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White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen

Bleak winterThe severe famine that brought havoc and destruction to nineteenth century rural Ireland has been well documented. Less well known is that more than 250,000 people (about 15% of the population) died when Finland experienced a similarly devastating famine in the late 1860s.

This is the background to Aki Ollikainen’s short, disquieting novel White Hunger. It’s 1867:  a year which saw the culmination of a series of poor harvests and a particularly harsh winter. Marja, a peasant farmer’s wife from the north, abandons her dying husband and sets off on foot through waist-high snow with her two young children Mataleena and Juho. This is a journey born out of desperation.  Their goal is to reach St Petersburg where rumour has it, bread can be found.  Not the stuff made pine bark, lichen and straw that they’ve been living on for months, but bread made with real flour.

The chances are slim that all the members of this little trio will survive. They are entirely dependent on the mercy of isolated households they find along the way.  Marja struggles through a featureless landscape, from one nameless village to another, from farmstead to almshouse to barn. She experiences the kindness of strangers who share their meagre rations and also the brutality of those who have become embittered by the ceaseless trail of beggars that knock on their doors. Denounced at times as a thief and a whore, what drives Marja onwards day after day is not desperation alone but also hope.

… one day, maybe, there will be talk of things other than bread, the lack of it, or hunger and diseases. People would talk about the coming of spring, the melting of the ice. About the swans someone spotted on the Holy Lake. About the neighbouring fields being flooded.

whitehunger_web_0_220_330The details of her journey are broken with scenes from a town where a doctor and a politician live in relative luxury. The doctor tries to shelter from the shock of the human tragedy, only occasionally feeling a sense of guilt; the politician puts his faith in a new railway to solve the problem. Not until the end of the novel does it become clear how these stories intersect.

Aki Ollikainen’s skill in this novella lies in the way he portrays a snow-bound landscape and ravaging hunger without becoming monotonous. Descriptions of the snow abound naturally along with vivid descriptions of the feeling of hunger. In spare and taut prose Ollikainen animates these forces of nature. Hunger becomes   “an angry cat scratching, scraping, sinking its teeth into the pit of her stomach” while frost  “spreads weedlike through the window frames along the timber joints across the wall.”  and snow pushes in through doors “like a cadaver.”

It takes strong nerves to read this book about people brought to the edge of existence. But steel yourself to do so and you won’t be disappointed. Bleak and harsh it certainly is but utterly memorable.

End Notes

Translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah, White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen is published by Peirene Press (Peirene title number 16). Aki Ollikainen lives in northern Finland where he works as a reporter on a local newspaper. White Hunger is his debut work, published to great acclaim in his native country where he won multiple awards. He has written a second novel Musta satu but I haven’t been able to find out anything about this so far.

The View from Here – Books from Colombia

Laura SesanaWelcome to the world of books. In the last feature in this series we were enjoying the crisp snowy conditions of Finland. Now we’re heading to a country more associated with sun than snow. We travel to Colombia to hear from Laura Sesana

 

 

Let’s meet Laura 

I am originally from Bogotá, Colombia.  My mother is Colombian; my father is Italian.  I grew up in Bogotá and moved to the U.S. for college.  I spent a year in Rome after college and returned to Colombia in my 20s to write the text for a book about our national parks, Colombia: Parques Naturales, winner of the 2007 Latino Book Award.  I returned to the U.S. to get my law degree and never left!

I run two different blogs, Lasesana.com and ArbiterNews.com.  Lasesana is more of a personal blog, where I write about books I’m reading, food I’m cooking and my DIY projects.  Arbiter News is a collaboration with a few other writers and journalists where we focus on fact-based reporting.  Because we are a smaller publication, we are less constrained by professional relationships and hopefully also free of much of the bias and spin prevalent in mainstream media.  We report the facts and let our readers decide.

Q. What kinds of books are the most popular right now in Colombia? 

viewfromhere

Colombia is a country of avid readers with a robust publishing industry and literary culture.  Brick-and-mortar bookstores and book cafés are still very popular.  Colombia has an adult literacy rate of almost 94 percent and books of all kinds are very popular. Colombians read about everything, and thanks to the fact that most books are translated to Spanish very quickly, Colombians read books from all over the world. For example, Paulo Cohelo’s Adultery and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars were both among the top 10 best-selling books in Colombia in 2014.

As far as books by Colombians, the country’s drug war—especially the bloody era of the early 1990s that culminated with the death of Pablo Escobar on a rooftop in Medellín in 1993—is a prevalent topic, not just in literature, but in film and television.  A memoir by Pablo Escobar’s son, Juan Pablo, published in December 2014, became an instant best seller.  Another book dealing with the same topic, Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s El ruido de las cosas al caer (The Sound of Things Falling), has been at the top of Colombian best-seller lists since its publication in 2011.

Q. What books do you remember having to study in school that could be considered classics of literature by Colombian authors?

La rebelión de las ratas (The Rats’ Rebellion), by Fernando Soto Aparicio, about an uprising of the lower social classes in a fictional town in Boyacá.

La vorágine (The abyss), by Jose Eustacio Rivera, a Colombian Heart Of Darkness set in the Amazon.

