Finlanda Prize, Finlandia Controversy [International Prizes, Take Two]

Last week, the Finnish Book Foundation announced its six-title shortlist of the Finlandia Prize for fiction, which carries with it a 30,000 euro prize.

Before getting into the “controversy” part of this post, here’s a look at the six finalists. (All descriptions from the FILI newsletter):

  • Joel Haahtela, Katoamispiste (Vanishing Point)

Haahtela’s narrative is skillful and engaging, concise and visual. At the center of Katoamispiste is the writer and the written word. Haahtela recounts a writer in crisis, as it were, but through another writer, and thus without self-pity. At the same time, Katoamispiste is both clear and mystical, every sentence measured and mastered to form a solid and memorable whole.

  • Markus Nummi, _Karkkipäivä _ (Candy Day)

Markus Nummi tells this story from two points of view, a child’s and an adult’s. The logic of the child’s story begins to take shape for the adult only by means of the world of adults. Nonsense becomes sensible and the child becomes visible. The good Samaritan of Nummi’s story is no different from other people in terms of innate goodness or beauty, he is in fact a rather reluctant helper who accidentally meets a child in difficult circumstances and slowly but surely decides, or is driven, to take responsibility.

  • Rikka Pulkkinen, Totta (True)

On the first page of Riikka Pulkkinen’s book is a dramatic sentence: “Everything happened so quickly: examination, biopsy, diagnosis.” After the diagnosis is received, Elsa, a psychologist with a successful career, wants to come home. There she is cared for by her husband, daughter, and granddaughter, who learns by chance the silenced story of the “other woman” in her grandparents’ marriage. The love story of the young Eeva and the married man Martti becomes the main theme of the novel, through which the author plumbs ageless questions of guilt and forgiveness.

  • Mikko Rimminen, Nenäpäivä (Nose Day)

At first Irma, the main character of Nenäpäivä, is a riddle. She seeks out contact with other people by conducting fictitious Gallup-poll surveys from door to door. She doesn’t answer her son’s calls, and her best friend Virtanen, swimming in canned cocktails, is not the building superintendent, although that’s what it says on his door. Rimminen’s cityscape is dim and slushy, its hallways exuding isolation. Into this world the author brings his own over-the-top language and style, an inventiveness unmatched in Finnish literature. Best of all, at story’s end, along with the laughter and tears, the novel’s characters, battered by his world, arouse authentic fellow-feeling in the reader. [This one sounds interesting to me.]

  • Alexandra Salmela, _27 Eli kuolema tekee taiteilijan (27, or Death Makes an Artist)

Alexandra Salmela’s main character Ange has a goal: to die at the age of 27, like Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and many other artists, and become a legend. When she turns 27, however, she isn’t even an artist yet. Her muddled attempts to write her way to fame take her from Prague to the garden cottage of a Finnish country house, where great expectations blend amusingly with everyday country life. [Also sounds intriguing.]

  • Erik Wahlström, Flugtämjaren

In this book, Erik Wahlström reclothes Finnish national poet J. L. Runeberg and his inner circle. Wahlström’s great men and women at the birth of Finnishness are people, not just hooks on which to hang great national ideologies. The book is not a history, it is the author’s interpretation of what kind of man Runeberg was under the cloak of the poet: a long-suffering observer who also enjoys being a celebrity, a family man perpetually enamored of young women, and in the end an old man confined to his bed whose only contact with his beloved nature was an attempt to tame flies. The book is a cornucopia of varied voices, a profound and nimbly elegant melange.

Now the controversy stems from the fact that Alexandra Salmela is not actually a Finnish citizen—one of the primary eligibility criteria. According to YLE:

She was born and raised in Bratislava, then part of Czechoslovakia and now capital of Slovakia.

Salmela studied dramaturgy at Bratislava’s theatre academy before deciding to study Finnish. She has studied the language for eight years and lived here for four. She is married to a Finn and lives with her children in Tampere. Salmela’s debut novel, 27 Eli kuolema tekee taiteilijan (27 Or Death Makes an Artist), is set in Prague. Helsingin Sanomat hailed it as the first true Finnish-language adult novel by an immigrant.

In a statement issued on Thursday afternoon, the Finnish Book Foundation affirmed that Salmela would be allowed to compete for the prize anyway. The Foundation does not normally check on Finlandia nominees’ citizenship. As it considers Salmela’s inclusion as its own mistake, the author will not be disqualified.

Definitely agree with Michael Orthofer that the jury is making the right choice, and I recommend reading his breakdown of how complicated the rule writing system is for a prize given in a country that’s populated by Finnish, Swedish, and Saami speakers.

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