Thursday, 9 December 2010

Purge by Sofi Oksanen

It took me a long time to get around reading this book. From the very start when I saw it in Finland and then heard about its brilliance from my friends, I knew the subject matter would be very difficult for me to read about. Especially if the book was well written.

I knew the purge in the book referred to the mass deportation of Estonian 'dissidents' by Stalin to Siberian gulags. I also knew it centred around three generations of Estonian women.

The original Finnish version of Purge, Puhdistus, by the Finnish-Estonian writer, Sofi Oksanen, started life as a play. As a novel, published in 2008, it has won the most prestigious of literary prizes, The Finlandia Award, The Nordic Council Literary Prize and The FNCA Prize in France, but to name a few. The book has been translated to some 40 languages and is to be turned into a film in Finland, to premier in 2012.

The story of Purge slowly unravels the horrors that three generations of Estonian women experienced, from the German occupation during the 2nd World War, to the oppression of the Soviet era and to present day sex trafficking.  In its centre the novel has a tragic love story, reflected against the backdrop of the powerful, changing occupations of a land and its people. The writer herself has said that she wanted to use the female body as a metaphor for an occupied country.

Ageing Aliide Truu lives alone in her family's old farmhouse - a privilege which we learn she's had to pay dearly for - when a young twenty-something girl, Zoe appears on her doorstep. Bruised and scantily clothed, Zoe claims to be escaping a violent husband, but the experienced older woman suspects all is not as the girl explains. What's more she sounds like a Russian with an odd accent, 'But this girl's Estonian had a different flavour, something older, yellow and moth-eaten. There was a strange taste of death in it.'  Zoe's sudden appearance makes Aliide recall old, deeply buried memories, and Aliide cannot wait to get rid of the intruder.

The story weaves between Estonia of the 1990's, recounting Zoe's horrific fate, with that of Aliide's tragic personal history. The reader's attention is held with a plot twist in each chapter, with a small piece of information about the two women's past revealing more and more horrific details. In spite of the horror and the suffering described, the reader cannot but be spellbound by the writing: why is Aliide so bitter and so afraid of her neighbours when the Soviet occupiers have long since gone? Why does she still wear two pairs of underpants? How did Zoe end up the way she has, and why and how did she come to this house in rural Estonia of all places?

This book is not a cheerful read. It's also not a Nordic crime thriller. It is, however, an intelligent page turner about a piece of history which is not often written about. There's a raw honesty in the novel about human behaviour in the face of cruel injustice which is unusual. Just as I knew I would, I found it a difficult read, but having finished it I now want to go over it again a little more carefully, rather than with my heart pounding at the turn of each page. I suggest you do just that the first time around, if you can.

Yesterday I recommended this book on a radio interview with BBC World Service, and I know I won't be the last book seller who'll have this book on their shelves as a 'must read'.

Monday, 5 April 2010

'When I Forgot' by Elina Hirvonen

I'm not sure I would have carried on reading this book had I not promised you, my faithful few blog readers, to review it.

At the beginning I was both confused and yes, frankly bored, with the narrative. English readers who don't like foreign literature often tell me it's because 'It reads like a translation'. I've always taken this to be a sign of certain kind of small-mindedness, even snobbery, thinking the speaker is lazy or unwilling to accept a different culture. So I've dismissed these kinds of comments, not ever considering that a foreign book could simply be badly translated.

Until I read 'When I Forgot'. Had I not grown up in Finland with Finnish as my mother tongue, I could not have made head nor tale of the first 20 pages of this book. The English prose in the beginning is very clipped and clunky. The plot is vague to the point that one feels the reader is kept in suspense for the sake of it. The action takes place in several time spans, while the protagonist sits in a cafe, whiling away her time, smoking and drinking coffee. (If there hadn't been the blurb at the back of the book, I'd not been able to deduce even this little piece of information from the text.)

Suddenly at page 23 the reader is taken into an action scene which happens in the narrator's childhood. This is dramatic stuff and when we come back to the cafe, we begin to understand what's going on. It's the second part of a scene, one that as a whole works brilliantly to draw the reader in. In my humble opinion the author should have started the novel with this scene, and not cut it in half.

Because from this point the simple language and short sentences start to work. I began to sympathise with the narrator, and wanted to know what happens next.

