22 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Aleksandra Fazlipour on Riikka Pulkkinen’s True, which is available from Other Press.

Riikka Pulkkinen studied literature and philosophy at the University of Helsinki. Her debut novel, The Border, sparked international interest when it was published in 2006. Her second novel, True, will mark her English debut. Riikka Pulkkinen received the Kaarle Prize in February 2007 and the Laila Hirvisaari Prize in May 2007.

Here is part of the review:

Elsa is dying of cancer. Her husband Martti, a successful artist, and her ambitious daughter Eleonoora, who is a renowned surgeon, are struggling to cope with the impending loss. In spite of their immense, largely independent professional success, neither Martti nor Eleonoora are able to comprehend life without Elsa. A commanding presence who held her family together prior to her illness, Elsa, a famous psychologist, aims to do just that during her last few weeks, electing to stay at home instead of in hospice care. Eleonoora’s daughter Anna decides to care for Elsa in the aftermath of the dissolution of a relationship. Anna is very deeply depressed, not because she misses the man (she is living with a man who she does love), but because she began to think of the man’s child as her own. Caring for her grandmother seems like the perfect distraction. However, Anna finds herself more immersed in the psychological drama that silently shaped her mother’s childhood and mirrors her own life in strange and unexpected ways. True, by Riikka Pulkkinen, is less about a family’s struggle with cancer, and more about the mind’s ability to create false memories and a family’s ability to restructure in the face of loss, and how sometimes it’s hard to recover from the same loss twice.

Click here to read the entire review.

22 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

Elsa is dying of cancer. Her husband Martti, a successful artist, and her ambitious daughter Eleonoora, who is a renowned surgeon, are struggling to cope with the impending loss. In spite of their immense, largely independent professional success, neither Martti nor Eleonoora are able to comprehend life without Elsa. A commanding presence who held her family together prior to her illness, Elsa, a famous psychologist, aims to do just that during her last few weeks, electing to stay at home instead of in hospice care. Eleonoora’s daughter Anna decides to care for Elsa in the aftermath of the dissolution of a relationship. Anna is very deeply depressed, not because she misses the man (she is living with a man who she does love), but because she began to think of the man’s child as her own. Caring for her grandmother seems like the perfect distraction. However, Anna finds herself more immersed in the psychological drama that silently shaped her mother’s childhood and mirrors her own life in strange and unexpected ways. True, by Riikka Pulkkinen, is less about a family’s struggle with cancer, and more about the mind’s ability to create false memories and a family’s ability to restructure in the face of loss, and how sometimes it’s hard to recover from the same loss twice.

One afternoon when Anna is drinking wine and having a picnic with her grandmother, they decide to play dress-up. Anna appears wearing a beautiful party dress she found in the attic. This drudges up a slew of old, unpleasant memories for Elsa. Elsa begins to tell Anna about Martti’s affair with Eleonoora’s nanny Eeva, who the dress belonged to. Two storylines begin to unfold: the family coping with Elsa’s impending death and Anna coping with her breakup and her inability to visit with her ex-boyfriend’s young daughter, and Anna’s identification with Eeva, who suffered from similar feelings after her relationship with Martti was cut short by Elsa discovering about it. Anna begins to invent Eeva’s life in her own mind, and it soon becomes difficult to divorce Anna’s feelings and creations from her own memories.

We soon find out that Eleonoora’s mind is playing tricks on her as well. Elsa, a successful psychologist, travels a lot during Eleonoora’s early childhood, and many of her early memories of her mother are not in fact Elsa but instead are Eeva, but Eleonoora has no way of remembering this: she was too young at the time, and Elsa has reinforced her false memories by providing false information. The lines have blurred between Eeva the mistress and nanny and Elsa the biological mother, creating one woman who raised her: Mom. The day trips she took with Eeva and Martti while Elsa was away on business have firmly established Eleonoora’s memories of her mother, although it is not actually her mother. The following passage, narrated by Eeva, illustrates one false memory in particular:

Later she [Eleonoora] remembers this boating trip, although she remembers nothing else from the whole summer. She builds memories from the words of others, but she tells her own daughter about this trip, as if it’s a precious thing—the nicest part was Mom and Dad and I went out in the boat to the island. Mom usually rowed, but Dad did sometimes. The sun was a friendly fire in the sky, it felt like the world had always been nothing but light and water and melted Fazer chocolate in a blue wrapper and I could lick it off the foil to my heart’s content.

Eleonoora has unknowingly been shaped during her childhood by Elsa, who was able to gather her daughter’s fragmented memories and reform them into a singular mother. However, this uses Eleonoora’s difficulty coping with Elsa’s death, after already having become estranged with Eeva, as a means to explore the bonds between mother and daughter, and how easily they can be altered by providing inaccurate information during the formative years. Eleonoora was confronted by the loss of the second half of her maternal figure, which shows how sometimes the mind and the heart falsely establish memories as coping mechanisms, seeking to avoid the pain of loss that Eeva and Anna ultimately shared by becoming estranged from individuals they grew to love. However, because Elsa protected her daughter (and by extension Martti) from this first crucial loss, Eleonoora is unequipped for the more significant loss of her real mother—which is really where the story begins.

