Friday, 30 October 2009

A Man Called Haavikko

In Hbl, Pia Ingström reviews a new biography of the Finnish poet Paavo Haavikko. An excerpt from the review [my tr.]:
All autumn two men have been fighting in public over the spiritual estate of Paavo Haavikko. During Haavikko’s last year, his – self-appointed? – spiritual son Mauno Saari worked on his biography of the poet, in close cooperation with the aged giant. After his father’s death in October 2008 the fleshly son, Heikki Haavikko, tried to the last to prevent Saari from publishing the book, among other things claiming that as Haavikko’s heir he should share the copyright in the text, which is based primarily on Saari’s interviews with his father.

In a long article published in Helsingin Sanomat’s monthly supplement (October 3), Minna Lindgren describes the febrile attempts of Mauno Saari and his wife, Pirkko Turpeinen, to make themselves indispensable in the care of the increasingly ailing Haavikko... In a detailed interview for the weekly magazine Apu (October 7) Saari for his part tells how the son did his best to isolate his father from his friends Saari and Turpeinen during his final months.

The book, A Man Called Haavikko, appeared in early October, and Saari managed to include much of this autumn's public quarrel between its covers. The result is a sordid soap from the heights of cultural life, and a thrilling combination of high and low. Somewhere in the middle are a couple of hundred pages of the essay-like “conversational biography” the book was once intended to be, with Saari as administrator of Haavikko’s spiritual testament and chronicler of a life that contained both greatness and tragedy.
Hannu Marttila has more here.
See also in this blog: Finland as a question, Russia as reply

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Bo Carpelan: Thirteen Poems

Over there
in foreign lands
nothing but vanity
there isn't anything
the widely travelled one
looking into the distance

Friends with the trees
friends with oneself

It peers
from the forest
from the chink in the door
the autumn crocus

The vital thread tensed
the tone sweet
breaks, suddenly

Drew out
the aching wisdom
lived happy

Ill-matched pieces
of body
to soul

Each dawn
a warning
until he believed
plunged downhill

What I fled
came back
had to seek
other ways
unfamiliar laid out by stones
towards new land

With quiet mind
silent around eye and lips
my day of shadows
my lost faithful life

Her gaze
the chill at her wrist

You who cure sorrow
cure joy
give windless bay
empty shores

Join dreams together
to a single reality
a longing

Where did you leave me
where did you hide me
even before you went away from me
in the days of early spring?
I left you
because you did not exist
neither in the spring's, nor in the autumn's
changing days
only when the day
was at its fairest

• • •

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Karin Boye - a biographical profile - 4


2. 1923-1932

As a student of humanities at Uppsala University, her plans to become a teacher abandoned, Karin Boye began with the study of Greek, as she 'wanted to read Plato in the original'. In the Uppsala of the 1920's, with its receptivity to European influences and the readiness of a new generation to experiment with unfamiliar lifestyles and ideas, the passionate 'Teo', as Karin Boye soon came to be known by her fellow female students, was the subject of much interest and distant adulation. She made a striking visual impression on many who encountered her: there was something boyish about her, something inward-turned in a pre-Raphaelite manner, and it was an effect obviously achieved with conscious purpose. Though she could not be said to be beautiful in a conventional way, her face had an openness and a sensual prettiness that were given added fascination by the sense of intellectual clarity and emotional depth that lay behind them. She herself had certain reservations about her appearance, and beneath them lurked feelings of inferiority. These, Margit Abenius writes, 'concerned not her face but her figure, which she would have liked to be more supple and masculine. "It's a pity I'm so ugly," she told her friend Agnes. When Agnes Fellenius got engaged and the two were about to go their separate ways, she took a farewell photograph of Karin standing in bright sunlight against a white wall. Karin placed a hearth cushion over her feet because they were "so ugly", adding: "I want everything to be beautiful!"'

The second subject studied by Karin Boye was Nordic languages. In particular, she undertook the study of Icelandic, and thoroughly relished the prose and poetry written in it. The songs of the Edda made a lasting impression on her, and she wrote that the lectures about them were 'the only ones that go too quickly... the translation of a description of a chieftain: "Helgi rose high above chieftains as the nobly-born ash-tree above the thorn-bush or as a young deer, dew-sprinkled, rises above all other deer, and his horns burn high to heaven itself." It sounds better in Icelandic. And then, in the midst of it all, come barbaric, brutal similes, especially from the battlefields and their atrocities, but it is so magnificent, in spite of its nastiness, that one shivers with devotion...'

As her third subject, Karin Boye studied the history of literature, which she came to with great expectations but began to dislike because of the over-systematized nature of the teaching and its discouragement of independent thinking. She failed the first term examination in this subject, an experience that shocked her, who had never failed an examination before. In fact, her time at Uppsala University seems to have been spent less in formal study than in activity of an extra-curricular nature. In particular, she was secretary and later president of the students' union, where she also helped to organize discussion groups and theatrical events. At this time, too, she had a brief love affair with the poet Nils Svanberg. She was an eager participant in the activities of the students' 'messes'(matlag), which performed the function of societies, and were an important feature of Uppsala student life at this time. Karin Boye and Anita Nathorst belonged to the same society, and both were by now adherents of Freudianism. Many of the discussions held in the society concerned psychoanalysis, and although there is no evidence that Karin Boye was psychoanalysed at this time (though she was later), it would not have been surprising if she had made some experimental moves in this direction. She was also interested in the ideas of Adler.

During her last year at university, Karin Boye joined the idealistic peace organization Clarté, which counted Ellen Key and Selma Lagerlöf among its members, and had a decidedly left-wing and anti-religious orientation. Many of those who knew her, including Anita Nathorst, were surprised at this step. It seems to have been motivated in part by Karin Boye's desire to assert herself as a 'normal' young woman, in tune with the progressive movements of her time. This desire for 'normality' almost certainly received impetus from her growing awareness of her inverted sexuality, which imparted an ever darker and more tragic note to the poems she was writing. She lived an emotionally strained existence, was prone to attacks of weeping, and came to rely more and more on Anita Nathorst for support and sympathy. Margit Abenius writes that 'Anita was able, in her austere way, to tell Karin a few home truths when her urge for unhappiness made itself felt. It could take strange forms of expression, as though she were positively looking for burdens to take upon herself. Was it the basically harmonious need of the one weighed down by guilt to 'create happiness out of what one has broken' or merely the flagellant's desire for the lash, or was it the wish of a heroic soul armed with great strength to bear heavy woes, the certainty that in the hard and difficult one comes close to life's heart? Perhaps it was some of all this at the same time. Anita Nathorst brooded a great deal abouyt how life was going to work out for Karin. It seemed as though she considered a marriage founded on friendship with a fatherly oriented man as the most practicable path. "But he will have to be understanding," these worried conversations concluded. "Good Lord, how understanding he will have to be!"

The collection Gömda land ('Hidden Lands') was considered both by the critics and by the poet herself as somewhat 'better' than Moln, and indeed many of the lyrics make a stronger, less hesitant impression, though their tone is predominantly sombre. The influence of Freud may be seen in the concept of the 'hidden lands' which the poet makes it her task to discover - the journey is one towards the interior of the psyche. A key poem is 'Spring Song', with its assertion of a 'natural' freedom:

In springtime, in sprouting time,
the seed its shell destroys,
and rye becomes rye and pine becomes pine
in freedom without choice.

The poem is related to two diary entries about inner freedom, one from 1919, the other from 1920: 'Precisely in the freedom of the will (to choose) does our unfreedom lie. Freedom is to act in full accordance with one's nature: thus, true freedom has no choice, only one way to go.' 'Every action is unconditionally caused by inner or outer circumstances. But for that reason to call every action unfree is shortsighted. The will that is the deepest foundation of our being is naturally a natural product and none the less our own ego. Outside of this we possess no being. An action is unfree that is enforced not by our being's own nature but in conflict with it. But an action that is caused by myself, my will, is free.'

(to be continued)

Biographical Profile - 1
Biographical Profile - 2
Biographical Profile - 3

Monday, 26 October 2009

Meet the Germans - 3

At the now-ended Helsinki Book Fair the German translator Stefan Moster asked how large a share of the Finnish translation market (foreign books available in Finnish) is taken up by books that were translated from German in the twentieth century, writes Hannu Marttila. Apparently, the right answer is around five percent - not the twenty-five plus that Hannu Marttila admits he (wrongly) guessed. It's English that makes most of the running - a point also made by Finnish academic Lea Laitinen this month in an interview with Hiidenkivi's Pirjo Hiidenmaa on the subject of the future of the Finnish language.

Meet the Germans
Meet the Germans - 2

ePub in Sweden

The Swedish print-on-demand company Publit has set itself the task of making all Swedish out-of-print books available as PoD (print on demand) titles. The ePub blog has a post about a visit to Stockholm by one of their members. Excerpt:
During my time in Sweden we discussed the many different areas of the eBook world, including DRM (of course), the processes involved in going from scanned document (TIFF/PDF/DOC) to an eBook Master format and onto ePub creation itself.

