The almost nearly perfect travel book

4 April 2014 | Articles, Non-fiction

Illustration: Joonas Väänänen

Illustration: Joonas Väänänen

The question of what foreign people think of us Finns, and Finland has always been a particularly burning one in these latitudes: a young nation, a small people. Can we be as good as bigger and wealthier nations? Tommi Uschanov reads a new book on the Nordic countries published in England, keeping a sharp eye on what is being said about…. Finland, naturally

When an article based on The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle by Michael Booth was published last January in the London Guardian, there was a nationwide outcry in Finland. ‘Finland being bashed in the British media,’ one tabloid headlined grandiosely, while a sober financial paper spoke of ‘a broadside full of stinky stuff’. It takes a re-reading of the article after having read the book to understand why. To create an artificial atmosphere of controversy, the article is lop-sidedly critical of Finland in a way which the book goes out of its way to avoid.

The Almost Nearly Perfect People belongs in a by now time-honoured genre within English letters: the humorous encomium to a host culture by an expatriate – or immigrant, as we hosts impolitely insist on calling them. The only difference is that Michael Booth, a British food and travel writer, does not discuss only Denmark, where he has lived for a decade, but visits each of the other four Nordic countries in turn.

Booth’s 72 pages on Finland are divided in seven chapters: ‘Santa,’ ‘Silence’ (mostly on the sauna), ‘Alcohol,’ ‘Sweden,’ ‘Russia,’ ‘School’ and ‘Wives’ (on women more generally, and much more besides). He paints a portrait of contemporary Finland that is affectionate and balanced. It is also carefully done; the Finnish section has only four typos and one significant factual error. (The infamous 1970s radio show touting the Soviet Union, Näin naapurissa [‘Neighbourly news’], was weekly and not daily, God forbid.)

Even the book’s main weakness is an aspect of one of its strengths: its focus on the history of the countries discussed. For instance, many travel writers would have been content to repeat clichés on the Finns’ fondness for alcohol and taken it as an empirical given. But Booth looks at the cold statistics on alcohol consumption per capita, and points out that Finland is actually quite mid-ranking and unremarkable. He then talks to Matti Peltonen, professor of social history at the University of Helsinki and a leading authority on the intellectual history of Finnish alcohol policy.

Peltonen is able to tell Booth that the Finns’ weak head for booze is nothing but an ‘absurd myth’. It was deliberately created, at the turn of the 20th century, as a party political weapon, when the newly established left- and right-wing parties were competing on who ‘owned’ the ascendant temperance movement politically. This momentary political debate, which ended in the failed experiment of prohibition (1919–32), is long forgotten. But it is still staunchly part of the Finns’ self-image even today that they just cannot drink in the civilised, ‘European’ way – which is itself idealised out of all recognition, as if there were no alcoholics in France or drunk drivers in Germany.

Booth truly goes beyond the call of duty here, as Peltonen’s research is still much too little known even in Finland, in spite of its academic credentials. When I wrote a book about Finnish culture myself some years ago, the section on alcohol was considered more newsworthy than anything else in it, although it was just a slavish précis of Peltonen’s Kerta kiellon päälle: suomalainen kieltolakimentaliteetti (‘One for the road: the Finnish prohibition mentality,’ 1997) and Remua ja ryhtiä (‘Boozing and backbone,’ 2002).

The weakness I mentioned above is Booth’s constant tendency to overplay the Finns’ own consciousness of their history. For instance, he claims that the uncaring attitude of the Stockholm government in the 1696–7 famine ‘has not been forgotten,’ as if it were a source of constant strain in Finnish-Swedish relations to this day. I doubt whether one Finn in a thousand has given any thought to it during, say, the past year. Similarly, the 2006 arson fire of Porvoo cathedral [now restored; Porvoo is a town 50 kilometres east of Helsinki on the south coast] is deemed worth a mention as something that has ‘shaken Finland to the core’. But I for one had long since forgotten that it ever happened.

