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…

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