Archive for October, 2013

Love and marriage

31 October 2013 | Authors, Interviews

Sanna Tahvanainen. Photo: Cata Portin

Sanna Tahvanainen. Photo: Cata Portin

Victoria, a lonely, restricted child, grows up to be a mother of nine; in the eyes of the world, she is enormously powerful. The love she feels for her husband is equally strong. In constant, troubled search of herself as a woman, Victoria lives a long life.
Sanna Tahvanainen’s character is a queen – but her novel, Bär den som en krona (‘Wear it like a crown’, 2013) a surprising, rich portrait of a woman, is almost completely lacking in descriptions of Victoria’s regal duties. This extract is set at the opening of the London International Exhibition of Industry and Art in 1851. Janina Orlov interviews the author.

JO: How did you decide on Queen Victoria? I remember you once commented that you only had a very general picture of her, but once you started rooting around you must have found a wealth of information.

ST: I didn’t make any sort of concrete decision to write a book about her; she fascinated me in a peculiar way. I would return to her every time I was working on a new collection of poetry; I’d already written so much poetry that there was almost a hint of routine about it all, this was something I could really get my teeth into. Because we know so little about Victoria’s childhood, I actually had quite a lot of freedom. Of course, there are reams of books about her! But I’ve never found a novel about her.

JO: How did you go about creating her voice? More…

Pomp and circumstance

31 October 2013 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Bär den som en krona (‘Wear it like a crown’, Schildts & Söderströms, 2013). Sanna Tahvanainen interviewed by Janina Orlov

A kick in the stomach – yes, that is what it feels like each time I catch a glimpse of the Crystal Palace. The miniature on Albert’s desk has finally grown to maturity. The great greenhouse towers where once the elms stood. On a clear day the sun dances along the glass, making it glisten, the whole place all but blinding us. One is forced to squint on approaching it. One reaches out a hand, and when it touches the glass and steel, one knows one is there.

The grand opening is a mere five days hence. I step inside, he will be there somewhere. He is unaware of my arrival; it is to be a surprise. These last months he has been gone long before I have woken, and arrives home only once I am asleep. He seems quite indefatigable, neither sleeps nor eats properly. These last weeks there has been nothing else on his mind but the Great Exhibition. More…

Northern prizes

31 October 2013 | In the news

Seita Vuorela and xx Itkonen receive the prize for their book Karikko. Photo: Magnus Froderberg/Nordic Council

The winners: Seita Vuorela and Jani Ikonen are presented with their prize. Photo: Magnus Froderberg/Nordic Council

The Nordic Council’s five culture prizes were for the first time awarded together at a Gala at the Oslo Opera House on 30 October. The show was broadcast by all the Nordic public service channels.

The winners of the Nordic Council Children and Young People’s Literature Prize 2013 – worth about €43,000 – are Seita Vuorela and Jani Ikonen from Finland. Karikko (‘The reef’, see our review) written by Vuorela and illustrated by Ikonen is the first work to be awarded the newly established Nordic Council Children and Young People’s Literature Prize.

Another Finnish winner this time was the violinist Pekka Kuusisto (born 1976) who won the Nordic Council Music Prize (also worth €43,000). ‘Pekka Kuusisto is a violinist in the absolute elite and with as much unique creativity as musicality,’ said the Adjudication Committee.

The 2013 Nordic Council Literature Prize went to a Danish-Norwegian author Kim Leine. The Finnish nominees were Rosa Liksom and Ulla-Lena Lundberg.

The oldest of the five prizes is the Literature Prize, first awarded in 1962. It was followed by the Music Prize (1965), the Nature and Environment Prize (1995), the Film Prize (2002) and the Children and Young People’s Literature Prize (2013).

