Saturday, 25 September 2010

Estonia: Left in the Dark by "Things in the Night"...

My trip to Estonia, in the capital city of Tallinn, was a step into the unknown on several counts. Certainly I knew little of Estonia as a country – save for the fact that it is a Baltic state in Northern Europe that underwent an unfortunate and debilitating set of occupations in the past century by the Soviets, then the Nazis, then the Soviets again – before gaining independence again in 1991. More recently, massive economic growth post-independence has been matched by a major slump in the recession period of 2009.

The book of my choice “Things in the Night” by Estonian writer Mati Unt, actually takes place both on the limits of my journey’s parameters (i.e. all books must be set after 1990), and also on the cusp of this small country’s transition from Soviet rule to independence.

Another step into the unknown was that I was not at all familiar with Mati Unt (1944 – 2005) as a writer – although he is obviously highly regarded in his native country.

What immediately became clear to me upon reading this novel, was that Unt was a writer very much in the postmodernist vein. The first few chapters concern an unknown activist, with unknown motives, making his way towards a small power generator with a view to blowing it up. The narrative takes place in the form of an interview with an unknown interviewer.

However, it is soon made apparent that this section is actually an unfinished novel by a famous Estonian author who then proceeds to form the main narrative of this novel. Thus Unt makes his intentions clear from the start – this is to be no clear cut, plot-driven linear novel – rather it increasingly becomes a post-modern metafiction. To clarify: metafiction is a type of fiction that self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction, exposing the fictional illusion. It self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in posing questions about the relationship between fiction and reality, usually using irony and self-reflection.

If this sounds a little overly “art-for-art’s sake” and disengaging; well sadly that’s how the novel is in my opinion. And I am not a Luddite in terms of literary convention; I am a big fan of postmodern writers ranging from Kurt Vonnegut to Salman Rushdie to Thomas Pynchon. Indeed, one of my favourite books on my “Reading The World” journey so far has been the highly experimental “Natural Novel” by Georgi Gospodinov of Bulgaria. Despite its unusual structure and non-linear plot; Gospodinov’s novel managed to be both engaging and genuinely interesting in terms of giving an insight into an unfamiliar culture and society (you can read my blog entry on this book below).

Sadly – and again, I stress that this is just my opinion – “Things in the Night” is neither engaging nor enlightening. Although of course, as with other works on my travels – I am no doubt missing a number of allusions within the text that are specific to Estonia at this time…

The fact that this review so far has dealt (necessarily) with form and structure rather than any content is telling. I would have liked to come away from this novel with a greater sense of content, of the experience of Estonian people, and of how the crucial events of Estonian independence in the early 1990s actually played out.

That said, there ARE some worthwhile nuggets to be found in this work, and it would be churlish to suggest that there is no definable plot here at all. So I also include an attempt at a straight plot review here also:

“Things in the Night”
begins with a Prologue, the first sentence reaching out: "My Dear, I feel I owe you an explanation." The explanation is, mainly, for a novel-project the narrator has long planned - "a book on electricity", he explains, one of his long-time ambitions. Appropriately enough, the next chapter is: The First Chapter of the Novel - but that doesn't get too far: first reality intrudes, and then the whole project peters out, the writer hitting a dead-end very early on.

The planned novel was one of protest and about taking action: the central character wants to blow up a power plant. It's less about changing the world - the act is a gesture, and one of futility at that - than a demonstration of the character's dissatisfaction. As is, he can't even go through with it. But “Things in the Night” continues in this vein of protest, a lashing out in all directions, with no specific targets.

As I have mentioned, this book was written in a then still Soviet Estonia, and in the book life there is explored using a variety of approaches. At one point the narrator explains why he doesn't just describe the situation as it is:

“Because at an everyday level, life in this country is simply appalling, and if you start trying to describe the horror of it, you really have to devote yourself to the task, stack up thousands of pages of all kinds of absurdities [...] but I don't want to write about it all, and nobody would want to read it anyway. One should rather push this frustration down into the subconscious and write as Proust suggested: one of the characters doesn't close a window, doesn't wash his hands, doesn't put on a coat, doesn't say a word to introduce himself. That is a more honest and pure feeling.”