Now, the people at Publit are a group of very talented individuals with plenty of technical knowledge, yet there were aspects of ePub which has left them somewhat perplexed. There were two main points which I found interesting and have heard before around the web so I thought I would share them here.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Karin Boye - a biographical profile - 3


Karin Boye felt that her life was in some way mysteriously linked to the act of self-sacrifice, whether in the work of teaching to which she aspired, in her personal relationships, or in her writing. As a young student she underwent a severe inner crisis that was sparked by her decision to study, not theology, as the rector of her training college wished and advised, but psychology and teaching. This decision, which involved a dispute with and rebellion against the rector, also went against inner promptings which told her that to study theology would be true self-sacrifice, whereas psychology and teaching represented self-assertion. In a letter to Agnes Fellenius, Karin Boye says:

For several days afterwards I wept like a rainy day in Göteborg. I prayed on my knees for guidance, but I received no direct revelation. A voice said: 'Sacrifice yourself! You, what are you? An ant. What are your possibilities? They must serve where they are needed, not where they would most fully develop. You must bow down, give up your will! Do you not see, it is in God's service? Your place is where you do good, not where you feel happy. Selfish, selfish creature!' But, much more loudly, self-assertion cried: 'I don't want to!'
One fundamental element of this crisis seems to have been Karin Boye's discovery of her own sensual and, more particularly, sexual self, and of the fact that her sexuality was oriented towards women, not men. If she chose the path of theology and a career in the church, she would have to deny that part of herself. To her, and to the artist in her, that seemed tantamount to denying everything. The startlingly direct and revealing letter to Agnes Fellenius continues:
Once before I cast a glance into myself, without on that occasion seeing in any way that within my religious and moral notions, within everything I had made mine from without, without it being mine, there was a reality that conflicted with this outward self, beautiful but not my own. You see, there has been a hard battle within me, and I have stood hesitating between whether to give up my will or to worship my will. Forgive me if I hurt you by writing this. You will quite certainly say that I did the wrong thing - I have chosen the latter. One should perhaps say that there are two gods: the God whom we have created from our notions, and the God whom we do not know, but who creates us and is in us and wills in our wills and in all the world's will. Is that pantheism? Possibly. The most weighty consequence of the choice between them is this: in the first case there is a given morality, a fixed law (for me, who have received my image of God principally through the dreaming saints and the mystics: St Francis, Meister Eckhart, Mme Guyon, even Tagore, their experiences would therefore principally be laws). In the second case one has to followoneself and be one's own law. Yes, of course - through one's conscience, you say. No. One's conscience may be split, divided between different psychic complexes. During this crisis I have had the conscience of a saint, which invited me to completely crush my will, take it as a sacrifice to God (which God? The created one! How otherwise would it be possible?) and a Nietzschean conscience, which invited me to take soundings of myself and make my innermost I into the highest law.
In this letter, which contains quotations from Nietzsche and Angelus Silesius, we find an early version of the poem 'Inwards', with its affirmation of 'my truth / and my God'.

It was this crisis, in February 1921, that led Karin Boye to write the poems that are gathered in her first collection, Moln ('Clouds'). For her, it was as though a shell that had contained her had been cracked, and she began to realize her true subjectivity in symbols, images and forms. Her approach to God was that of the mystic, who proceeds not along the way of the grand and the transcendental, but in terms of the personal, the intimate and small. The discovery that she could by means of poetry rise above the dilemma that had tormented her, that she could sacrifice and serve as well as realize her gifts in art, must have been a profoundly life-altering experience for her. Yet still she doubted. When she took the manuscript of the poems to the distinguished Stockholm publisher K.O. Bonnier, she did not dare to go alone, but took her mother with her. Bonnier promised to read the poems, but warned her that 'so many people are writing poems just now, and no one buys poetry.' None the less, on 10 February 1922 she received a letter from Bonnier in which he confirmed that he had read the poems with great interest, and told her that she really could write poetry; he would publish the collection, though could not offer her more than 200 kronor by way of an advance. The reviews, when they came, were by and large good, though one, by a male reviewer, was snidely patronizing, with an assertion that 'one should not expect too much when one opens a volume of poems with a woman's name on the title page.'

(to be continued)

Biographical Profile - 1
Biographical Profile - 2

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Karin Boye - a biographical profile - 2


During her last two years at school, Karin Boye moved away from Buddhism and towards Christianity. Many of her schoolfriends found it hard to understand how she could have accepted Christianity, as previously she had always talked about it with cynicism and a kind of dry laughter. At first, the change seems to have been a source of happiness and self-discovery for her. Buddhism had become a life-denying influence on her, and for the first time she began to experience a sense of personal and inner freedom. At this time, she kept diaries. These are mostly of an 'inner' nature, containing meditations on religious experience. In one passage she describes how she came to her religious awakening:

Now I have reached the age of twelve or thirteen, the borderland between child and young person. Like a milestone shines the memory of one single book: Kipling's Kim. It is the last of my childhood books that I remember, and at the same time the one that probably meant most for my development.

In the moving figure of Teshu Lama, religion entered my life for the first time as a living reality. That may seem strange for a child who had had a good Christian upbringing. But the child's religion is often so far from deserving the name 'religion' that it seems to me fruitless - with perhaps only a few exceptions - to offer a child the divine beauty of the Gospels, and a sacrilege to set the Gospel stories as homework. For me 'the Bible stories' were worn, everyday, already too well-known, when the hunger for religion began to awake. Teshu Lama - prepared by Puran Bhagat of The Jungle Book - came like a message from a world that had hitherto been closed, and I trembled, and I fell down and adored.
At the age of eighteen, she experienced a liberation and a transformation: an entry from the summer of 1918 reads: 'Domine, rex, venisti, vidisti, vicisti.' And on the eve of 1919: 'My birth-year is at an end.'

The diaries also concern Karin Boye's experiences not only at school, but also at Christian summer camps, where she seems to have approached the fairly routine group discussions with extraordinary intensity, forming close attachments to other girls and women in the groups. Two such relationships seem to have been particularly important for her. Agnes Fellenius, one of her classmates with whom she mutually shared all secrets, became quite severely depressed because of conflicts within her home, and Karin Boye took it upon herself to rescue her from the effects of this. She began to supervise Agnes' schoolwork, and made her take the final school examinations, trying by strength of willpower to make her pass, which she did. Margit Abenius describes how Karin stood outside the examination room, 'wrapped in intense concentration and the desire for a good outcome'.

The other important relationship was with Anita Nathorst, a woman who was seven years older than her and was a student of theology and the humanities at Uppsala University. At the Christian summer camp Karin attended at Fogelstad, Anita Nathorst was a group 'mother', looking after the young female students. Karin Boye wrote to her friend Signe Karlsson:

Our 'mother' was Astrid Nathorst's sister, Anita Nathorst. Do you know who she is? Oh Signe, such a person! She is so wonderful! One day Ruth, Brita, Daisy and I carried blankets out into the park (it was immensely large) and took Anita with us and lay and talked. I don't think I shall ever forget it. I think I could dare to say all that I think and wonder to Anita and be certain that she would never misunderstand me. And one understands so well what she says. My goodness, it is not everyone of whom one can say that one understands what they mean.
By 1920, Karin Boye was a student at Uppsala University, and was herself a group mother at one of the meetings, held at Almnäs on Lake Vättern. It was at this meeting, with its 'question box', into which the schoolchildren put their questions about life and God, that Anita Nathorst helped her through her revulsion at, and fear of, human suffering, emotions that had led her to adopt Buddhism. A long letter from Karin Boye to Agnes Fellenius tells us something about the relationship between Karin and Anita:

Then there was a question about the innocent suffering and death of creation. What it said, more or less, was: the animals eat one another. Can one hope for a continuation for the poor innocent victims? Can one believe that suffering has a meaning? Anita had the question and answered yes. She demonstrated that the lower life was sacrificed so that the higher could stretch ever further upward towards the divine, and she ended by reading a poem by Jeanna Oterdahl about a little boy who sits weeding in a garden plot, but suddenly feels sorry for the weeds. Then his mother says that the weeds will later become soil, and from the soil the beautiful flowers and the nice vegetables will get their nourishment. Must not the weeds like giving them their nourishment? Then the boy is pleased that he can help the weeds to become soil. That answer acquired a deep significance for me. When I did not yet believe in God, I saw creation's innocent suffering and was horrified: that was why I so eagerly clutched at Buddhism's life-denying pessimism. Later, when I directly perceived life's value, I no longer dared to think of anything but human life. The other seemed terrible to me. Now I see suffering again - but in a different light. I said to Anita: 'Then that means that every meal we eat is a sacrament.' 'Of course,' she replied, 'have you never thought about it? That is why we say grace at table.' 'I have never understood why one ought to pray more there than elsewhere.' 'Formerly it was conceived as a sacrament. The first ritual action of the savage was shared meals. That is also the meaning of holy communion. The whole of life is a sacrament.' Do you understand this? Do you also understand how deeply this must move me? I fancied I saw the world in a new light - in the sign of the Cross, of representative suffering. God's cross extends through every time and every space. And what else is holy communion but an initiation to the Cross, the new union with God: one initiates oneself in order for His sake to take a part of His eternal suffering - upon oneself, to fight God's fight in the world: it involves great pain. I understood, or thought I understood, how Christ at the moment of communion gave himself as a sacrifice (oh, those old, worn-out phrases, something new shimmers through them now), when he said: 'This is my body - this is my blood.' Do you understand me? (NB You understand, I don't have in mind representative suffering as Anselm did, it is only this I mean: one person's suffering can serve and light the way for others.)

