Johanna Sinisalo, herself a prolific author and winner of the Finlandia Prize, has assembled a masterful collection of Finnish tales of the fantastic for this latest volume in the Dedalus European Fantasy series. Her introduction is worth reading entirely on its own, and it sketches the history of Finnish fiction writing in general and fantasy in particular with quick, sure strokes. As she explains, most Finnish writing from the 16th century through the late 1800s was religious in nature. Only in the past 150 years has any true Finnish literary tradition arisen, and elements of fantasy have been apparent from the very beginning, as demonstrated by the inclusion of stories dating back to 1870.
The works here vary in style and subject as much as they do in age. The opening stories ground the reader firmly in Finnish history and historical and moral style. "The Legend of the Pale Maiden" (1870), the oldest piece in the collection, tells of a young woman who cheats on her distant lover with a man who turns into a troll and keeps her imprisoned in his cave until her lover comes to set her free. "Wolf Bride" (1928) is the story of Aalo, who becomes entranced by the spirits of the wood and turns into a werewolf, eventually being spurned by her husband when he learns that she has been spending her evenings cavorting through the forest. "Island of the Setting Sun" (1926) follows a Viking raider on a voyage to a far-away land where he is bewitched by a beautiful foreign goddess; his crew die battling one another for her favor, and the captain loses his mind, wrecks his ship, and spends most of the rest of his life as a slave. The moral at first seems a fairly straightforward one of fidelity to one's spouse and one's gods, but it's worth noting that the unfaithful are unrepentant: when Aalo's husband kicks her out, she heads straight back to the wolfpack, "leaving forever the community of Christ ... to join her sisters and brothers in joys which belong not to humans" (p.34); presumably this is supposed to deter those who might think of doing likewise, but it rather serves to advertise the delights of lycanthropy. Even after the raider manages to return home, he never stops thinking of his lost goddess and seems to have little regret for killing the comrades who tried to keep him from her. The pale maiden also survives her imprisonment and is welcomed back by her lover after he slays the troll, and together they ascend to the heavens. Moral complexity is a strong theme throughout the book, conveying a very modern-seeming sensibility even in these older tales.
"Transit," contributed by Sinisalo herself, is even more ethically ambiguous. The delicately complex tale of Klaus Antero Viksten, a drug addict and petty thief, and Nina Salminen, an autistic teenager who becomes fixated on the dolphins at a local aquarium and decides Klaus is the one who can help her set them free, is told through alternating transcripts of Klaus's confession to the police and an interview with Nina's care worker. The language is richly vernacular, a coarse canvas backdrop for a gradually unfolding story of surprising beauty as Nina directs Klaus on a madcap night of lawbreaking that blurs the line between kidnapping and liberation. While many of these stories seem to vanish from the mind almost as soon as they're finished, like a wine with rich body but little aftertaste, this one lingers in a most pleasant and thought-provoking fashion.
Those who know Tove Jansson only through her tales of Moominland, probably the most widely-known Finnish writing outside of (and perhaps within) Finland, will be caught off guard by her contribution "Shopping" (1987), the other major standout story in the volume. In contrast to the merriment of her childen's tales, this stark post-apocalyptic portrayal of a couple attempting to carry on a normal life in their crumbling apartment is strictly for adults. Ordinary people making their way through extraordinary circumstances is another theme that spans eras and styles, from Pentti Holappa's richly textured "Boman" (1959), wherein a man comes to terms with his talking dog's desire for an independent life, to Olli Jalonen's "Chronicles of a State" (2003), a sharply sardonic treatise on people who play political games for their own gain while others' lives are at stake. Some characters manage to rise above their situations, but there is a pervasive skepticism among these writers that more often results in their protagonists being ruled by base desires and bad habits. The Finns seem less than wedded to happy endings.
It would be remiss of me to close this review without mentioning David Hackston's extraordinary translation. Seemingly without effort, he captures the essential voices of both characters and authors, from the childlike merriment of Satu Waltari's 1964 story "The Monster" (an otherwise unremarkable Lewis Carroll lookalike and one of the few flat notes in this symphony) to the gentle melancholy of "Boman" and the harsh chill of "Transit" and "Shopping." Hackston deserves his front cover billing: he has taken a gem of a collection and painstakingly carved and polished it until it gleams.
This is clearly an anthology created by the Finns themselves, rather than by outsiders peering in and making value judgements based on their own disparate cultures, and it is worth taking a moment to appreciate that these works will now be so widely available to Anglophone audiences. Students of history will be particularly intrigued, and there's also a good deal here to appeal to the more casual audience, though it's worth noting that many of these authors expect their readers to work a bit for their entertainment. American readers may stumble over the occasional British idiom—as with many translated European works, which may explain their unfortunate lack of popularity in the U.S.—or by what seems to be a Finnish tendency to start a story in the middle and expect the reader to figure out the beginning on the way to the end, but it's a challenge worth taking on.
Rose Fox is the result of a genetic experiment to create the perfect writer. Having escaped from the laboratory, she now roams the streets of New York, looking for inspiration in gutters and rainbows.
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