Author: Mervi Kantokorpi

Finding a voice

13 November 2014 | Authors, Reviews

Pajtim Statovci. Photo: Tommi Tuomi

Pajtim Statovci. Photo: Tommi Tuomi

Here it is, finally: Pajtim Statovci’s debut novel is the first book of literary merit written in Finnish by an author who originally came to Finland from the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo. Kissani Jugoslavia (‘Yugoslavia, my cat’, Otava, 2014) is a wild depiction of identity, told simultaneously from the perspectives of the mother of an immigrant family and her son. Statovci builds a keen sense of tension between the narrative of the Albanian woman and that of her youngest son.

Born in Podujevë, Kosovo, in 1990, Statovci came to Finland at the age of two. He is studying comparative literature at the University of Helsinki and film and television scriptwriting at the Aalto University. The French and Norwegian translation rights to Kissani Jugoslavia were sold before the book had even been published. More…

In the shadow of the cathedral

6 November 2014 | Authors, Reviews

Satu Taskinen. Photo: Heini Lehväslaiho

Satu Taskinen. Photo: Heini Lehväslaiho

In recent years the Finnish novel has been refreshed by central European tones in the work of authors including Kristina Carlson, Katri Lipson and Sofi Oksanen. Among these reforming powers is Satu Taskinen, whose first novel, Täydellinen paisti (‘The perfect roast’, 2011), won the Helsingin Sanomat prize for a debut work.

The novel, set over a day and describing a Viennese family’s All Saints’ Day lunch and, in particular, its demanding preparations, aroused admiration, but also wonderment at its slow, thoughtful monologue, in which absurdist humour and irony mixed with a melancholy atmosphere.

Satu Taskinen, who studied philosophy and German philology at Helsinki University, has lived and worked in Vienna for a long time. Her second novel, Katedraali (‘The cathedral’), is also a one-day novel describing a Viennese family. More…

Updated, alive

8 May 2014 | Non-fiction, Reviews

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Minna at 50. The Finnish flag is flown on her birthday: 19 March has been named the Day of Equality. Canth also flies on the tail of one of the aircrafts of the Nordic airline Norwegian: the fleet carries portraits of ‘heroes’ and ‘heroines’ of four Nordic countries (the other Finn is the 19th-century poet J.L. Runeberg). Original photo: Viktor Barsokevich / Kuopio Museum of Cultural History

Herkkä, hellä, hehkuvainen – Minna Canth
[Sensitive, gentle, radiant – Minna Canth]
Helsinki: Otava, 2014. 429 pp., ill.
ISBN 978-951-1-23656-6
€40.20, hardback

There are two sure methods of preserving the freshness of the works of a classical author in a reading culture that is increasingly losing its vigour.

The first is to give a high profile to new interpretations of them, either in the form of scholarly lectures or of artistic re-workings, such as dramatisations, librettos or film scripts. Another unbeatable way to keep them alive as a subject of discussion is an updated biography, through which the author is seen with new eyes.

Minna Canth (1844–1897) is now celebrating her 170th anniversary, and she is fortunate in both respects. Having begun her literary career in the late nineteenth century, she still continues to be Finland’s most significant female writer.

Her influence on the role of women in society and, in particular, her promotion of girls’ education, is the cornerstone of Finland’s social equality. In the twenty-first century Canth’s plays are still receiving new interpretations, and they have also been made into operas and musicals. (Read her short story, ‘The nursemaid’, here.) More…

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? More…

Writing silence

6 June 2013 | Fiction, poetry, Reviews

In contemporary poetry the ‘lyric I’ of previous decades often hides behind language; the poem’s speaker is not the poet him/herself, narrative is not the norm. The website of a Finnish family magazine in 2007 discussed this: ‘OMG, this thing called contemporary poetry – crap!’; ‘Who knows what kind of psychopharma the writer’s on!’; ‘No meanings, just words one after the other. Why can’t people write something sensible?’ But the writer – and the reader – of contemporary poetry deliberately ventures onto the boundaries of language, and art requires readers (listeners, viewers) to make the decision of what they consider ‘sensible’. Mervi Kantokorpi explores and interprets two new collections of poetry

I read two of this spring’s new collections of poetry one after the other: Kivirivit (‘Stone lines’, Otava 2013) by Harry Salmenniemi and Pysty hiljaisuus (‘Vertical silence’, Teos 2013) by Miia Toivio. The experience was perplexing.