19 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at the B&N Review, Matthew Battles (Harvard University’s rare books librarian and author of Library: An Unquiet History, Widener: Biography of a Library, along with other articles) has a long, interesting piece on Tove Jansson. He talks a bit about the recently released Fair Play, but I really like this bit about BTBA winning title The True Deceiver:

Rarely have fiction’s ubiquitous and essential challenges been more forcibly evoked than in Jansson’s short novel The True Deceiver. The novel opens in a coastal village besieged by snow—“this steady snow piling up against doors and windows and weighing down roofs and never stopping even for an hour. Paths filled with snow as quickly as they were shovelled out . . . People woke up late because there was no longer any morning.” Katri Kling, the novel’s fierce, embittered, and sharply intelligent anti-heroine, is fixated on the sumptuously empty house of local celebrity Anna Aemelin, an illustrator of children’s books whose art consists of mesmerizingly detailed paintings of forest underbrush populated by plump, downy bunnies. The yellow-eyed Katri lives above the shop where keeps the books—and whose shopkeeper torments her with his presumptuous longing—and takes care of her slow brother Mats and a large, nameless dog. “It’s unnatural not giving your dog a name,” the villagers mutter; “all dogs should have names.” But Katri refuses to name the dog out of a kind of wild and scrupulous honesty: “Dogs are mute and obedient,” she reflects, “but they have watched us and know us and can smell how pitiful we are.

“People idealise their animals, and at the same time they patronisingly overlook a dog’s natural life—biting fleas, burying bones, rolling in garbage, barking up an empty tree all night… But what do they do themselves? Bury stuff that will rot in secret and then dig it up and bury it again and rant and rave under empty trees! No. My dog and I despise them.”

All but allergic to the kind of white lies most people use to get through their days, Katri has become a midwife of hard truths, both relied upon and reviled by her neighbors. Children chant “witch” when they see her, but late at night their parents call upon her cruel insight. (“Why do you go to her?” one villager asks a neighbor. “Yes, she puts your business to rights, but you no longer trust anyone when you come back. You’re different.” Katri sets about winning her way into Anna Aemelin’s life by showing her how people take advantage of her and one another through the never-ending succession of tiny, self-deceiving frauds. But as Anna falls under the spell of veracity, Katri begins to learn that even her scruples can add up to untruth. In their encounter with love, art, and lying, both the artist and the truth-teller undergo a kind of quietly cataclysmic domestication. Even the dog gets a name.

9 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This past weekend, the recording of the BTBA awards ceremony popped up on YouTube, so here you go . . . Be sure and wait for (or fast-forward to) Thomas Teal’s acceptance speech—it’s a wonderful, perfect way to end this year’s BTBA.

P.S. I love how the still for this video features me bending awkwardly to pick up my beer. Thanks, PEN/YouTube!

7 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Tove Jansson’s Fair Play, which was translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal and officially comes out from NYRB Classics next Tuesday. (Or in NCAA time: The day of the “first” round of the tournament, which for once, could be cool. And yes, I know telling time by a sporting tournament is a sign of some sort of disorder . . . )

NYRB has been slowly issuing Tove Jansson’s ‘adult’ books over the past few years, starting with The Summer Book followed by The True Deceiver, which made the 2011 BTBA fiction longlist. (Click here for the special write-up.)

I’ve been meaning to find time to read Jansson’s books for a while now, and every review we post makes me more and more interested. Maybe after basketball . . . But seriously, she sounds fascinating, especially as one of the few Swedish-speaking Finns who have made their way into English . . .

Larissa is one of our top reviewers generally—but not always—writing about Scandinavian lit. She’s a great writer, and this review is no exception:

“There is no silence like sitting in a fog at sea and listening,” writes Tove Jansson in her newly-translated story collection Fair Play. “Large boats can loom up suddenly, and you don’t hear the bow water in time to start your motor and get out of the way.” Stuck waiting out a dense, chilling fog in a row boat somewhere between the coast of a small Finnish island and Estonia, Jansson’s aging companions, Jonna and Mari, fall into an old argument about their mothers—one had an annoying predilection for painstakingly buttered crispbread; the other was an incorrigible cheat at poker. Their conversation is short—discreetly hurtful in the way that one only can be after years of intimacy. But before the fog lifts, Jonna and Mari have come to an understanding, if not a full reconciliation. “Suddenly the sea was open and blue and they found themselves a long way out toward Estonia,” Jansson writes. “They came back to the island from a totally new direction, and it didn’t look the same.”

This episode is not only emblematic of Jonna and Mari’s time-tested relationship, it also reveals Jansson at her paradoxical best. Her prose is sparing and exquisitely clear. And at first, her stories and characters appear to be simple and straightforward. But once you’ve immersed yourself in a Jansson story, you realize that there is a great complexity simmering under the surface of her work—a whole life that exists, but is not made readily accessible to the reader. As Ali Smith puts it in her excellent introduction to Fair Play, Jansson writes “in a language so tightly edited that its clarity makes for mysterious transparency.”

Click here to read the full review.

7 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“There is no silence like sitting in a fog at sea and listening,” writes Tove Jansson in her newly-translated story collection Fair Play. “Large boats can loom up suddenly, and you don’t hear the bow water in time to start your motor and get out of the way.” Stuck waiting out a dense, chilling fog in a row boat somewhere between the coast of a small Finnish island and Estonia, Jansson’s aging companions, Jonna and Mari, fall into an old argument about their mothers—one had an annoying predilection for painstakingly buttered crispbread; the other was an incorrigible cheat at poker. Their conversation is short—discreetly hurtful in the way that one only can be after years of intimacy. But before the fog lifts, Jonna and Mari have come to an understanding, if not a full reconciliation. “Suddenly the sea was open and blue and they found themselves a long way out toward Estonia,” Jansson writes. “They came back to the island from a totally new direction, and it didn’t look the same.”

This episode is not only emblematic of Jonna and Mari’s time-tested relationship, it also reveals Jansson at her paradoxical best. Her prose is sparing and exquisitely clear. And at first, her stories and characters appear to be simple and straightforward. But once you’ve immersed yourself in a Jansson story, you realize that there is a great complexity simmering under the surface of her work—a whole life that exists, but is not made readily accessible to the reader. As Ali Smith puts it in her excellent introduction to Fair Play, Jansson writes “in a language so tightly edited that its clarity makes for mysterious transparency.”

