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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

The Kalevala

The Kalevala is the great Finnish epic, which like the Iliad and the Odyssey, grew out of a rich oral tradition with prehistoric roots. During the first millenium of our era, speakers of Uralic languages who had settled in the Baltic region of Karelia, that straddles the border of eastern Finland and north-west Russia, developed an oral poetry that was to last into the nineteenth century. This poetry provided the basis of the Kalevala. It was assembled in the 1840s by the Finnish scholar Elias Lonnrot, who took 'dictation' from the performance of a folk singer, in much the same way as our great collections from the past, from Homeric poems to medieval songs and epics, have probably been set down. Published in 1849, it played a central role in the march towards Finnish independence and inspired some of Sibelius's greatest works. 

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The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy

This anthology of short stories includes a wide range of texts covering the period from nineteenth century until today. The richness and diversity of the stories reflects the long tradition of fantasy in Finnish literature, ranging from the classics to experimental literature, from satire to horror. This is the first collection of Finnish short stories of its kind and almost all are translated into English for the first time.

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Fair Play

Translated for the first time into English, Fair Play portrays a love between two older women, a writer and artist, as they work side-by-side in their Helsinki studios, travel together and share summers on a remote island. In the generosity and respect they show each other and the many small shifts they make to accommodate each other's creativity shows a heartening and truly progressive relationship.

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Purge

Deep in the overgrown Estonian forest, two women are caught in a deadly snare. Zara is a prostitute, and a murderer. Aliide is a communist sympathizer, the widow of a party member, a blood traitor. And retribution is coming for them both.A haunting, intimate and gripping story of suspicion and betrayal set against a backdrop of the oppressive Soviet regime and European war.

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True

Elsa is dying. Her husband, Martti, and daughter Eleonoora are struggling to accept the crushing thought that they are soon to lose her. As Elsa becomes ever more fragile, Eleonoora’s childhood memories are slipping away. Meanwhile, Eleonoora’s daughter Anna spends her time pondering the fates of passersby. For her the world is full of stories. But the story that will change her forever is the one about Eeva, her mother’s nanny, whom her grandparents have been silent about for years. Eeva’s forgotten story, which Anna first learns of when she discovers an old dress of Eeva’s, is finally revealed layer by layer. The tale that unfolds is about a mother and daughter, about how memory can deceive us—and sometimes that is the most merciful thing that can happen.

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The Year of the Hare

Vatanen, a journalist, is feeling burned out and sick of the city. One summer evening while on assignment his car hits a young hare on a country road. Vatanen leaves the car to save the injured creature. This small incident becomes a turning point in Vatanen's life as he decides to break free from the world's constraints. He quits his job, leaves his wife, sells his possessions to travel the Finnish wilds with his new found friend. Their adventures take in forest fires, pagan sacrifices, military war games, killer bears and much more.

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The Human Part

An elderly woman agrees to sell her life story to an author with writer's block that she meets at a book fair. She needs to talk - her husband has not spoken since a family tragedy some months ago, and seven thousand euros is a lot of money. She claims that her grown-up children are doing well, but the writer imagines less salubrious lives for them, as the downturn of Finland's economic boom begins to bite. Perhaps he's on to something. The Human Part lays bare the absurdities of modern society in the most vicious and precise manner imaginable. But it is also a wise novel of family life, rejoicing in the little white lies we tell one another and the way we pull together in times of tragedy.

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Compartment No 6

A sad young woman boards a train in Moscow. Bound for Mongolia, she's trying to leave a broken relationship as far behind as she can. Wanting to be alone, she chooses an empty compartment, No. 6. Her solitude is soon shattered by the arrival of a fellow passenger: Vadim Nikolayevich Ivanov, a grizzled, opinionated and foul-mouthed ex-soldier, 'a cauliflower-eared man in a black workingman's overcoat and a white ermine hat'. Vadim fills the compartment with his long and colourful stories, recounting his sexual conquests and violent fights in lurid detail. At first, the young woman is not so much shocked as disgusted by him, and she stands up to him, throwing a boot at his head. But though Vadim may be crude, he isn't cruel, and he shares with her the sausage and black bread and tea he's brought for the journey, coaxing the girl out of her melancholy state. As their train cuts slowly across a wintery Russia, where 'everything is moving, snow, water, air, clouds, wind, towns, villages, people and ideas', a grudging kind of companionship grows between the two inhabitants of Compartment No. 6 and the girl realises that if she works out how to listen, Vadim's stories may just contain lessons for her. 

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The Iron Age

On her family's austere farm, the Girl learns stories and fables of the world around her - of Miina, their sleeping neighbour; how people get depressed if pine trees grow too close to the house; that you should never turn away a witch at the door; and why her father was unlucky not to die in the war. The family crosses from Finland to Sweden, from a familiar language to a strange one, from one unfriendly home to another. The Girl, mute but watchful, weaves a picture of her violent father, resilient mother and strangely resourceful brothers. Folk tales and traditional custom clash with economic reality, from the rural Finland to urban Stockholm.

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Helsinki Noir

Author, and editor of the collection, James Thompson says of these stories: "Finland, the myths and truths. Internationally, it has a reputation as perhaps the best place in the world to live. A great economy. A low crime rate. Good and nearly cost-free health care. The needy are provided for by the state and live in reasonable comfort. Finns: peaceful and quiet people, living in the perfect example of a social democracy functioning as it should. A tourist, or even a person who has lived here for a length of time, might well view Finland as such. There is some truth to this, but like every country, Finland has many truths. . . Finland is, like the theme so often explored in Star Trek, a parallel universe in which, on the surface, all seems normal, but under that shell lie vast differences. . . As this book demonstrates, Finland is a noir nation [and] this anthology is, I believe, the best representation of Finnish noir ever offered to the international community..."

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Olivia is a journalist and editor and manages the editorial content for Bookwitty in English. She is based in Paris.

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