Book review: The Core of the Sun, by Johanna Sinisalo

4 02 2017

Johanna Sinisalo is a Finnish speculative fiction writer who has also been involved in the worlds of advertising, television, movies (she wrote the screenplay for Iron Sky) and Moomin-related comics. She’s so far written seven novels and numerous pieces of shorter fiction: to date, four of her novels (including Birdbrain, which I’ve reviewed here) and a few short stories have been translated into English. She has won several literary awards in her native Finland, and received a Nebula shortlisting for the story ‘Baby Doll’ in 2009.

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In The Core of the Sun (Auringon Ydin, 2013, translated by Lola Rogers), it is 2016, and Finland has been, for several decades, a eusistocracy, a society dedicated to maximising (and carefully controlling) the health and safety of its citizens. Dangerous pursuits are outlawed; attitudes deemed unhelpful in an aspirationally hazard-free environment are slowly being bred out of the country’s citizens; unhealthy substances such as sugar, chocolate, yeast, and meat are strictly controlled; alcohol, narcotics, caffeine, and chilies are banned.

Vanna is a chili addict. She’s also trying to work out what fate has befallen her sister Manna, who has been declared dead.

Sinisalo’s Finland is a land of rigid societal constraint, imposed not just by limitation of the scope of allowed activities, but directly and personally upon the range of life options available to its citizens. Females are categorised as either ‘eloi’ (obedient, docile, attractive, permitted to breed) or ‘morlocks’ (less obedient, plainer, not permitted to breed, but useful as labourers), and males are classed either as ‘mascos’ (alpha-male types, able to assert authority, permitted to breed) or ‘minus men’ (no-hopers). Both Vanna and Manna have been raised as eloi, but Vanna’s secret is that she’s a closet morlock, with no inclination to kowtow to society’s restrictive expectations of her.

The novel is told as a mixture of narrative, letters from Vanna to her missing sister, helpful encyclopedia entries, and ethnographic samples (eusistocratic folk songs, and so on). This gives the story a somewhat fragmented feeling, more so in the book’s first half than its second where the narrative drive is stronger. It’s also somewhat disconcerting, in the sense that the encyclopedia entries are sufficiently well-framed that it’s very difficult to discern exactly where historical fact ends and speculative invention begins: for example, the extract detailing Dmitri Belyaev’s mid-twentieth-century research on the domestication of the silver fox is factual, although the subsequent extrapolation of Belyaev’s methods to human society is, one trusts, a fragment of fiction …

The Core of the Sun is a very different book from the authentically naturalistic Birdbrain, the only other Sinisalo work I’ve read. While both books feel, in their own way, subversive, there’s a significantly keener satirical edge to The Core of the Sun. I suspect that there are a good many local references in the work that I’m not getting, but I don’t think one needs much more than a glancing awareness of Finland’s reputation for ‘humanism with a social face’ (or whatever the prescription might be) to recognise most of the barbs. And it does, in some places, show a very definite humour which does nothing to detract from the underlying seriousness of its intent. It hasn’t really usurped Leena Krohn’s Datura (or a delusion we all see) as my favourite among the set of modern Finnish speculative fiction novels dealing with the spiritual / psychotropic properties of the Solanoideae, but it is nonetheless a useful and highly imaginative addition to this set (which might, admittedly, only comprise the two members at this juncture). It’s a pleasantly-unsettling, convention-inverting work that might well be just right for these times.





Book review: The Rabbit Back Literature Society, by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

29 10 2016

Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen is a Finnish teacher and speculative fiction writer who has, to date, released three novels and one short story collection. His work has won the Atorox and Tähtivaeltaja awards, as well as several Finnish short story competitions.

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The Rabbit Back Literature Society (Lumikko ja yhdeksän muuta, 2006, translated by Lola M Rogers) is Jääskeläinen’s first novel, and thus far the only one available in English translation. (His second novel, Secret Passages in a Hillside TownHarjukaupungin salakäytävät, is scheduled for an English-language release in a year’s time.) Jääskeläinen’s work is frequently described as ‘Finnish Weird’, which seems appropriate enough: it’s certainly Finnish, and it’s definitely weird. It doesn’t, though, exhibit much overt commonality with what I’ve read thus far by Leena Krohn or Johanna Sinisalo, other writers whose work is often categorised as Finnish Weird.

