Mike in Finland

Monday, 14 June 2010

Famous Finnish novelists....

.....if that isn´t an oxymoron. Of course, there are plenty of Finnish novelists who are famous in Finland, but very few of them are well known outside Finland. Now, why should that be, I ask myself? This is an issue that I have wondered about before and I started thinking about it again after recently reading Sofi Oksanen´s latest novel, published in English translation as Purge earlier this year.

Firstly, there are not many translations of Finnish novelists in the major European languages. Nothing like the range of English, French and German novelists who are translated, for instance. Lack of good translations has definitely been an obstacle to the spread of Finnish literature over the last 100 years. Some major figures and classic works have not been translated into English. Juhani Aho´s masterpiece, Juha, for instance, was first published in Finnish in 1911, yet it was not until 2005 that the first English translation appeared. But more important, and perhaps also the reason for the lack of translations, is cultural attitude. Finnish culture, and consequently its literature, does not have the mass appeal of French, German or ancient Greek. It´s as if the literature of `little´ nations is not important, and that´s a shame.

So I´m afraid that when English translations appear, they may be ignored by the booksellers and by the reading public. It´s possible that these works in translation become `invisible´ in a way. So, in an attempt to offer some kind of counter-balance to that, here is a selected list of some Finnish novels available in English that I have enjoyed reading.

First, there´s Juha. The novel describes a love triangle and powerful emotions in a Finnish forest setting at the turn of the last century.

Väinö Linna´s trilogy, Under The North Star, tells the story of a village in central southern Finland from the 1880s to about 1950. As well as the relationships between the characters, there is a realistic portrayal of village life and national and political issues. Volume one includes the influence of land reform and the language issue on the daily lives of the people. The narrative of volume two is largely dominated by the civil war of 1918. It´s pretty harrowing, but wonderfully written. All three volumes give a very clear understanding of Finnish history, customs and lifestyle. Each volume stands alone as a complete novel but in my opinion it makes sense to read them in order.

Tove Jansson is best known as the creator of the Moomin stories, mainly for children, but adults enjoy them, too. I´m not sure how popular or well known these books are in Britain. I know they are hugely successful in Japan and maybe some other countries. However, Jansson also wrote adult novels. One of her most popular has been translated into English, The Summer Book. It describes the relationship between a young girl and her grandmother during a summer spent at the family´s summer cottage on an island in the Gulf of Finland.

I believe that Mika Valtari enjoyed considerable popularity during the 1950s and 60s, though I think that was mainly in America. His best known novel, Sinuhe, the Egyptian has been an international best-seller. It´s a wide-ranging and monumental account of a character who lived in ancient Egypt.

Which brings us back to Sofi Oksanen. Purge is set in Soviet occupied Estonia during the 1940s and in the newly independent Estonia of the early 1990s. One of the back cover comments on my American edition compares the book with McEwan´s Atonement and a crime novel. It´s true someone dies and we learn by the end exactly what had happened earlier. That´s the only similarity to any crime novel I´ve ever read. There is no similarity to Atonement. Oksanen´s narrative style is original and exciting. She is also half Estonian, though she was born and grew up in Finland. She has had great success in Finland, winning all three of Finland´s top literary prizes. There has certainly been interest abroad, the book has been published, or is due to be published, in several languages in 28 countries. It will be interesting to see what the reaction will be to this work.

Cover of the American edition

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