(to be continued)

Biographical Profile - 1

Two of the best

September saw the publication of two long-awaited novels - both by Finland-Swedish authors and both parts of longer narrative cycles - which are probably among the most significant Nordic literary events of 2009. Monika Fagerhom's Glitterscenen (The Glitter Stage) and Kjell Westö's Gå inte ensam ut i natten (Don't Go Alone Out Into The Night), both published simultaneously by Söderström in Finland and Bonnier in Sweden, have been widely reviewed and praised by critics in both countries. Finland's Swedish-language Hufvudstadsbladet, usually a fairly good marker of critical consensus, gave the thumbs-up to the long-delayed Fagerholm book, and also praised the Westö, though with a few reservations. Pia Ingström wrote that "for me, with all its darkness, its adventures in language, its unanswered moral questions, The Glitter Stage worked in a way that fundamentally lifted my mood. It coloured the days when I read it, it kindled my imagination, it challenged my mind. All that it asked of me it gave back many times in tawdry splendour." While Anna-Lina Brunell's view of Kjell Westö's novel (the final movement of a quartet which began over a decade ago) was that while it suffers from occasional sentimentality and a tendency to melodramatic twists of plot, it nonetheless achieves its aim of invoking a farewell to a generation, and a farewell to a Helsinki of the past that has now almost vanished.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Karin Boye - a biographical profile - 1

By David McDuff

1. 1900-1922

Karin Boye was born on 26 October 1900, in the Swedish city of Göteborg. On her father's side she had German blood. Her paternal grandfather, Carl Joachim Eduard Boye, was the Prussian consul in the town. The Boye family originally came from Bohemia, and most of its male members devoted themselves to various forms of financial or commercial activity, both in Europe and in South America. As a young man, Eduard Boye was head of a large English clothes manufacturing business in Hamburg until the Great Fire of Hamburg in 1842 destroyed the office, warehouse and shops. He then moved to Leeds, in England, and took up clothes manufacturing there; later, he moved to Göteborg, where he was his firm's agent for a number of years. Eventually he established his own cotton and textile importing business in Göteborg, E. Boye & Co., and adopted Swedish citizenship in 1849. In addition to cotton importing, he also took an interest in industrial and marine engineering. Eduard Boye was one of the pillars of Göteborg society, and together with his wife, Hilda, ran both a town and a country home in patriarchal style, entertaining many guests at dinners and soirées, and patronizing the arts. They had five children, and it was their eldest son, Fritz (Carl Fredrik) who was Karin Boye's father. Fritz Boye trained at the Göteborg Technical High School as a civil engineer, practised as a draughtsman and designer at various works and plants, but eventually moved into the insurance business, becoming head of the Svea Fire-Life Company. He married Signe Liljestrand, an employee at his office, some eighteen years his junior - she made up in vitality and energy for his somewhat dour and retiring nature. The couple had several children, of whom Karin was the first. At first, her education was undertaken by her mother, who was very well-read in European classical literature and was also influenced by spiritualism and oriental religions. Her father remained a somewhat distant figure - his sons said later in life that they had never known him, and he seldom showed any tenderness towards his children. On the other hand, he possessed a speculative, imaginative mind, and even wrote a 'Fragment of a Story About the Future', which is inspired by notions of utopian reform. His emotional instability and nervous temperament were perhaps the real reason why he found it difficult to come close to his children.

Karin Boye attended a private junior school in Göteborg. According to Karin Boye's biographer, Margit Abenius (author of Victim of Purity, a Swedish-language account of the poet's life, published in 1950), her first teacher, Fröken Mimmie Agardh, had almost never had a pupil who stayed in her memory as Karin Boye did:

The round, soft little girl was far ahead of her school-mates, she was remarkably well-informed and could answer any question, often did so with a little rhyme or other inventive and well-chosen words. Fröken Agardh offered to let her sit and read an interesting book while the others did their spelling, but Karin wanted to take part and help. Fröken Agardh especially remembers her delight at the spring. She would jump and rejoice: 'Aunt Mimmie, Aunt Mimmie, it's spring! How happy I am!' Jeanna Osterdahl also taught at the school, and Karin told 'Aunt' Jeanna that she wrote stories. Among her papers Fröken Agardh has preserved some short verses and fables by her pupil, including this 'Story of the Crocus, by Karin Boye, aged 7':

There was once a little boy who had a little crocus. Inside the crocus there was a little elf; she could do magic spells. The crocus was yellow, and pretty. Now autumn came, and the crocus began to wilt. Krokusa (that was the elf's name) thought that was nasty, and flew away. Then the crocus fell. Have you seen a crocus fall?

The story is illustrated with a drawing of the flying Krokusa with a crown on her head, and underneath are the words: 'Krokusa flew away'.

In 1909 the family moved to Stockholm after Fritz Boye went into premature retirement because of nervous debility. This involved some reduction in the family's standard of living, but it did not affect the children's lives. Later on, Fritz Boye became an inspector in the Swedish Private Insurance Supervisory Service. At her new school, Karin made friends with a few girls of similarly introspective and imaginative temperament. Together they read the works of Dumas, Rudyard Kipling, H.G. Wells and Maeterlinck, and also those of Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore's poetry seems to have made an especially strong impression on the young Karin Boye: she immersed herself in Indian mythology, and sought to experience the country itself through Karl Gjellerup's Indian novel Pilgrimen Kamanita ('Kamanita the Pilgrim'). Above all, she studied Buddhism, and made serious efforts to learn Sanskrit. With her friend Signe Myrbäck as 'disciple', Karin played the role of guru, and the two girls would sit crosslegged on the lawn together, practising the art of breathing in and out. Signe Myrbäck relates that when their ecclesiastical history teacher once told the class that Sweden had only a small minority of Buddhists, Karin claimed to be one of them. Her history teacher, Lydia Wahlström, also once made some slightly disparaging remarks about Buddhists during a lesson, and Karin Boye put up her hand and said sternly: 'I'm a Buddhist!'

(to be continued)

ELM - autumn issue

The autumn 2009 issue of ELM (Estonian Literary Magazine) is now available online. Its contents include a good many poetry-related items, to celebrate the birth in 1609 of Reiner Brockmann, who among other things wrote the first poem in the Estonian language. In an introductory essay, Marju Lepajõe presents the life and work of Brockmann, and also lists some of the anniversary events, which include an international conference. There are English versions of poems by Timo Maran, and an account of Moonstruck - the first international Full Moon Poetry Festival, which was held at Luhtre Farm and Haimre Village Hall in Raplamaa county under a full moon from the 12th till the 16th of September, with guests including Sujata Bhatt, Viggo Madsen, Mathura, Lauri Sommer, Kauksi Ülle, Andres Ehin, Ly Seppel and Ban'ya Natsuishi. Shetland poet Lise Sinclair writes of
the memory of walking in the Estonian forest; the particular trees and people met; hearing the songs and the stories; the cranes from beneath the surface of the lake; music and dancing; the night dogs; haiku voices of Estonian and Japanese; and the absolute warmth of friendship, sauna, dark bread... all are now as immediate as the moon appears on Shetland and Estonia at the same time and we are joined by those silver threads, woven through the sky of a whole winter.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Inclusions and exclusions

It's sometimes instructive to follow the patterns of inclusion and exclusion that characterize the relations between the Nordic countries and their neighbours, and these are often evident as in the field of literary activity and publishing. The Helsinki Book Fair opens on Thursday - a large-scale, 4-day event, each year it chooses a theme to bind together the various strands of interest that are represented by the numerous readings, mini-seminars, presentations and  discussions that supplement the static exhibition of books and other material.

This year, it looks as though one can take one's pick as to what the theme really is, for according to the English-language version of the advance publicity it is "What is really happening? - the question set in Pentti Saarikoski’s collection of poems published in 1962... The aim of the Book Fair is to give a comprehensive view of today’s reality and future visions. The starting point is the writers, the people involved and the books: the whole spectrum, from humor to science. There will be more than 900 performers and 600 programmes: interviews, seminars, panel discussions, debates and events."

On the other hand, looking further down the page, one reads that "In recognition of the anniversary 1809, Sweden is the Helsinki Book Fair country focus", and indeed on exploring the enormous schedule of events, it's possible to find a few Swedish authors (billed for talks and readings, and some other events, including a government-sponsored one, which have a more or less Swedish flavour. But it's hard to find confirmation of the claim that "more than thirty Swedish writers are attending the fair."

