Grand Tour #25 – Finland. Fatal Headwind / Leena Lehtolainen

November 14, 2017

Scandi noir, if that’s what you want to call it. I’d have liked to read more popular fiction (let’s call it) on this Grand Tour, but no one wants to translate Lithuanian potboilers. You have to wait until Scandinavia before you can get your hands on the good stuff, and most of that turns out to be either Swedish or (useless for my purposes, Norway not being in the EU, curse its insularity) Norwegian. But there is thankfully one Finnish crime novelist whose novels are now being widely translated, and her name is Leena Lehtolainen.

I decided to dive into the middle of her Maria Kallio series, choosing the one with the plot summary that most appealed to me. This was the sixth book, Fatal Headwind (Tuulen puolella), first published in Finnish in 1998. A very readable English translation by Owen F. Witesman appeared last year. I was put off by the presence of a ginormous character list at the start, but my alarm turned out to be groundless, though the names of Kallio’s colleagues – Koivu, Puustjärvi, Puupponen, Taskinen, Kantelinen – did blur into one another.

Maria Kallio is a Lieutenant in the Espoo Police, just returned from maternity leave. She is married to Antti and has a baby daughter, Iida. A year ago, Harri, a former lover of Maria with whom she had lost touch, died in not very satisfactorily explained circumstances. Now, on the anniversary of his death, local businessman Juha Merivaara has died in a similar manner. Could the two deaths be linked; if so, how; and is there foul play afoot?

Suspicion falls on a small group of people, most of them Juha’s close family – his wife Anne, half-brother Mikke, animal rights activist son Jiri, daughter Riikka, her opera singer boyfriend Tapio. At some point each of them seems to have had a motive for disposing of Juha, but the involvement of Harri muddies the waters.

Although the book moves slowly and deliberately, I was drawn in, and came to appreciate the stately pace. Not that Maria isn’t busy in her work – she’s in constant demand, struggling to keep all of her many figurative balls in the air, and rarely gets a moment to see her daughter – but revelations about the Merivaaras come thin and slow, which allows you time to ponder the motivations of each suspect.

The murder mystery was all well and good, but I confess I felt more emotionally invested in the parallel plot involving Maria’s unpleasantly racist and sexist colleague Pertti Ström being suspended from work after attacking a wife-beater in custody. In spite of his nastiness, Maria finds herself sympathising with his predicament. At one point it appears Ström may have hatched a devious plan to get Maria herself sacked, which is precisely what would have happened in a novel written by someone more interested in plot and less in human psychology, but events take an unexpected turn that I won’t write about, other than to say that I was very moved.

The novel doesn’t show its age too badly, though mobile phone use is more infrequent than it would be in a book written today, and it only took one sentence like ‘I cursed the slow network connection’ for me to be back in the school library swearing at the computer for not downloading my pictures fast enough. However did we manage with dial-up connections? Unthinkable today. And Maria and her colleagues go to a Finland World Cup qualifier (the 1-1 draw with Hungary on 11 October 1997, I looked it up) where Jari Litmanen is the star. That took me back. Hyypiä, Paatelainen, Valakari and Jonatan Johansson also played. Mikael Forssell hadn’t yet broken through into the first team. I tolerated Owen F. Witesman’s American English translation up to the point where he wrote about the soccer match ending in a tie. Soccer’s just about all right; tie, never. My only objection, really.

If I were an habitual reader of crime, I could quite imagine becoming a Maria Kallio completist, and I suspect that for those wanting a new series this would be a very good one to get into, and this book a good place to start. Witesman seems to be working through the series with great speed, and on the basis of Fatal Headwind he’s doing an excellent job.

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Grand Tour #24 – Estonia. Brecht at Night / Mati Unt

October 29, 2017

I knew what whatever Estonian book I chose, it would have to be one translated by Eric Dickens, an old acquaintance of mine – if not a virtual friend exactly, then occasionally a virtual enemy. More years ago than I’d care to remember, Eric was a regular contributor to a message board I help(ed) to run. His posting style was a mixture of combative and defensive, but mainly the former. He liked above all to rail at the insularity of the British reader who never read books in translation. While most of us had a lot of sympathy for his point of view, when we did make an effort to read something different, it was rarely the right kind of different. Objecting to a group read of Georges Perec’s Life a User’s Manual, Eric wrote:

If you want to read a Polish Jew, read a Polish Jew. There are many excellent Polish Jewish authors who wrote in Polish or Yiddish … Just because this chap wrote in French, doesn’t give him the right to jump the queue of most-read authors of Polish-Jewish origin.

