Tuesday, November 01, 2005


The Helsinki Book Fair (Kirjamessut) was a substantial event this year, with some 350 exhibitors, over 700 presenters, and 550 presentations by authors and publishers. The focus was mainly on Finnish and Finland-Swedish publications, but there were also 40 international contributors, and visiting authors included Ruth Rendell, Jonathan Carroll and Conn Iggulden. Like last year, the fair was held over 4 days at the vast Messukeskus, or Fair Centre, in the northern suburb of Pasila, which is easily reached from downtown Helsinki by streetcar or metro.

My main interest in visiting the fair was to catch up with current developments in Finnish and Finland-Swedish fiction, poetry and non-fiction. The great advantage of the way the event is structured, with 30-minute presentations running on about a dozen different platforms throughout the day, is that one can move from one event and book, or series of books, to another, and hear the authors themselves describe the content of their work, usually in a concise form. This makes it possible to decide if one wants read all or part of the work, and is also simply an engaging way of bringing the books themselves to life.

Since as a translator I’ve mostly been involved with Finland-Swedish literature, I found that I spent relatively more time at the “Edith Södergran” section, where a very large photo of Södergran herself surveyed the proceedings from hour to hour. Among this year’s highlights were Finland-Swedish author Karmela Bélinki – herself from a Lithuanian Jewish family background – talking about her book Det gröna apoteket (The Green Pharmacy, Sahlgrens), which describes the fate of Baltic Jews from a personal perspective; novelist and poet Bo Carpelan, discussing his new novel Berg – an evocation of the wartime summer of 1944, when the Finnish front was collapsing, and the great movement of civilians fleeing westward from the advancing Red Army was beginning; critic and author Merete Mazzarella, outlining the issues and arguments in here new book Den goda beröringen (The Good Touch, Söderströms), which concerns the modern culture of the body and the new attitudes towards healthcare that it has brought about, as well as new modes of verbalization in the discussion of the “dark side” of life: sickness, aging and death; and a quite extraordinary reading of translations of Edith Södergran’s poems into the Khmer language by a young Cambodian translator in conjunction with Swedish poet and critic Johan Rahm. In all cases, the interviews were skilfully and sensitively done, and particular praise must go to Cita Reuter, Ann-Christine Snickars and Katarina Gaddnäs for the clarity and energy of their questioning and guidance.

Other notable books with a Finland-Swedish background this year were Fredrik Lång’s Mitt liv som Pythagoras (My Life As Pythagoras, Schildts), a remarkable and at times moving journey into the life and reality of the Greek mathematician and philosopher. Lång’s contention is that while it’s impossible to go backwards in time and hope to understand the phenomenon of Pythagoras’s discoveries as they must have appeared in his own lifetime – in order to do so, the reader would have to reverse some two millennia of history and cultural development – this is precisely the task that must be achieved, and this is what Lång has set out to do in this long and fascinating novel. The whole of the second part of the book is narrated by Pythagoras’s slave – in the world of ancient Greece, philosophers and mathematicians don’t do their writing themselves, they have slaves to do it for them. Pythagoras’s slave functions as a kind of Sancho Panza figure to his master, and much of the book’s dry humour derives from the sardonic asides of this scribe and onlooker, who in trying to serve a human being with many weaknesses, is also serving the future development of thought and science. This is not a novel for the fainthearted or those in search of an easy read. In fact, the book probably makes more demands on the reader than most would be willing to fulfil. However, it belongs to a long and noble tradition of historical fiction, and as such does pretty well, though it might have been a good idea to leave out some of the rather lengthy and erudite footnotes.