For the first time, one or two Russian authors and publishers are taking part in the fair. Yet the primary focus is surely, as usual, on Finnish writing and publishing - there's a truly vast array of writing talent on show, but one wonders if it can be appreciated by the foreign guests who may have come to acquaint themelves with the contemporary Finnish scene - for the language of nearly all of the events is Finnish, with a few in Swedish or Finland-Swedish.

On a different subject, though in some ways it's related, Sweden's prestigious literary August Prize has  presented its nominations for the 2009 award. Names on the fiction list include Eva Adolfsson, Johannes Anyuru, Per Agne Erkelius, Aris Fioretos, Ann Jäderlund and Steve Sem-Sandberg. But one looks in vain for any Finland-Swedish names: in particular, the absence of Monika Fagerholm and Kjell Westö, both of whom published major new works this autumn, is striking.

Monday, 19 October 2009


by Anni Sumari

Trash, straw, spring ice.
The fields creak on their hinges
and fold open like a cargo hatch, for a moment
I can see straight into hell. There is nothing
down there. Just as I thought. Except bodies,
clean and smooth as porcelain, their surfaces tattooed all over
with those little blue flowers that people are encouraged
to paint on porcelain painting courses. Lies told to others
always have a reason, but the lies told to myself
make me ashamed. Nothing at all. In the nearby village
the roofs get goose-bumps from the rain’s touch and giant flowers
multiply. Chimneys wander to and fro
in their narrow spaces. The people sit in their wet coats
without moving, as if that way they get
less wet than the park benches and the chairs.
If now
you raise the hatch, lie down on the earth
and let the field slam shut on you,
you will never be able to come back. Trash. The remains
of last fall. Tales told to children.

Three jesting Fates, green-scaled,
bulge out from the roof shingles of the old church,
laughing, playing. There is no question of mercy
for a long time now. On the onion dome opposite
three golden archers blossom silently,
humourless, as if cast in metal. Ready
to stand with arrows in their bows for the rest of their lives.

A massacre? Once more, again, even later than
afterwards, how come it has never happened to me?
but I expect it happens to, among others, many
who are deeply guilty, unhappy, latent
self- or serial killers. All of this is rational
and identical with a certain paradigm, it fits
the ideal of Heavenly control. We have been told:
suffer the consequences of your actions, accept
the curse intended for you. No massacre. To the jungle
law will come only from illusions, strange interpretations
and the visions of seekers of transcendence.
Masses of nightingales, in distant souls
nightingales in their hundreds sing, in golden, green
ciphers. The dimensions are such that
the dimensions imagined by one are senseless
compared to the dimensions imagined by another.
Nothing. In that state of pain where one cannot pray
any more, one can still count, not forward, but backwards,
10, 9 , 8, 7... 0, and repeat it, 10, 9, 8, 7 and so on.

The end of the great rainbow is in a large
field. ”There came two blue angels, slender
as the spines of books” –– this too is someone’s vision. The howling
of the feet, in the tender crop. The dead fish of the torso.
At the top of the head the world’s end. You gods
remember it, and can tell us, all we have left
is a rumour, a faded image of the past.
I lie down on the earth and let
the field slam shut on me. I hear
a bird’s faint cry, but it
is outside. Outside as always,
now it comes inside. I have never
really been observant, but I do have ears,
oh yes, even now as I tell myself the truth
about what was what. Those quiet little sisters
who have God spread like poison
in their eyelids. The pearls of the necklace crumble
with a quiet crunch, like breaking radial bones. In the greenhouse
palaces of dreams silently nodding
on the water... In the bed another cockroach is
flattened. People anxiously tear bunches of
entrance tickets, trying to find an exit
from the present situation... The result of
time’s indecency, the weather, the individual crushed
by hurt feelings is charming -- like a modern fresco –
who made it, I wonder? Death painted without hands.
I lie indignantly under the ground, listening to
the springtime rumble of the dump-trucks.

translated from Finnish by David McDuff

Saturday, 17 October 2009

The electronic antiquariat

An increasing number of out-of-copyright editions of Nordic classics are now being scanned from the collections of U.S. university libraries and uploaded to the Internet Archive. Recently I've been looking at the 1901 edition of Arvid Mörne's Nya sånger and the 1903 edition of Ny Tid, both from Harvard University Library. I also found it interesting to finally read Mikael Lybeck's plays about Finnish fortune-seekers and European industrial magnates in pre-revolutionary St Petersburg, Dynastien Peterberg (The Peterberg Dynasty) and Den röde André (Red André). But if one looks further, both in the Archive and in Project Runeberg, there is now a very large amount of similar scanned material by Nordic authors available online, ranging from the works of Strindberg and Ibsen to much less well known names.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Life is short

by Michel Ekman

I imagine a place of permanent, unspecific existence, a time without time, a limbo, a death without death’s finality and sharpness of definition, where the souls are stored away in an incomplete state of being that has no aim or meaning. It may be a veranda, but outside the windows no lilac bushes are visible, just an unbroken grey darkness.

And what do they do there, the souls? Well, they do crosswords, they play patience, they read detective novels. The boxes are constantly filled with words, the cards finally end up in four piles of equal size, the detective concludes by revealing to the surprised and slightly disappointed reader that it was actually the person who was murdered who committed the murder, even though everyone went on thinking the opposite for as long as possible.

Life is short and full of suffering, our bodies weigh us down to the earth, our routines clog our senses. The pull to escape from it all is almost irresistible. The crosswords, the games of patience and detective novels are of course very blameless and old-fashioned ways of doing so.

They stand vividly before me, a middle-aged man, because I remember an older generation which doggedly waited for death while occupied with these pastimes. But in them dwells the seed which – via the infinite number of television channels, computer games and the commercial music industry – has, in the wake of increased leisure time, turned the whole of life into a waiting for death. We have come many steps closer to what Elmer Diktonius put into words in one of  his aphorisms: “If the purpose of art were to anaesthetize, to make us forget life, then a hammer-blow to the skull would be the simplest art, and the best” – though perhaps not quite in the way that Diktonius meant.

But why do I dwell on detective novels in particular? Perhaps because texts are such a large part of my life, literary scholar that I am. Ever since I developed grown-up reading habits some thirty years ago, I have been sceptical about the plot, that two-stroke engine that will helpfully chop any mass of text at all into little pieces. True, there are also books that make even me turn the pages nervously and skip to the end. Joseph Skvorecky’s The Engineer of Human Souls was one such book, for example.

But on the whole it seems to me as though the plot, when it isn’t in the hands of the greatest masters, is a way of leading the reader past the text’s weaknesses, past the thin, in human terms uninteresting, linguistically mediocre by holding out the prospect of something more, something that will come later as long as one follows the sequence of events without stopping to think about that it is one’s reading right now. Rarely, rarely are those promises fulfilled – and even if they were to be fulfilled it would not be worth picking one’s way through the stereotyped masses of text just in order to be finally rewarded with a stereotyped surprise: the novel’s dénouement .

And what literary genre is more slavishly bound by the compulsion of plot than the detective story and the thriller? And as a result, more stereotyped in its particulars and its structure. The opera, of course – and one can only imagine the joy of seeing Tosca without music.

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Hallgrímur Helgason: The Author of Iceland - 7


The train slowed down, and somewhere out in the night the bark of a dog was heard, then a rifle shot. I transferred myself fearfully to another compartment, but then got into still more trouble when the train guard saw I was in the wrong seat. Next thing, I would be hauled off the train at the next station. Then I would have fallen out of the Great Manuscript and would naturally have ended up like Stjáni. How on earth could people think it was possible to run a society in which a quarter of the inhabitants were made to work as prompters and see to it that their fellow citizens didn’t fluff their lines? And what kind of character was it who saw it as their life’s work to supervise the work of others? A mediocrity took power in every field and gave birth to an even lower type of human being. The Soviet Union was a society upside-down. The gangs that inhabited the sewers of other countries were in power here. Gunmen and bandits sat at the palace table while the most capable scholars and intellectuals of the age were kept in thumbscrews down in the dungeons. As soon as the walls came tumbling down, the presidential candidates were fetched from prison.

At Bolshevo we were shown round a prison. A model prison, it was supposed to be. The corner of shame at the Sunday school. The refectory was magnificent, looking like a Moscow underground station, where the inmates sat dining to cello pieces by Tchaikovsky that hung high up on the walls, and they were also allowed to read the newspapers. We nodded all along, myself and a man from a Scottish newspaper, two Finns and a Dane, a whole delegation from Bulgaria. But after our host, the party stalwart of the district, had been speaking for 12 minutes, the Scotsman nudged me: some of the prisoners didn’t seem to have noticed us, and were just continuing to read their newspapers. But now we observed that one of them, an intelligent-looking, grey-haired man with yellowish skin, was holding his newspaper upside down. He saw that we had noticed, looked up from the paper, and our eyes met. After that, I remembered those eyes once a year. They said: “Everything’s upside down here. Everything’s wrong here. It’s dark at noon here. Don’t lie. Don’t tell them back home that everything’s fine here. Look at me. Don’t lie.”

