri (‘Mr Darwin’s gardener’), was published last autumn.

I’ve often been asked – more often than I have asked myself – why I publish so rarely. I don’t find writing difficult, but it is difficult to write well. For me, writing well involves clarity, precision, brightness, finding just the right mood and rhythm. If it were simply a case of the classic ‘murder your darlings’ problem, it could easily be resolved through a process of sufficiently pruning the text, but such pruning would leave us with nothing but a bare tree.

Writing is such a synthetic process that it is hard to describe, as it is inherently bound up with one’s own language and mind. More…

Green thoughts

1 April 2010 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Kuperat ja koverat (‘Convex and concave’, Otava, 2010)

Hannu Väisänen: ‘Green and yellow in March’ (work in progress, oil on canvas, 130x193cm, 2010)

I decided to go to the Museum of Fine Arts.

After paying for my entrance ticket, I climbed the wide staircase to the first floor. There all I saw were dull paintings, the same heroic seed-sowers and floor-sanders as everywhere else. Why were so many art museums nothing more than collections of frames? Always national heroes making their horses dance, mud-coloured grumblers and overblown historical scenes. There was not a single museum in which a grandfather would not be sitting on a wobbly stool peering over his broken spectacles, interrogating a young man about to set off on his travels, cheeks burning with enthusiasm, behind them the entire village, complete with ear trumpets and balls of wool. The painting’s eternal title would be ‘Interrogation’ and it would be covered with shiny varnish, so that in the end all you would be able to see would be your own face.

I climbed up to the next floor. All I really felt was a pressing need to run away. No Flemish conversation piece acquired in the Habsburg era was able to erase a growing anxiety related to love. More…

Challenged by colour

1 April 2010 | Authors, Interviews

Hannu Väisänen. Photo: Paula Kukkonen

Interview with Hannu Väisänen, author of the novel Kuperat ja koverat (‘Convex and concave’, 2010)

For the painter and writer Hannu Väisänen, colour speaks volumes.

In the novel Toiset kengät (‘The other shoes’, 2007, Otava) awarded the Finlandia Prize for Fiction), teenage wannabe artist Antero manages to escape his grey northern hometown of Oulu; he is heading for the eastern Finnish town of Savonlinna, where he will go to art college. Triumphantly Antero dyes his blond hair black in the bus station toilet.

‘Perhaps it was all a question of the right colours and the right timing of colours,’ Antero thinks. In Kuperat ja koverat (‘Convex and concave’, 2010), he leaves for the capital, determined to get into the academy of art. His hair is still black. More…

Positive fools

1 April 2010 | This 'n' that

‘People who think about what others think of them are above all afraid of being ridiculed. Consider it an irony of fate or not, but the Finns in literature are usually laughable in some way or other,’ Janna Kantola – lecturer in Comparative Literature in Helsinki University – writes in an article entitled ‘Strong, thirsty and weird’, published in the 6/2009 issue of the Helsinki University Bulletin.

Mostly they drink and end up on the wrong side of the law. For example, there are Finnish seafarers in fiction by European writers whose rum bottles apparently have no bottoms.

A love story with good Finns: House of Orphans by Helen Dunmore (Penguin, 2006)

‘Finland and the Finns appear, in particular, in thrillers from the Cold War: from Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1953) to Alistair MacLean’s novel HMS Ulysses (1955). In these works, the unsmiling and hulking Finns have wide, horny hands, massive bottoms and the strength of a hundred men.

‘But not to worry. On a couple of occasions, Finns have even got to be the main characters of books. In these instances, the Finns no longer make people laugh but are mostly tragic, just as the characters in literature usually are when they are most interesting.

‘The main character in Richard Rayner’s novel The Cloud Sketcher (2000, USA) is an architect – a popular profession for Finns in modern literature – who has a disfigured face and a hard history, reaching America by way of the Finnish civil war. The historical novel by Helen Dunmore, House of Orphans (2006, UK), set in Finland in 1901–1904, is a love story about two young rebels, Eeva and Lauri.

One of the success stories of Finnish literature abroad are the humorous novels by Arto Paasilinna (born 1942): they have been translated into almost 40 languages. ‘Through his books Arto Paasilinna has turned being a fool into a positive characteristic. All things considered, this is something Finland will have no shortage in offering,’ Kantola concludes.

Maritta Pohls & Annika Latva-Äijö: Lotta Svärd. Käytännön isänmaallisuutta [Lotta Svärd: practical patriotism]

1 April 2010 | Mini reviews, Reviews

Lotta Svärd. Käytännön isänmaallisuutta
[Lotta Svärd: Practical patriotism]
Helsinki: Otava, 2009. 454 p., ill.
€ 46, hardback

Lotta Svärd was the name of the Finnish women’s voluntary military organisation, which performed auxiliary defence work between 1921 and 1944. It took its name from a character in a poem by the 19th-century Finnish writer J.L. Runeberg: Lotta Svärd accompanied her soldier husband to the front in the Finnish War of 1709. During the Winter and Continuation Wars (1939–1944), the ‘Lottas’ provided assistance to soldiers and took over men’s jobs, freeing them to go to the front. Around 40,000 Lottas assisted the Finnish army by performing maintenance and staff duties as well as air-raid monitoring. When the organisation was disbanded in 1944, it had some 300,000 members. As Lotta Svärd was ideologically an organisation for women emphasising home, nation and religion, it divided public opinion, and may still do so today. This book, which details the organisation’s history, work and people, is fourth and final volume in the history project on Lotta Svärd.