These two works are completely different from one another as regards their individual poetics, and yet the similarities between the themes that arise from them was arresting. Both works seem to inhabit an internal world of sorrow and depression, a world where the function of poetry is to forge and show its readers a path out of the anxiety. In their silence – and even emptiness – both collections have two faces: one lit up, the other darkened by grief. More…

In defence of small people

15 November 2012 | Non-fiction, Reviews

Teuvo Pakkala with grandson Teuvo-Pentti and Mirri the cat. Photo: F. Suomela / Otava, 1922

The best-known work of author Teuvo Pakkala (1862–1925) is Tukkijoella (‘On the log river’, 1899), Finland’s most-performed play. The song-studded comedy set in motion a phase of ‘logger romanticism’ in Finnish literature which later spread to film as well. Like the cowboy of the old west, the wandering lumberjack became the prototype for the Finnish masculine adventurer.

The entertaining musical play was a blockbuster. Pakkala’s works of more literary significance, however, encountered more difficulty. His short story collections on the lives of children – Lapsia (‘Children’, 1895) and Pikku ihmisiä (‘Little people’, 1913) – were greeted with flattering acclaim, but marked the author as hopelessly ‘effeminate’, as the critics put it. The stories were read as a kind of child-rearing guide, or even as tales for children. It wasn’t until much later, in the second half of the 20th century, that these psychological studies of children were re-examined as early gems of the short story form by a contemporary of Freud. More…

Ulla-Lena Lundberg: Is [Ice]

1 November 2012 | Mini reviews, Reviews

Helsingfors: Schildts & Söderströms, 2012. 364 p.
ISBN 978-951-52-2987-8
€ 23.25, hardback
Finnish translation:
Helsinki: Teos & Schildts & Söderströms, 2012. 365 p.
Suomennos [Translated by]: Leena Vallisaari
ISBN 978-951-851-475-9
€ 28.40, hardback

Ulla-Lena Lundberg (born on the island of Kökar, Åland, 1947) is already the author of an extensive list of award-winning books, but her new novel Is (‘Ice’) is undoubtedly her most impressive work. It is written in a classic genre, an epic bound by time and place, in which the sensitive portrayal of characters and details takes a strongly ethical direction. Is describes life in a outer archipelago in the late 1940s, where a young priest arrives with his small family. In his calling he is a man devoted to the Word: helpful, friendly, naïvely unsuspecting in his philanthropy. His wife is cast in a different mould: a practical, at times apparently emotionless survivor, who runs a large household single-handed. The couple becomes part of the community of small islands and its harsh living conditions. At times the ice that shuts the island off from the outside world melts into freedom, only to lapse again into a cold that rudely limits human destinies. Barren nature and a community spirit reverting to early Christianity take the measure of each other in the novel’s dramatic events.
Translated by David McDuff

Katri Lipson: Jäätelökauppias [The ice-cream vendor]

25 October 2012 | Mini reviews, Reviews

[The ice-cream vendor]
Helsinki: Tammi, 2012. 300 p.
ISBN 978-951-31-6868-1
€ 36.20, hardback

