Two fascinting new publications about Finns and their history
I´ve just been reading two very interesting books, both published by Arrowhead Press: Finns and Amazons, a poetry collection by Nancy Mattson, and Lines From Karelia, which is actually a pamphlet containing mainly letters written by Nancy Mattson´s great-aunt from the Soviet Union before the outbreak of the Second World War. The two publications complement each other since one section of Finns and Amazons is based on, and includes excerpts from, the letters in Lines From Karelia, which in turn contains a few of the poems. Another section in Finns and Amazons is inspired by the work of women Russian painters and some of these speculate about a possible connection between the great-aunt as a child and one of the painters.
Some background is needed. Nancy Mattson is a Canadian Finn who now lives in London. Both Nancy´s grandmother, Anna, and Anna´s sister, Lisi, writer of the letters, emigrated from Finland to Canada in their youth. Anna settled in Canada, raised a family, her children had families of their own. Lisi left Canada with her husband, Eino Hirvonen, for the Soviet Union in the early 1930s. Like thousands of other Finns, they believed in the socialist utopia that was being built in the Soviet Union at that time. The letters tell a part of the story of what happened to them.
I say, `a part of the story´ because Lisi Hirvonen does not fill in all the details of her life in the Soviet Union of the 30s. Perhaps she felt it wouldn´t have been safe, or she wanted to hide the truth, or she was just not the kind of writer who supplied details. Her writing style is also rather idiosyncratic: there is no punctuation in the original Finnish versions of the letters. The translator has preserved this feature in the English versions, wisely, I think. The reader doesn´t always know where one sentence ends and the next begins. Occasionally, one has to back-track a few words. But the sentences (if there were any!) and the general use of language, is fairly simple. It´s easy to follow the sense. And the effect of having no punctuation gives a terrific sense of momentum to her narrative and brings Lisi´s personality closer to the reader.
Perhaps, for me, and I imagine for many readers, the most poignant aspect of the letters is what Lisi doesn´t say. She and Eino obviously went with high hopes and great expectations. At some point they began to feel disappointment and betrayal. Lisi never says this outright, but the tone of the letters changes over the years. Lisi´s and Eino´s marriage also broke up. Again, Lisi doesn´t go into this in the letters that have survived. Alone and nearing 40, Lisi comments in her final letter that perhaps it might have been better if she hadn´t left Canada. It´s heart-breaking. And in nearly every letter she writes to her sister: `don´t worry about me´.
The last letter is dated 1939. After that, Anna didn´t receive another letter from her sister. Nobody knows what happened to her.
There is a fascinating extension to this true life story in the poems. In the first section Nancy Mattson speculates that the painter, Sonia Delaunay, might have painted Lisi as a child. And later, that a photo of a girl in a Soviet tourist guide, in whom Mattson sees a strong family resemblance, could just possibly be Lisi´s daughter.
Compelling reading. Anyone interested in Finland, Finnish culture and history, and the dramas of life will love these two slim volumes.