To which the reaction of the rest of us, you may imagine, was that we hadn’t chosen the book because Perec was a Polish Jew, we’d chosen it because he was Georges Perec. Eric had no scruples about putting our backs up, and we occasionally told him to fuck off; it was a fulfilling relationship, sort of. Eric died earlier this year. A tribute on another message board, where his postings had been similarly inflammatory, read ‘Good night, sour prince,’ which struck me as the perfect tribute to the doyen of Estonian-to-English translation. This interview finds him in less antagonistic mood and is well worth reading.

When Eric wrote about Estonian literature on the board, it was generally with reference to Jaan Kross, whose books he may have been translating at the time, but Mati Unt’s was also a name he dropped occasionally. Unt himself died in 2005, and Brecht at Night (Brecht ilmub öösel) is one of his later works, first published in Estonian in 1996.

The book is set in 1940. Bertolt Brecht, having fled Nazi Germany, finds himself in Finland, and it is the period of a few months at the start of his stay in Finland while he waits to escape to America that is covered by the book. Unt’s imagining of Brecht’s life with his entourage of his wife Helene, his children, and his consumptive secretary Grete, who transcribes his every utterance and with whom he is having an indiscreet affair, is set against the progress of the war in the Baltic states. At times the book resembles a collage, the imagined episodes interspersed with passages of verified fact (in italics) and a number of excerpts from official documents and reports written by others.

Is this an appropriate place to admit I don’t really like Brecht? It’s not the style, it’s the content that puts me off. I like the style fine, enjoy Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt when it’s used by other writers, and liked Unt’s description of it here with reference to Brecht’s writing of The Good Person of Sechuan:

His protagonist is Li Gung, who appears to be coming from the side of goodness.

Why Li Gung?

Why shouldn’t it be Li Gung, when the play is set in China? This achieves the alienation effect.

You always view someone from China differently than you would a German, and some things immediately strike you more forcibly. If a German slips on a banana skin, this causes no surprise in anyone. If someone from China were to do the same, then we, the Germans, see this action as if for the first time, and we begin to think about what a banana is, what a human being is, and what falling is.

Unt uses similar tricks himself. The reader is constantly conscious of the novel’s artificiality of construction, most pleasingly so when Unt writes, for instance, after a passage about a plane crash:

This incident didn’t affect Brecht. I’ve tried to investigate whether he knew anyone on the plane. Unfortunately, I’m not a very good researcher.

The other games include a section narrated by one M. (Maksim) Unt, a real man, no relation of the author, a government jobsworth whose work involves the shutting down of institutions and societies. A novel needs more than occasional authorial interventions, though, to satisfy the reader, and I can’t pretend there weren’t large stretches where I was titanically bored.

The fault, I tend to think in such cases, is mine. I don’t have the right mental equipment to appreciate, for instance, Unt’s purpose in juxtaposing Brecht’s life against the war (other than to highlight his moral ambivalence), or in including a lengthy catalogue of Estonian officials who died in Russian oblasts. The lighter moments, where (for instance) Brecht eats some inky mushrooms and changes colour, are too few and far between. A brief digression on the subject of Mongolia led me to wonder about the nature of Mongolian literature, and whether it might be more accessible than Brecht at Night. An eloquent and informed review I found calls the book ‘a work that fills you with that excitement’. For excitement read misery, I’d say. Horses for courses.

An afterword by Eric informs the reader that he has intentionally omitted several sections from the book, which include a number of appendices he claims are irrelevant, and photographs of several of the personnel, which he advises the reader to check Wikipedia for. I get that photographs cost money, but it’s an oddly lazy-feeling note on which to end. Perhaps the publisher (Dalkey Archive Press, excellent as ever) was skint.