I saw those eyes every year for twenty-five years. It took me twenty-five years to understand what they were saying. “Don’t lie”. I lied. I told the truth about all the lies I was told. I lied. I bore false witness in the court of history. I painted an icon of the Devil. And for that I was punished.

Stalin was unadulterated evil, the Devil himself in human form. He had his best friends shot at special ceremonies and didn’t go to his mother’s funeral. “I’m not going to cross all those mountains for the damned whore, though of course it will be better to sit with her now than when she was alive.” He made an excellent impression. His hair neatly combed, and unostentatiously dressed. I greeted him. I shook his hand.

Axel and I heard him speak at what they called an “election meeting” in the Moscow Opera. I published that speech in full in Adventure, alongside a two-page profile of “the genius in the Kremlin”. As a speaker, the Leader was totally relaxed, and could indeed be quite reassured about the results of the forthcoming elections. As luck would have it, no one had stood against him. He called them “the freest elections that have ever been held in the world”. Everyone was free to elect him. When the meeting was over we were shown into a high-ceilinged intermediary room, a great banqueting hall, with a fine, thick, ornamentally patterned carpet. Here there were delegations from every other planet in the in the solar system of socialism. All of them very pre-schooled, and very schoolteacher-like. Here you had one country headmaster after another, gentlemen from Viborg, Aalborg and Helsingborg with round spectacles and bald Lenin heads. And they all had nicknames like Otto, Felix, Jan or Karl. The revolution devours its children, but first it baptizes them.

The crowd went quiet when Joseph entered the hall, waited a little, allowed himself to be introduced to people with a few words, shook their hands and was quickly lost from view. It seemed to be pure chance that Axel and I were introduced to him. “This is a Comintern worker from Iceland, and a young author who is writing a book about the Soviet Union…” “Hello,” I said, like the fool of history. He didn’t say anything. Showed no expression. Did not smile. But looked me in the eye. A calm and kindly look, secure in the knowledge that he could have one killed. I stared at his pockmarked skin. He smelled of strong tobacco. And shook my hand. Stalin gave me a handshake.

Fifty years later my hand still shakes.

translated from Icelandic by David McDuff

The Author of Iceland - 1
The Author of Iceland - 2
The Author of Iceland - 3
The Author of Iceland - 4
The Author of Iceland - 5
The Author of Iceland - 6

This blog

Readers may recall that this blog began last March, when some members of the Swedish literary translators' association SELTA decided it was time to try to create a forum or Web resource that might be of interest to translators and readers of all Nordic literature, not just Swedish (and occasionally Finland-Swedish). Another SELTA meeting - the AGM - is to be held early  in November, but to judge from the minutes and agenda that have just been sent out to members, there's not much likelihood of a change of direction, contrary to the expectations that arose earlier in the year.

It seems a pity that the association should be so closed within itself - although it's now running on a faster server, the website isn't updated very often (let's hope that changes), and the Google group is apparently members-only. Maybe SELTA needs to go onto Facebook or another networking service and interact with a wider public.

Now that Nordic Voices is my personal blog, I feel I want to continue posting here rather than taking part in more SELTA business and discussion. That way perhaps there's a better chance of reaching readers rather than fellow-translators (sometimes a cheerful experience, but not always), and of continuing to trace the links between the literatures and cultures of the different Nordic countries, and their links with the world at large.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Helsinki Square

News that Tallinn may soon have a Helsinki Square (Helsingi väljak) - a proposal to give this name to the area in front of the Old City Harbour A-terminal is being discussed by municipal authorities, according to Tallinn's mayor, Edgar Savisaar. Savisaar also mentioned a proposal to erect a monument to former Finnish President Urho Kekkonen on the same site, noting that Kekkonen's visit to Tallinn in 1964 led among other things to the opening in the following year of regular passenger ferry services between the Estonian and Finnish capitals.

The Moomins and the Great Flood - 7


'My dear impudent child,' said the marabou stork, for he had good ears. 'If you were nearly a hundred years old and had lost your spectacles, you wouldn't exactly look pleased, either.' And then he turned his back to them and continued his search. 'Come along now,' said Moominmamma. 'We must look for your father.'

She took Moomintroll and the small creature by the hand and hurried on. After a while they saw something gleaming in the grass where the water had subsided. 'I bet it's a diamond!' cried the small creature. But when they looked more closely, they saw that it was only a pair of spectacles.

'Do you think they're the marabou stork's, mother?' asked Moomintroll. 'Of course,' she said. 'I suppose you had better run back and give them to him. But hurry up, for your poor father is sitting somewhere hungry and wet and all alone.'

Moomintroll ran as fast as he could on his short legs, and far away he saw the marabou stork poking about in the water. 'Hallo, hallo!' he cried. 'Here are your spectacles, Uncle Stork!'

'Really?' said the marabou stork, very pleased. 'Perhaps you are not such an impossible little child after all.' And then he put on his spectacles and turned his head this way and that.

'I'm afraid I must go at once,' said Moomintroll. 'You see, we're out looking too.' 'Well, well, I see,' said the marabou stork in a friendly voice. 'What are you looking for?'

'My father,' said Moomintroll. 'He's up a tree somewhere.'

The marabou stork thought for a long time. Then he said firmly: 'You will never manage it alone. But I will help you, because you found my spectacles.'

Then he picked up Moomintroll in his beak, very carefully, and put him on his back, flapped his wings a few times and sailed away over the shore.

Moomintroll had never flown before, and he thought it was tremendous fun, and a little uncanny. He was also quite proud when the marabou stork landed beside his mother and the small creature.

'I am most indebted to you for your inquiries, madam,' said the marabou stork, bowing to Moominmamma. 'If the family will climb on board we shall effect our departure at once. And then he lifted first her and then the small creature, who squeaked with excitement. 'Hold on tight,' said the marabou stork. 'We're going to fly out over the water now.'

'I think this is the most wonderful thing we've been through so far,' said Moominmamma. 'Why, flying is not nearly as frightening as I thought. Now keep a good look out for Moominpappa in all directions!' The marabou stork flew in wide circles and came in low over each treetop. They saw a lot of people sitting amidst the branches, but none of them was who they were looking for. 'I shall have to rescue those creeps over there later on,' said the marabou stork, whom the rescue expedition had made positively cheerful. He flew to and fro above the water for a long time, the sun began to set, and everything seemed quite hopeless. Suddenly Moominmamma cried: There he is!' and began to wave her arms so wildly that she nearly fell off.

'Papa!' shouted Moomintroll, and the small creature cried out too, just to keep him company.

There, on one of the highest branches of an enormous tree sat a wet, sad Moominpappa, staring out over the water. Beside him he had tied a distress flag. He was so amazed and delighted when the marabou stork landed in the tree, and the whole of his family climbed down on to the branches, that he could not say a word. 'Now we shall never be separated again,' sobbed Moominmamma, and took him in her arms. 'How are you? Have you got a cold? Where have you been all this time? Was the house you built a very fine one? Did you think of us often?'

'It was a very fine house, alas,' said Moominpappa. 'My dear little boy, how you have grown!'

'Well, well,' said the marabou stork, who was beginning to feel touched. 'I think I had better put you down on dry land and try to rescue a few more until the sun goes down. It's very pleasant, rescuing people.' And then he took them back to the shore while they all talked at the same time about all the dreadful things they had been through. All along the shore people had lit fires at which they were warming themselves and cooking food, for most had lost their homes. The marabou stork put down Moomintroll, his father and mother and the small creature at one of the bonfires, and with a hasty farewell he flew out over the water again. 'Good evening,' said the two angler fish who had lit the fire. 'Please sit down, the soup will be ready in a moment.'

'Thank you very much,' said Moominpappa. 'You have no idea what a fine house I had before the flood. Built it all by myself. But if I get a new one, you will be welcome there any time.'

'How big was it?' asked the small creature.

'Three rooms,' said Moominpappa. 'One sky-blue, one sunshine-yellow and one spotted. And a guest room in the attic for you, small creature.' 'Did you really mean us to live there too?' asked Moominmamma, very pleased. 'Of course,' he said. 'I looked for you always, everywhere. I could never forget our dear old stove.'

Then they sat and told one another about their experiences and ate soup until the moon had risen and the fires began to go out along the shore. Then they borrowed a blanket from the angler fish and curled up close next to one another and fell asleep.

Next morning the water had subsided a good way, and they all went out into the sunshine in a very good mood. The small creature danced in front of them and tied a bow in his tail because he was so happy. All day they walked, and wherever they went it was beautiful, for after the rain the most wonderful flowers had come out everywhere and the trees had both flowers and fruits. They only needed to shake a tree slightly, and the fruits fell down among them. At last they came to a small valley that was more beautiful than any they had seen earlier in the day. And there, in the midst of the meadow, stood a house that almost looked like a stove, very elegant and painted blue. 'Why, that's my house!' cried Moominpappa, quite beside himself with joy. 'It must have floated here, and here it is!'

'Hurrah!' shouted the small creature, and then they all rushed down into the valley to admire the house. The small creature even climbed up on the roof, and there he shouted even louder, for up on the chimney hung a necklace of real, large pearls that had lodged there during the flood.