Personally, I would have preferred the detail!
Still, some of the horrors are described, culminating in a nightmarish scenario of a power outage in sub-zero weather, a blacked-out city frozen solid. This is the nearest the novel comes to a plot (coming in the second third of the book) and contains some genuinely eerie descriptions of the abandoned winter nightlandscape of the city that the writer ventures out into.

As I say – there is no clear linear narrative, although the story does progress - albeit fitfully and with a variety of digressions. There's a significant woman in his life (never elaborated upon): Susie; and an antagonist of sorts, Tissen. There is also a large collection of Cacti that the narrator keeps in his high rise apartment flat and whom he engages with to a much greater degree than any of his neighbours, and which he describes at great length...

And there I take my leave of Estonia on my literary trip: a complex novel by an obviously gifted writer, but one which – I have to say – I personally did not engage with. But that is no bad thing – this is a round the world trip and not every location will be an ideal one for every individual! I hope that I haven't been too harsh on this novel: I was just expecting more. Of course, the best way to form your own opinion is to read it yourself - which I would encourage you to do for every book on this journey!

From Estonia I move onto the neighbouring state of Latvia (courtesy of “Tale of the White Crow” by Iveta Melnika) which - at the time of writing this book - was undergoing a similar transformation from Soviet rule to independence. In contrast to Unt’s work, this book is in the form of a diary by an adolescent girl growing up during these major changes, so I anticipate a very different - and more realist - perspective on this particular location.

Having already been to Riga in Latvia (where this book is set) as a connection to get to Estonia, I know where to catch a bus to Tallinn - rather than getting a taxi which can be very expensive. To buy the ticket on the bus, trolley or tram costs €25, but if you buy the tickets in a kiosk it is only €15. There are kiosks everywhere and they are easy to recognise with their yellow sign saying R Kiosk. The ticket is then validated on the bus, trolley or tram.

From Tallinn airport it is a quick flight to Riga, the capital city of Latvia. It is back via AirBaltic and – if you are quick enough – you can get a relatively cheap flight. Mine was €52 Economy Class, leaving at 21.35 and arriving in Riga at 22.30 (there were only a couple of seats left when I booked...)

And so, on to: “The Tale of the White Crow” by Iveta Melnika. This is set from the 1990s era of Perestroika (which brought both freedoms and uncertainly to many former Soviet states) through to the new millennium.

I look forward to updating you soon…

Friday, 17 September 2010

An intriguing novel from start to Finnish: the secret life of trolls (and their keepers)

“Troll: A Love Story” by Johanna Sinisalo (or “Not Before Sundown” to give it its original title) is set in Tampere, a major southern city in contemporary Finland. Despite the modern setting, this novel takes place in a world in which the troll (Felipithecus trollius) is a species that really does exist. Even so, they are semi-mythical creatures: sightings are very rare, descriptions of and stories about them often seem like tall tales, and no one knows much about them.

It is interesting that a troll forms a key protagonist here, as I have found that a theme of ‘mythology in a modern context’ runs through a number of works I have planned for the Nordic / Baltic region. For instance the next novel on my journey, set in Estonia, plays on the werewolf legend to a degree, as does the entry for Moscow in Russia. Perhaps this is an indication of native authors attempting to reconcile the tradition of their home countries with their rapidly changing modern contexts? Anyway, on to Finland.

Commercial photographer Mikael Kalervo Hartikainen, commonly known as Angel, stumbles across a young male troll after a drunken night out – it is being taunted and beaten by a group of youths, whom he saves it from - and he takes it home with him to his top floor apartment. The novel as a whole focuses primarily on their relationship – a relationship that undergoes a number of radical phases… First he merely wants to save it, then to release it; but ultimately he finds the beguiling hold of the animal (with features not too different from the human) too great... Secrecy also complicates matters: he knows he can't let anyone know what he's hiding in his apartment (it would contravene Finnish laws on keeping wild animals). He also doesn't really know how to care for the animal, which normally hibernates in the winter and likes to hunt for its food.