Tove Jansson is most often recognized as a children’s author and illustrator—the visionary behind those delightful marshmallow hippos called “Moomins.” Her adult novels, which she didn’t begin publishing until she was nearly 60, have until recently remained very much in the shadow of the Moomin legacy. Fair Play is the most recent of Jansson’s ‘adult’ novels that New York Review Books has brought into English translation, following last year’s True Deceiver and 2008’s The Summer Book. The collection picks up two of the major thematic elements that run through each of its predecessors, namely the relationship between two women, explored against the back drop of a remote, idyllic setting. (True Deceiver was set in a snow-bound mountain village; The Summer Book on a small island in the Finnish gulf.) And as with the previous NYRB titles, Fair Play also draws on autobiographical inspiration: in this case, Jansson’s lifelong relationship with her partner, a Finnish artist and scholar named Tuulikki Pietilä, with whom she lived for the better part of 40 years.

Each chapter in Fair Play serves as a snapshot, a brief window into the relationship between the frank and opinionated Jonna and the reserved and introspective Mari. Their day-to-day lives are quiet and happily mundane: they watch Fassbinder movies instead of going to dinner at a friend’s in the evening (with all its “pointless chatter about inessentials”). They re-hang pictures. They travel frequently, though their points of destination are often less than glamorous. On one trip through the American southwest, they spend a few nights at a local bar in Phoenix, Arizona; while in Corsica, one of their main destinations is a cemetery. They bicker frequently, and aren’t above childish jealousy or the occasional resentment. But mostly, they work, comfortable enough with the constancy of the other’s presence and support to spend the majority of their days writing and painting alone.

In “Videomania,” we’re told that Jonna and Mari “. . . lived at opposite ends of a large apartment building near the harbor, and between their studios lay the attic, an impersonal no-man’s-land of tall corridors with locked plank doors on either side.”

Mari liked wandering across the attic; it drew a necessary, neutral interval between their domains . . . They never asked, “Were you able to work today?” Maybe they had, twenty or thirty years earlier, but they’d gradually learned not to. There are empty spaces that must be respected—those often long periods when a person can’t see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone.

It’s in the couple’s companionable solitude that Jansson defines her ethos of artistic creation, a deeply felt belief about the importance of maintaining one’s personal life without sacrificing her creative work, and the substantial space that is required to successfully balance both spheres.

Despite the quietude of Fair Play, it is nevertheless a work of remarkable courage. Jansson’s is not the flashy sort of artistic boldness that proclaims itself by way of constant transparency and self-revelation. Rather, she is brave enough to occasionally withhold information, to provide confidential glimpses into her characters’ lives, while still maintaining a distance from them—a sort of respectful privacy. She doesn’t outline the women’s romantic lives—we don’t find them in bed together, or even see them embrace. Jonna and Mari don’t articulate their love for each other directly, although they certainly reflect on their feelings internally.

Fair Play is after all, a book about separation and space as much as it is about intimacy. “We need distance,” Jonna tells Mari, “it’s essential.” The reader is allowed a closeness to these remarkable women, but in the end, their relationship is like any one in real life: private and fully known only to those who are within it.

14 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal

Language: Swedish
Country: Finland
Publisher: New York Review Books
Pages: 208

Why This Book Should Win: Big favorite among booksellers; has been gathering buzz for over a year; that whole writes in Swedish but lives in Finland thing; one of NYRB’s most notable recent rediscoveries (NYRB also publishes her Fair Play and Summer Book.

Today’s post is from Kenny Brechner of DDG Booksellers in Maine.

Objectivity, like high fructose corn syrup and polyester suits, is very much out of fashion. The triumph of relativism is such that objectivity is considered now more an historical curiosity than a concept to be applied seriously. We do know, however, that the following statement, “True Deceiver should win The Best Translated Book Award for 2011,” is an objective fact. How can we be certain of that? Let us consider the matter objectively. From the standpoint of this award _True Deceiver was certainly reborn into English with a silver spoon in its mouth, for the concept of being a true deceiver lies at the very heart of translation itself. A successful translation cannot help but be the epitome of true deception, a consistent application of perspective which transforms a complex object from one shape to another. Jansson’s portrait of the corrosive effect of deception on the integrity of personal identity is compelling and unsettling to the nines. It grabs the reader with that most potent force of all: strong identification with a character in the thrall of a subtly corrupting evil. Its perfection as a work of translated fiction is plain to see in the power of its inversions, a portrait of deception and instability which yields truth and focus. These are matters of opinion you say? Hardly, for True Deceiver steps firmly away from any subjective accounting of its worth in its unique willingness and ability to speak directly on its own behalf, using only quotations from its pages, to anyone who questions it. The proof of these matters is to be found directly in the interview below.

KB: Do you feel that this BTBA will be conducted fairly?

True Deceiver: “You know nothing about Fair Play!”

KB: Perhaps not, but how can the awards committee reach truth?

True Deceiver: “The truth needs to be hammered in with iron spikes, but no one can drive nails into a mattress.”

KB: I see. Perhaps you’re right and the committee will need to take a firm line. Now do you feel that Tomas Teal handled his translation of you properly, considering how taut the prose is?

True Deceiver: “Cluttering the ground with Flowery Rabbits would have been unthinkable”.

KB: I see. Now if you had a word for a judge what would it be?

True Deceiver: “He must understand how hard I try, all the time, to put everything I do to a strict test—every act, every word I choose instead of a different word.”

KB: Is there any other objective data that would make the selection of any book other than yourself as the BTBA winner a danger to the future well being of the human enterprise?

True Deceiver: “I’ve given security where there was no security, no direction, Nothing. I provide safety!”

KB: I really appreciate your willingness to go on record and clarify these points. The stakes are terrifying.