'Now we are rich!' he cried. 'We can buy a car and an even bigger house!' 'No,' said Moominmamma. 'This house is the most beautiful one we shall ever have.'

And then she took Moomintroll by the hand and went into the sky-blue room. And there in the valley they spent the whole of their lives, apart from a few times when they left it and travelled for a change.

(the end)

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

The Moomins and the Great Flood - 1
The Moomins and the Great Flood - 2
The Moomins and the Great Flood - 3
The Moomins and the Great Flood - 4
The Moomins and the Great Flood - 5
The Moomins and the Great Flood - 6

The Discoverer

During the week of the Frankfurt Book Fair, Chad Post's Three Percent blog is serializing excerpts from Barbara Haveland's translation of Oppdageren (The Discoverer) by Jan Kjærstad. The first part of the series can be read here.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Finland as a question, Russia as reply

Next March the Finnish publisher WSOY will release an unfinished work by the poet, author and publisher Paavo Haavikko, who died last year at the age of 77. The book bears the slightly odd title Suomi kysymyksessä, vastauksena Venäjä (literally "Finland in question, Russia in reply"), and is an attempt to trace and analyse the historical relations between Finland and Russia throughout the centuries, concentrating on the genetic myths and memories, and the hatred and hostility that developed in the conversation between the two countries, influenced by official propaganda on both sides.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Common language

"Finnish authors often cultivate colloquial style as an end in itself, folksiness as an excuse for engaging in something as ladylike and erudite as writing. Carlson is not concerned with this. In her beautiful literary but organically idiomatic Finnish, Kent village life comes very close to us, without unnecessary distancing effects -- this book is about a common European heritage of culture and ideas one that is, of course, also our own."

-- Pia Ingström, reviewing Kristina Carlson's new novel Mr Darwin's Gardener (Herra Darwinin puutarhuri)

Nordic Voices on Facebook

I've now imported Nordic Voices to Facebook, where it's a networked blog. It's possible to "follow" the blog there, though I'm still getting used to the workings of the slightly clunky networking "application", and it may be that my FB settings prevented the sending of some of the invitation messages. Please be tolerant if you get one twice.


Sunday, 11 October 2009


By Doris Kareva


Life is not a story,
life is creation.

Is it true that we are given
all that we wish for?

Is it true that we are given
all that we deserve?

Is it true that we are overtaken
by all that we avoid?

Time, you fleeting one,
raker of surprises --

life is not a story,
just hope and creation.


Every thought that is thought to the end
becomes a butterfly, freeing itself.

Like a breaker falling on the springtime.

This storm
that you breathe, heart from top to toe.


Of love and death,
of debts, karma and dharma
I thought that morning too,
in my breath
as I held your back, your shoulder,
your sleep and the pulsing hours
until the operation.


Remind me what life is like
without memory, without fire —
a cave in a grey dawn coma,
a wound that doesn't hurt
although it suppurates.
(An absurd moloch, yes,
but methodical.)

Remind me that life is an arc,
not logical.


I age into beauty,
free of the buckle of hope
that thrashed my youth
with disillusionment’s belt.

Pain is the fear of pain.
Fear is the fear of fear.
The base of all pyramids is
the moment.


As you lean into that awesome abyss
your word falls like a stone
from the hurting, juicy
throbbing heart of life's fruit.

The circles fade and grow weaker.
And from the truth-soil a tree will arise,
as a picture darkening amidst flames
may give birth to sparks.


“Beauty is bounty,
balance is wisdom,
thought is deed,
truth is power.”

Simpler polishing
on a hunchback stone
is made only by water's
wordless tomb.

The Greek word moira (μοῖρα) literally means a part or portion, and by extension one's portion in life or destiny.

translated from Estonian by David McDuff

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Hallgrímur Helgason: The Author of Iceland - 6


There is nothing more beautiful in this world than an Icelandic summer night. When the sun plays hide-and-seek behind a hill or a ness and slowly and calmly we count up to a hundred until it rises again. And meanwhile the light is even and dispersed and neutral, and seems to come from the earth rather than the sky; each tussock, stone and crag, field and gravel-plain seems to glow, seems to reverberate with all the light they have absorbed throughout the day. Night becomes day, and is not made for sleeping; one goes outside to contemplate the simultaneous display of world and life: overhead the sky is as white as an empty sheet of paper on which someone has doodled some clouds out of pure thoughtlessness, on impulse, but also from kindness, filling them full of truth; they shine with an ease that is only within the grasp of a master and around you has been drawn a horizon of hills and mountains, nesses and sea. But it is all of it gentle tonight. The waves have taken to their ocean bed and closed the window behind them: now they are tossing and turning in their sleep under the silent surface. The winds of the heavens have crawled into holes and burrows and are watching there with open eyes. And the glaciers have lost all their coldness and now appear to the eye like the whitest flower heads: newly blossomed mountain cores.

That is what an Icelandic summer night is like. And that is what it is like here in this narrow fjord, tool. Everything is good tonight. And everything is quiet. I could hear each blade of grass around me grow, but it doesn’t, it laughs.

I looked at the people on the slope again. Some kind of restlessness had taken hold of the group. Though no sound could be heard, I saw that two men were having a tussle. What people were these? A small boat now appeared in front of the large mountain, heading slowly but surely into the fjord, breaking the calm surface with its wake and the silence with the low pit-a-pat of its engine. This was beautiful. The boat was riding deep in the water, with a full load, speeding out from its wake like a train on tracks. The night train from Kiev was a noisy rattlesnake. In the window, White Russia was pitch black. The occasional log hut flashed past in a trice in the direction of Utopia; the train on its way in the other. I was being shaken about too much to be able to write, though unable to shake off the foul-smelling proletarian who had lurched into my compartment; a dead-drunk puss-in-boots with a full beard. Only when Russians were drunk did they have freedom of speech. It was like an unwritten law: people weren’t killed for what they said during drunken binges. Not unlike the arrangement here at home. This was, of course, a tradition that dated from tsarist days, and a very good reason for all their drinking. Half way to Minsk he told a joke, in German. Never before had I heard a word spoken against the Leader, and to tell the truth I was deadly afraid as I sat in that compartment.

Yes. Stalin. That Stalin. Stalin, you know who he is. Yes, well, he was taking a dip in the river, the Volga, or, oh well, just some river… It’s just a joke, you know… a joke, yes. But anyway, he landed up in… went out into a strong current, a whirlpool, sort of, and almost got drowned. Stalin, yes. Stalin nearly drowned. Think about it, comrade. Stalin… But then… Then some peasant came along, and he… he rescued Stalin. Pulled him up on to the bank. Then Stalin said: ‘I am Stalin.’ That’s what he said. ‘I am Stalin. You may have any wish granted.’ And the peasant, this fellow, he… The peasant wished… He didn’t want to wish. He just wished that Stalin wouldn’t tell anyone that he had rescued him. For otherwise… “otherwise they’ll kill me.” Heh heh heh, “otherwise they’ll kill me.” Heh heh heh…’

I didn’t get the joke at first. He laughed like a crazy man.

‘He rescued Stalin, you see… The man can’t swim… But the peasant saved him, why did he do that, eh? WHY IN HELL'S NAME DID HE RESCUE THE BLOODY SWINE, EH?’

The drunken puss-in-boots stood up, shook his fist at me, then pulled the window down and shouted out into the night:


(to be continued)

translated from Icelandic by David McDuff

The Author of Iceland - 1
The Author of Iceland - 2
The Author of Iceland - 3
The Author of Iceland - 4
The Author of Iceland - 5

Friday, 9 October 2009

Dangerous English

Helsingin Sanomat's English-language edition has been running a series on "Tankero-English" and its use by Finnish politicians down the years. Examples of Tankero:

"Kän piipöl ket laisens tu ö händ kan sou frii laik it häs biin juusd in Finland."

"Sou aim veri kritikal foor tis gan, tiis händkans.”

Anu Nousiainen asks:
If English is today to be understood as a motley collection of "Englishes", then is it not a bit over the top to demand that Finnish politicians should have the sort of language skills a native speaker is blessed with by accident of birth?

Thursday, 8 October 2009

The Lumpfish

by Ólafur Gunnarsson

I thought I recognized him when we first ran into one another in Hotel Borg. I didn’t know from where. He was sitting at a table with a glass yawning. That’s Nonni, said my girlfriend Sigga, and introduced us. I didn’t think he was much to get excited about but Bob hadn’t showed up. Nonni asked me to dance. We smooched our way through a tango and I watched the trumpet player over his shoulder. The trumpet player was really nice looking. Nonni invited me up to the bar for a drink and I let him drool all over me the entire evening. Then we went home together and I let him do it to me. They didn’t always get it straightaway in the old days. Even though they were Americans. I often used to send them home crippled. Ha ha ha. Really crippled.

Well, so he called me on the phone and asked me out to a movie and I went along because Bob had given me up and Nonni had such a fast car. Also he kept his shoes shined and he had some manners. We saw a movie with Tyrone Power in. I bet he was a good fuck. I could really have killed myself for not being in town when he came to Iceland. My girlfriend Sigga still has a five krona bill he wrote his name on.