The novel is presented in very short chapters, many less than a page long. These alternate between Angel's first-person accounts and those of several other characters – a neighbour, friends, lovers, enemies - as well as newspaper and book excerpts generally dealing with trolls (presumably reflecting the results of Angel’s research into trolls, as well as providing a chorus of sorts on the main narrative). The story of Angel and his troll (whom he names Pessi) is recounted, while the whole mythology of trolls is also nicely built up over the course of the book.

Angel is gay, and his relationships present both problems and opportunities in this narrative as he tries to balance getting what he needs to save and preserve Pessi with his own romantic feelings (and the feelings of others for him). Ex-lovers, those interested in him, and those he's interested in, make for an increasingly complicated tangle of people and events with far-reaching consequences. Especially as one ex-lover is an expert veterinary surgeon with the potential knowledge to save Pessi when he, initially, shows signs of critical illness.

As Pessi grows protective - disliking the scent of another man on Angel - and then when Angel uses Pessi in a photo for a jeans-advert (which the troll doesn't like in the least), it's clear things have to come to a violent head at some point. And they do.

A touchingly painful sub-plot concerns Angel's neighbour, a Filipino mail-order bride named Palomita who is married to an abusive ogre of a man. Angel becomes a small window on the outside world for her, with her situation a distorted mirror of what is happening in the other apartment: she too is a kept pet. She idolises Angel romantically from their few, brief meetings, and hopes that he will provide her with an escape from her caged life. Whilst ultimately he does, in a way: it is through circumstances she could never have anticipated…

The author, Sinisalo, juggles all of this quite well. It's an affecting story, with enough surprises and twists to ultimately be anything but simple. There's a lot here, and it could easily have become a disjointed mish-mash of episodic descriptions - but it is to the author’s credit that the novel works very well as a coherent whole. My main gripe is that some of the lengthier “research texts” break the narrative up more than they add to this, but this is a minor point. And a further area I would question is the rather contrived ending (which I won’t reveal to potential readers!). Overall, however, I looked forward to this novel - and put it down feeling more than satisfied. An imaginative plot, interesting protagonists of an ambivalent nature (in both Angel and Pessi) and some genuinely shocking and surprising moments - both violent and non-violent…. I shall desist from further description in case I spoil key plot points!

And so, having met a troll for the first time, I travel from Finland to Estonia (often called a Baltic state, but one which increasingly – since its independence from the USSR in 1991 – sees itself as Nordic).

Indeed, the book for this destination is called “Things in the Night” by native author Mati Unt, is set in 1990 when Estonia was on the cusp of independence. Mati Unt was born in 1944 and so experienced Estonia under both rule and its belated independence. He was a major literary figure in Estonia – publishing his first novel in 1962, and continuing to write until his death in 2005.

In practical terms, I make my way from Finland to Estonia by air (as one needs to cross the Gulf of Finland to travel between countries – otherwise a lengthy and convoluted land trip through Russia is required). And so I board an AirBaltic flight from Tampere at 8.05am arriving at my connection in Riga in Latvia (my destination after Estonia) at 9.20. From there it is a quick turnaround on the planes to get the 10am from Riga to Tallinn airport arriving at 10.55. Given the connection, this is not a bad journey time of just under 3 hours (although the one-way price is not cheap at EUR 97.75). As far as experience goes – I did not have the check in problems that some describe at Riga, but have the say this was not the most comfortable of flights (tiny leg room) and the air crew seemed non-existent…

Still, I make it to Estonia in one piece and am looking forward to “Things in the Night” – a postmodern reflection of a country on the cusp on independence from communist rule.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Shedding (Northern) Light on the Sámi culture

In plotting my trip around the world thus far, I have relied heavily on the Internet - searching literary reviews, emailing cultural departments and libraries, and checking out online book clubs (not to mention hours spent trawling 'Wikipedia'!)