Ella Amanda Milana is a literature teacher in the (fictional) Finnish town of Rabbit Back, a town made famous as the home of the reclusive Laura White, Finland’s most famous children’s author (I’ll tactfully avoid open speculation as to whom White may be modelled on, but Jääskeläinen has been careful, in any event, to muddy the tracks). As well as her own series of Creatureville books mixing mythological species with jovial themes and dark undertones, White is also noted as the founder of a local writers’ club (the Literature Society of the title), the membership of which is restricted to her ten chosen protégés. Or, rather, her nine chosen protégés, because in three decades, White still has not selected a tenth member for the prestigious society. Until, that is, she comes across a short story written by Ella Milana …

But Ella has other things preying on her mind. For example, there’s the strangely-mutable text of the library book she’s just finished reading, there’s the strange doings of her gardening-obsessed, poetry-infused father, there’s the strange preponderance of not-quite-tame dogs which hang around everywhere in Rabbit Back. Above all, there’s the bizarre, aloof behaviour of the Society’s members themselves. Curiosity gets the better of Ella, and she accepts White’s invitation to join the Society. But if she thought the Society’s members were odd when viewed from a distance …

RBLS‘s focus, insofar as it can be said to have one, would seem to be on the clannish stand-offishness of writers, and on the deconstruction of literature’s reputation. Several of the Society’s longstanding members—the gourmandising,  pastry-obsessed serious novelist Martti Winter, the duplicitous librarian / children’s writer Ingrid Katz, the incurably-jaded TV scriptwriter Toivo Holm—are shown in unflattering detail, much of which is revealed through the codified interrogation of The Game, a kind of ritualised, weaponised Truth Or Dare played between Society members. There’s a decidedly sinister edge to many of the developments in the story, and one’s never quite sure whether the book is about to turn irredeemably dark, or simply grow progressively stranger.

Thematically, RBLS has some common ground with the ‘Tuesday Next’ novels of Jasper Fforde—the intrepid, bookish young female protagonist confronted by mysterious literary revisionism in a book-obsessed realm—but the style and tone of Jääskeläinen’s book is very different than Fforde’s works, with much less emphasis on textual wordplay and playful literary name-dropping and more on, well, straightforward leftfieldedness. It’s a difficult book to summarise without giving away important plot points, which I’d rather avoid in fairness to the prospective reader. It’s written well, though the prose never achieved, for me, full immersion, and it’s peppered with intriguing extrapolations, the relevance of which sometimes becomes clearer, sometimes not. I’m not sure how much of this is deliberate, how much is culturally-specific allusion to which I’m more-or-less blind, how much, perhaps, is first-novel syndrome. It’s definitely an interesting book, though it often seems deliberately distancing as well.

Ultimately, I can say that the book left me with a sense of lingering puzzlement, a sense of elements not completely worked through to a clear conclusion, while nonetheless offering, somehow, the shape of such a conclusion. (Much like this review.)





Book review: Birdbrain, by Johanna Sinisalo

10 10 2016

Johanna Sinisalo is a Finnish speculative fiction writer whose first novel Ennen päivänlaskua ei voi (the English translation is titled variously Not Before Sundown and Troll: A Love Story) won the Finlandia prize for literature in 2000. She’s written several other novels and numerous short stories of which, typically, only a fraction has appeared in English. She is also the originator of the term ‘Finnish Weird’ that has now become a genre label applied to the works of writers such as Anne Leinonen, Tiina Raevaara, Pasi Jääskeläinen and herself.

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Heidi is a junior employee of a Finnish advertising agency; Jyrki is an itinerant barman who rescues Heidi from the wandering hands of a drunken petroleum company executive. Something clicks between Heidi and Jyrki, and a one-night-stand turns into a relationship of sorts. A year later, the pair are tramping (or, if you prefer, bushwalking) through the rugged trails of the antipodes, on the South Island of New Zealand and then on Tasmania’s south coast. It’s an experience that will test them cruelly: Jyrki is driven, dogmatic, environmentally puritanical, while Heidi is stubborn and determined not to show weakness. He’s an experienced tramper; she’s new to all this. And Tasmania’s South Coast Track has some passages of extraordinary difficulty and danger. It would only take one wrong thing to put them in a life-threatening situation … and that thing might be something external, or might be something they’ve brought with themselves.

Birdbrain (Linnunaivot, 2008, translated by David Hackston) riffs extensively off Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which, since she found it in a hut in NZ, has been Heidi’s principal reading matter on the trip: she’s read it four or five times in the month since. The South Coast Track, with its cliffs, quagmires, and difficult river crossings, stands in for the darkest Africa of Conrad’s novella. In this setting, the mostly-unvoiced tension between Jyrki, always keen to press on further, and Heidi, who would relish the opportunity to take a break to absorb the spectacular scenery, reverberates between them like the taut string of a musical implement. So it’s only natural that, when items of their precious, irreplaceable camping equipment—a water bottle, a tent peg, several slices of pepperoni—start to go missing, they blame each other …

The speculative component of Birdbrain is subtle, but it is there (and no, I won’t disclose it, since the author has taken such pains to conceal it). The book shuttles, in alternating chapters, between the crucible of the South Coast Track and the couple’s backstory, in Lapland, Helsinki, Nelson Lakes and the Grampians, with each chapter split between Heidi’s and Jyrki’s accounts of events. The settings are vividly evoked—it is, to my mind, an exceptionally visual book—and the portrayals of the two protagonists are at times chillingly precise, each reaction utterly plausible.

