Archive for March, 2004

From Haifa to Helsinki

Issue 1/2004 | Archives online, Authors, Interviews, Reviews

Born into a Palestinian Christian family in Israel, the journalist Umayya Abu-Hanna has just published a prize-winning autobiographical novel – in Finnish. Here, she tells Anna-Leena Nissilä about life on the outside

In Haifa, Israel, in the 1960s and 1970s, a little girl whose wild, curly hair will not obey a comb is growing up. She is the oldest of three children in a Christian Palestinian family; her father is a rector and poet, her mother a pharmacist and a convinced feminist. Both are solidly leftwing. At home Arabic and English are spoken interchangeably; the children pick up Hebrew on the street. When their education at a Catholic convent begins, Italian and French are added to their languages. More…

Relative values

Issue 1/2004 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the autobiographical novel Nurinkurin (‘Upside down, inside out’, WSOY, 2003). Interview by Anna-Leena Nissilä

The soldier rides on a scarf
waving a donkey

‘Now it’s your turn to go on,’ says my brother on the back seat, turning his head toward the window so that he can concentrate on his poetic muse.

Father looks in the mirror, wrinkling his face in pain. ‘The object, in other words, is of no significance to you. What happened to your case endings and your grammar?’

From the back seat we shout eagerly: ‘The poet has special privileges which are not accorded to others.’

Father shakes his head: ‘You can be creative, but silly content and broken language do not make poetry.’

‘Oh yes they do. Don’t disturb our creative spirit. When you speak, our connection with her is broken. Don’t cut off the source of our inspiration.’ More…

A tubby muse

Issue 1/2004 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Eeva-Liisa Manner (1921–1995) is one of the great lyric poets of the second half of the 20th century and a pathfinder for Finnish modernism. Less well-known are her sporadically produced prose works of the 1950s: three novels, a collection of short stories, and stories published in magazines.

Prose was a concomitant of her poetry, where she could try out diverse subjects and stylistic experiments. For the reader, the poet’s prose provides a framework for understanding the poems: it contextualises their background, experience and thinking. In spite of the difference of genre, the style is recognisably from the same hand: sensitive and violent, abruptly montaged, full of intelligent humour and tragedy.

The short-story collection Kävelymusiikkia pienille virtahevoille (‘Passacaglia for small hippopotami’, 1958) created alongside the poetry volume Tämä matka (‘This journey’, 1956) and to some extent performing variations on the same themes and motifs – is subtitled ‘an exercise’. The ‘exercises’ are small, elegant, verbally crafted works of art, mysterious and surprising. One of the aims is ‘the joy of insight’, the workings of the mind; though, as the narrator says, ‘intuition sometimes grant a more unalloyed joy than semi-comprehension’. Looking at the constellations or Sanskrit texts or reading poetry, even without comprehension, the ‘I’ of the stories feels a profound aesthetic pleasure. More…

An evening with Mr Popotamus

Issue 1/2004 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

‘Hippopotamus’, a short story from Kävelymusiikkia pienille virtahevoille (‘Passacaglia for small hippopotami’, Tammi, 1958). Introduction by Tuula Hökkä

Someone came gasping up behind me at high speed, stopped, and thrust a bundle under my arm, whispering hoarsely and agitatedly: ‘Keep hold of this, hide it! They’re after me –’ And before I’d woken up to what was going on he’d disappeared round a corner.

I was holding a warm living creature, a hippopotamus. Presumably stolen from some zoo or some private person who loved hippopotami; perhaps the man was a sailor and had brought the animal from abroad.

However it was, the hippo needed a safe place. I decided to take it home; I’d had cats and dogs, hadn’t I? – and once a little marmot. I’d always longed for a giraffe. OK, a hippo was just as good. After all, I could put an ad in the paper later: ‘Found: a hippopotamus. Hippo returned on production of identification marks.’ More…

Sounds familiar

Issue 1/2004 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Finland’s national poet, Johan Ludvig Runeberg, wrote in Swedish, but modelled his work on the Finnish-language folk tradition. The poet Risto Ahti describes the oddly easy experience of rendering Runeberg’s work back into Finnish

In the Swedish literary canon, Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804–1877) is one of the most important writers, in fact the most important after August Strindberg.

In the Finnish literary world, Runeberg is a stranger. He is known as a writer of hymns, and of the words of a few songs, but his importance is recognised essentially as a patriotic figure, not a writer. At one stage, Finnishness and Runebergness were spoken of almost in the same breath. Until the 1930s, his collection of poetry Fänrik Ståls sägner (Tales of Ensign Stål, I-II, 1848, 1860) was learned by heart like the Ten Commandments – not for its literary merits, but for its patriotic spirit. More…

What makes a classic?

Issue 1/2004 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

In the bicentenary year of Finland’s national poet, Johan Ludvig Runeberg, Pertti Lassila sets his work against the background of the country’s turbulent history

The fifth of February, birthday of Johan Runeberg (1804–1877), a Finnish poet who wrote in his native Swedish, was already a patriotic festival in the 19th century; lighted candles were set in the windows of the Grand Duchy of Finland. Late in the century, the custom became a silent protest against the measures which, in the opinion of Finns, represented Russian oppression and threatened the country’s autonomy. The candle tradition later moved to Finland’s independence day, 6 December.

