Archive | August, 2012

Travelling the world through books: Finland

21 Aug

Fiction has the power to transport us to places to which we’ve never been.  Some of these destinations may be real, some imaginary.  The identity of others lies somewhere in between.  This year a pattern has emerged in the arbitrary itinerary of my reading.  Time and again, it seems to have returned me to Finland.

I know Finland primarily through my reading of the Moomin books as a child.  That world of islands, forests and snow has haunted me ever since.  I’ve only visited Finland once, spending a few days in Helsinki back in 2001, but the idea of that land, the Finland of the imagination embedded itself in my consciousness long ago, thanks to the writing of Tove Jansson.  The random discovery of an old hardback copy of Sculptor’s Daughter in a charity shop in the ’80s, and later the Penguin edition of The Summer Book reacquainted me with that world (both books were out of print by then).  Until comparatively recently, I believe, they were the only two of her books for adults available in the UK (we have the excellent Sort Of Books to thank for remedying that situation).  And that trip in 2001 had been prefigured by my reading of Bill Drummond’s excellent, 45, published to celebrate his 45th birthday and the vinyl single music format (he’d also released a debut LP to mark his 33rd birthday, a medium that runs at 33 1/3 rpm).  There’s a section in it where he travels out by bus to the Helsinki suburbs, a trip I would find myself taking the following year, to the working class district of Kallio.

Two books that I’ve read in the last couple of years place Helsinki just off stage.  They’re both long, dream-like books with indeterminate city settings that meet the overused description of ‘Kafkaesque’.  In each case, like K. in The Castle, the protagonist is frustrated in his attempts to achieve what he desires.  Budai in Ferenc Karinthy’s Metropole attempts to board a plane from Budapest for a linguistic conference in Helsinki and instead finds himself stranded in an unknown city where he is unable to understand a word that anyone says to him.  Ryder in The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro (one of the books that I’ve read this year) is a renowned pianist who never gets to perform the recital for which he has travelled, but hopes that he will do so at the next stop on his tour, Helsinki.  In both books, then, the Finnish capital appears as an idea for a city rather than a physical place.  It is, it seems to me, a cipher for otherness.  Its language appears impenetrable (like the Hungarian of Budai, a Finno-Ugric language, though they’re apparently mutually unintelligible).  It’s far enough away that it takes along time to reach by plane.  And until the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was vaguely beneath the Soviet yoke.

World War II provides an imaginary context to which many of us seem to be drawn.  Both New Finnish Grammar and The Burnt-out Town of Miracles are set in Finland during the Winter War fought against the USSR, one of numerous theatres in that epic conflict.  They have more in common than their setting.  They’re slightly off-kilter works.  In the former, the protagonist has lost his memory and all knowledge of language.  He may or may not be Finnish.  In the latter, a wise fool chooses to stay in the war zone after the Russians have invaded, against apparent good sense, in the burnt-out town of the title.  And neither of their authors is Finnish.  The former is written by Diego Marani, an Italian, the latter by Roy Jacobsen, a Norwegian.  One further aspect unites them for me.  I found them both unloved and unread in Waterstone’s bargain box in Ipswich.  The book to which I’m currently putting the finishing touches (NPI*), that ‘blockbuster of a novel with a World War II setting’, also has a Finnish character in it, Elisa Fym a feisty nurse working at an Air Force hospital in the east of England, inspired to an extent by someone I once knew.

Returning to Tove Jansson, I read the latest of her books to be translated into English, a short story collection called Art in Nature, which I found highly rewarding.  I hadn’t been so impressed with the last collection hers that I’d read, Travelling Light, finding some of the pieces very lightweight indeed by Jansson’s standards.  Several of the stories were really very good indeed, notably The Locomotive and A Leading Role.  And at the same time, I’ve been reading the Moomin books to my children.  We’ve just finished the fourth book, Moominsummer Madness and so are half way through the series.  The use of language is as beautiful as I remember it, but what always surprises me is how very funny the books are in a wry yet generous manner.

I actually learned a little of that challenging language in preparation for my Finnish trip.  So when I saw New Finnish Grammar in the bookshop sale, I picked it up thinking it might be some kind of Finnish primer.  And had I not made that mistake, I’d never have had the pleasure of reading it.  Such are the twists and turns of a reading journey.

*NPI – TLA for no pun intended