Intelligent living

8 June 2015 | Fiction, Prose

Minna Lindgren

Minna Lindgren. Photo: Ville Palonen.

In Ehtoolehdon tuho [‘The decline of Twilight Grove’, Teos, 2015), the final novel in a trilogy about life in an assisted living home, employing human staff has become too expensive and the old folk are part of a pilot project in which they are cared for by electronic devices, monitors, cameras, ‘smartwalls’ and cleaning robots: ‘there was intelligence everywhere, masses of it, just a hiccup and something terribly intelligent would happen.’

The aged lady residents don’t like their new life, but they’re resilient; they’re not about to let the new technology defeat them…

Minna Lindgren’s mordantly satirical, often hilariously funny writing has earned her a wide readership. Translations of the trilogy are soon to appear in English, German and French.


An excerpt from Ehtoolehdon tuho [‘The decline of Twilight Grove’, Teos, 2015). Review by Soila Lehtonen

‘You’re 97 today! Your wakeup call service today congratulates!’

As if she wouldn’t have remembered. Ninety-seven was almost a hundred. She and Irma had decided that they would refuse to turn one hundred. It would only make trouble. One lady, in the bottom apartment of the A staircase, had received an invitation to the health centre on her birthday. Apparently all five-year-olds were called in for monitoring of their motor and psychological development, and when this lady turned 105, the computer system thought she was a toddler. The computer didn’t recognise numbers over one hundred. Siiri thought the lady should have kept the appointment; she would have done, for the tests were fun. You had to draw a triangle and walk along a straight line. Not that easy for someone of 105. But the lady didn’t go, she just made a terrible fuss about it and complained to everyone, until she died before her complaints reached the right official. More…

A perfect storm

11 May 2015 | Fiction, Prose

Bracing the waves

Bracing the waves. Ivan Aivazovsky, 1890.

According to Petri Tamminen, Finns are burdened by the need to succeed. Instead, he argues they should learn to fail better.

Part comedy, part tragedy, part picaresque novel, with a dash of Joseph Conrad – Tamminen’s new book, Meriromaani. Eräitä valoisia hetkiä merikapteeni Vilhelm Huurnan synkässä elämässä (‘A maritime novel. A few bright moments in Captain Vilhelm Huurna’s sombre life’, Otava, 2015) is set in an indeterminate seafaring past of the 18th or 19th century. It tells the story of the world’s most unsuccessful sea captain, Vilhelm Huurna who, one by one, sinks all the ships he commands.

Tamminen (born 1966) is a master of very short prose – this miniature novel is a a huge undertaking in the context of his work as a whole – and at Books from Finland we’re big fans. You can read more of his work here.

We join the story as Huurna, leaving behind him a failed romance in Viipuri, sets sail for Archangel, on the far north coast of Russia.


An excerpt from Meriromaani. Eräitä valoisia hetkiä merikapteeni Vilhelm Huurnan synkässä elämässä (‘A maritime novel. A few bright moments in Captain Vilhelm Huurna’s sombre life’, Otava, 2015)

The sun shone on the Arctic Ocean night and day, and the voyage went amazingly well, as did all the tasks and jobs that Huurna particularly feared beforehand.

Ships lay in Archangel harbour like objects on a collector’s shelf. They were waiting for timber cargo from the local sawmills where work was at a standstill because the mills lacked the machines and machine parts that they were now bringing them. When their cargo had been unloaded and the machines installed, timber began arriving from the sawmills. They found themselves at the end of the queue, and after the other ships had departed, one by one, they were still waiting in Archangel. That suited Huurna; in the first few days of his stay he had become acquainted with two English merchants and, through them, had received invitations to parties. He had stood in salons drinking toasts to the honour of this or that and made the acquaintance of some charming ladies into whose eyes he wished to gaze another time. He was quite moved by the whirl of this unexpected social life, and brightened at the thought that there was really nothing to complain about in his life apart from the fact that he happened still to be a bachelor. More…

A walk on the West Side

16 March 2015 | Fiction, Prose

Hannu Väisänen

Hannu Väisänen. Photo: Jouni Harala

Just because you’re a Finnish author, you don’t have to write about Finland – do you?

Here’s a deliciously closely observed short story set in New York: Hannu Väisänen’s Eli Zebbahin voikeksit (‘Eli Zebbah’s shortbread biscuits’) from his new collection, Piisamiturkki (‘The musquash coat’, Otava, 2015).