When, in 1904, the centenary of Runeberg’s birth was celebrated, Russian pressure meant that this was a politically uncertain and dramatic period. A crisis developed when a Finnish student named Eugen Schauman, in the June of the same year, murdered the Russian governor general, Nikolai Ivanovitch Bobrikov, in Helsinki for political reasons. Runeberg’s centenary year gathered the nation around the poet who, more than any other in Finland, was the symbol of love of the country. The first systematic translation project for the rendering of Runeberg’s work into Finnish was also in progress. More…

Bitter moments, luscious moments

Issue 1/2004 | Archives online, Fiction, poetry

Poems from Fänrik Ståls sägner (Tales of Ensign Stål, 1848–1860) and Dikter II (‘Poems II’. 1833), translated by Judy Moffett. Introductions by Pertti Lassila and Risto Ahti

Sven Duva

Sven Duva’s sire a sergeant was, had served his country long,
Saw action back in ‘88, and then was far from young.
Now poor and gray, he farmed his croft and got his living in,
And had about him children nine, and last of these came Sven.

Now if the old man did, himself have wits enough to share
With such a large and lively swarm – to this I cannot swear;
But plainly no attempt was made to stint the elder ones,
For scarce a crumb remained to give this lastborn of his sons. More…

A taste of life

30 March 2004 | Authors, Reviews

Merja VirolainenThe origins of the world, personal histories and Finnish history intertwine in a language bringing new meanings to familiar words and placing newer words in their older contexts. In her new collection of poetry, her fourth, Olen tyttö, ihanaa! (‘I’m a girl, wonderful!’, Tammi, 2003), Merja Virolainen (born 1962) combines reality and make-believe, life lived and that yet to come, in an outstanding fusion of themes and images.

Virolainen is a master of words. Last year she published and edited a substantial body of long-awaited translations of poetry from two continents. The Finnish-German poetry anthology Toisen sanoin / Mit den Worten des Anderen (‘In someone else’s words’, Like, 2003) demonstrates how meanings and reading between the lines can open up across two languages. The volume Hän jota ei ole (‘The one who doesn’t exist’, Nihil Interit, 2003), focusing on contemporary English-language poetry from India, is a fine testament to the immense undertaking of its two editors, Virolainen and Markus Jääskeläinen. The anthology is the most extensive collection of post-colonial poetry ever published in Finland. More…

Do you see?

30 March 2004 | Fiction, poetry

Poems from Olen tyttö, ihanaa! (‘Wonderful, I’m a girl!’, Tammi, 2003)

I’m hanging from the Antonovka branch

I'm hanging from the Antonovka branch
                   upside down, my hair stretching upwards,
   I swing, the lawn sky
flies past, it's raining tree-trunks,
the fish bring Grandad in from the lake,
the cows have herded Grandma from the pasture,
the dough kneads the hand on the table-top.
The potatoes have lifted us from the earth,
         the fields plough me,
           the grass is creeping into Felix,
    bones gnaw at Fido, beneath the currant bushes
                            worms peck at the chickens.
The apple has bitten Eve,
  hunger devours me with each mouthful,
and death comes too,
  breathing the air from my lungs,
                                         then passes:
  I drop down to my palms
on to my feet


The Turku Decameron

30 March 2004 | Authors, Reviews

Riku Korhonen

Photo: Ari Kasanen

It was in the 1960s that Finns began to move en masse from the countryside to the town, but literature has not urbanised itself at quite the same pace. The majority of new literature is set in the countryside, amid nature, and even urban stories tend to shy away from city centres. After the countryside, the suburb has become one of the most fundamental backdrops in new Finnish literature.

Kahden ja yhden yön tarinoita (‘Tales from two and one nights’, Sammakko, 2003) by Riku Korhonen (born 1972) is typical of suburban novels in that it demonstrates how the sense of community found in small villages continues in the lives of children living in the suburbs. Children play together, form tribes and know everybody else’s business. However, Korhonen is not content simply to describe what goes on inside the Turku suburbs, but through the various stories in the novel he takes us from flat to flat, introducing us to the many adult tenants, whose lonely, oppressive existence is a far cry from village life. People in the suburbs live physically very close together, but the spiritual distance between neighbours can be enormous. More…

Suburban dreams

30 March 2004 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Kahden ja yhden yön tarinoita (‘Tales from two and one nights’, Sammakko, 2003)

Reponen, Tane, Aleksi and Little Juha; once we all climbed up the path to the old dump with bows on our backs, our arrows sticking out from the tops of our boots. It was April. In the field above the dump puddles reflected the opaque sky, where we were going to shoot our arrows.

The field was the highest point in our neighbourhood. We could see the shopping centre, the library and the sawdust running track through the school woods. We could see the high-rise flats on Tora-alhontie road and the huts in the allotments. We could make out the thick spruce forest of Sovinnonvuori along the greenish grey coastline at Kapeasalmi. Our homes sat there below us. Softly droning cranes, yellow totem animals of hope, swung back and forth above the unfinished houses. In the distance was the centre of town with all its churches and scars. Here everything was just beginning. The swaggering confidence of ten-year-old boys was straining within us and would carry us far like Geronimo’s bow. More…