Kjell Westö: Hägring 38 [Mirage 38]

31 October 2013 | Mini reviews, Reviews

westoHägring 38
[Mirage 38]
Helsinki: Schildts & Söderströms, 2013. 296 pp.
ISBN 97895152332069
€34, hardback
Suom. [Translated into Finnish by] Liisa Ryömä
Helsinki: Otava, 2013. 334 pp.
ISBN 9789511274032
€29.90, hardback

The previous novels by Kjell Westö (born 1961) have been sweeping in their scope, encompassing several generations. Westö’s writing is characterised by a precise instinct for historical details and love for his hometown of Helsinki. Hägring 38 focuses on the year 1938; the new ideas of that era and the worsening political climate in Europe are reflected in the differences of opinion among a group of Finland-Swedish gentlemen. In June of 1938 these friends attend the opening gala for the new Olympic stadium in Helsinki and watch as the winner of the 100-metre dash, a Jew, is demoted to fourth place. [In October 2013, after the publication of Westö’s novel, the Finnish Athletics Federation finally corrected that erroneous decision, which had been made for racist reasons.] Claes Thune, a lawyer who has lost his wife to another man and suffers from depressive episodes, is a leading member of the circle of friends. His new secretary, the taciturn Mrs Wiik, is one of the central figures Westö utilises to portray the prison camps and traumatic events of the Finnish civil war of 1918.
Translated by Ruth Urbom

A family affair

24 October 2013 | In the news

Finnish_Poets_front_coverSix Finnish poets, edited by Teemu Manninen – a poet himself – is the tenth volume in a series of bilingual anthologies bringing contemporary poetry from around Europe to English-language readers.

One of the poets introduced is a Finland-Swede, Matilda Södergran, whose poems are presented in their original Swedish alongside the English translations. The other poets, all of whom write in Finnish, are Vesa Haapala, Janne Nummela, Henriikka Tavi, Katariina Vuorinen and Juhana Vähänen. Their translators are Emily & Fleur Jeremiah, Lola Rogers and Helen R. Boultrum.

In his introduction Teemu Manninen briefly outlines the developments of contemporary Finnish poetry around the turn of the 21st century. The poets chosen were born in the 1970s and 1980s; their work could be characterised variously as experimental, surrealist, minimalist and ironic.

According to Manninen, during the last couple of decades, a ‘do-it-yourself’ culture has sprung up among people interested in performing poetry, organising independent festivals and clubs, and disseminating their work via the Internet. New, cheaper methods of publishing printed books have also contributed to a growing interest in poetry and to its popularity. Even so, contemporary poetry is not something that attracts large crowds; people involved in this sort of ‘literary activism’ tend to know each other well.

So, ‘in Finland, poetry is a family affair,’ notes Manninen. ‘The familial communality has to be acknowledged if one is to understand the kind of poetry currently being written in Finland….’ It mostly lives and thrives independent of large publishers, newspapers and literary prizes.

The anthology series is entitled New Voices from Europe and Beyond; it is published in the UK by Arc Publications in co-operation with Literature Across Frontiers.

That which simply is

24 October 2013 | Non-fiction, Reviews

Henrika Ringbom. Photo: Curt Richter

Henrika Ringbom. Photo: Curt Richter

Henrika Ringbom
Öar i ett hav som strömmar
[Islands in a flowing sea]
Helsingfors: Schildts & Söderströms, 2013. 78 p.
ISBN 978-951-52-3218-2
€21, paperback

Henrika Ringbom’s new collection of poems is emotionally touching and formally sophisticated – something only the very best poetry can manage. Ringbom is an experienced author whose output since her debut in 1988 has included five collections of poetry and two novels; even so, it feels as if she has taken another step forward in her writing with this latest volume.

The focal point is the loss of a beloved mother. The title, which translates as ‘Islands in a flowing sea’, emphasises the fleeting nature of all life, and the book radiates sorrow more than anything else. There has always been an intellectual, distancing quality to Ringbom’s writing. That stands her in good stead here, preventing the book from becoming too private and introverted, despite its highly personal themes. More…

A fleeting scent

24 October 2013 | Fiction, poetry

Poems from Öar i ett hav som strömmar (‘Islands in a flowing sea’, Schildts and Söderströms, 2013). Introduction by Michel Ekman

A fig wasp’s life

She squeezes in. The opening closes and the world overflows. She swims in the sweet flowing moisture. In the sycamore fig tree, a myriad of delicate white blossoms have burst out. For her eyes alone, a damp garden, alabaster-clear. The home she’s been longing for. There she lays her eggs, empties her pouches. Tiny little pollen grains for the tiny little blossoms. Membranes form round the eggs, they live off the sweetness, it rocks them gently. Fine, frail swaying thicket of embryos More…

In good company

18 October 2013 | This 'n' that

Portrait of an artist: Joel Lehtonen, sketched by Pietro Annigoni in Florence, 1931. Picture: literary archives of the Finnish Literature Society

Portrait of an artist: Joel Lehtonen, sketched by Pietro Annigoni in Florence, 1931. Picture: literary archives of the Finnish Literature Society

Margaret, Countess of Snowdon (Princess Margaret, 1930–2002), Joel, Master of Putkinotko (1881–1934), and Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (born 1921) met in the same museum case in Florerence in October, when an exhibition of the work of the artist Pietro Annigoni (1910–1988) was opened.