I’m not enough of an adventurer to know whether Sinisalo’s detailed descriptions of the travails of the various tracks are completely accurate, but they feel authentic: the book is redolent with mud, and sandflies, and leeches, and the gagging smell of pit toilets; with Heidi’s and Jyrki’s precarious dependence on their bared-to-the-bone inventories; with the difficulties of finding dependable water, a good campsite, or the least worst way past an obstacle. The only infelicities I spotted were the assertions that the forests of the Kepler Track, from a startpoint near Te Anau, are ‘subtropical’ (I would have said they were solidly temperate) and that the Grampians, in Victoria, are effectively in the south-western corner of Australia (though I suspect this may represent a flaw in the translation, since the text which makes this inference also refers to the Bibbulmun Track, which is in the south-western corner). These spots of nitpicking aside, the story is exquisitely realised, and so wonderfully brooding, so sharply chiselled, so quietly intense that it’s best taken one small dose at a time. After all, it’s unwise to overreach oneself when traversing challenging terrain …





Book review: Datura, by Leena Krohn

7 10 2016

Leena Krohn is a long-established Finnish writer of fiction that could variously be described as speculative, literary, or weird. She’s received numerous awards for her writing and has been shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award and the International Horror Guild Award. Her Wikipedia page lists over thirty titles, comparatively few of which are available in English translation; for those looking for an overview, much of the English-translated material has been released by Cheeky Frawg Books in Leena Krohn: Collected Fiction, which runs to 800+ pages.

datura

Datura (or A Delusion We All See) (Datura tai harha jonka jokainen näkee, 2001, translated by Anna Volmari and J Robert Tupasela) is a short novel, somewhat picaresque, that relates the happenings at the office of the small and esoteric New Anomalist magazine, a journal crammed with opinion pieces, reports, and speculation on a plethora of paranormal, metaphysical, and outlandish topics. Of the two people involved in the production of New Anomalist, only one (the long-suffering, sporadically cranky subeditor and the novel’s narrator) actually works on the magazine; the managing editor, Markus (known to all and sundry as ‘The Marquis’) merely comes up with a series of unworkable ideas and unreliable story leads for the subeditor to pursue. It’s hard to like the cynical and shallow Markus, who at one point decides that what’s really needed in the magazine’s associated mail-order store, co-located in the subeditor’s workspace, is a large consignment of novelty rock’n’roll singing fish; the subeditor—who is at least (generally) willing to listen to people, even when she finds it impossible not to privately class them as cranks—is a more sympathetic figure.

The novel opens with the subeditor receiving a potted plant—thought initially to be an angel’s trumpet, but subsequently revealed to be datura—as a birthday present from her sister and brother-in-law. Having heard something of the (dubious) pharmacological properties of the plant, she subsequently commences to dose her tea, whilst at work, with trace quantities of the datura’s crushed-up seeds, in the expectation that it may alleviate her chronic bronchial troubles. It does seem as if it is indeed having some effect on her breathing, but is this the datura’s only influence?

The book is subdivided into three ‘seed pods’, each of which comprises a dozen or so short and only loosely interconnected chapters, as the subeditor meets various of the New Anomalist‘s contributors, would-be advisers and subscribers, identified by such descriptors as The Master of Sound, The Ethnobotanist, The Hair Artiste, The Timely Man, and The Trepanist. Each of these quirky, iconoclastic individuals seek to persuade the subeditor of the wisdom of their vision, while the beleagured subeditor strives to make progress with a commissioned article on the Voynich manuscript, the inexplicable farsightedness of Nicola Tesla, or the phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion. But telling you this tells you nothing of the quality of the writing, which is delightful: immersive, playful, deep, and a little detached. It all reads like some weird blend of Italo Calvino and and Tove Jansson: there’s a precise experimental otherness about it which is reminiscent, a little, of If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, while the brief chapters’ free rein across a bewildering range of topics, often illuminated by sharply introspective analysis, carries hints of The Summer Book or Sculptor’s Daughter (a sense I found particularly strong with the chapter ‘The Puddle’, which is one of my favourite sections within the book). The text’s dry understated humour I found reminiscent (again) of Jansson, but perhaps more strongly of Flann O’Brien, with its gift for poking fun without, somehow, ever making a direct target of its participants. It is, quite simply, a joy to read.