True Deceiver: “I can assure you that you needn’t be nervous, there’s no cause for alarm.”

KB: I guess there’s nothing else to be said on the matter!

True Deceiver: “We’ve done what matters most.”

KB: Well I certainly hope so, for all human interconnection involves translation, and without an exploration of its dark possibilities we should all be much the poorer. And, if you don’t mind my saying so, you really add something vital to the whole of Tove Jansson’s sublime body of work. After all the Moomins may demonstrate the delightful exercise of freedom, but your pages reveal both the cost and the means of losing it.

True Deceiver: “Thank you for calling.”

18 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Some time in the past I was on the Wisconsin Public Radio show Here On Earth to make some international literature summer reading recommendations. We weren’t able to cover the full list of books I came up with, so I thought I’d post about them one-by-one over the next couple weeks with additional info, why these titles sound appealing to me, etc., etc. Click here for the complete list of posts.

Purge by Sofi Oksanen. Translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers. (Finland-Estonia, Grove/Black Cat)

In terms of the book itself, I don’t have a lot to add to Larissa’s perceptive review. But to tie this particular post back into the actual WPR “Here On Earth” conversation that sparked this sporadic series of posts, I have to post a picture of Sofi, aka, the “woman with the most amazing hair.” (I feel like I must’ve mentioned this a half-dozen times during that interview . . . it was like my verbal crutch of the moment . . .):

I finally met Sofi at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival, and really enjoyed talking with her. I say “finally” because I was supposed to meet her at the Reykjavik International Literary Festival last fall, but she wasn’t able to make it due to a bout of the swine flu. And continuing with a bit of cursed luck, prior to PEN World Voices, she was supposed to read in California, but, well, the volcano nixed that trip . . . As a friend said, she could write a book on being impacted by the not-so-insignificant global disasters of recent times.

Anyway, Purge is a really interesting book, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else Oksanen ends up writing. She’s really at the top of her game right now, having recently won the Nordic Prize for Purge, and was named Estonia’s “Person of the Year” in 2009.

Although this may not be the most uplifting of the books in our summer roundup, it’s definitely worth checking out.

18 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Sofi Oksanen’s Purge, which was translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers and published earlier this year by Grove/Black Cat.

Since this was one of the books I recommended on “Here on Earth,” I’ll save my comments for another post (which will be up in just a minute).

Larissa is one of our regular contributors and tends to focus on Scandinavian literature, which is one of her big interests. (That said, she’s also working on a review of Manuel Puig’s Heartbreak Tango.)

Here’s the beginning of her review:

Although still much an unknown in the English-speaking world, Finnish-Estonian playwright, novelist, and activist Sofi Oksanen has become something of a household name in northern and central Europe. Declared Estonia’s “Person of the Year” in 2009, Oksanen is the first to win both of Finland’s prestigious literary prizes—the Finlandia and the Runeberg—as well as winning this year’s Nordic Council Literature Prize for her virtuosic novel Purge. At once a daring exploration of the Soviet occupation of Estonia, as well as a wrenching consideration of the irrevocable effects of trauma on an individual, Purge navigates the tragedies, petty betrayals, and reverberating guilt of three generations of Estonian women, all struggling to survive their own violent circumstances, no matter the cost.

The novel opens in 1991—the year after Estonia reclaimed its independence from Russia—with the elderly and isolated Aliide Truu stoically weathering childish torments (rocks thrown at her window) and more aggressive harassment (her dog poisoned) at the hands of her neighbors. One rainy morning, Aliide notices an injured young girl huddling in her front yard, and despite her misgivings, allows the girl to take shelter in her home. Zara is a young woman from Russia—a sex trafficking victim on the run from her captors. Having withstood a year of degradation and repeated assaults, Zara has lost everything. Everything, that is, except a yellowed photograph of her grandmother and her grandmother’s sister, with both young women and standing in front of the very Estonian house in which Zara has taken refuge.

Oksanen originally staged Purge as a play, an origin that can still be recognized in its episodic scenes and deliberately moderated tension. In its current form, however, the novel’s fluid and unadorned prose (in a musical and nuanced translation by Lola Rogers) shares a closer kinship with a psychological thriller.

Click here to read the entire review.

18 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Although still much an unknown in the English-speaking world, Finnish-Estonian playwright, novelist, and activist Sofi Oksanen has become something of a household name in northern and central Europe. Declared Estonia’s “Person of the Year” in 2009, Oksanen is the first to win both of Finland’s prestigious literary prizes—the Finlandia and the Runeberg—as well as winning this year’s Nordic Council Literature Prize for her virtuosic novel Purge. At once a daring exploration of the Soviet occupation of Estonia, as well as a wrenching consideration of the irrevocable effects of trauma on an individual, Purge navigates the tragedies, petty betrayals, and reverberating guilt of three generations of Estonian women, all struggling to survive their own violent circumstances, no matter the cost.

The novel opens in 1991—the year after Estonia reclaimed its independence from Russia—with the elderly and isolated Aliide Truu stoically weathering childish torments (rocks thrown at her window) and more aggressive harassment (her dog poisoned) at the hands of her neighbors. One rainy morning, Aliide notices an injured young girl huddling in her front yard, and despite her misgivings, allows the girl to take shelter in her home. Zara is a young woman from Russia—a sex trafficking victim on the run from her captors. Having withstood a year of degradation and repeated assaults, Zara has lost everything. Everything, that is, except a yellowed photograph of her grandmother and her grandmother’s sister, with both young women and standing in front of the very Estonian house in which Zara has taken refuge.