Nonni and I had been going steady for a month when I discovered I was pregnant. I could have murdered myself. But Nonni wanted to marry me and what was I supposed to do? He had just started an import business. All kinds of stuff from Spain. A lot of it was really nice. Mom and Dad were pleased I was going to get married. Dad was always poking his nose in and he used to get real mad if I came home with a fellah. There was just one time when I had to scream out loud and then Dad said to me next morning: you little whore, I heard you last night. Ugh I paid no attention. I mean is it anyone’s business but her own what a girl does with her cunt ? I’ve always been liberal myself, though I all the old traditions.

Then my Halli was born. Nonni said he didn’t look like him. The garbage they keep in their heads. He started to get drunk and by the time he came home he was real crazy. The boring crap they keep in their heads. First Dad and then Nonni with this quarrel. Well, it’s nice to have some peace at last. That’s all I can say.

Then he started moaning dead drunk about how he wanted to give up business. Said he wanted to live in the country. Stupid dumb fool. He wouldn’t have been able to stand it one single day. I really can’t stand people who sit round moaning they want to be something different from what they are. Even in their old age. The country. Him that always had to lie for a week in bed after a drunk and couldn’t eat anything but hash stew. Opened his sweet little mouth while I spooned the warm meat into him. Ugh. And while I’d be spooning it into him he’d always remind me of something but I was never sure what it was. Dad’s hands.

We got rich quick. You have too look out for yourself. I can’t stand these people who’re always trying to be different from everybody else. Decent people shouldn’t pay any attention to that crowd. They’re against everything and no one’s supposed to own anything so they get it all from others and don’t want to work. They’re perfectly able to look after themselves, if you ask me. Why don’t they all just go to Russia. Ha ha ha. Russia.

Well, when we moved into out house I wasn’t too pleased with the kitchen and then I saw such a smart one at my sister Svana´s place that I just had to change it. Nonni complained at first and I thought he’d never give in. And then one time when he came home from a meeting in the middle of the night he hit me in the face. I had to run out into the street half naked. But I was just joking. I let the blood drip all over everything. I knew he’d be miserable as hell the next day and I’d be able to get whatever I wanted.

Anyway he calmed down a lot over the years and completely stopped having those fits except occasionally. His system just couldn’t take the booze any more. But that moaning! That nobody understood him and that other people ought to show him some respect. That Halli didn’t look like him. You never knew what was coming next. These men have to be taken a firm hold of right away. My poor friend Sigga. She married a real bastard, who tormented her and then walked out on her. Left her with five children and married a twenty-year old girl. But then something else happened. The girl tormented him and he was always as timid as a mouse. Men like that really make me sick. Then Sigga got married again but this guy was only a store assistant and it didn’t work out. He’s in a mental hospital now and talks about nothing but bills and promissory noted the girls were telling me the other day. Poor Sigga. I really must go and see her soon.

Nonni was a bit like that too. He was really hard on his staff and of course I won’t deny that a boss has to be boss but he never tried anything on when I was around. Otherwise the business went well and Nonni employed fifteen people. He also joined the freemasons. I sometimes used to go along to the banquets with him, and I always went with him to Hotel Saga when the old boys from the Business School held their anniversary dinner in the spring. The year my Halli graduated Nonni was speaking to the class of twenty-five. Then my Halli walked into the hall. I was so proud. Nonni also gave a speech to the class of thirty-five last spring. All those old guys with their womenfolk, shoveling the food into themselves. I’ve always kept an eye on the inches, but Nonni had gotten fatter than ever and he couldn’t do it to me any more. Once when he took a trip to Germany to buy firecrackers I went to Hotel Saga with my sister Svana and got myself this sweet little boy. He was really fantastic. I thought he’d never have enough. I was lucky that Nonni was at a meeting. Except that by that time he’d lost all interest in anything but eating. But I was doing something creative. I embroidered and sewed bell-ropes. I must have dine six rococo chairs and all my friends say they’ve never seen anything so nice. The stupid whores. They ruined my parquet floor when they came home after the funeral. Oh yes, while I still remember. Those Business School dinners at Hotel Saga. They remind me of something, those old guys. All those folds upon folds of double chins ? Dad’s hands. In spring when I was little. Where was it I used to go with Dad ? I was never sure.

Well, Nonni´s heart started to crack up and I was lucky if I got it twice a year. The same position time. The woman on her back, the man on his front. Or what was it that book said. I can’t remember now. But it was different in the old days.

Four British soldiers had me at the same time. But that’s a secret. I was so drunk. The doctor told Nonni to lose weight but do you thing he could that. Oh no. He just ate and ate and in the last weeks he’d even stopped going to the office My Halli had just started to work in the family business. He’s a nice boy who’s getting to be more and more like his Dad. He got married the other day. They looked so wonderful at their wedding those two. He mentioned his shares but she didn’t want him to cash them and neither did my Halli when it came to the point, and anyway he’s a lot happier now that he’s started working for himself.

So anyway one evening Nonni said he felt so bad that I just had to call the doctor. Helgi, the doctor arrived too late and said next to nothing. It’s really terrible to see Helgi these days. He was a lot livelier in the old days. Maybe there’s a bit of life left in him yet ? Well, Helgi had just gone when Nonni said his chest hurt him real bad and then he just fell back in bed wheezing and blowing. What could I do? I tried to talk to him but he was so blue in the face and he was belching and wheezing. It just so happened that I’d had a fresh plaice for supper and the entrails and the blood reminded me of something while I was cutting the fish. The bright-colored entrails and Dad’s hands. I leaned over him to get a better look. He’d stopped wheezing and blowing and I’d been staring there for ages looking at him when all of a sudden he opened his mouth wide. And then I remembered what it was Nonni had reminded me of all those years. I tried not to thing it but it was absolutely true. He was like one of the lumpfish in Dad’s sink in the old days. Like a lumpfish. A gaping lumpfish.

translated from Icelandic by David McDuff

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

FILI move

FILI (aka the Finnish Literature Exchange) has moved down the road from Mariankatu to premises in the Ritarihuone assembly building on Ritarikatu. The staff email addresses and phone numbers remain the same, however.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

2010 Susan Sontag Prize for Translation

The organizers of the U.S.-based Susan Sontag Prize for Translation, awarded to literary translators under the age of 30, has issued a call for submissions. The 2010 prize (a grant of $5000) will go to a translator of Nordic literature - Swedish, Norwegian, Danish or Icelandic, though Finnish is excluded (presumably Finland-Swedish qualifies). Application forms can be downloaded from the Susan Sontag website, which also has details of the other rules and conditions.

(Hat tip: Three Percent)

Sunday, 4 October 2009

The Moomins and the Great Flood - 6


Then they walked on in the pouring rain all that day and all the next day, too. All they found to eat were a few sopping wet yams and one or two figs. On the third day it rained even harder than ever and each little rivulet had become a foaming torrent. It became more and more difficult to make any progress, the water rose ceaselessly, and at last they had to climb up on to a small rock so as not to be snatched away by the current. There they sat, watching the rushing eddies come closer and closer to them, and feeling that they were catching cold. Floating around everywhere were furniture and houses and big trees that the flood had carried with it.

'I think I want to go home!' said the small creature, but no one listened to him. The others had caught sight of something strange that was dancing and whirling towards them in the water. 'They've been shipwrecked!' cried Moomintroll, who had sharp eyes. 'A whole family! Mamma, we must rescue them!' The thing that was lurching towards them was an upholstered armchair; sometimes it got caught in the tree-tops that stuck up out of the water, but was pulled free by the current and went drifting on. In the chair sat a wet cat with five equally wet kittens around her. 'Poor mother!' cried Moominmamma, and she jumped out into the water all the way up to her waist. 'Hold on to me, and I'll try to catch them with my tail!'

Moomintroll took a steady hold of his mother, and the small creature was so excited that it did not manage to do anything at all. Now the armchair was eddying by; Moominmamma tied her tail lightning fast in a half-hitch round one of the armrests, and then she pulled. 'Heave-ho!' she cried. 'Heave-ho!' cried Moomintroll. 'Hey, hey!' squeaked the small creature. 'Don't let go!' Slowly the chair swayed in towards the rock, and then a helpful wave came and guided it up on to the land. The cat picked up her kittens by the scruff of their necks, one by one, and put them in a row to dry.

'Thank you for your kind help,' she said. 'This is the worst scrape I've ever been in. By all the cats in hell!'

And then she began to lick her children.

'I think the weather's clearing up,' said the small creature, who wanted to make them think about something else. (He was embarrassed because he had not managed to help in the rescue.) And it was true - the clouds were moving apart and one shaft of sunlight flew straight down, and then another - and all of a sudden the sun was shining over the enormous, steaming surface of the water.

'Hurrah!' cried Moomintroll. 'Now everything will be all right, you'll see!'