The morganatic juxtaposition of the English royals and the Finnish writer is based on Annigoni’s reputation as one of the best-known portraitists of the 20th century, in whom the royal courts of England and Denmark, among others, placed their trust.

Joel Lehtonen, author of the novel Putkinotko (‘Hogweed Hollow’, the name also refers to a place) and classic of Finnish literature, is included on account of the fact that, in celebrating his fiftieth birthday in Florence in 1931, he partied throughout the night with students from the Accademia di Belle Arte ‘to the rhythm of an excellent Chianti’.

Also present was the young Piero Annigoni, who, in a cellar restaurant, took out his working tools. A red-chalk portrait of Lehtonen was the result, along with a series of dancing girls drawn in Indian ink. ‘It was five in the morning before I realised,’ Lehtonen wrote back to Finland.

Lehtonen had already spent a year in Italy in 1908 translating Boccaccio’s The Decameron, which, to his annoyance, was censored by the publisher. He published a volume of poetic prose based on his Italian experiences, Myrtti ja alppiruusu (‘The myrtle and the rhododendron’), of which one section is dedicated to Florence, that ‘glittering, passionate city of the spirit’.

Young Florentine artists were used to world-class artists. When the poet Dylan Thomas visited the city in the 1940s, the poet and author Luigi Berti – an acquaintance of Lehtonen’s – complained that ‘poets travelling in Italy no longer give themselves the airs of “milords” – behave like Lord Byron.’ Lehtonen, however, was able to party stylishly and thoroughly in a way that appears to have pleased the sons of Florence.

As he set off on the return journey to Finland, Lehtonen wrote to his wife: ‘An embarrassing day is over’, ‘I am in fine spirits! Heat the sauna.’ He brought with him Annigoni’s works, which are now in the archive of the Finnish Literature Society.

The curator of the Florence exhibition found more sketches of Lehtonen in the Museo Annigoni: in the current show, they are placed alongside sketches of Princess Margaret and Prince Philip.

The opening of the exhibition, in the premises of the Ente Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze, was attended by 300 of the city’s elite. It was as if the nobility of the portraits of the Uffizi art gallery had stepped out of their frames to honour Annigoni, whose paintings continued the traditions of the renaissance. The Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica gave prominent coverage to the event. The young politician and Florence mayor Matteo Renzi said in his speech that in northern Italy Annigoni’s significance to art is parallel to that of Olivetti to industry.

Annigoni’s early portraits of Lehtonen are shown in a section entitled Opere rare o inedited. The 240-page catalogue also includes brief description of Lehtonen as a writer and an account of that night in Florence in 1931.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

Cool, not ice-cool

17 October 2013 | This 'n' that

Getting ready: book fair scenery, 2013. Photo: FILI

Getting ready: book fair scenery, 2013. Photo: FILI

The Finnish book world is preparing for the big event of ‘F14’: Finland will appear as Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October next year.

The slogan for this enterprise is Finnland. Cool.

The coordinating organ is FILI, the Finnish Literature Exchange, a part of the Finnish Literature Society. Co-operating with FILI are three ministries, literary organisations and publishers, the Finnish Embassy and Finnland-Institut in Berlin and the Goethe-Institut in Helsinki.

Last week a large proportion of the FILI staff – who now need to keep their cool for the next busy year – went to Frankfurt, and on 10 October (aptly, the memorial day of the national author Aleksis Kivi and also Finnish Literature Day) the press conference was opened by the Finnish Minister of Culture and Sport, Paavo Arhinmäki. On 13 October the 2013 Guest of Honour, Brazil, passed the baton to Finland. (More photographs here.)

The world’s largest book fair, Frankfurt, attracts some 300,000 visitors each year. Accessible to both professionals and the general public, the fair is also the biggest cultural event in Germany.