Yet I came across my next destination, and my next book, by pure chance – in a local ‘PoundStore’! For those of you not acquainted with these outlets, they are cheap and cheerful shops where everything – literally – costs £1 sterling. Stocks change from week to week so it is pot luck as to what you may find… it just happened to be my good luck to come across “Let The Northern Lights Erase Your Name” by Vendela Vida, in the book section. And with this new work came a new destination on my journey: Sápmi. Whilst not an official state as such, Sápmi is a cultural region in the Arctic Circle inhabited by the Sámi people. It is located in Northern Europe and stretches over four countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.

Whilst the book was only £1, this is no bargain basement work – indeed it was previously voted “Radio 4 Book of week”. I must concur, as the book itself was a pleasure to read and also an evocative insight into the Sámi culture (despite the author and protagonist both being North American).

Vida, writing her second novel, uses a prose that is both sparse and detached – a mode which perfectly matches both the isolation of the location and the emotional detachment of the main protagonist, Clarissa Iverton. The main plot is equally economic – Clarissa’s mother, Olivia, disappeared when she was 14 years old, leaving her and her severely disabled brother to be raised by her father. At the age of 28, her father dies and she discovers that he was not actually her biological father. As a result, Clarissa abandons her fiancé and travels from her native New York to the northern Arctic region of Sápmi. She knows from family papers that this is where her absent mother travelled to in her youth (during a time of local protest at the building of a dam in the area by the Norwegian government). Clarissa travels to this remote, snowbound location with the vague notion of finding some answers as to the true nature of her birth and parentage. Despite some red herrings, she finally does find some unexpected truths – with consequences that are both devastating yet redemptive.

However, it is not just the plot that makes this brief novel so engaging: as indeed it is. Vida’s sparing prose eloquently reflects both the isolation not only of the Arctic landscape - which is depicted beautifully – but also the emotional isolation of the main characters. Indeed, all of these characters reflect their surroundings in their detachment… Clarissa, in leaving for Sápmi without telling her fiancé shows the same lack of empathy as did her mother in leaving her and father; her disabled brother, Jeremy, is ultimately detached in being unable to engage with others or respond to any form of stimuli; and most of the well-intentioned Sámi that Clarissa meets on her journey are unable to engage due to language barriers with her. One exception to the latter group is Henrik, a local Sámi – a young reindeer farmer – whom Clarissa befriends and who she briefly harbours feelings for (although the romantic potential of this narrative arc inevitably falls victim to the isolationist mise-en-scène of the novel).

There are resolutions of sorts in this story, though I would not wish to spoil these for potential readers by going into too much detail here... suffice to say that there are certain denouements along the way. These are generally more of a surprise to Clarissa than the reader as they are quite obviously signposted by Vida… and ultimately the plot is counterbalanced by a conclusion which is most likely more satisfactory to Clarissa than the reader!

Aside from the main narrative, what Vida offers in terms of bringing the Sápmi region to life for the reader is a combination of evocative description and cultural context.

In terms of description, Vida uses her sparse prose to effectively depict the landscape of this desolate Arctic region. Often the best descriptions involve metaphors employed by the American narrator in describing this unfamiliar landscape, for instance: “The sun never rose, but at ten thirty, the sky looked like a dark blue parachute concealing a flame”…”The snow beneath my feet sparkled like sunlit cement…”

Vida is equally efficient in her coverage of the political / cultural issues of this region. Notably, she sets a key period of Clarissa’s mother’s life in Sápmi at the time of the Alta Dam protests in the late 1970s / early 1980s. This was a major protest by the Sámi against the proposed construction of a dam and hydroelectric power plant by the Norwegian government, that would create an artificial lake and inundate the Sámi village of Máze. More than one thousand protesters chained themselves to the site when the work started again in January 1981. The police responded with large forces, and at one point 10% of all Norwegian police officers were stationed in Alta. The protesters were forcibly removed by police.

