Positive fools

1 April 2010 | This 'n' that

‘People who think about what others think of them are above all afraid of being ridiculed. Consider it an irony of fate or not, but the Finns in literature are usually laughable in some way or other,’ Janna Kantola – lecturer in Comparative Literature in Helsinki University – writes in an article entitled ‘Strong, thirsty and weird’, published in the 6/2009 issue of the Helsinki University Bulletin.

Mostly they drink and end up on the wrong side of the law. For example, there are Finnish seafarers in fiction by European writers whose rum bottles apparently have no bottoms.

A love story with good Finns: House of Orphans by Helen Dunmore (Penguin, 2006)

‘Finland and the Finns appear, in particular, in thrillers from the Cold War: from Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1953) to Alistair MacLean’s novel HMS Ulysses (1955). In these works, the unsmiling and hulking Finns have wide, horny hands, massive bottoms and the strength of a hundred men.

‘But not to worry. On a couple of occasions, Finns have even got to be the main characters of books. In these instances, the Finns no longer make people laugh but are mostly tragic, just as the characters in literature usually are when they are most interesting.

‘The main character in Richard Rayner’s novel The Cloud Sketcher (2000, USA) is an architect – a popular profession for Finns in modern literature – who has a disfigured face and a hard history, reaching America by way of the Finnish civil war. The historical novel by Helen Dunmore, House of Orphans (2006, UK), set in Finland in 1901–1904, is a love story about two young rebels, Eeva and Lauri.

One of the success stories of Finnish literature abroad are the humorous novels by Arto Paasilinna (born 1942): they have been translated into almost 40 languages. ‘Through his books Arto Paasilinna has turned being a fool into a positive characteristic. All things considered, this is something Finland will have no shortage in offering,’ Kantola concludes.

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