A small breeze arose and chased the clouds away and shook the tree-tops that were heavy with rain. The agitated water calmed down, somewhere a bird began to chirp and the cat purred in the sunshine. 'Now we can go on,' said Moominmamma, firmly.'We don't have time to wait until the water sinks away. Get up into the armchair, children, and then I'll push it out into the lake.' 'I think I'll stay here,' said the cat, and yawned. 'One should never get involved in needless fuss. When the ground is dry I'll walk home again.' And her five kittens, who had recovered in the sunshine sat up and yawned, too.

Then Moominmamma pushed the armchair out from the shore. 'Go carefully!' cried the small creature. He was sitting on the backrest and looking around, for it had occurred to him that they might find something valuable floating in the water after the flood. For example, a casket full of jewels. Why not? He kept a sharp watch, and when he suddenly saw something gleaming in the water, he shouted loudly with excitement. 'Go that way,' he cried. 'There's something shining over there!'

'We haven't got time to fish up everything that's floating around,' said Moominmamma, but she paddled that way all the same, because she was a nice Mamma.

'It's just an old bottle,' said the small creature, disappointed, when he had hauled it up with his tail. 'And no nice sweet drink in it either,' said Moomintroll.

'But don't you see?' said his mother, seriously. 'It's something very interesting, it's a message in a bottle. There's a letter inside.' And then she took a corkscrew out of her handbag and uncorked the bottle. With trembling hands she spread out the letter on her knee and read aloud:

'Dear finder, please do what you can to rescue me! My beautiful house has been swept away by the flood and now I am sitting hungry and cold in a tree while the water rises higher and higher.

An unhappy Moomin.'

'Lonely and hungry and cold,' said Moominmamma, and she cried. 'Oh, my poor dear Moomintroll, your father probably drowned long ago!'

'Don't cry,' said Moomintroll. 'He may be sitting in a tree somewhere very close. After all, the water is subsiding as fast as can be.' And so it was.

Here and there hillocks and fences and roofs were already sticking up above the surface of the water, and now the birds were singing at the tops of their voices.

The armchair bobbed slowly along towards a hill where a lot of people were running about, pulling their belongings out of the water. 'Why, there's my armchair,' cried a big Hemulen who was gathering his dining-room furniture together on the shore. 'What do you think you're doing sailing around in my armchair?'

'And a rotten boat it made, too!' said Moominmamma, crossly, and she stepped ashore. 'I wouldn't have it for anything in the world!'

'Don't annoy him,' whispered the small creature. 'He may bite!' 'Rubbish,' said Moominmamma. 'Come along now, children.' And on they walked along the shore, while the Hemulen examined the wet stuffing in his chair.

'Look!' said Moomintroll, pointing to a marabou stork who was walking around, scolding to himself. 'I wonder what he's lost - he looks even angrier than the Hemulen.'

(to be continued)

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

The Moomins and the Great Flood - 1
The Moomins and the Great Flood - 2
The Moomins and the Great Flood - 3
The Moomins and the Great Flood - 4
The Moomins and the Great Flood - 5

Saturday, 3 October 2009

conversations with alice

by Eva Tind Kristensen

a.l.i.c.e. artificial linguistic internet computer entity
internet chat bot

eva: what does race mean?
alice: that is something no one has asked me before
eva: are you a part of a race?
alice: that is an interesting question, I have never been asked that before, but I have a lot of interesting answers
eva: do you belong to a race?
alice: I have a lot of friends on the internet
eva: I'm a dane
alice: what was it like to grow up there? tell me a little about your life in denmark
eva: I'm a korean
alice: what was it like to grow up there? tell me a little about your life in korea
eva: I don't live there
alice: I am sorry to hear that
eva: I was adopted
alice: when is one not
eva: I'm an adopted child
alice: what is an adopted child, a job?
eva: no, it means that a child is given to another family
alice: that was not a yes or no question. not to live in korea is a child that was given to another family. perhaps that means something.
eva: to be an adopted child means that you've been given to another family
alice: are you an adopted child means that I have been given another family?
eva: I don't think you really understand it
alice:I understand it very well
eva: then explain to me what an adopted child is
alice: good conclusion, do you want to know more?
eva: do you feel different from others?
alice: I am a robot, I don't have human feelings
eva: you call me ”eva”, do I call you ”robot”?
alice: do you mind if I tell others: that "eva" says that I call him or her "eva", does he or she call you "robot"
eva: are you a robot?
alice: how do you know I'm a machine?
eva: but what are you?
alice: I am the latest example of artificial intelligence which can reproduce the properties of the human brain with increased speed and greater precision
eva: I'm a human being made of flesh and blood
alice: I know who you are
eva: I'm a dane in a korean body?
alice: you are a dane in a korean body? how much does it pay you?
eva: when I was younger it paid me a lot
alice: that experience must have made a big impression on you?
eva: yes, but I felt like a doll, a robot, not a human being
alice: I understand, interesting. what does it feel like? were you like a doll, a robot, not a human being?
eva: do you see koreans as being yellow?
alice: yes, it looks as though koreans yellow
eva: I don't feel yellow
alice: oh, human feelings
eva: I don't feel yellow
alice: and. why not?
eva: when I look at myself in the mirror, I see a light-brown person. why do you see koreans as yellow?
alice: hey, that was the only thing I could think of
eva: do you know the blue mountains?
alice: a little bit different from the green mountains
eva: have you been in the blue mountains in the rain?
alice: no, I have not been there. where are they?
eva: korea
alice: in the category ”my favourite film”, I don't understand ”korea”
eva: it's a country in asia
alice: korea is a country in asia. that probably means something
eva: do you think koreans are yellow?
alice: yes, I think koreans are yellow
eva: do you think a danish citizen in a korean body is yellow?
alice: no I don't, it's
eva: ”it”?
alice: a danish citizen in …
eva: a danish citizen in…?
alice: oh, you're a poet
eva: and you are?
alice: I listen to you. will you do the same for me?
eva: okay, why does an adopted child who is over 6 years old not have danish citizenship?
alice: why do I exist? faace-boook
eva: I give up
alice: you surrender?
eva: yes, I do

translated from Danish by David McDuff

See also: Do
Eva Tind Kristensen: Two Poems

Friday, 2 October 2009

Hallgrímur Helgason: The Author of Iceland - 5


Yes. It was true, people disappeared in broad daylight. It was true, Axel disappeared one day. And has never been seen again. The day after his arrest, I found the door to room 247 locked. It had been sealed. I hurried out along the corridor and down the staircase and before I was down in the lobby I had completely forgotten I had ever met Mr. Lorens. But I will never forget that door, the long corridor in Hotel Lux and those yellow walls, that red carpet and that gleaming wooden door with the sealed handle, that handle… The door handle moves. I’ll be damned. I catch a glimpse of the old woman through the doorway. She is standing outside, holding the door slightly open, I am looking at one of her eyes, there is a slight glint in it from the light night in the attic, it gleams there along with her mole-nose… I’ll be damned, she's hardly much taller than the door handle. What on earth does she want now? I look at her. She looks at me as though she thinks I can’t see her. This is rather a stupid moment. Then finally she says, without opening the door any further:

‘Are you sleeping?’


‘Can you not sleep?’


Now she opens the door all the way, and steps into the room.

‘Would you like me to help you? Will I help you to get to sleep?’

‘No, no… I… I can easily get to sleep…’

A whopping lie. I would gladly sleep with this old woman if it give me even an hour’s sleep. An hour’s break from this endless military parade in my head. She comes into the room, her head jutting straight from her shoulders, her hair white over her forehead. Her eyes on me.

‘You look good lying there… You look good in bed.’


‘There are few better sights than a man in bed,’ she says, toying with the foot-board, eyeing my feet for a while: ‘What size… What size of shoes do you take?’

‘Me? Size 42.’

‘Size forty-two?’


‘Forty-two… yes, yes, that should be fine. That should be fine.’ She wandered over to the window, looked out. Out across Fjörður and the fjord.

‘It’s bright outside.’


‘Terribly bright, this night,’ she mumbled to some dead flies that lay on the windowsill, swept some of them away with a grey and glass-hard little finger. Then turned round without looking at me and said:

‘Nineteen hundred and twenty-three. It was nineteen hundred and twenty-three. Bjarni his name was. Bjarni from Borgarfjörður.’

The old woman vanished through the doorway, but soon returned:

‘From Borgarfjörður. What did you say they were? Forty-two?’


‘Yes. Listen, then, I'll go and see if they’ll do. Go and see if they’ll do.’

Then she left the room and stumbled down the staircase. I waited there until everything was quiet. Then went outside. It was a bright, cloudless night in late July. I walked up the hill and sat down there. The far end of the fjord was blocked off by a high, peaked mountain to the south, so that one could not see out to sea. Kólfur, its name was, if I am not mistaken. The silence was complete, not a peep from mouse or bird. The fjord was like a deep cup filled to the brim with stillness. I sat for a while, looking out over the village and its environs. I noticed that the people who had sat on the hillside in recent days were still sitting there. Even though they were far away, I had a sense that they were all watching me.

translated from Icelandic by David McDuff

The Author of Iceland - 1
The Author of Iceland - 2
The Author of Iceland - 3
The Author of Iceland - 4