PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
This wonderful anthology is a fine addition to Dedalus's range of fantasy literature in translation, and is every bit as diverse and challenging as its predecessors. Markku Paasonen's prose poem, "Punishment" begins "I have seen an author's head", and in a mere half-page he creates a gruesome, dreamy fable that is startlingly memorable. Every entry left me wanting to know more about these eerie authors.
These stories have two common denominators: nature and war. As Sinisalo explains, Finland is a sparsely populated country with enough room for its citizens to form close ties with nature; and, throughout its history, the country has been torn between the empires of Sweden and Russia, both of which took their turn to dictate the language in which fiction was written. "Wolf Bride", by Aino Kallas, is set in the mid-17th century. Aalo, a woodsman's wife, hears someone call to her while she is watching a wolf hunt. Later, she can't resist an urge to join the wolves in the forest and becomes a werewolf. At night she runs with wolves, by day she plays the part of a devoted wife. It's an eerie tale with an unexpected ending.
Tove Jansson is best known for her Moomintroll stories, but her piece here is definitely for adults. Following an unspecified disaster, a wife "shops" for her injured husband by climbing through shattered windows and looking for food among the wreckage inside. When her husband complains that he is not able to protect them, she rounds on him: "Did it ever occur to you that in my whole life I've never been able to take care of matters and make decisions about things that are important?" The editor's own offering, "Transit", tells how a young autistic girl speaks for the first time in 14 years and persuades a drunken hellraiser to help her steal some dolphins. These excellent stories share an edginess that's quite distinct from the quirkiness many contemporary English writers prefer to celebrate.
Since Finnish Literature itself is scarcely 150 years old, a worthwhile collection of Finnish literary fantasy might seem rather optimistic. But Johanna Sinisalo defines her anthology's terms broadly, and the result is intriguing and eye-opening. Among the short stories, as well as several extracts from longer works, it's a passage from the first Finnish novel, Seven Brothers by Aleksis Kivi, that sets the tone. Rooted in the myths and legends found in the Nordic sagas, it's very alive to the modern world, too. Later, there’s room for elliptical apocalyptic visions from Tove Jansson and sharp Cold War satire from Erno Paasilinna, as well as the prolific Boris Hurtta's strangely uplifting version of Faust. It's the first time some of these stories have been rendered in English, and sometimes it shows, but Sinisalo's collection provides an insight into a unique and vibrant corner of a scene still dominated by traditional realism.
David Hackston has superbly captured the voice, rhythm and nuances of each and every writer...At the same time this work explores and expands the definition of the genre itself: supernatural elements are presented as a natural part of otherwise realistic prose. This is a splendid collection for anyone interested in Finnish literature and, as such, serves as a wonderful ambassador for our culture abroad.
Reading these Finnish short stories in English translation was a truly marvellous experience.
Foreign Book of the Month Choice.
Secular literature in Finnish wasn't published until the nineteenth century. Hence, this anthology of stories first published between 1870 and 2003 is the equivalent of an English fantasy sampler ranging from Beowulf to Harry Potter, and it showcases a historical sequence of different literary manners. The one nineteenth-century piece is a synthetic folktale, a variant of the demon-lover scenario. The early-twentieth-century stories--a werewolf tale and a Viking echo of Coleridge's Ancient Mariner-are romantic-historical and the most sensuous things in the book. The mid-twentieth-century selections are superficially realist, regardless of fantastic premises or developments; outstanding among them is the Twilight Zone-ish 'Shopping' by Tove Jansson, creator of the famous children's book and comic-strip character Moomin. The newest, late-twentieth - and early-twenty-first-century stories are often surrealist and subtle, worthy peers of the English-language stories in Feeling Very Strange (2006). Nature and war are motifs of a great many stories, and wild satire informs a pungent handful. Fantasy fare of the highest literary caliber.
British publisher Dedalus has a long-running series of anthologies of fantastic fiction from different European countries. Their latest addition is of tales from Finland, and who better to edit it than that country's latest hot property, Johanna Sinisalo.
I've actually been meaning to get this book for ages, but haven’t got round to it. Imagine my delight, therefore, when I not only got to meet Sinisalo in Helsinki, but she gave me a copy of the book. I’m very pleased to have it in this issue.
Because Dedalus sells to a mainstream audience there is some suggestion that what they are producing is a collection of charming little folk tales written by funny foreigners. In support of this, some of the fiction included is quite old. There is one extract from 1870, and two more from the 1920s that remind you that Lovecraft wrote in a funny, stilted style in part because in those days that's what a lot of people did. But the vast majority of the stories that Sinisalo uses are from more modern times, and the majority of the material is by writers who are still alive, some of whom I've met. It would therefore be a mistake to think of this as a collection of folk tales, it is mainly a collection of fantastic stories by modern writers.
Leena Krohn is, of course, one of the contributors. The book contains several short extracts from her novel, Datura, which I'd love to see translated into English. From the glimpses we are given it appears to be
deeply strange (although perhaps no more so than Tainaron).
Some of the stories reflect the scars left on Finland by the country’s war with Communist Russia, and from living for so long with the Soviet bear on the doorstep. One of my favorite stories from the collection is "A Zoo from the Heavens" by Pasi Jääskeläinen. It tells the tale of three generations of
men from the same family. The grandfather was so mentally disturbed by his time in the war that he subsequent behavior scarred the father for life. Returning to the family home on a trip, the father is unable to tell his
young son the truth of what happened to him when he was a boy, so instead he masks the truth in a fable about a container of zoo animals that fell from a Russian plane and landed by the house. It is a wonderfully moving story.
Sinisalo’s own contribution, "Transit", is equally strange. If is told from the point of view of a young man about to stand trial for murder. He weaves a bizarre take of a drunken night's escapade with a teenage girl who had
seemed merely a little crazy to him at the time but whom we know to be autistic. The girl’s reported actions have been completely out of character, and indeed are well beyond her previously displayed mental capabilities. All that her nurse can offer by way of explanation is that during the day the
girl was powerfully affected by a visit to a dolphinarium.
As anthologies go, this one was particularly successful for me. There was only one writer whose contribution I ended up skipping. Most of the material is best described as 'weird' rather than the classic swords & sorcery or
epic material that these days has taken over the term 'fantasy'. But, if you like weirdness, the Finns would appear to do it very well.
The book is translated by David Hackston who is a professional translator specializing in adapting Finnish theatre for performance in the UK. He has done a fine job. I hope he works on more books.
No. of pages: 337
Publication date: 05.01.2006
Re-print date: 11.03.2010
978 1 903517 29 1
978 1 909232 06 8
Compilation, introduction and World English language in this translation.