At the time a number of Sámi were arrested and charged with violating laws against rioting. The central organisations for the Sámi people discontinued all co-operation with the Norwegian government. Two Sámi women even travelled to Rome to petition the Pope. However, ultimately the power plant was built.

Aside from this specific example, Vida also refers to a more insidious influence on the region by the established governments to the South. At one point Clarissa hitches a ride with a native called Sara who tells her story: “At a young age, she was sent to a Norwegian school, as were most of the Sámi in Finnmark at that time. ‘The government wanted the children to learn Norwegian, so we were sent to schools where we slept and lived… [as a result] I was so taken from my heritage that I was embarrassed when I saw the [Alta Dam] protesters’ ”.

In conclusion, this was a book that I greatly enjoyed – not only because it was well written and engaging in a narrative sense – but also because I learnt, through a fictional setting, about a land and a culture of which I was previously unaware. If my 'round the world' trip is about anything, then this is it. The fact that I only stumbled across this book also underlines the fact that the world is a vast and incredibly diverse place, and no matter how thorough one tries to be in representing it through travel, one can only ever scratch the surface of this amazing globe.

From the upper latitudes of the Arctic Circle, I now travel south, to the major city of Tampere in Finland. In order to get to my destination I retrace my steps to Finland’s capital city of Helsinki (see my previous blog entry for the gory details of this 21 hour journey by bus and train). From Helsinki, things are much simpler: I take an ‘Express Bus’ departing from platform 13 in front of the international flights terminal. This runs every hour from Helsinki Airport to Tampere bus station (with a total journey time of 2.5 hours for €25). The modern, air-conditioned buses make a number of stops at locations both large and small along the way (Hämeenlinna, at the midway point, seems to be a particulraly picturesque place to visit...)

Thus I arrive in southern Finland courtesy of “Troll: A Love Story” by native author Johanna Sinisalo. I will explore this work in my next blog; but suffice it to say, this intriguing story involves a troll (a traditional Nordic mythological creature) and its impact in upon a modern day Finish city-dweller who takes it into his home…

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Falling for Norway: A Mystery but is it Murder?

A key reason for choosing “Stella Descending” (by Linn Ullmann) for the Norwegian leg of my journey was that I was intrigued by the premise, which centres around the repercussions of a single, tragic event. On 27 August 2000 the Stella of the title plunges nine stories off a rooftop to her death. For reasons never fully explained, she was up there with Martin, her husband. It is unclear whether she jumped, fell, or was pushed – and this forms the dramatic crux of this novel.

Stella and Martin were together for over a decade. They have a daughter, Bee who is ten - a silent, introspective child whom, we learn, Martin was never able to bond with. Stella also has another child, fifteen-year-old Amanda, though her father is long out of the picture. As well as providing emotional support to Bee, Amanda shares with the reader her view of events: which are seen through the prism of her transition from childhood to adolescence; ageing in a confusing environment where reality is cryptic and fantasy the day-to-day norm. For instance Amanda describes to Bee, in vivid detail, her rationalisation of her mother's descent:

"We say that Mama is falling little by little, day by day, kind of in bits: first a finger, then an eye, and then a knee, and then a foot, then a toe, and then another toe." Amanda says. "I tell Bee…that Mama falls and falls and never hits the ground." On her way down, Amanda explains, Stella meets birds flying south, a squirrel fallen from a tree, a cod fished from water. "Maybe Mama will meet Granny, too, I say; God must have kicked Granny out of heaven a long time ago, she was so grumpy and tight-lipped."

“Stella Descending” is actually narrated by several characters, including eyewitness accounts from the three passers-by who witnessed the fatal fall. There is also some commentary from special investigator Corinne Danielsen (an overweight, ageing detective who can sense a murderer through her stomach rumblings, yet - for such a potentially interesting character - she remains strangely in the background of this novel). There are also accounts and reflections by Amanda (but not Bee), Axel (an old man Stella befriended in a hospital she worked at), and even Stella herself. In addition there is a transcript of a video recording Martin and Stella made on the day of her death (ostensibly to record their possessions for insurance purposes, although the transcripts serve more to provide a voyeuristic view of the increasing disconnection in their relationship: a rather sad documentation of inevitable dissolution).