Best known as a painter, Väisänen (born 1951) has also won large readerships and critical recognition for his series of autobiographical novels Vanikan palat (‘The pieces of crispbread’, 2004, Toiset kengät (‘The other shoes’, 2007, winner of that year’s Finlandia Prize) and Kuperat ja koverat (‘Convex and concave’, 2010). Here he launches into pure fiction with a tale that wouldn’t be out of place in Italo Calvino’s 1973 classic The Castle of Crossed Destinies…

Eli Zebbah’s shortbread biscuits

Eli Zebbah’s small but well-stocked grocery store is located on Amsterdam Avenue in New York, between two enormous florist’s shops. The shop is only a block and a half from the apartment that I had rented for the summer to write there.

The store is literally the breadth of its front door and it is not particularly easy to make out between the two-storey flower stands. The shop space is narrow but long, or maybe I should say deep. It recalls a tunnel or gullet whose walls are lined from floor to ceiling. In addition, hanging from the ceiling using a system of winches, is everything that hasn’t yet found a space on the shelves. In the shop movement is equally possible in a vertical and a horizontal direction. Rails run along both walls, two of them in fact, carrying ladders attached with rings up which the shop assistant scurries with astonishing agility, up and down. Before I have time to mention which particular kind of pasta I wanted, he climbs up, stuffs three packets in to his apron pocket, presents me with them and asks: ‘Will you take the eight-minute or the ten-minute penne?’ I never hear the brusque ‘we’re out of them’ response I’m used to at home. If I’m feeling nostalgic for home food, for example Balkan sausage, it is found for me, always of course under a couple of boxes. You can challenge the shop assistant with something you think is impossible, but I have never heard of anyone being successful. If I don’t fancy Ukrainian pickled cucumbers, I’m bound to find the Belorussian ones I prefer. More…

The passing of time

2 March 2015 | Extracts, Fiction, Prose

In 1999 the Musée Nicéphore Niépce invited the young Finnish photographer Elina Brotherus to Chalon-sur-Saône in Burgundy, France, as a visiting artist.

After initially qualifying as an analytical chemist, Brotherus was then at the beginning of her career as a photographer. Everything lay before her, and she charted her French experience in a series of characteristically melancholy, subjective images.

Twelve years on, she revisited the same places, photographing them, and herself, again. The images in the resulting book, 12 ans après / 12 vuotta myöhemmin / 12 years later (Sémiosquare, 2015) are accompanied by a short story by the writer Riikka Ala-Harja, who moved to France a little later than Brotherus.

In the event, neither woman’s life took root in France. The book represents a personal coming-to-terms with the evaporation of youthful dreams, a mourning for lost time and broken relationships, a level and unselfpitying gaze at the passage of time: ‘Life has not been what I hoped for. Soon it will be time to accept it and mourn for the dreams that will never come true. Mourn for the lost time, my young self, who no longer exists.’

1999 Mr Cheval's nose

1999 Mr Cheval’s nose


Year of the cat

13 November 2014 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Kissani Jugoslavia (‘Yugoslavia, my cat’, Otava 2014). Introduction by Mervi Kantokorpi

I met the cat in a bar. And he wasn’t just any cat, the kind of cat that likes toy mice or climbing trees or feather dusters, not at all, but entirely different from any cat I’d ever met.

I noticed the cat across the dance floor, somewhere between two bar counters and behind a couple of turned backs. He loped contentedly from one place to the other, chatting to acquaintances in order to maintain a smooth, balanced social life. I had never seen anything so enchanting, so alluring. He was a perfect cat with black-and-white stripes. His soft fur gleamed in the dim lights of the bar as though it had just been greased, and he was standing, firm and upright, on his two muscular back paws.

Then the cat noticed me; he started smiling at me and I started smiling at him, and then he raised his front paw to the top button of his shirt, unbuttoned it and began walking towards me. More…

The day of mourning

6 November 2014 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Katedraali (‘The cathedral’, Teos, 2014). Introduction by Mervi Kantokorpi

I am here now, at this funeral; I’m sitting on a puffy rococo chair which stands in the corner of this large living room – hall – on a Berber rug, one of a series of four pieces of furniture. The fourth is a curly-legged table, painted matt white. I wriggle like anything, trying to rid myself of my too-tight shoes. Fish thrash their tails in the same way. The lady in the dry cleaner’s told me she hates fish. She said that clothes that smell of fish and are brought into her shop make her shake with loathing but also bring her satisfaction because she can wash the awful stench away.

My shoes are impossibly small. They pinch my feet worse every moment. My back aches, too, despite the painkillers. You can’t swallow pills forever, so I just try to find a better position and put up with it. Finally my shoes leave my feet. I kick them underneath the table so that they can’t be seen. I can breathe again. In my shoes I felt as if I were sinking under the ground.