The Guest of Honour countries receive a vast amount of attention in the media, and the number of new translations from the respective languages into German, as well as other languages, will increase.

Finnland: arktik. Blondi. Cool. Demokratia. Einsam. Formula 1. Girji. Heimat....

Finnland: arktik. Blondi. Cool. Demokratia. Einsam. Formula 1. Girji. Heimat. Ihminen. Joy…. Photo: FILI

The total Finnish budget for the years 2010–2015 is approximately four million euros, half of it money from the government. And the mission? Here are some warm words from the cool FILI agenda:

‘Why are Finns reading so much? Why are Finns so good at reading? Because we love it. Because reading plays such an important role in everyday life.

‘And because it is so important in Finland that everybody has access to reading – regardless of whether you are male or female, where you live, where you work, what your education or talent is. Fun, everyday life and for everyone – these are the main themes of the satellite programme for the Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2014.’


What have brains got to do with it?

17 October 2013 | Columns, Tales of a journalist

Illustration: Joonas Väänänen

Illustration: Joonas Väänänen

Pondering his changing profession once again, columnist and media critic Jyrki Lehtola feels compelled to present a brief history of the media

Not long ago a certain media company invited me to participate in a panel on brainprints.

I didn’t know what they were talking about, so I agreed. At most I thought it was about the engram left in our collective psyche that yes, we used to have this sort of print media thing that told us what the world was like.

And then we didn’t – look at this picture of print media on my iPad, kids, isn’t it cute?

That wasn’t what it was about at all. Brainprint means all the ways the media can influence us as consumers. In other words, this is one more conversation the media has with itself to convince itself that it has a role to play.

There we sat around a long table once again talking about whether the media is a mirror or a window when maybe we should have been talking about the pile of glass on the ground and whether someone shouldn’t clean it up before someone hurts themselves. More…

Rauni Ollikainen: Finnish beginnings. A childhood in Finland. A memoir

17 October 2013 | Mini reviews, Reviews

ollikainenFinnish beginnings. A childhood in Finland. A memoir
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012. 240 p., ill.
ISBN 978-1481829571
$20.40, paperback

This first volume of Rauni Ollikainen’s memoirs deals with her early life in Finland and her family’s emigration, when she was eight years old, to a new life in Vancouver, Canada. The details of her childhood, as a member of a proudly working-class Helsinki family – saunas, school, pets, her relationships with her two sisters – are lovingly chronicled. They are interestingly interleaved with the larger history around them – the Winter and Continuation Wars, and Ollikainen’s own evacuation to Sweden, which she was, frustratingly for the reader, too small to remember, and the uncertain political situation in which Finland found itself after the war, which was to prompt the Ollikainens’ departure. The book ends with the early years in Canada as the family begins to find its feet, with more promised in a follow-up volume. Although it would benefit from more in the way of narrative drive, this rich and well-observed memoir gives voice to the experience of thousands of emigrant Finns.

Utopia or dystopia?

15 October 2013 | This 'n' that

CMI logo rgb jpeg‘The fate of our societies lies in equity’, claims Martti Ahtisaari – winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008 – in his foreword to a study entitled A recipe for a better life: Experiences from the Nordic countries (2013).

The study was compiled and written by Heikki Hiilamo and Olli Kangas with Johan Fritzell, Jon Kvist and Joakim Palme and published by Crisis Management Initiative (a Finnish, independent, non-profit organisation founded in 2000 by Ahtisaari, President of Finland from 1994 to 2000). It is available here.

‘The Nordic experience’ is presented in chapters dealing with the trustworthiness of the society, the role of the state, the amount of efficiency and inefficiency as well as the homogeneity of the Nordic societies and the social investments of these societies in their citizens.

(The Nordic countries consist of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden as well as their associated territories – with different levels of autonomy – the Faroe Islands and Greenland [Denmark] and Åland [Finland].)

         ‘"The Nordic enigma" is a successful marriage between hard-core competitive capitalism
          and the pursuit of egalitarian policies’.

The study provides a concise summary of how these societies function with additional comments on the socio-historical development of independent Finland. It presents the reader with pros and cons, arguments and facts.

        ‘For some analysts the Nordic welfare state is a dystopia to be avoided at all costs....
        It is simply argued that that the welfare state destroys the incentives to work.’
        ‘Despite their strong welfare states and heavy tax burdens – often said to be poison 
        to competitiveness – the Nordic countries are doing well in economic terms.’