Oksanen originally staged Purge as a play, an origin that can still be recognized in its episodic scenes and deliberately moderated tension. In its current form, however, the novel’s fluid and unadorned prose (in a musical and nuanced translation by Lola Rogers) shares a closer kinship with a psychological thriller. Both Aliide and Zara are survivors in the truest sense of the word—their suffering purposefully repressed by sheer force of will, their sole motivation to protect themselves from further harm. And they are both connected by a dense and untold family history that has festered for over four decades.

As the novel delves into Aliide’s past and the thirty-odd years that Estonia spent under Soviet occupation, it becomes apparent that the events of the present have all spun out from the same traumatic incident—a brutal “interrogation” that Aliide endured at the hands of several soldiers. Rape and assault were frighteningly common experiences for young Estonian women during this time, although not ones which were ever acknowledged—even by others who had gone through similar attacks. Rather, these women became isolated within their own communities and families, silent and ashamed. Aliide not only goes to great lengths to secret her experience, but also to distance herself from other victims. “She recognized the smell of women on the street, the smell that said something similar happened to them,” we’re told.

From every trembling hand, she could tell—there’s another one. From every flinch at the sound of a Russian soldier’s shout and every lurch at the tramp of boots. Her, too? Every one who couldn’t keep herself from crossing the street when militiamen or soldiers approached. Every one with a waistband on her dress that showed she was wearing several pairs of underwear. Every one who couldn’t look you in the eye . . .

When she found herself in proximity with one of those women, she tried to stay as far away from her as she could. So no one would notice similarities in their behavior . . . because you never knew when one of those men might happen by, a man she would remember for all eternity. And maybe it would be the same man as the other woman’s . . . And they wouldn’t be able to keep themselves from flinching at the same time, if they heard a familiar voice. They wouldn’t be able to raise their glass without spilling. They would be discovered. Someone would know.

Even as Aliide’s attempts at self-preservation become increasingly damaging to those around her—even as she allows herself to become complicit in the violations, abuses, and deportations that take place in her own home—the novel still treats her with a great depth of empathy. This is not to say that she is absolved of her actions—much to the contrary. But she is understood to be a casualty of her time and circumstances, and utterly alone with her memories and her guilt. As she realizes late in the novel, her whole life was spent “[w]aiting for someone . . . Someone who would do something to help or at least take away part of what had happened in that cellar.”

Stroke her hair and say that it wasn’t her fault. And say that it would never happen again, no matter what. And when she realized what she had been waiting for, she understood that that person would never come. No one would ever come to her and say those words, and mean them, and see that it never happened again.

There can be no real absolution for Aliide. This fact may be difficult for American readers, who have perhaps become accustomed to narratives of trauma and emotional distress which end in redemption—in the characters achieving some sort of closure, if not an out and out resolution to their suffering. In reality, however, true healing is extraordinarily difficult to achieve, and impossible, the novel reminds us, if the victims involved are not able to discuss their experiences.

Where Purge does take hope, however, is in Zara, a young woman who has broken free of the cycle of victimization. Through her, Aliide’s experiences—as well as those of her grandmother and mother—will finally come to light. It is a painful history to be sure, as is that of the Estonian nation. But in order to move forward—in order to truly reconcile with the past—such stories must finally be heard and examined.

5 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Tales of a Finnish Tupa, adapted by James Cloyd Bowman and Margery Bianco from a translation by Aili Kolehmainen with illustrations by Laura Bannon.

I know we’ve been a bit slow about getting new reviews online, but now that the BTBA fiction longlist posts are winding down (to be replaced by posts about the BTBA poetry finalists), I swear we’ll be getting everything back on track, with reviews of the new Oe and Ugresic books coming in the next few weeks, along with some reviews my students wrote last semester and a look at the new translation of Gombrowicz’s Pornographia. Not to mention the new Handke book, etc., etc. There are heaps of good books coming out this spring for us to cover . . .

But anyway, digression over, this review by Larissa Kyzer—a regular around here who has a great interest in all literatures Scandinavian—is about a collection of Finnish folk tales that the University of Minnesota Press reissued last fall.

It’s a frequently-cited notion that fairy tales and folk stories provide children with a sort of moral or educational compass. Don’t stray from the path. Don’t talk to strangers. Work hard and be honest. Don’t trust your stepmother. But while we may generally associate this literary form with children, it’s certainly one that continues to resonate with adult audiences. As the German poet Friedrich Schiller has been quoted as saying, “[d]eeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in any truth that is taught in life.”

Tales from a Finnish Tupa, recently reissued in a lovely illustrated edition by The University of Minnesota Press, will certainly resonate with contemporary readers for its humorous anecdotes which value enchantment and practicality in equal measure. The collection, which includes over forty “Tales of Magic,” “Droll Stories,” and fables, reverberates with themes of kindness to those in need, self-sufficiency, and common sense—as well as frequent encouragements to take advantage of anyone who does not exhibit the aforementioned qualities.

In “The Ship that Sailed by Land and Sea,” a young chimney sweep accomplishes impossible feats and wins a princess’ hand in marriage—but only with the help of the many magical strangers who he helped while on his journey. (As in many folkloric traditions, there are, apparently, simply dozens of unwed princesses just waiting for a resourceful fellow to come along and free them from the evil spells that bind them or sweep them away from persnickety fathers.) “The End of the World,” will be familiar to those who grew up with “Henny Penny,” telling the story of a foolish brown hen who thinks the world is ending after she’s hit on the head with an acorn.

Click here to read the full review.

5 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It’s a frequently-cited notion that fairy tales and folk stories provide children with a sort of moral or educational compass. Don’t stray from the path. Don’t talk to strangers. Work hard and be honest. Don’t trust your stepmother. But while we may generally associate this literary form with children, it’s certainly one that continues to resonate with adult audiences. As the German poet Friedrich Schiller has been quoted as saying, “[d]eeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in any truth that is taught in life.”

