Human destinies

7 February 2014 | Articles, Non-fiction

To what extent does a ‘historical novel’ have to lean on facts to become best-sellers? Two new novels from 2013 examined

When Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s largest newspaper, asked its readers and critics in 2013 to list the ten best novels of the 2000s, the result was a surprisingly unanimous victory for the historical novel.

Both groups listed as their top choices – in the very same order – the following books: Sofi Oksanen: Puhdistus (English translation Purge; WSOY, 2008), Ulla-Lena Lundberg: Is (Finnish translation Jää, ‘Ice’, Schildts & Söderströms, 2012) and Kjell Westö: Där vi en gång gått (Finnish translation Missä kuljimme kerran; ‘Where we once walked‘, Söderströms, 2006).

What kind of historical novel wins over a large readership today, and conversely, why don’t all of the many well-received novels set in the past become bestsellers?

In the 2000s, Finnish novels built on a historical foundation have stepped firmly outside the country’s borders. Kristina Carlson, Katri Lipson and Sofi Oksanen have all written effectively about human destinies outside of Finland. Of the three, Oksanen is already an international success story, but Carlson and Lipson have also been critically praised, translated and awarded prizes.

Riikka Pelo. Photo: Heini Lehväslaiho

Riikka Pelo. Photo: Heini Lehväslaiho

Riikka Pelo’s Jokapäiväinen elämämme (‘Our everyday lives’, Teos, 2013) is a new chapter in this spate of novels situated in European history, a broad spectacle of the Russian psychological landscape that opens in the 1920s and ends in the 1940s. Through the main character, poet Marina Tsvetayeva, and her daughter Ariadna (Alya) Efron, the novel tells the story of a region split by war. Like Oksanen’s Estonian series, Pelo’s novel is a labour camp story, part of the genre she calls gulag literature.

The narrative style of Jokapäiväinen elämämme is that of the modern personal history. Its point of view is quite free in its assemblage, combining various narrative strategies and layers of reality. Winner of last year’s Finlandia Prize for Fiction, the book has been greeted with critical acclaim although its text, often poetic, with shifting points of view, has also been called ‘unwieldy’. It eschews an objective, analytical perspective on historical reality, leaving, for example, the relationships among the characters up to the reader’s interpretation.
An extract from Jokapäiväinen elämämme:

When the lights of the fast train to Paris struck the attic window Marina woke up next to Alya. The child was deep asleep, and didn’t awaken with her movements. The lamp flame flickered; it would go out soon, sucking the last of the oil with it like the darkness sucked away the time itself, the order of things.

She didn’t used to be afraid of the dark, had been incapable of fearing anything, but since she’d been here she had often gone to bed when Alya did, to cover up the darkness with sleep. But there was a new, gentler quality in the darkness now, it felt like she had become a child again, like she might not remember the names people gave to objects and things as they changed their shapes in the dusk, but she could hear how they breathed, what their names were. She could hear the trees outside breathing, too, saying goodbye.

Winter was an endless night, filled with alienation and oddness, the days opening just a crack for a few hours from within a grey fog. There wasn’t even any snow at first. In Moscow there was always light somewhere, someone shouting, whispering, fighting, singing, but here, in this place that thought it was in the middle of Europe but was in fact a blind spot, far flung, out in the woods, there was nothing but darkness. When the hood of night slid over the hills and villages the whole rest of the world ceased to exist and they were all alone in the dark, just she and Alya and the gas furnace she was supposed to keep watch over through the night so it didn’t go out, so the flame wouldn’t escape, and the lights from trains between Prague and Beroun ate up the snowy river shore every hour or two, and even they stopped running by ten o’clock.

It was difficult to write at night; she needed mornings, and even the morning dark was a long one. The church was right next to the house and there the lights came on early, in the dark and slush, you could cross the road no matter how icy the weather was, however dark it was, even in your nightie, at an hour when you couldn’t go into the forest or the mountains, but you could go to the first mass at six o’clock. And the forest frightened her at night, even though the moon shone and she was starting to learn the paths. But it was like going into her deepest self, into what she didn’t want to see, didn’t want to hear, though the night sounds followed her into her dreams, too – a bird, a night moth, deer and roe, whatever it was that was stirring there, even the animals had no names or histories. And Alya was afraid of bands of thieves and the people who hated them, hated all Russians, came stinking from the taverns and went from house to house and took whatever they could find, leaving humiliation behind. But she wasn’t afraid of them. She only feared her own dreams, waking with a scream that had no sound.

Pelo’s novel, which has been described as ‘challenging but rewarding’, wasn’t expected to receive the commercial success of Oksanen, Lundberg and Westö’s Finlandia Prize winner, but its Finnish readership has surprised the pessimists; as of the end of 2013 the book had sold more than 50,000 copies.

War and the environment surrounding war are the most important narrative canvas for the Finnish historical novel. Väinö Linna’s (1920–1992) novels Tuntematon sotilas (The Unknown Soldier, WSOY, 1954) and Täällä Pohjantähden alla I–III (Under the North Star, 1959–62) in many ways form the literary historical background on which later wartime narratives have been written.

