The English are somewhat redeemed of their monolingualism on account of that great American standard for foreign language apathy. Rather like the getaway-driver of a bank heist, or the receptionist at a financial institution, culpability is attenuated by way of comparison to the main offenders. But to critique our national character for what amounts merely to a crime of compliance, is likely to leave us, the accused, squirming in search of an adequate response. That isn’t my intention; the underlying point, however, is an important one: Language, like any other asset or means of exchange, is tethered to, and tailored by, the monetary system – a system inching inexorably toward monopoly and centralization, rather than panoply and devolution. So for those of us who languish with the West’s lingua franca at our convenience, it is worth reminding ourselves of the disparity, especially when thanking Emily and Fleur Jeremiah for their excellent Finnish-to-English translation of White Hunger (Peirene Press, 2015).
The bulk of my appreciation to them, however, has little to do with the novella’s high repute (International Booker shortlist, Best Finnish Debut Novel, Bestselling Debut Novel, and so on); nor is it down to the publisher’s own slightly trite blandishments (e.g. ‘taken the Nordic literary scene by storm’); it is because White Hunger takes as its muse one of the most desperate catastrophes in the history of northern Europe (a catastrophe of which I and those around me were completely unaware). Known to the Fins as ‘The Great Famine’ and to the Swedes as the somewhat self-berating ‘Great Weakness’, Ali Ollikainen’s novella chronicles events taking place in Finland and Sweden between 1866 and 1868. During this brief period, the central Nordic countries were befallen by an acute meteorological anomaly (the previous year’s abnormally high rainfall gave way to an interminable winter), which, in turn, catalyzed what became Europe’s last naturally caused famine. Crop failures and food shortages, magnified by economic frailty and the hardheartedness of the political class, resulted in a death toll of approximately three hundred thousand. And it is into this horror that Ollikainen pitches his reader.
Embarking somewhere in 1866, with the land and forests already ravaged by frost, the reader comes upon a meagre homestead, occupied by a husband and wife and their two children. With the father, Juhani, bed-ridden and clasping at the last dregs of life, Marja, his partner, gathers her young and abandons her husband in search of food. With Juhani’s grim, tubercular condition forcing her hand, Marja consigns herself and her children– Mataleena and Juho –to a beggarly trek through biting wind and waist-deep snow. Their destination: St. Petersburg. Though it is not long before the severity of their plight comes into unpitying focus. With penury, superstition and death never far from the travellers’ path, their subsistence becomes entirely reliant upon infrequent handouts of lichen bread and watery gruel from begrudging strangers. Yet, from hereon in, the novella begins to develop with the addition of characters far more fortunate than Marja.
In an abrupt juxtaposition, the reader is introduced to Teo, a doctor and paid-up member of the elite.
Rather than reckoning with his own mortality, as Marja must, Teo frets over high-minded moral and philosophical quandaries from a position of cloistered prosperity. Through this perspectival dichotomy, of the beggar and the bourgeoisie, White Hunger’s social and theological tensions begin to unveil themselves. With the addition of the Senator, the narrative starts to shuttle and vacillate between three drastically divergent class-experiences of the famine. Rather aptly, however, this is not to imply that there is some level of parity between these characters. In fact, while the Senator receives a fraction of available page-time, Marja, Mataleena and Juho are each bestowed with eponymous chapters– e.g. The Book of Juho –, a form of apotheosis that lionizes the bedraggled trio and couches the novella’s theological bent in no uncertain terms. For without reference to the divine, without allusion to the virtually atmospheric prevalence of the word of God, White Hunger would have committed an injustice not against those in holy orders but against those who value historical veracity.
Having said that, while the hegemonic power play of the diktats and the deists is fulfilling, far more nourishing is the way in which Ollikainen conveys the surreal undertows of Marja’s dream-life. For weary, emaciated Marja, consciousness is a gatekeeper defending against a battalion of unconscious conflicts, traumas and truths too inflammatory to bear in waking life. But in the dream-space, in the subterranean theatre of the psyche, all physical laws become subject to revision. In his Interpretation of Dreams, Freud tells us that a dream is like a picture, a screen concealing a deeper, more dangerous mental composition. Thus, when the figures of Marja’s waking life – of her children, of animals and strangers, of her deceased husband – are reanimated in dreams as radical and malevolent distortions of the real, they do so as feeble instruments of both self-deception and self-revelation. For my money, Marja’s dreams are to be interpreted as the traumatic reimagining of her confrontation with anthropocentrism. Simply put, they display her realization of her own animality. Thus collapses the bulwark between the human and the non-human animal. Case in point: Ollikainen compares Juhani to a loon, Marja is haunted by the spirit of a snake, and Mataleena’s hunger is described as a kitten clawing at her insides. After all, it is only through the Catastrophe, the eschatological event, that the precariousness of man’s place in the animal hierarchy is rendered truly conscionable. The nightmare for Marja, then, is not the animal’s failed dream of immortality; it is her acquiescence to the truth that humanity is at the mercy of forces indifferent to the scheming and ministering of any one species.
Leaving aside the pearlescent sentences, and forgetting, for a moment, the urgent and emotive clout of the well-drawn characters, Ollikainen’s prime achievement is to have crafted a wonder of form. The tale’s nexus of signs and symbols co-facilitate and complement one another in order to evoke a study of real poetic power. Or to inhabit the utilitarian musings of his Senator: ‘The most important thing […] is to see the whole; only the big picture gives the details their significance.’ And isn’t this the supreme secret of the codex itself, its capacity to occasion an experience of a world in toto? As a notable author once opined: The novelist’s attempt to be the everyman would make a poet recoil. The message being that while poetry and prose are both choreographed conceits, where the poet hopes to give a gift to language, the writer of prose gifts himself the power to move between class, consciousness, culture and so on. For all intents and purposes, then, Teo is the hearthstone of White Hunger. In literary terms, Teo is the Trickster, the one who loafs with the unwashed in a raucous tavern before retreating to the dark-wooded finery of mansions or civil institutions.
As a project that tenders the gruesome realities of forced migrancy, White Hunger delivers a timely and striking analogue to the turbulence plaguing our neighbouring continent. Indeed, the biblical pairing of Marja and Juho, of mother and child in search of respite, calls on us to consider our own moral courage in regard to our reception to, and treatment of, our fellow creatures. Which leads me to ask: if just one language can reveal the private pathologies of characters in print, what hidden histories do we forego by failing to learn others?
About the Publisher:
Peirene Press is an award-winning boutique publishing house based in London and committed to first class European literature in high-quality translation. Peirene specialises in publishing contemporary European novellas and short novels in English translation, all of which have been award-winners in their country of origin. All of Peirene’s published books are less than 200 pages and can be read in the same time it takes to watch a DVD. Peirene Press holds a wide range of regular salons and literary events in London.
Review by Thomas Paton
A graduate of Sussex University’s Critical & Creative writing MA, Thomas writes reviews, short stories and critical essays, and expects to continue on to doctoral study in 2017.