The Finnish novel of the 2000s has been successfully set in other cultures. Like Kristina Carlson and Sofi Oksanen, Katri Lipson went her own way as an author in her award-winning debut novel Kosmonautti (‘Cosmonaut’, 2008), which was set in the Soviet Union of the 1980s. In her second novel Lipson (born 1965), who works as a doctor in Helsinki, portrays life in post-war Czechoslovakia. The novel begins with the making of a film. The director wants to work without a script, which is only in her head. The filming proceeds chronologically, so that the actors will not anticipate what happens to the characters in the future. The film tells the story of a man and a woman’s flight from danger in 1942. Although they do not know each other, they pretend to be a married couple and hide in the countryside. What will be their fate during the war and afterwards is left to the reader; the characters can be combined with those appearing in the novel’s later stages, in the 1960s and even the 1980s. Lipson’s technique boldly breaks with the supremacy of narrative and calls into question the construction of historical truth.
Translated by David McDuff

Wo/men at war

9 February 2012 | Essays, Non-fiction

The wars that Finland fought 70 years and a couple of generations ago continue to be a subject of fiction. Last year saw the appearance of three novels set during the years of the Continuation War (1941–44), written by Marja-Liisa Heino, Katja Kettu and Jenni Linturi

In reviews of Finnish books published this past autumn, young women writers’ portraits of war were pigeonholed time and again as a ‘category’ of their own. This gendered observation has been a source of annoyance to the writers themselves.

Jenni Linturi, for instance, refused to ruminate on the impact of her sex on her debut novel Isänmaan tähden (‘For the fatherland’, Teos), which describes the war through the Waffen-SS Finnish volunteer units and the men who joined them [1,200 Finnish soldiers were recruited in 1941, and they formed a battalion, Finnische Freiwilligen Battaillon der Waffen-SS].

The work received a well-deserved Finlandia Prize nomination. Tiring of questions from the press about ‘young women and war’, Linturi (born 1979) was moved to speculate that some critics’ praise had been misapplied due to her sex. The situation is an apt reflection of the waves of modern feminism and the reasoning of the so-called third generation of feminists, who reject gender-limited points of view on principle. More…

The balance of grief

19 December 2011 | Authors, Reviews

Henriikka Tavi. Photograph: Heini Lehväslaiho

In recent years volumes of contemporary Finnish poetry have offered readers the chance to enjoy excellent cover artwork. Right down to the typographical layout, the visual aspects of recently published volumes of poetry – by small and large publishers alike – have turned these books into highly refined, almost holistic works of art.

In such a way the poetics of the language and, in particular, the thematic starting point of the poems are lent a platform that both enhances and strengthens them.

Decorated with images of butterflies, the mournful grey jacket sleeve of Toivo (‘Hope’, Teos 2011), the third volume of poetry by Henriikka Tavi (born 1978), conceals the book’s bright yellow covers and an illuminated woodland path winding its way across them.

In this way the troubled central theme of this multi-disciplinary, collage-style work is immediately reflected in Camilla Pentti’s cover design. More…

On the Trans-Siberian express

3 October 2011 | Authors, Reviews

Rosa Liksom. Photo: Veikko Somerpuro

A Finnish girl studying archaeology in Moscow finds herself sharing a train compartment with a Russian man on the long journey from Moscow through Siberia to Ulan Bator. The girl travels for weeks to see the region’s ancient rock-paintings; the man’s destination is a big building site. The drama of the enclosed space  is built of two people and two worlds that cannot escape one another.

The story, in Hytti no 6 (‘Compartment number 6’) by Rosa Liksom, develops through small stories and reminiscences as the backgrounds of the girl and the man open up. At the places where the train stops, other people from the steppe and cities of Russia become intertwined with the narrative.

The career of the Lapp writer Rosa Liksom spans more than 25 years and demonstrates a rare ability to master various fields of both writing and the visual arts. In the history of contemporary Finnish prose, her novels and collections of short prose are a fantastic chapter of originally developed Nordic localism and post-modernist world citizenship. Liksom’s first book, short prose, was published in 1985; her work has been translated into 14 languages. More…

Poetry written aloud

20 May 2011 | Reviews

Heli Laaksonen. Photo: Otava/Irmeli Jung

In the 21st century, poetry written in various dialects has drawn new audiences to poetry readings. A common feature of, for example, Sinikka Nopola’s short prose about the family, written in the dialect of the Tampere area, and Heli Laaksonen’s poetry, which is written in the dialect of south-west Finland, is the enormous popularity of live performances by the authors. Their audiences love to hear them read in dialect, because the texts are funny, and they sound even funnier when read aloud.