The reader is indeed challenged to ponder the best recipes for a better life. Last but not least: how will the ‘recipes’ need to be adapted in the future?

Is this all?

10 October 2013 | Extracts, Non-fiction

Earth. Andrew Z. Colvin/Wikimedia

Earth. Andrew Z. Colvin/Wikimedia

In today’s world, many people find that it is not the lack of something that is problematic, but excess: the same goes for knowledge. According to professor of space astronomy, Esko Valtaoja, knowledge should contribute to the creation of a better world. His latest book is a contribution to the sum of all knowledge; over the course of two hundred pages Valtaoja delves deep into the inner space of man by taking his reader on a brief tour of the universe. Extracts from Kaiken käsikirja. Mitä jokaisen tulisi tietää (‘A handbook to everything. What everybody should know’, Ursa, 2012)

Whatever god you bow down to, you’re probably worshipping the wrong god.

The above is almost the only completely certain thing that can be said about religion, and even it does not encompass any deep truth; it’s just a simple mathematical statement. The world’s biggest religion is Roman Catholicism, which is confessed, at least nominally, by 1.1 billion people. If the Roman Catholic god were the true god, the majority of people in the world are therefore worshipping a false god. (According to the official stance of the Catholic church, the other Christian denominations are heresies, and their believers will be condemned to perdition: extra ecclesiam nulla salus. This inconvenient truth is, understandably, politely bypassed in ecumenical debate. But even if all those who call themselves Christians were counted as worshipping the same god, two thirds of the world’s population are still knocking at the wrong door.)

If you’re a religious person, don’t worry; I’m not blaspheming. And if you’re a campaigning atheist, hang on a minute: all I want to do is to find a clear and undisputed starting point to consider what it is we’re talking about when we speak of religion. More…

Johanna Korhonen: Kymmenen polkua populismiin [Ten paths to populism]

3 October 2013 | Mini reviews, Reviews

kymmenenpolkuaKymmenen polkua populismiin. Kuinka vaikenevasta Suomesta tuli äänekkään populismin pelikenttä
[Ten paths to populism. How silent Finland became a playing field for loud populism]
Helsinki: Into Kustannus Oy, 2013. 81p.
ISBN 951-952-264-257-8
€15, paperback

This pamphlet on the populist True Finns party was commissioned by the British think tank Counterpoint (PDF available in Finnish). In 2011, under the leadership of the rhetorically gifted Timo Soini, the True Finns became the largest opposition party in the Finnish parliament. In the background of this phenomenon the journalist Johanna Korhonen sees, among other things, the recession of the 1990s, the fear of economic insecurity, and the paucity of alternatives and debate that characterise politics in Finland. The left-leaning party favours simplifications and longs for national unity and security. It nevertheless includes an extremist nationalist minority whose agenda includes resistance to the European Union, cultural diversity, minority rights and foreign influences, and can even be racist. Korhonen focuses and simplifies in pamphleteering fashion, but argues patiently, basing her views on facts, and considers the beneficial effects the populist party has had on the national debate, offering her suggestions for a more humane politics.
Translated by Hildi Hawkins

Girls just want to have fun

3 October 2013 | Essays, Non-fiction, On writing and not writing

Writer's block

In this series, Finnish authors ponder the complexities of their profession. Susanne Ringell describes her work as sailing on sometimes stormy seas – without a skipper certificate, but with conviction

We are such stuff as dreams are made on; / and our little life is rounded with a sleep. (William Shakespeare, The Tempest.) In Swedish – my mother tongue and the language in which my pencil writes – the play is called Stormen, ‘The storm’. There are a lot of storms on the sea of dreams. The sky suddenly grows dark, and deceptive whirlwinds blow up, there are cold shivers and tornadoes, there is the Bermuda Triangle and the mighty chasm of the Mariana Trench. In its southern part is the world ‘s deepest marine environment, Challenger Deep, 11 kilometres. Our boats are small and fragile, and it ‘s a miracle they haven’t capsized more often.

It’s a miracle that in spite of it all we still so frequently reach our home harbour, that we arrive where we were bound for. Or somewhere else, but we do get there. We come ashore, we come ashore with what we set our minds on. More…