10 Books to Celebrate Finland's 100th Anniversary of Independence
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December 6, 2017 will mark the day of Finland’s 100 years of independence. Finland was under Swedish rule from the 13th century until the early 19th century when it became an autonomous grand duchy within the Russian Empire until it broke with Russia in 1917.
This young country covered in forests and lakes is the least densely populated in the European Union, with 5.5 million inhabitants who speak Finnish, but also Swedish. Bertolt Brecht famously said that Finns are silent in two languages.
Finns may be taciturn, but they certainly love reading and writing. Finland is second only to Iceland in terms of book publication per capita—13,000-14,000 books are published a year, of which over 4,500 are new works, published in Finnish, Swedish and Sámi, a Uralic language.
Poetry and poetic song has been a tradition in the area for centuries, and one of Finland’s best-known books, the Kalevala, contains epic folk poems collected, compiled and edited by Elias Lönnrot. It first appeared in print in 1835; new editions have followed, and its publication “marked an important turning point for Finnish-language culture and caused a stir abroad, as well. It brought a small, unknown people to the attention of other Europeans, and bolstered the Finns’ self-confidence and faith in the possibilities of the Finnish language and culture. The Kalevala began to be called the Finnish national epic” wrote Anneli Asplund and Sirkka-Liisa Mettomäki in an article on the Kalevala.
Then there was Aleksis Kivi’s The Seven Brothers, published in 1870 and considered the first Finnish novel, about seven ill-fated brothers who are fiercely independent and resilient, not unlike what many describe as the Finnish national character.
In 1939 the Finnish author Frans Eemil Silanpää won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his “deep understanding of his country's peasantry and the exquisite art with which he has portrayed their way of life and their relationship with Nature"
Since the Kalevala, poetry and other works of Finnish literature have been translated into many languages; the best known, perhaps, being the much-loved Moomintrolls series by Tove Jansson.
Historical fiction is a genre that is very popular in Finland, doubtless tying in to the construction of a national identity over the past century. One of the most successful contemporary novels is by Finnish-Estonian author Sofi Oksanen, with her novel, Purge. Although Purge touches on recent Estonian history, there are many similarities with Finland, even if the latter was never part of the Soviet Union. As the popular crime writer, Leena Lehtolainen said in an interview when comparing Finnish crime writing to Nordic noir literature: “We have our common history and a long border with Russia, and it is impossible to forget it. The Eastern Finns have a temperament closer to the Russians than to the Swedes. We are part of the Nordic countries, but we used to be part of Russia, so we and our books are a link between the two worlds.”
Finnish crime authors agree that their literature does diverge from Nordic noir in the sense that the country is known for its eccentricity and quirkiness and has “more humour, and a certain Finnish craziness,” author Tapani Bagge said in an interview with Finnish crime writers. “You will find more books from the criminal’s point of view, and not just from the detective’s. Also, Finns aren’t talkative. So in our books the dialogue is realistic, simple and particularly important.”
Below are some recommendations for Finnish books to discover to help the young, taciturn perhaps, but certainly literary nation celebrate its 100th anniversary of independence.
Banner image Pekka Halonen, House in Kivesjärvi