Heli Laaksonen (born 1972) has, ever since her first collection, Pulu uis (‘Pigeon swimming’, 2000), been Finland’s best-selling poet. Her three collections and audio books have achieved sales figures that are astonishing in the Finnish context – tens of thousands of copies. Her fourth collection, Peippo vei (‘The chaffinch took it’, Otava, 2011), has been at the head of bookseller’s sales lists throughout March and April. More…

Matti Suurpää: Parnasso 1951–2011 [Parnasso, 1951–2011]

21 April 2011 | Mini reviews, Reviews

Parnasso 1951–2011. Kirjallisuuslehden kuusi vuosikymmentä.
[Parnasso, 1951–2011. Six decades of a literary journal]
Helsinki: Otava, 2011. 559 p., ill.
ISBN 978-951-1-23368-8
€ 45.90, hardback

The 60-year history of Parnasso, Finland’s longest-running literary journal, is a chronicle of the assimilation of ‘the modern’ into Finnish literature. Matti Suurpää – a long-time contributor, and former head of the SKS publishing house – singles out the 1958–1965 period under the editorship of Kai Laitinen (professor of literature, Editor-in-Chief of Books from Finland from 1976 to 1990) as the era with the broadest editorial scope. Finnish modernist literature, developed during the 1950s, had by then staked out its territory, and the journal consolidated its power to promote it. Laitinen published an excellent themed issue on Finland-Swedish literature to rehabilitate and reintegrate writing by Swedish-speaking authors into the field of Finnish literature. Subsequent editors considered it important to include translations of foreign literature in Parnasso. As the archives of the journal have been lost, Suurpää carried out a close reading of the annual volumes. The result is an eminently clear and readable work in which a wealth of extracts of writing and discussions illuminate the story of the modernisation of Finnish literature.
Translated by Ruth Urbom

In the mirror

5 April 2011 | Reviews

Aila Meriluoto. Photo: Tiina Pyrylä/WSOY

One of the more attractive aspects of Finnish literature is the juxtaposition of poetry-writing generations. 2011 sees the debut of both the 82-year-old Martta Rossi and new poets born in the 1980s.

Compared to them, the 87-year-old Aila Meriluoto is an old hand: Tämä täyteys, tämä paino (‘This fullness, this weight’, WSOY, 2011) is her 14th volume of poetry.

Since her first collection, which appeared 65 years ago, the grande dame has published more than 20 works: poetry, prose, diaries, books for children and young people, biographies and translations, among them poetry by Harry Martinson and Rainer Maria Rilke. More…

Portrait of the artist as a young boy

30 September 2010 | Reviews

Olli Jalonen. Photo: Katja Lösönen, 2008

Poikakirja (‘The boy’s own book’), Olli Jalonen’s 13th novel to date, continues an ongoing narrative often nominally examining the author’s own family history. In this novel the first-person narrator is the young ‘Olli’ in his first years at school, and his story is the present-tense monologue of a boy between the ages of 7 and 10. The choice of the present tense underlines a certain sense of ‘perpetual now’ in the intensive narrative of childhood.

Jalonen (born 1954) is one of the acknowledged masters of contemporary Finnish prose. His expansive novel Yksityiset tähtitaivaat (‘Private galaxies’, 1999) was an astonishing demonstration of the author’s desire to combine his cyclical understanding of history with a highly sensitive depiction of humanity. The work brought together three of his earlier novels and shaped them into an entirely new composition: at over 800 pages, it would be no exaggeration to call the resulting work a kind of symphony. More…