Tales from a Finnish Tupa, recently reissued in a lovely illustrated edition by The University of Minnesota Press, will certainly resonate with contemporary readers for its humorous anecdotes which value enchantment and practicality in equal measure. The collection, which includes over forty “Tales of Magic,” “Droll Stories,” and fables, reverberates with themes of kindness to those in need, self-sufficiency, and common sense—as well as frequent encouragements to take advantage of anyone who does not exhibit the aforementioned qualities.

In “The Ship that Sailed by Land and Sea,” a young chimney sweep accomplishes impossible feats and wins a princess’ hand in marriage—but only with the help of the many magical strangers who he helped while on his journey. (As in many folkloric traditions, there are, apparently, simply dozens of unwed princesses just waiting for a resourceful fellow to come along and free them from the evil spells that bind them or sweep them away from persnickety fathers.) “The End of the World,” will be familiar to those who grew up with “Henny Penny,” telling the story of a foolish brown hen who thinks the world is ending after she’s hit on the head with an acorn.

The importance of a strong work ethic and judiciousness comes across most clearly in the humorous tale of “The Wise Men of Holmola,” which introduces the residents of a village who are “quite different from the rest of the people in Finland, and rather queer in their ways.” The Holmolaiset, we’re told,

. . . were simple-minded and above all cautious. They liked to turn everything over very thoroughly in their minds before they came to any decision about it, and would make the most elaborate plans about even the simplest details of their daily life. When it came to any important question they would talk it over for weeks and months and even years, before they could make up their minds to act.

Egged on by a bemused stranger named Matti, the villagers allow their crops to go to waste and accidentally demolish their homes through their own foolish dithering. Their absurd demise serves as a humorous caution to those who would over-complicate even the most basic tasks.

Beyond considering the stories themselves, however, the collaborative authorship of this collection does need to be taken into account. There’s a fair amount of distance here from the original text: Tales from a Finnish Tupa is a reprint of an adaptation of a translation. The stories were translated by Aili Kolehmainen, for whom no biographical information is provided. (If Google can be trusted, though, Kolehmainen was also responsible for a prose translation of the Finnish epic poem Kalevala in 1950.) The translation was then co-adapted by James Cloyd Bowman, a children’s book author who was awarded the Newberry Honor Medal in 1938 for Pecos Bill: The Greatest Cowboy of All Time, and Margery Bianco, the author best known for The Velveteen Rabbit.

This adaptive approach is not problematic in itself—folk tales are part of a long oral tradition in which each new storyteller augments, edits, and personalizes familiar stories to suit his or her own preferences. However, without any contextual supplements—such as a scholarly introduction about Finnish literary traditions or information about how the stories in the collection came to be included—Tales from a Finnish Tupa feels somewhat isolated from its original material and fails to resonate as fully as it might otherwise.

Bowman’s brief Afterword on Finnish folk lore serves this purpose rather poorly, opting for generalizations about “a pastoral people” who, “[o]n the surface . . . were cold and inexpressive, and seemed as frozen over as their lakes in winter.” Given the lack of ready information (in English) about Finnish literature, and moreover, the scarcity of new Finnish translations, the omission of a more nuanced examination of the text is felt all the more acutely.

Tales from a Finnish Tupa nevertheless remains a welcome addition to the cannon of international folklore, a fanciful collection which might best be shared out loud on a cold winter’s night.

20 November 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

FILI just announced the finalists for this year’s Finlandia Prize—a 30,000 euro award given every year to the best Finnish works of fiction, nonfiction, and children’s literature.

Personally, I’m most interested in the fiction, so here’s the complete list with descriptions of each title from FILI:

Turkka Hautala: Salo (Gummerus)

The theme of Turkka Hautala’s debut novel is one of human destiny. One by one the residents of Salo take their turns speaking, in a chain-like structure. The spectrum of viewpoints extends from the anguish of a factory manager to the everyday compassion of the seller at a sausage kiosk, but the personalities merge into a cohesive whole. Hautala takes ordinary people as his characters and he knows how to see the humorous side of their actions. The novel is written in supple language using different registers and dialects. Salo builds a mosaic portrait of the declining Finland of today, and the author’s gaze is sharp and fresh.

Kari Hotakainen: Ihmisen osa (The Human Lot, Siltala)

At a bookfair, a writer meets a button seller who sells him her life story for 7,000 euros. Along with the sale, the reader receives a large slice of Finnish life and the history of entrepreneurship. The small business owner’s grind is replaced nowadays by endless meetings and imagination for sale. Like its characters, broken under the blows of an unrestricted market economy, Kari Hotakainen’s novel is customer-oriented but strongly resistant to change, critical of society, warm and intelligent.

Antti Hyry: Uuni (The Oven, Otava)

In Hyry’s novel, the reader’s interest is not directed to a plot or character portraits. There are no dramatic turning points in this description of the construction of a baking oven. On the surface, Hyry’s writing is reminiscent of the kinds of modernists who build their texts on simple perceptions of the world of objects in order to emphasize incompleteness in their sketches of the world. Instead, the person in Hyry’s book is taking concrete steps to establish a home in the world. His tasks gain their significance from the meaningful places of life in its entirety. This portrait of everyday life thus opens out into a cosmos where the central character is living the life he was meant to live.

Marko Kilpi: Kadotetut (The Lost Ones, Gummerus)

Kilpi’s work explodes the conventions of the detective genre, because attention is focused not on the intellectual puzzle of solving a crime or understanding a criminal’s motivation. Instead, crime is taken seriously as a psychological, humanistic moral and societal phenomenon. The violent criminal is seen as psychologically abnormal, while at the same time his activities provide the impetus for the popular media’s pursuit of simple labeling of our society. The police are shown as psychologically stressed due to their experiences of the human suffering and cruelty inherent in violent crime, and the victims of crime are examined not only in the narrow terms of rescue or death – rather, the possibility that those “rescued” are so psychologically wounded that they may never be able to live a normal life is seriously considered. Kilpi’s book reveals how deeply traumatic violent crime is for everyone it touches.