My father once showed me the Stephansdom catacombs. Thousands of people were buried here, before that, too, was forbidden by someone, he said. More…

Journey to the first palm tree

16 October 2014 | Fiction, Prose

Teemu is a fat, desperate middle-aged man who’s had it with life – he drives his old Lada to Spain, where he intends to commit suicide by letting himself be trampled to death by bulls in the Pamplona bullrun. (However, there is a chance of this tragedy being cancelled, thanks to a tenacious hitch-hiker, female.) An extract from the novel Särkyvää (‘Fragile’, Tammi, 2014)

When I was seventeen, I yearned to leave behind the small town where I grew up. I heard the owl hooting in the forest: go to Europe.

I heard the dirt-track gravel crunching beneath my shoes: run, lad, run.

The birch in the yard rustled and whispered: if you spend one more summer hanging around the garden of your childhood, you’ll stay here forever.

A frog in the ditch gave a stern croak: look at your father; if you don’t escape you’ll end up an old codger just like him.

Even the smoke twirling up from the sauna chimney spoke to me in billows: I’ll show you the right direction, head south, and don’t stop until you see the first camel. More…


2 October 2014 | Fiction, Prose

Rosa Liksom’s first book, in 1985, was a collection of short prose; she has also written novels, children’s books, plays, comic and picture books. Her new book, Väliaikainen (‘Temporary’, Like, 2014) – a return to her signature very short prose – features beasts, machines and men

He’s there in the living room. We’ve gotta be very quiet. I left the computer on, and the reading lamp. I’ll go in and turn them off, quietly. Or the computer at least. I can watch Emmerdale on the little tv in the kitchen. You wait here. OK, I turned off the computer but I left the lamp on so I wouldn’t wake him up. I put his nap blanket over him. He’s laying on his left side now. That’s good. Whenever he wakes up on his right side he gets awfully grumpy. Let’s go in the kitchen so we don’t disturb him. The poor guy. It’s been hours since he’s had a good sleep. You know, I think it’s the depression again. It started on Monday when he was supposed to go to his guide’s job.He didn’t taste his breakfast, even though I brought it to him in bed. I had to go to the hospital, my shift was starting, and he just laid there in the bedroom with his eyes open… I don’t know how long it’s gonna last this time. Last month he was depressed for three days. I think it’ll pass more quickly this time because he’s napping a little bit, and licking his paw now and again.

textdivider More…

Two men in a boat

25 June 2014 | Fiction, Prose

The meaning of life, Bob Dylan, the broken thermostat of the Earth, the authors Ambrose Bierce and Aleksis Kivi…. Two severely culturally-inclined men set out to row a boat some 700 kilometres along the Finnish coastline, and there is no shortage of things to discuss. Extracts from the novel Nyljetyt ajatukset (‘Fleeced thoughts’, Teos, 2014)

The red sphere of the sun plopped into the sea.

At 23.09 official summertime Köpi announced the reading from his wind-up pocket-watch.

‘There she goes,’ commented Aimo, gazing at the sunken red of the horizon, ‘but don’t you think it’ll pop back up again in another quarter of an hour, unless something absolutely amazing and new happens in the universe and the solar system tonight!’

Aimo pulled long, accelerating sweeps with his oars, slurped the phlegm in his throat, spat a gob overboard, smacked his lips and adjusted his tongue on its marks behind his teeth. There’s a respectable amount of talk about to come out of there, thought Köpi about his old friend’s gestures, and he was right.

‘Sure thing,’ was Aimo’s opening move, ‘darkness. Darkness, that’s the thing. I want to talk about it and on its behalf just now, now in particular, while we’re rowing on the shimmering sea at the lightest point of the summer. More…

The nursemaid

8 May 2014 | Fiction, Prose

Lapsenpiika (‘The nursemaid’), a short story, first published in the newspaper Keski-Suomi in December, 1887. Minna Canth and a new biography introduced by Mervi Kantokorpi

‘Emmi, hey, get up, don’t you hear the bell, the lady wants you! Emmi! Bless the girl, will nothing wake her? Emmi, Emmi!’

At last, Silja got her to show some signs of life. Emmi sat up, mumbled something, and rubbed her eyes. She still felt dreadfully sleepy.

‘What time is it?’

‘Getting on for five.’

