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.

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