Of all of the above narrators, a major figure is the aged curmudgeon Axel who has lived for thirty years in his "temporary" apartment in a nondescript section of Oslo. "I am not usually in harmony with my surroundings," Axel explains. "In fact, I detest my surroundings, and my surroundings detest me."

Despite an apparent lack of common ground, Axel and Stella become close friends. Axel is in love or what passes for him as such. Stella senses a sympathetic ear. They meet when Axel is hospitalised. Stella is his nurse. Their friendship coincides with the beginning of Stella's relationship with Martin, so Axel provides a unique perspective. "Stella was too good for him," Axel says, describing Martin. "In my view he is a conceited ass… he is a brute, but he did not kill her. Such things do, after all, take a courage of sorts."

All of these accounts focus on the fall and its aftermath (especially the day of Stella's funeral), but include reminiscences going back years. Some are only related second-hand - it is Corinne who recounts much of what Martin has to say, for example - and events and occurrences (including the fall itself) are often seen through different eyes. On a thematic note, Axel is fascinated by Ferris wheels, and it is like one of these that the story keeps returning to the same places.

The novel presents an interesting mix of voices: old Axel, who has also become an important anchor for Amanda, suspicious Corinne, calmly nostalgic Stella. Much doesn't seem particularly significant at first - or even almost too trivial to bother with - but it's a fine web Ullmann spins, and ultimately a coherent picture of the relationships between these characters emerges. However, this is a novel of separation more than connection: of unbridgeable gaps, the inability to truly communicate and to hold fast to each other - making for a novel that is both affecting and yet also profoundly melancholy.

“Stella Descending” doesn't come to a neat, clean murder-mystery conclusion - it's nowhere near that simple: although it does read like a mystery of sorts (and it is interesting to note how many of the books on the Scandinavian leg of my journey owe something to the detective genre). On balance, this has been an ideal, and enjoyable, representation for my journey to Norway.

As an aside, author Linn Ullmann is the daughter of acclaimed Norwegian actress, Liv Ullmann, and the equally esteemed Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman. Hard acts to follow, but Ullmann acquits herself well here, in what was her second novel.

From Norway, my next stop is a rather unconventional one - the destination being Sápmi: a cultural region in the Arctic circle traditionally inhabited by the Sámi people. Sápmi is located in Northern Europe and stretches over four countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. In researching my journey, I felt that this region had enough autonomy and independent culture to warrant an entry in its own right. Such decisions are always going to be subjective, but this is one I stand by.

And I am pleased that I have, as it has brought me to a sparse, yet affecting, book called “Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name” by Vendela Vida published in 2007 – of which more later.

I have to say that travel from these two destinations is less of a smooth transition! From Oslo I take a cheap flight into Finland (a snip online via for a one-way trip to Helsinki Vantaa airport for €16.80). However, from there travel is less direct to this remote region: there is no direct route to my ultimate destination of Inari; so I then need to embark upon a 12-hour train ride to Rovanemi (which is followed by a bus to Ivalo, and then another bus to Inari:- a total of 21 hours from Helsinki).

At least on the initial train journey I am able to book a comfortable 2nd class sleeper carriage (with three beds – the other two mercifully empty) and nice clean blankets. I shall quote Vendela Vida for a description of this first leg of the journey:

“As the train left the station, I pressed my forehead to the cold window. We started out slow, passing houses the colour of Viking ships in children’s books – utterly confident blues, reds, yellows. Ladders led to the rooftops, to ease the shovelling off of snow…the farther north we travelled, the darker it grew. By three o’clock, it was already night”.

My train arrives at Rovenemi after midnight, and there is a long wait until the double-decker bus arrives at 6am. After one more change of buses I arrive in snowbound Inari at nine in the morning – although it is hard to tell it is morning here as the sun never seems to rise, the only indication of daylight being a dark blue tinge to the sky above…