Five? She had had three hours in bed. It had been half-past one before she finished the washing-up: there had been visitors that evening, as usual, and for two nights before that she had had to stay up because of the child; the lady had gone off to a wedding, and baby Lilli had refused to content herself with her sugar-dummy. Was it any wonder that Emmi wanted to sleep? More…

The last Christmas tree

19 December 2013 | Fiction, Prose

A short story from Reikä (‘The hole’, Like, 2013)

A four-litre saucepan should last the whole holiday, Honkkila calculates, throwing a bay leaf into the borscht.

Borscht is excellent at Christmas, as it blends the traditional Finnish dishes – beetroot salad, baked roots, ham.

At the same time Honkkila remembers the tree. He’s always had a tree, for forty years. When he was a child his dad brought it in from the back forest. Since then Honkkila has fetched his tree from various places, from the market and last Christmas from the shopping centre parking lot, but for this Christmas he has no tree.

Honkkila looks at the clock. The shopping centre is open for another hour. Honkkila takes the soup off the hob and goes out.

The shopping centre loudspeakers are beeping out electronic Christmas tunes; there are patches of spruce needles on the empty parking lot.

‘Is there anything left?’ Honkkila asks the assistant. More…

Bring on the white light

12 December 2013 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Auringon ydin (‘The core of the sun’, Teos, 2013). Introduction by Outi Järvinen

Jare, March 2017

‘We call the chilli the Inner Fire that we try to tame, just as our forefathers tamed the Worldly Fire before it.’

Mirko pauses dramatically, and Valtteri interrupts. ‘Eusistocratic Finland offers us unique opportunities for experimentation and development. Once all those intoxicants affecting our neurochemistry and the nervous system have been eradicated from society, we will be able to conduct our experiments from a perfectly clean slate.’

‘We fully understand the need to ban alcohol and tobacco. These substances have had significant negative societal impact. And though in hedonistic societies it is claimed that drinks such as red wine can, in small amounts, promote better health, there is always the risk of slipping towards excessive use. All substances that cause states of restlessness and a loss of control over the body have been understandably outlawed, because they can cause harm not only to abusers themselves but also to innocent bystanders,’ Mirko continues.

This is nothing new to me, but I must admit that the criminalisation of chillies has always been a mystery to me. By all accounts it is extremely healthy and contains all necessary vitamins and antioxidants. A dealer that I met once told me that people in foreign countries think eating chillies can lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels – and even prevent cancer. If someone makes a pot of tom yam soup, sweats and pants over it and enjoys the rush it gives him, how is that a threat, either to society or to our health? More…

When I’m ninety-four

14 November 2013 | Fiction, Prose

An extract from the novel Kuolema Ehtoolehdossa (‘Death in Twilight Grove’, Teos, 2013). Minna Lindgren interviewed by Anna-Leena Ekroos

At the Health Clinic, Siiri Kettunen once more found a new ‘personal physician’ waiting for her. The doctor was so young that Siiri had to ask whether a little girl like her could be a real doctor at all, but that was a mistake. By the time she remembered that there had been a series of articles in the paper about fake doctors, the girl doctor had already taken offence.

‘Shall we get down to business?’ the unknown personal physician said, after a brief lecture. She told Siiri to take off her blouse, then listened to her lungs with an ice-cold stethoscope that almost stopped her heart, and wrote a referral to Meilahti hospital for urgent tests. Apparently the stethoscope was the gizmo that gave the doctor the same kind of certainty that the blood pressure cuff had given the nurse.

‘I can order an ambulance,’ the doctor said, but that was a bit much, in Siiri’s opinion, so she thanked her politely for listening to her lungs and promised to catch the very next tram to the heart exam. 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…


19 September 2013 | Fiction, Prose

A short story from Novelli palaa! Matkanovelleja (‘The short story returns! Travel stories’, edited by Katja Kettu and Aki Salmela; WSOY, 2013)

Mum didn’t want to travel abroad. Mum wanted to tend her rose garden and her pea beds, which sloped down the hill towards the lake. In mum’s opinion, the view from the porch was the best view in the world.

Dad wanted to travel. He never got very far, because Mum wouldn’t go. Dad got as far as the neighbouring forest. In Mum’s opinion, there was no better long-haul destination than the lake at the bottom of the slope and the grove around the house, which was full of blueberries and raspberries and, in the spring, morel mushrooms.

In Dad’s opinion, the forest was full of mosquitoes and flies and ants and mites.

On the lake, the loons dived and called on late summer evenings, Mum thought it was the best sound in the world. Beautiful and harrowing, at the same time. The lamentations of the loon demonstrated that a living creature can be so completely happy that its cry is full of grief. Her children’s crying and whingeing and desire to go to the Linnanmäki funfair in Helsinki were, to Mum, a sign that they are ecstatically happy at home.

Little loons, Mum said to us. More…