The inception of the modern Finnish historical war novel, however, can be traced to the novel Vuoden 1918 tapahtumat (‘The incidents of 1918’, Otava, 1960) by Veijo Meri, a leading modernist prose writer of the 1950s. Its narrative makes use of a problematicisation of story, viewpoint, and character that is seen in many other later books in the genre. The civil war has been portrayed many times before and after Meri, but neve had a historical novel so freely rejected the traditional pillars of the form. The contradictions of its anecdotes and scattered points of view test the concepts of character, point of view and plot.

Meri consciously left the war’s background of class conflict unanalysed – no one within the world of his novel provides a political historical explanation for the events of 1918, the year of the Civil War. Meri’s modernist break with realism is a powerful predecessor for today’s historical novel. The book has always been described as ‘disconnected’ and ‘associative’. The best analysis of the novel in recent years is author and theatremaker Juha Hurme’s afterword to the 2006 reissue: ‘This is vexing, brain taxing literature that demands effort and carries its trademark impudence and mischievousness with pride.”

Jenni Linturi. Photo: Heini Lehväslaiho

Jenni Linturi. Photo: Heini Lehväslaiho

Jenni Linturi’s second novel Malmi, 1917 (Teos, 2013) is set on the eve of the Finnish Civil War, in the autumn of the general strike, when the first violent confrontations between the ‘reds’ and the ‘whites’ were occurring around Helsinki and the parties in the conflict were gathering their forces. The central characters are two families of whites, the young members in particular. Linturi (born 1979) doesn’t provide a portrait of any of the reds; they are merely potato thieves and starving beggar children seen in quick glimpses.

Linturi’s thematic idea is to use social conflict as a window on a turning point of the modern era, as the young people of the story, balanced on the dividing line between the old and the new world, make very different choices than their parents. Linturi’s treatment of the language question is one interesting aspect of the story. The Finnish and Swedish languages have at different times been tied up with themes of class difference and even today language is still not a neutral issue in this bilingual country.
An extract from Malmi, 1917:

The spray of raindrops bounced against the lighted bookstore display window. He stood next to Antero and stared at the play of drops. The weather was like the shoemaker’s new bride, heavy and ugly. The trees were sweating – lime and pine trees. Inside the window was a classroom display – a desk covered in non-fiction, pulp fiction, 25-penny books for boys, Jack London, Kipling’s adventures. Where the blackboard should be was a map like the one his father had. Two big roads tugging a bunch of smaller ones along like clotheslines. That’s what Malmi village looked like from above.

‘What’s that supposed to be?’

Antero was pointing to a green book, Blad ur min tänkebok by Zacharias Topelius. A picture painted on glass hung behind it, a hazy bare-chested angel with pale curls. His wings looked like they were growing out of his ears. Maybe it was painted by the shopkeeper’s wife or daughter. The all-hearing ear angel. Antero thought the creature bore a striking resemblance to a homo person.

‘Some people say angels don’t have a sex.’

‘People say all kinds of things nowadays. These red bows, for instance. Perfectly rational people have started wearing them right here.’

Antero tapped his chest with a finger. Just then a bell rang, high and clear, as if his heart had played the notes. The shopkeeper walked into the street wearing a striped pullover, his shirt sleeves rolled up. Oiva nodded faintly, just to avoid pointless misunderstandings. The shopkeeper looked past him and took off his hat. A horse with a blaze on its nose came around a tall building and turned onto the street pulling a row of open black cars behind it. The white casket was closed, its lower half covered in flowers and a black and yellow flag. Oiva quickly removed his own cap. The hatband was yellowed from sweat. He didn’t let that bother him. Discomfort meant life, at least, instead of death, which was nothing but darkness, the end of everything.

When the procession had turned into the station and the whistle of the funeral train trailed off mournfully, Oiva put his cap back on and pushed it to the back of his head. The bookseller continued to grip his own hat, as if its narrow brim were made of anger. He said that a week ago the unemployed had started demanding resignations from the police force. When the police refused, three officers were stabbed near the cemetery. After that bit of news, Antero didn’t feel like correcting the man’s poor Finnish. The disgusting thought of minds wallowing in Swedish language was overriden by the even more revolting thought of hearts wallowing in Ruskie ideas. That was why decent men had ended up in a pine box. The shopkeeper looked like he was thinking the same thing. He shook his head once, as if that wordless gesture was meant to say that horror united them more than their languages divided them. Then he turned and went back into the bookstore.

Linturi’s novel has had a somewhat mixed reception. It has been praised for its skillfully constructed dramatic narrative as well as its characterisations and the way it freely shifts among differing points of view. On the other hand, reviewers have been critical of the novel’s lack of new perspectives and historical interpretations, as if the story is attempting to avoid taking any side at all in the Civil War. The sparse style of the characterisations has also upset some readers who feel that the book lacks characters they can identify with.

Linturi seems to write over earlier narratives of the Civil War – Väinö Linna’s two worlds of the reds and the whites are not presented. This very aspect is, in the spirit of Veijo Meri, the novel’s strength.

A thought-provoking historical novel is different than other kinds of ‘challenging’ prose. Stories set in the past are expected to rest on historiography. Readers expect the narration to be a commentary, an analysis that follows the course of events and keeps its characters distinct. If they cannot identify with the characters, they don’t feel the story has succeeded. Unusual, unreliable points of view in a political-historical novel caused strong reactions half a century ago, and they still do today.

Translated by Lola Rogers

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