Relato de un naufrago (The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor), the first book I read by Gabriel García Márquez.

María, by Jorge Isaacs, a romantic novel considered one of the country’s literary masterpieces.

Poetry by Rafael Pombo, we all grew up with his children’s poems and they have become part of our national and Latin-American culture.

Q. This article named what they considered the The 5 Best Colombian Novelists. Do you agree with their choice?Did they miss anyone out that you think deserves our attention? 

I think it is a good list, but I would have included Fernando Soto Aparicio and Jose Eustacio Rivera.

Q.  Tell us about some of the themes and traditions of literature in your country?

Early Colombian literature, like the literary traditions of many former colonies, first imitated—then reacted to Spanish literature.  Many of the early themes included the Spanish conquest, chronicles and religion.  When Colombia gained its independence from Spain, literature reflected society’s preoccupation with government and politics.

In the 19th century, Colombian writers focused on depictions of nature and peasant life (costumbrismo), as well as criticism of government and the ruling classes.

The 20th century saw several literary movements in Colombia, including modernism, los nuevos, piedra y cielo, nadaísmo, and the boom generation.

Violence and a criticism of our society are two main themes that pop up time and again in Colombian literature.  For the past two to three decades, Colombian writers have been preoccupied with the violence and horror of the Pablo Escobar years.  I think that many of us who lived through that strange and crazy time in our country’s history feel like we need to talk about it, write about it, read about it, and relive it. It is cathartic for writers as well as for readers, making us realize how far we have come as a nation and as a society since the mid 1990s.  There is still a lot that needs to be addressed, but nobody can deny that Colombia is a completely different place today.

Q. Is there a noticeable difference between literature from Colombia and that from your other parts of South America? Are the writers different for example from those in Brazil?

As I mentioned earlier, the uniquely bloody history of Colombia, our on-going civil war, the narco war, have all had an effect on the country’s literature that make it different from literature in other South American countries.  The “narco,” has become a familiar character in Colombia’s literature, and we keep returning to examine those very difficult years through every angle possible.

However, it would be simplistic to say that Colombians are obsessed only with the gruesomeness of that era.  This characterization would ignore the fact that life was still going on amid the violence and horror.  People were getting married, having children, graduating from high school, falling in love for the first time.

Many of us came of age in that era, and despite it being a terrible time in our country, it was paradoxically also a very happy time.  Most of us have wonderful, happy memories of those years alongside the horrible ones, and I think that the juxtaposition of these opposing feelings about a time and a place in our past makes for some pretty powerful literature.

Q.Do you have a favourite author?

At the risk of sounding cliché, my favorite Colombian authors are Gabriel García Márquez and the poet Rafael Pombo.

My favorite authors overall have to be John Irving and Stephen King.

You can connect with Laura via her blog or Twitter, Pinterest accounts:

 Want to Discover More Countries?

The View from Here series features guest articles on the literature of many countries including India, Sri Lanka, Canada. For the complete list, visit the View from Here page 

Interested in Being Featured?

If you’d like to do a guest post to represent your country, please leave a comment with info on how to contact you.

Winning times

The Booker Talk household has been in a state of suspended excitement for the last week. I hardly ever win things in competitions or prize drawers (I suppose the fact that I don’t actually enter many of them might have something to do with that). But on the same day just over a week ago I learned that I had won, not one but two prizes.

whitehunger_web_0_220_330First to arrive was a copy of White Hunger which is a debut novel by a Finnish author called Aki Ollikainen. It’s set in 19th century Finland and follows a young woman’s journey from Finland to St Petersburg in an attempt to save her young children from starvation.  This was a give away from theoxfordculturereview.com (a wonderful source of info if you have any plans to visit the city) and published by Peirene Press.  The book won the title of Best Finnish Debut Novel 2012 and Finnish Book Bloggers’ Best Book 2012 and is now available in English.  Have any of you read this?

Just a few days later came a mystery gift from the London Review of Books as a result of a reader survey I completed.  I’m now the owner of a canvas tote bag (much nicer than plastic carrier bags and cheaper too since we have to pay for those in Wales); a few items from their cafe and a nicely bound compendium of articles published in the LRB.

Two successes. Do you think I could make it a third??

The View from Here – Books from Finland

imageWelcome to the world of books. In the last feature in this series we were enjoying the sunshine of the Caribbean. Now we’re heading to a country more associated with snow than sand. We travel to Finland to hear from Soila Lehtonen, Editor in Chief of Books from Finland, an online journal of writing from and about Finland. 

What is your journal about?
Books from Finland is a modest but persistent attempt to make Finnish literature more known abroad…. an English-language literary journal, founded in 1967, now published by FILI/Finnish Literature Society. It was a printed journal until the end of 2008, then went online. Our (free) online version is very accessible – and in many ways easier to make, too. Me and my colleague in London, Hildi Hawkins, do the actual work. It is financed (modestly) by the Finnish Ministry of Education, but an independent editorial board and the editors choose what to publish.

In short: ‘The journal is aimed at professionals in the field of books and literature, publishers, editors, translators, researchers, students, universities, Finns living abroad and audiences generally interested in Finland and Finnish literature.’