Merete Mazzarella: Ingen saknad, ingen sorg (No regret, no sorrow, Söderströms / Atlantis)

Merete Mazzarella’s novel is a nuanced and empathetic description of a day in the life of 79-year-old Zacharias Topelius, at the same time viewing Topelius as tied to his own time, giving the portrayal a delicate irony. On the one hand, the novel is a study of old age with all that it entails: memory, renunciation, loss, emotion, the reevaluation of perceptions, even doubts about one’s past deeds and thoughts. On the other hand, the book is a study of the Finnish mentality of the 1800s through the contemplation one who would in future be a central cultural figure. In a Topelius family circle made up for the most part of women, women’s issues in various historical eras gain particular significance.

Tommi Melender: Ranskalainen ystävä (The French Friend, WSOY)

Tommi Melender’s novel is about friendship in a world where friendship is a diminishing resource. At the beginning of the novel, a well-known academic, identifying with Gustave Flaubert’s disgust with modern life, leaves his job and escapes to a small town in France, where he encounters certain darker aspects of contemporary European reality. The novel’s skillful composition combines a contemporary portrait of the European literary heritage with the bleak and pessimistic tones of a reluctance to believe in solidarity between people, or the possibility of friendship, or love itself.

Looking these over, I’m surprised (somewhat) by how literary, how experimental these books sound. (“There are no dramatic turning points in this description of the construction of a baking oven.” Being one Nouveau Romanish sounding example.) A “chain narrative,” a book that toys with conventions of the detective genre . . . All sound pretty promising. I might (hopefully) be going on an editor’s trip to Helsinki next August, so I’ll be able to find out a lot more about what’s going on in Finnish literature . . .

In terms of the other categories, here are the titles and very brief descriptions of the children’s book finalists:

Siiri Enoranta: Omenmean vallanhaltija (The Ruler of Omenmea, Robustos)

In Siiri Enoranta’s novel, two girls, Ninir and Nezsandra, have a trouble-free friendship, until Ninir falls into quicksand in the Death Wilderness and is paralysed.

Antti Halme: Metalliveljet (Metal Brothers, Otava)\

“What do you think about going to Norway for the summer, Harri-berry? Sounds pretty rad, eh?” Harri put his head in his hands. Dad’s street lingo was from the last millennium, way before rap – months before the invention of the folk dance, in fact.

Juba: Minerva, Jääkarhun sydän (Minerva: The Polar Bear’s Heart, Otava)

Juba’s Minerva has given Finnish children’s comics an active, energetic girl hero. In Minerva’s flying rocking chair we travel to the North Pole, where elephant seals are making their living as oil magnates. To win the love of an elephant seal girl, the hapless suitor Yrjänä must bring her the heart of the last polar bear.

Mari Kujanpää: Minä ja Muro (Muro and Me, Illustrated by Aino-Maija Metsola, Otava)

“There are two kinds of adults: dentist-adults and teacher-adults. Dentist-adults talk adult language among themselves as if there were no kids listening. Teacher-adults try to be funny and ask a lot of questions.”

Paula Noronen: Emilian päiväkirja. Supermarsu pelastaa silakat. (Emilia’s Diary: Superguinea Rescues the Herring, Illustrated by Pauliina Mäkelä, Gummerus)

What should you do when your school is infested with mould, the Baltic is polluted, and there are many other problems in society? Call Emilia, aka Superguinea, of course. You need super powers to get all the herring into a bathtub and all the lake water to Venus. Otherwise adults will never understand that saving the environment is really important. The only place super powers don’t help is in family life, when Emilia’s mother takes up with a boyfriend who has the worst table manners in East Helsinki.

Maria Turtschaninoff: Arra. Legender från Lavora (Arra: Legends of Lavora, Söderströms)

Maria Turtschaninoff’s book is the story of a girl named Arra, born and raised in hopelessness, rejected and despised by her family. Arra doesn’t learn to talk like other children, because no one takes any notice of her or speaks to her. Speech has no meaning for her.

And the nonfiction:

Hollmén, Roope: Juuret Karjalassa (Roots in Karelia, Facto)

Roope Hollmén presents a basic work on Karelia, Karelian history and Karelians that is multi-faceted and thorough. The book is a modern one, written with up-to-date information for today’s reader. It is an accessible work for those who do not have ties of their own to the province.

Laurell Seppo (primary author): Valo merellä. Suomen majakat 1753-1906 (Light on the Sea: Finnish Lighthouses 1753-1906, with photography by Petri Porkola, Swedish translation by Pär-Henrik Sjöström, John Nurmisen Säätiö)

Seppo Laurell and the other editors of Valo merellä have collected an authoritative and very handsome defining work on Finnish lighthouses. With its text, pictures, and previously unknown original blueprints, the book is a comprehensive compendium of the lighthouses themselves, as well as their history and architecture.

Maasola, Juha: Kirves (The Axe, Maahenki)

Juha Massola uses a particular, indispensable object to write about living cultural history. Through descriptions of the labour inextricably connected with the axe, the feelings associated with it, and the meanings arising from it, he sheds light on the entire way of life dictated by our geographical and environmental circumstances.

Parpola, Antti – Åberg, Veijo: Metsävaltio. Metsähallitus ja Suomi 1859-2009 (A Forest Nation: The Finnish Forest and Park Service, 1859-2009, Edita)

Antti Parpola and Veijo Åberg have written a work that belongs at the pinnacle of corporate and institutional histories. The forest is one of the central themes of Finnish life, both as a means of livelihood and as a source of recreation.