Grand Tour #23 – Latvia. Tit for Tat / Mae Durham

October 10, 2017

I have not read a great deal of folklore, either for this project or indeed in my whole life, so I was pleased to track down a book from 1967, Tit for Tat, and Other Latvian Folk Tales, retold by Mae Durham, from the translation of Skaidrite Rubene-Koo. I believe I found a website giving the background to this collection: the two women worked together at UC Berkeley, and Mae Durham persuaded her colleague to transcribe and translate the fairy tales of her own culture, which she then tidied up for publication. Mae Durham was a librarian and children’s book collector of note. If you search online for Skaidrite Rubene-Koo you find a more grisly detail, that in 1972 her teenage daughter Aiko was abducted and killed. Nothing as brutal as that among these fairy stories, but they have their darkness.

What were the fairy tales of my youth, I was prompted to contemplate. I don’t remember many in books. I had a cassette with some traditional stories like Thumbelina on, but I was so indifferent to it that I stuck sellotape across the tab and recorded over it. Another cassette had Penelope Keith reading some of the wonderful stories from Pamela Oldfield’s collection The Terribly Plain Princess, about which Nick has written most evocatively here. Later, my brother and I were introduced to a magical book from my mother’s childhood, Whimsical Stories to Tell by Helen Williams, which contained modern (well, 1920s-era) fairy tales, including one that involved the pouring of some unpleasant-tasting medicine out of a window on to some raspberries, which were then consumed. But broadly speaking my childhood was one of A.A. Milne and Roald Dahl, not Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm.

There are 22 stories collected in Tit for Tat, most of them not longer than three or four pages, and a good bunch they are too. Perhaps one doesn’t expect much in the way of scholarship from a 50-year-old book of fairy tales, but this one has an excellent notes section at the back written by the pioneering folklorist Alan Dundes, putting each story in context and identifying its place in the Aarne-Thompson index.

The Latvian flavour of the stories comes from the presence in most of them of barons, that old baron/peasant dichotomy we all know and love, and the religious element. ‘The Devil’s Partnership’ is a pleasing story of how the schism between God and the Devil occurred. Turns out it was all to do with crops: the two of them decide to divide up their potatoes and the Devil foolishly chooses the bit above ground; then they plant some wheat and the Devil, still stinging from the potato fiasco, again foolishly chooses the roots. The Latvian tellers of this story, no stupid people themselves, would be all too pleased to identify with God. The lively illustrations by Harriet Pincus depict the Latvians throughout as a big-nosed people. Whether this is an accurate representation or not I cannot say.

A handful of stories feature the familiar tropes of the bad daughter and the good stepdaughter, the courting of the fair Prince, the final enaction of karma. The karma can be brutal: ‘Out of the box fire shot forth, burning down the house, the cruel mother, and the pampered daughter,’ ends one story. By and large, modern gender politics can take a back seat. ‘The Bad-Tempered Wife’ has a henpecked husband cannily losing his wife down a hole and eventually claiming for himself the money she has found so he can live a peaceful life of solitude; in ‘The Silly Goose War’, a man’s foolish wife blabs to the Baron that they’ve come into some money, so he gaslights her until her maniacal ravings about bagels falling from the sky convince the Baron she is but a harmless madwoman. There are a few straightforward morality tales, some of them very pleasing. I thought ‘The Poor Brother’s Bad Luck’, in which a rich man, by wishing bad luck on his poor brother, brings it upon himself, was the pick.

My favourite stories were the unexpected ones. My tolerance of whimsicality varies. I didn’t warm to the stories in which, for instance, a pea germinates into a golden apple tree, or the Devil is baked into a loaf of bread, and goodness knows why, because written down they look tremendous, but some of the odder stories I adored. The one I loved best of all was ‘The Bird and the Man’, in which a man wonders what eternity is like, walks into a forest, gets distracted by the singing of a bird, and emerges from the forest to find a hundred years have passed. Nothing more than that, just a simple, fantastical story told with admirable unadornedness.

Or try ‘The Fox and the Cock’, the shortest of all the stories, and not the only one that evokes Aesop:

A fox caught a cock and started down the road with him. The maidservant, seeing this, cried out, ‘A fox is carrying off the cock! A fox is carrying off the cock!’

The cock looked up at the fox and said, ‘Why not tell the maid that this is none of her business?’