The idea is to serve anyone interested about Finnish literature, by publishing articles, reviews of books, sample translations of both fiction (both contemporary and classic) and non-fiction. We’re not trying to constantly emphasise the ‘Finnishness’ of it all, even though we feature Finnish literary life and books published in Finland. We try to introduce good literature, well-written and original – and books with little chances of becoming huge international bestsellers: contemporary and classic poetry and non-fiction, for example.

The quality of translation is of course vital: our translators are professionals and native speakers of English (and their number has always been limited…). As Finland is a bilingual country, they translate from Finnish or Swedish, some of them from both.

Q. What kinds of books are the most popular right now in Finland? For example, books from other parts of the world, or indigenous authors?

viewfromhereContemporary Finnish fiction has become popular during the past two decades: lots of new authors, new readers. This applies to prose as well as to poetry. (Social media certainly has further helped to make reading, and talking abot reading, more popular, and the media like authors, too.) In the 1980s and early 1990s, for example, translated foreign fiction was flourishing, whereas nowadays much less gets published.

Q. What books do you remember having to study in school that could be considered classics of literature by Finnish authors?

So many decades have passed since I was at school that I don’t remember that much…! But definitely Aleksis Kivi (d. 1872) was a compulsory author.

As Finland is a young culture and Finnish slowly developed into a literary language, Kivi was the first Finnish-language fiction author of lasting artistic quality – he had to create a literary style of his own, in which he excelled: his poetry contains the most beautiful verses ever written in Finnish. Kivi died insane in poverty, as there were pompous didactics and academics who disapproved of his perceptive realism in his best novel, Seitsemän veljestä (Seven Brothers). I think at school we were mainly amused by his ‘funny’ language.

Q. Who are some of the major writers from Finland that you think deserve more attention? Why don’t we hear more of these writers given the huge popularity of Scandinavian literature in recent years?

As I’m not an author or a publisher, ‘huge popularity’ is not something I personally greatly value per se…. particularly if it relates to crime literature, for which Sweden in particular is now internationally known. Crime literature sells well, in Finland, too. I don’t think ‘sellability’ is among the most important qualities of literature, or any other art form either, for that matter. Filmmaker David Cronenberg has said about the difference between entertainment and art: ‘Entertainment wants to give you what you want. Art wants to give you what you don’t know you want.’ Personally, I want to read fiction which delights me with its language, perception, philosophy, originality, humour, intelligence, and I dont’t seem to find interesting combinations of these in contemporary crime literature.

I was writing this just before the Frankfurt Book Fair, the commercial literary mega event: 180 books by Finnish authors have been published in German this year, and as the Fair is an international event, and Finland is Guest of Honour there, the following years will undoubtedly draw more attention to Finnish literature.

There are some amazing examples of internationally successful Finnish fiction authors: Sofi Oksanen, Arto Paasilinna, Tove Jansson (of the Moomin fame, died in 2001), Rosa Liksom…. their works have been translated at least into 20 languages (Jansson’s, 44), including English. Works by Kristina Carlson, Tuomas Kyrö, Kari Hotakainen and Johanna Sinisalo have all been published in English recently.

Q.  Tell us about some of the themes and traditions of literature in your country?

Realism, realism. There was a carpenter in the 1970s who began to write fiction, i.e. novels based on his own life as a carpenter in the countryside. He published c. 30 thick autobiographical, naturalistic novels about his life as a carpenter in the countryside, and they sold very well.

This has changed of course a lot during the past few decades: new authors, new writing, new readers.

Q. Is there a noticeable difference between literature from Finland and that from your near neighbours Sweden, Denmark?

Our neighbours are Russia, Sweden and Estonia: three different cultures and languages (even though Estonian is a Finno-Ugric language and resembles Finnish — but not enough to be understood unless you’ve studied it). As Finland is a bilingual country, a large number of those who speak Finnish as their mother tongue are able to read literature also in Swedish (compulsory language in schools and universities). Finnish authors with Swedish as their mother tongue are of course read in Sweden (even though it must be noted that Swedes in general know a lot less about Finnish literature than one might expect…) Contemporary Swedish, Russian and Estonian fiction books get translated to some extent, but unfortunately I myself have spent the last decades reading Finnish books so intensely that I’m not able to characterise them..

Q. Should the big book publishers and book chains do more to make literature in translation available?

I think the situation in Europe has changed remarkably during the past 20 years, at least from the viewpoint of a small culture and language: recently Finnish publishers have begun to be more active in marketing their authors abroad, and there now are literary agents in Finland (previously there were hardly any). There are more competent literary translators as well: FILI has been organising training seminars for translators for years. All this reflects the fact that interest in translation from smaller languages in large countries has grown: it’s not so long ago when the percentage of translated fiction published in England was not more than two, it now has grown to four I think. Small steps, but definitely there, so yes, publishers too have done more.

 Want to Discover More Countries?

The View from Here series features guest articles on the literature of many countries including India, Sri Lanka, Canada. For the complete list, visit the View from Here page 

Interested in Being Featured?

If you’d like to do a guest post to represent your country, please leave a comment with info on how to contact you.

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