Tandefelt, Henrika: _Borgå 1809. Ceremoni och fest. SLS.
Porvoo 1809. Juhlamenoja ja tanssiaisia_ (Porvoo 1809: Festivals and Balls, SKS, Finnish translation by Jussi T. Lappalainen)

Henrika Tandefelt’s work deals with well-known historical events, but it succeeds in shedding new light on them. Events surrounding the birth of a nation in Porvoo 200 years ago are brought to life with close-up descriptions seen through the eyes of participants and observers of these events.

Ylikangas, Mikko: Unileipää, kuolonvettä, spiidiä. Huumeet Suomessa 1800-1950 (Sleepbread, Deathwater, Speed: Drugs in Finland, 1800-1950, Atena)

Mikko Ylikangas’ book offers a new and surprising compendium of a little-examined aspect of our history. Drugs are a global threat usually understood as a product of contemporary society and globalisation. Ylikangas brings a historic point of view of Finland’s history of recreational drugs and drug addiction that is unknown to many readers.

More information on all these books can be found here. And I’ll definitely post about the winners as soon as they are announced.

29 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

From the Finnish Institute in London (via Nordic Voices):

The Finnish Institute in London and FILI – Finnish Literature Exchange are pleased to announce a translation competition to source new talent in translating fiction from Finnish to English. You do not have to be a language professional; eligible participants include everyone from novices to experienced translators. What you do need is a passion for language, a good understanding of Finnish and a talent for writing in English.

bq.The translation competition is part of the Finnish Institute’s programme of activities aiming at increasing the number of Finnish books entering the British literary market. We invite you to translate, from Finnish to English, Maritta Lintunen’s piece “Piinaviikko” from her collection of short prose entitled Ovisilmä (WSOY, 2006).

Entering the competition is easy. Just download the text and the entry form, translate the text by 31 August 2009, and send both to us (as .doc, .rtf or .pdf). There is no entry fee.

Click here for a pdf of “Piinaviikko” and click here to download the official entry form.

10 September 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest newsletter from the Finnish Literature Exchange (the government sponsored organization dedicated to promoting Finnish lit worldwide) arrived yesterday and included a couple interesting article/links.

First off, there have been a few additions to the Beginners’ Guide to Translation, which, to be honest, I didn’t know existed, but looks like an interesting (and inspiring) document for people interested in getting in to translation.

There’s also an announcement about this year’s winner of the Government Translation Prize:

The Government Translation Prize, worth 10,000 euros, was awarded this year to translator and librarian Gabriele Schrey-Vasara. Gabriele Schrey-Vasara has been a distinguished translator of both novels and scholarly works for almost 30 years. In her role as translator, she has been a part of the flowering of interest in Nordic literature in Germany in the past ten years. Schrey-Vasara has interpreted the character of Maria Kallio, the strong police woman in Leena Lehtolainen’s books, and the renowned Ingrian-Estonian anti-hero Viktor Kärppä in Matti Rönkä’s novels, among others.

Finally, and of most interest to me, is a link to the new issue of Books from Finland, which includes extracts, reviews, and general info on a number of Finnish writers, along with an almost-gooey love letter to Context magazine

We haven’t received a hard copy yet (not sure we’re even on the mailing list, which is probably more our fault than FILI’s), and unfortunately there are very few articles available online. (Which is something that I think is rather short-sighted. If you’re trying to interest people in your country’s literature—a difficult task already—don’t make potential readers/fans do extra work to get the info . . .) If/when we do get a copy, I’ll post again with more details about the authors and works featured inside.

12 March 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’m not sure when FILI—the organization in charge of promoting Finnish literature abroad—redesigned its website, but the results are pretty impressive and definitely worth checking out.

I really like the Spotlight feature, which highlights a few Finnish authors, providing short overviews, excerpts in English, and information about foreign rights. Seems to be a relatively new feature—the archive contains info on only 13 authors and two batches of “picture books”—but hopefully this will be updated on a regular basis.

Some of these materials come from Books from Finland, the quarterly publication consisting of overview articles, essays on particular authors, reviews of new Finnish books, and excerpts. I’m a big fan of these “books from” publications (especially the one from Estonia, and the Vilnius Review), but I am disappointed that most of the contents aren’t available online—instead, interested readers have to subscribe for €28 for four issues. Which is a bit pricey here in the States thanks to the crap economic situation and the exchange rate, but not too terrible, I guess. Although I’d be more willing to pay if that meant I could access the full contents of all the past issues . . .

Finally, there’s a Finnish Literature in Translation database that’s fun to play with. According to this database there were 14 adult works published in English translation in the U.S. since 2000, and only one scheduled for 2008—The Parson’s Widow> by Marja-Liisa Vartio.

22 February 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Literary Saloon has a link to this article from the Finnish press stating that Finland lost out to Iceland for 2011 Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Iris Schwanck, the director of the Finnish Literature Exchange (FILI) was informed on Wednesday of the negative decision by Jürgen Boos, the director of the Frankfurt Book Fair.

“The negative decision is a major disappointment, because the programme Finland offered was excellent, and because the popularity of Finnish literature is just now showing a strong upward trend in Germany”, noted Schwanck.

Apparently, there were non-literary factors at work in this decision:

Nokia’s decision to close down its factory in the German city of Bochum has aroused plenty of negative feelings against Finland in Germany, as has been regularly reported on these pages.

“In fact, Jürgen Boos admitted that the Bochum situation did not make the atmosphere favourable for Finland. However, he offered us another opportunity to apply for the guest of honour position for 2013-2014”, reported Schwanck.

That’s unfortunate for Finland—and FILI, which is one of the best literary cultural organizations in the world—but great news for Iceland, which is very deserving of the honor.

....
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