Recalling his encounters with nondescript concrete blocks in provincial towns on a drive from Rovaniemi to Helsinki, Booth confesses: ‘I missed a sense of the past.’ This is inadvertently revealing. To a degree that Booth never quite grasps, his ordinary Finnish subjects are often simply too ignorant of the past to even miss it. As he carefully shows, Finland is a country everywhere shaped by history. But in public debate and in everyday life, as opposed to tourist traps, this same history rarely if ever really crosses the threshold of visibility. (The contrast with Booth’s native Britain is jolting here.) Had one of Booth’s local informants put this paradox to him, he would have had something interesting to say on it as well, but sadly nobody did.

Although he took care to go up north and back, Booth’s geographic view of Finland is still somewhat Helsinki-centric. He is bemused by the fact that Finland is ‘almost entirely forest…. from our train window, it was little more than a monotonous green blur’. Seeing this largely as just a quirk, Booth does not consider the economic impact of forestry, although it was the bedrock on which the welfare state he admires was initially built. Neither does Booth discuss that genuine Finnish peculiarity in an age of urbanisation, the agrarian Centre Party [until 1965, the Agrarian League], whose politicians, Urho Kekkonen [president 1956–1981] and Ahti Karjalainen [prime minister 1962–63 and 1970–71], are practically the only ones he mentions by name.

After the one on alcohol, the most interesting chapter is the one on Russia. There Booth examines the one major exception to Finland’s general disregard for history, namely World War II. In particular, he tries to make the Continuation War of 1941–44 comprehensible to readers for whom the Nazis are the unproblematic paradigm case of evil, without the slightest hint of a silver lining. In the Winter War of 1939–40, fought while the non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union still held, Finland had earned the admiration of the world for taking on the Soviets, and thus by proxy the Germans as well. But when Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941, the Finns came along as ‘co-belligerents’ or ‘brothers in arms’. So how could Booth’s admirable Finland, believing in democracy and the rule of law, end up in a military alliance with the worst moral monsters in living memory?

The application of this view of the Nazis, in which moral horror takes centre stage, to those particular Nazis beside whom Finland fought, is still considered in the Finnish popular imagination today as unpatriotic – or somehow at least ‘deviant’ or ‘controversial’ in a pejorative sense. To Finns, Booth’s discussion is a useful reminder that what they consider the deviant view is the uncontroversial mainstream view abroad. There it is shared not just by Booth, but by practically everyone else as well, including the readers he has to address. Therefore, holding the view tells nothing about the holder’s political or ideological allegiances. In particular, it does not amount to believing that Finland would have been better off defeated.

Booth’s non-Finnish readers are conversely reminded of nearby Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which did in fact fall to the Soviet army and vanished from the world map for half a century. Although not in so many words, Booth queries whether anyone is morally entitled to ask an entire nation to accept this fate just to avoid waging a pro-Nazi war for three years. In Finland, the answer has always gone without saying.

Finally, as if to ‘save’ Finland for the side of the good, Booth also devotes space to the brief Lapland War of 1944–45, fought to expel the remaining German troops after Finland again switched sides in mid-war. Ironically, the Finns themselves often view the Lapland War as an uninspiring epilogue that is best forgotten, because it does not fit in the heroic narrative of the earlier anti-Soviet wars. But because it was a war against Nazi Germany and Nazi Germany only, it was in Booth’s foreign viewpoint the most heroic thing about Finland’s involvement in World War II at all.

The Almost Nearly Perfect People is a very much better book, and Michael Booth a better writer, than the advance publicity sadly led most Finns to believe. Most surprisingly of all, the book is never crass, in the way in which even quality journalism is often tempted to be in Britain (vide Booth’s own Guardian piece). As far as light travel books on Finland go, this one deserves a wider readership than most – both within Finland and without.

Michael Booth
The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle
London: Jonathan Cape, 2014. 406 pp.
ISBN 978-0-224-08962-3

Read also this article by Tommi Uschanov: See the big picture?(Books from Finland, Nov 2012)

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