And then there is Juha Ruusuvuori’s Muukalainen Muumilaaksossa (A Foreigner in Moomin Valley, WSOY). Written in Finnish by a Finnish writer (also of historical novels) who likes to characterize himself as a “Ugro-Finn” (ugri-suomalainen), this unusual book – the first of its kind to appear in Finland – essentially consists of a comparative study of Finnish and Finland-Swedish culture. Born and raised in the Northern Finnish city of Oulu, the author moved some four hundred kilometres to the south – to the Swedish-speaking Finnish town of Taalintehdas, and found himself in a cultural environment that was entirely new to him. He writes:
As far as I know, there have never been any Swedish-speakers in my family. I'm a Finnish-language writer and mainly follow Finland's Finnish-language culture when I can manage to follow it. In the mornings, it's true, I listen to the Finland-Swedish Radio Vega, because the tunes it plays are more cheerful than the lugubrious flow of minor keys on the Finnish-language stations. My children go to a Swedish-language school here, and outside the home our family generally speaks Swedish. I consider it polite to speak Swedish, as the coastal Swedes were here before I was. In addition, Swedish is spoken by more than three-quarters of the people in our home borough of Dragsfjärd.

I could perhaps start to consider myself bilingual - after all, many Finland-Swedes boast of being bilingual. I don't see why they should have an exclusive right to that. Also, there seems little point in leaving the discussion about Finland-Swedishness to them alone, when only five percent of the nation discusses the matter.

The new social environment brings some unexpected insights and comparisons:
Trust between people is important for the development of society. In Northern Italy mutual trust and sociability have led to economic prosperity and democracy. Some Northern Italian towns are even famous for their social nature and gentle virtues, and shortage of money does not seem to be a problem there. In Southern Italy, on the other hand, people have never trusted the state, local government or one another, but only their own clans and mafia families. In other words, everything there is founded on lack of trust, which is directed at the greater family of people outside.

If a society has plenty of social capital. people trust one another. Old-fashioned moral values are respected, promises are kept, the truth stands and mutual solidarity is shown. In Taalintehdas this can be seen among other things from the fact that our family has never had problems when requesting small services. Not even from people who are relative strangers. If the flowers need watering, the cats need feeding or the children need to be suddenly fetched from somewhere, everything is taken care of. The catchphrase in the neighbourhood is DET ORDNAR SIG: 'It wiil be ok.' The problems are those of solution, not possibility. If you ask for a service, you are also prepared to do the same for the other person later on. In this way social capital accumulates as in a bank. The starting point here is not that each person looks after their own affairs. The starting point is that one helps others to look after their affairs, and can then oneself receive help when it’s needed.

The conclusions at this stage are approximately these: there is a conspicuously greater amount of social capital in Finland-Swedish society than there is in Finnish society within the same area. Social capital is linked to people's health. Swedish-speakers keep their working ability for noticeably longer and live to be older than Finnish-speakers. And it really has little to do with language: people with many interests live longer than those with few.

All in all, I found the week I spent in town and at the book fair both enlightening and relaxing. It’s encouraging to see so much interest in books and reading. In particular, the range of subjects, issues and concerns was fascinating. At one moment I found myself sitting in a leather-upholstered armchair in the Kirjakahvila (book café) listening to an interview with Anne Sivuoja-Gunaratnam, author of a new book about the work of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho – not some learned technical analysis, though the book’s author is a trained musicologist, but rather a study of Saariaho’s music from a cross-cultural point of view, encompassing different aspects of the work in its relation to psychoanalysis, feminism, music technology, and so on. At another, I was listening to Kai Ekholm and Timo Wuori discussing the new project for the digitalisation of the Finnish sound archives currently in progress under the auspices of the National Library. There were discussions of books with a political flavour: Jussi Pekkarinen and Juha Pohjonen talked about their study of returnees to the Soviet Union, while Lasse Lehtinen, Hannu Rautakallio and others engaged in a debate about the trials of Finnish war criminals in 1944. At Kiasma there’s a whole room devoted to the Soviet base at Hanko, and its history, with photographs and exhibits. It’s heartening to see these subjects at last being discussed in an open context in Finnish society – Finland is joining the rest of Europe in reassessing and criticizing the past, even if the results are still only partial.

The city itself was as lively as ever – I was struck, though, by the effects of new construction and planning on the city centre, which now resembles a synthesis of something resembling London’s West End with London’s Docklands. The omnipresence of technology is also striking: practically every building seems to have a wi-fi hotspot, and in some music stores it’s now possible to download music via Bluetooth.

So I had a pleasant and interesting week. Thank you, FILI.
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