The story takes place in Helsinki in 2001 with the Nine Eleven attacks in America as a backdrop. Anna's lover is a lecturer from New York with his own dramatic childhood experiences to deal with. Anna struggles to find happiness between him, her dysfunctional family and the impeding war against Iraq. Both the reaction in Finland to the world events, with street demonstrations and individual aggression against an American citizen, as well as the mundane every day Helsinki life is skilfully portrayed. Elina Hirvonen is also brilliant at working with several points of views, without compromising the single-narrator plot. Her ability to juxtapose the ordinary with the extraordinary is simply unique.

The author is also extremely adept at describing the few characters of the novel. The mentally-ill brother, strict father and long-suffering mother as well as the American lover are skilfully portrayed. The reader is sometimes almost too aware of their individual sufferings.

In other words I heartily recommend you persevere with this book past the 20 or so pages. It's well worth it.

'When I Forgot' by Elina Hirvonen is published by Portobello Books, London.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

The reading list and Outi Pakkanen

Well Helsinki, although cold, was inspiring. Between ballet, birthday suppers and practical arrangements moving Daughter into her new apartment, I penned a skeletal draft for my next novel.

But I also managed to spend an hour or two browsing at Akateeminen Kirjakauppa on North Esplanade. I concentrated on modern translations and here's what I found.

'When I Forgot' by Elina Hirvonen
'A Frayed, tender account of love...a wrenching read.' The Guardian

'The American Girl' by Monika Fagerholm
Murder mystery, fugue, 1970's culture bath, mythic experiment, chronicle of the feminine mystique... Jenny McPhee, author of Man of No Moon.

Priest of Evil' by Matti Joensuu
There's nothing more thrilling than a mysterious murderer who is never seen, even by cameras.

I'll be reporting back on these books within the next few weeks.

While I was in Finland I consumed (yes, that's the right term for these disposable soft-crime novels) two books by Outi Pakkanen, Yöpuisto and Korttelin Kuningatar. There are several reasons these books appeal to me. They're usually set in the centre of Helsinki, one of the most charming parts, such as Eira or Ullanlinna. They're written in contemporary language, using the slang of the Capital. And they're easy to read. When I read in Finnish these days I have to have an easy read, otherwise it just takes too long.

Usually I - rather snobbishly - abhor anything that could be classified as 'an easy read', but I also admire those writers who can year after year turn out books read by millions. Perhaps not millions in Outio Pakkanene's case - her books are not widely translated into English and with a population of only 5 million in Finland this would be rather a struggle for any writer.

Finally, with Outi Pakkanen I know what I'm getting. Again, if I heard some-one say this at a book club meeting or similar, I'd gasp in exasperation. I'll hide again behind my need to keep things simple while reading in Finnish, but I suspect there's really a lazy reader lurking inside me somewhere.

Yöpuisto, a crime novel Pakkanen wrote in 2009 didn't disappoint. Though written partly from the point of view of a 12-year-old overweight, unhappy boy, it was the usual, safe Pakkanen fare. But what I enjoyed was not the predictable plot and the somewhat caricatured characters. What I saw was descriptions of contemporary Helsinki, written from the point of view of real 'stadilaiset' (Helsinki-born) people, written in contemporary language. What I got was a real sense of the city I love, the buildings I'd love to live in and the parks I'd love to walk my dogs in.

I do wish her books would be more widely translated into English. I've only found 'Party Killers' on Amazon. I believe the sense of place and time in her narrative is very accurate and highly fascinating. Pakkanen also has a blog where she displays pictures and explains the history of the buildings and streets she writes about. An excellent idea which I think all writers should follow. Unfortunately it's only available in Finnish (the Google translation was so inaccurate it was laughable), but nevertheless with these pictures you can be transported to the Helsinki of Pakkanen's novels.

Korttelin Kuningatar, the second book by Pakkanen I read while in Finland, was a somewhat older novel. Interestingly it's set in the aftermath of MS Estonia ferry tragedy were over eight hundred people from Estonia, Sweden and Finland lost their lives. Just as in her other novels Pakkanen spends much of the book examining tensions between people rather than the crime itself or even the investigation. Death of a character in the ferry accident provides a perfect backdrop for human conflict.