This advice pleased the fox, who, in turn, blurted out, ‘This is none of your business!’

As the fox opened his mouth to say these words, the cock – shwirr – was away and up a tree.

Ah, well. So, the fox continued his way down the road.

Grand Tour #22 – Lithuania. Breathing into Marble / Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė

September 30, 2017

Ah, Lithuania. The very name evokes memories of wondering where Lithuania was and why I should care about it. I once had some school trousers marked ‘Made in Lithuania’, on the observation of which fact my mother said blithely, ‘Oh, you should tell Mr Roberts, he’d be really interested.’ (Roberts here being the altered name of my geography teacher.) I neglected to take her advice, lacking the nerve, and also thinking perhaps that for proof Mr Roberts might ask to see inside my trousers; sure enough, within a year, he left the school following a misdemeanour (that for the sake of accuracy I should stress was not sexual). Apart from those trousers, which I wore almost every weekday for a period of presumably a couple of years, my experience of Lithuania (was it Lithuania? yes it was) is nonexistent.

Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė! (Bless you.) A Lithuanian writer who has had a novel published in translation, which is what makes her of interest to us (to me, at any rate). Namely her 2006 novel Breathing into Marble (Kvėpavimas į marmurą), which appeared last year in a translation by Marija Marcinkute, published by Noir Press.

I don’t normally shrink from the spoiler, but in this case I think I will, partly because I don’t want to deter future readers of the book, but mainly because the plot elements that might count as spoilers aren’t really the point. I could say, X kills Y at the start of the book, but the interest of the book is primarily psychological, and in places supernatural. So I’ll just write about some of the things I thought while I was reading it.

Breathing into Marble is ostensibly about the relationship between a woman, Isabel, and her wild adopted son, Ilya. Isabel and her husband Liudas have a son already, the precocious Gailius, but on a visit to the orphanage run by her friend Beatrice, Isabel takes a shine to the uncommunicative boy with the piercing brown eyes who refuses to take her hand.

I think about feral children a lot, read books about them, watch films about them. Ilya’s not feral, but he’s an enigma, his pre-orphanage childhood unknown. Perhaps it is the trauma of Isabel’s own childhood, which we do see in flashback, that is the source of her bond with Ilya, that makes her determined to get through to him, even at the expense of the other things she holds dear.

From a distance Ilya’s tiny face was hard and dark, but when Isabel drew closer it stirred like wind-blown blossom.

No, it wasn’t blossom yet – more like a tightly folded bud, the petals of his personality firmly knotted still inside, all his lines shy and inarticulate.

Nobody could tell yet when he would bloom, what he would be like and into what he would mature.

It is hinted occasionally that Ilya shares a kinship with the fox. I don’t know why stories of foxes move me so much, but that is certainly the case. Harriet Graham’s unjustly forgotten children’s novel A Fox Under My Jacket, Fantastic Mr Fox, and so on, but particularly David Garnett’s fable of vulpine metamorphosis Lady into Fox. Ilya spies a fox in its den, and the den becomes a place of pilgrimage to him; an encounter with a deer also has a profound affect on him. A boy closer to animals than to people. A part of the book’s mythology that appealed to me.

Gailius is a sympathetic character, Ilya’s ‘good’ counterpart, a boy wise beyond his years but with a spirituality of his own that upsets Isabel. Perhaps as a result of his occasional epileptic fits he has a morbid streak. He talks matter-of-factly about his own death, and even anticipates it in a section drawn from his notebook, where we briefly hear his own voice, the only part of the novel told in the first person.

When I think about death I can’t picture it. I can only feel it as it approaches – it always comes a bit too early … I know that my death is growing up with me, and that it is sharp and fast, like a stab. It won’t attack me from the back. It will call out with its secret, velvet voice and, when I turn, it will pierce me like a knife. But we will have looked into each other’s eyes. It isn’t sly – it’s just that death is much faster than we are.

I salute Černiauskaitė (and her translator) for their creation of a mood of macabre unease. It reminded me at times of Ian McEwan’s early books, of intelligent horror films like Goodnight Mommy, of the Dardenne brothers’ The Son. If this sounds like your sort of thing, give it a go.