While reading Pakkanen I often wonder why she feels the need to include the token crime in each novel. I know for her it's a proven formula, just as it was for, say, Agatha Christie, but I cannot but wonder. If Pakkanen just stretched herself that little bit more, would she not be a truly great novelist, and not just an entertainer?

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Apology Number Two

I know I've been neglecting this blog - again.

But do not despair. I'm off to Finland tomorrow and will hopefully come back with suitcase-full of new Finnish literature. I even promise to read them and then even review time.

At the moment I'm in what we fondly in our family call the Millennium Vortex. I read the first two books in Stieg Larsson's trilogy in quick succession and am half-way through the third and final book. These best selling thrillers have been reviewed so widely I'm not going to attempt to give my humble opinion. Besides the guy is dead, his books have sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, so who am I to say yay or nay about his writing skills?

So, once again I'm asking for your patience.

Or, I can point you over to my other blog...if you'd like to read some of my words.

Monday, 25 January 2010

My Wallandergate

Episode image for The Joker

Last weekend a couple of friends mentioned the British Wallander series starring Kenneth Branagh.

'There's a limit to how much bleakness you can stand,' said one.

This coincided with a brief interview with the Swedish author of the crime thrillers, Henning Mankell on BBC's breakfast TV on Friday. Mankell promptly announced that he had at last finished writing any more stories for the angst-ridden detective. But that there were enough plots to cover a further series the BBC are due to film soon.

I can understand how Mankell must by now be a little fed up with his most famous Police Inspector. He has written 13 novels with the same character, with several TV series based on the novels. One can also but wonder how much more crime the small Swedish coastal town, Ystad, can bear.

The Mankel interview on the BBC was hot on the heels of an article commenting on the increased taste for Scandinavian crime fiction by Boris Johnson in the Telegraph. His theory is that, 'because we have grown so used to hearing of the superiority of the Scandinavian system, we are so gripped by the sight of the underbelly of the global goody-goodies.' (The Telegraph) He also points out that blood is brighter in the snow.

A good point.

Boris Johnson did not, however, comment on the another issue that has engaged TV reviewers on the pages of The Telegraph and The Times (among others): which Wallander is better, the English Branagh one or the current Swedish series with Krister Henriksson. Of course the purist feel the Swedish actor who first played Kurt Wallander, Rolf Lassgård, is unbeatable in the role, but I'm talking of more than just the actors.

You may have guessed that I have a problem with the British TV version. AA Gill called those of us who prefer the series made by Yellow Bird Films in collaboration with Svensk Filmindustri, 'sub-title snobs'. If only being a snob was the only reason I didn't like the Branagh version. I'd love to have as many Wallander series on TV as possible. Just as the mysteries by Agatha Christie, Henning Mankell stories make such wonderful viewing.

But there are several reasons why I cannot stand the British version. Firstly, the pace of the narrative of the Swedish TV series is much quicker. In trying to make the series atmospheric, the BBC has slowed the pace to almost nothing. Instead of action, we get wide screen shots of the rape fields or long coastal lines. We know Ystad is situated by the sea, and that the scenery is indeed beautiful, and that weather plays a strong part in the plot as it does in the psyche of the Nordic character, but there is a limit to how much landscape one can take in a programme that is after all supposed to be an action crime thriller.

The BBC series also revolves too singularly around Wallander, making the plot seem monotonous, and the police work incompetent. It's true that in the Swedish series too, we get to follow the personal struggles Inspector Kurt Wallander faces, from his turbulent relationship with his policewoman daughter Linda, to his woman troubles or his father's illness. But we also get the perspective from the other characters such as Svartman, Nyberg and Stefan Lindman. In comparison the BBC series seems greatly indulgent to the central character. One wonders if the script was altered to accommodate the great Shakespearean actor?

My last great objection to the BBC series is the set where the indoor scenes are filmed. Where did all that sixties-style furniture and lighting come from? I went to school in Stockholm in the 1970's and I didn't see any of this kind of stuff there then. Did the set designer
imagine that the dark wood veneer would match how the British think a Swedish police department should look like? I doubt anyone has actually seen this kind of interior design anywhere outside of Shoreditch retro art galleries.

Over to you. Which Wallander do you prefer?