Rocking Out In The Snow

Last week, somewhere on the net (alas, my memory has failed me here), I came across a mention of Mikael Niemi’s Popular Music, a coming-of-age novel set in the far northern provinces of Sweden, and I decided I wanted to reread it.  So I did.  Life really can be that simple sometimes 🙂

I got the book as a Christmas present a good six or seven years ago, and while I remember liking it, I hadn’t read it since.  On a second reading, it hasn’t lost any of its charm; in fact, I probably enjoyed it more this time around.  Popular Music (translated by Laurie Thompson) follows Matti – a thinly disguised Niemi, no doubt -, a young Swedish boy beginning to move through the treacherous time between childhood and manhood.

Living in an Arctic village so remote that most Swedes would have trouble pin-pointing it on the map, the male residents of Pajala are encouraged to be manly and, above all, to avoid any activity regarded as knapsu (unmanly, effeminate or – my preferred interpretation – poncy).  Probably not a good idea to be the lead singer of a pre-pubescent rock band then…

The book is structured into a series of loosely-linked stories, following Matti (and his best friend Niila) from elementary-school days to late teens, and the narrator tells the story in the first-person, looking back at his distant youth.  However, he’s not always your standard narrator; at times, he can go off into flights of fantasy, and some of the earlier stories seem to be told more by the boy than the man (unless you believe that Matti really did spend a winter cooped up in an old boiler before bursting out in the Spring!).

Life in the region of Tornedalen was not a particularly easy one, and although Niemi’s style is light and playful, the events he describes are not always so fluffy.  In an area of great isolation, alcoholism, casual sex and violence are rife, and while Matti himself has a relatively normal family and upbringing, some of his friends, in particular the hapless Niila, appear lucky to reach adulthood unscathed.  Of course, a part of growing up is learning how to cope with adversity, and it isn’t long before Niila and his brothers start to rebel against their strict and unnecessarily cruel upbringing…

Another interesting result of the isolation is the cultural and linguistic diversity on display.  Marooned in the frozen north, close to the Finnish border, the residents are seen as country hicks by those from the south, and this is shown in the school scenes, where the children who can only speak Finnish (or the local dialect) are hesitant to even open their mouths.

Of course, this goes both ways, and the northerners are scornful of the ‘soft’ Southerners, with their fancy inventions like electric saunas…  When the families gather for weddings or funerals, the interplay between the various family members, those who emigrated, those who moved to Gothenburg or Stockholm, and those who stayed behind in Pajala, is a fascinating study for anyone interested in intercultural communication.  Or domestic arguments 😉

In the end though, Popular Music is primarily about Matti and his friends in the band.  As the years go by, Matti and Niila are joined by the guitar prodigy Holgeri and the rhythmically-challenged (but usefully-muscled) Erkki on drums, and by the end of the story, our fab four have finally started to perform real music in front of actual audiences.  We leave them (literally!) at a crossroads, flat out in the snow with the whole world ahead of them.  Despite a rather poignant epilogue, it is this image of joy and hope that the reader takes with them on finishing the book.  And a wonderful one it is too…

16 thoughts on “Rocking Out In The Snow

  1. The word does not appear in the book; it's definitely my interpretation 🙂 I suppose I should be careful though as book blogging is probably the epitome of 'knapsu' activities…


  2. Apparently there's no French translation, except if Le goût du baiser d'un garçon could be the French title for this one. (just like that, if you guys who read in English translations could add somewhere the original titles of books in your posts, it would help girls like me who won't read it in the same language. Sometimes I'd need a PI to find out the book in French, especially for crime fiction)

    It sounds a nice read, I like teenage stories.

    PS: thanks for the word “poncy”, I didn't know that one. Je me coucherai moins bête ce soir.


  3. I read this when it came out in German a few years ago and was extremely disappointed that I didn't like it. And still don't know why. It had such a lot of great ingedients. Maybe it got lost in translation or was the wrong moment. No idea.
    I thought it would be more like 101 Reykjavik. I haven't read the book yet but loved the movie.


  4. Emma – That might be it as there is a boy-boy kiss (although it would be an extremely odd title for the book…). And 'poncy' is a great word, but you should be careful – the noun 'ponce' can occasionally have homophobic undertones. the adjective is more to do with being 'unmanly', in my mind at least.

    Caroline – I think it could be more of a 'boy' book than a 'girl' book – certainly, there are no female characters as such, merely milestones on Matti's journey of sexual awakening. The language can also be crude, and that's a deliberate choice. The book is opening a window on a more traditional, perhaps less civilised way of life, and the crudeness is a part of that.


  5. Thanks. The French dictionaire says “effeminé” for “poncy”, so I think the two words have the same connotation.

    It would be interesting to know the Swedish title. Most of the time, the French title is the exact translation of the original.


  6. Another book which opens the door on a culture you'd never have even heard of otherwise. Interesting stuff – not sure I'd go out of my way to get hold of it but it was good to read your review


  7. Emma – I'm not sure, but I think it's actually something like 'Popular Music in (Swedish place name)'

    Here we go: Populärmusik från Vittula

    (The wonders of Wikipedia!)

    Tom – It's well worth reading, one of those which was widely read when it first came out in translation (around 2003/4). If your library's got it…


  8. There's something about rereading isn't there? Some years I do a bit of it … and this year was no exception. Well, at least 3 books I read this year were re-reads. I also tend to like coming-of-age novels. Not sure if I'll ever get to this but the exotic setting and the subject matter intrigue me.


  9. We just read this in our book club, and loved it. Having grown up in the countryside in the fifties and sixties, some club members strongly related to the feelings of inferiority felt by Pajala's inhabitants.

    Since you were discussing the original title of the book, I thought I'd provide you some background information. Populärmusik från Vittula if translated to English would be something like (please don't shoot the messenger!) Popular music from Cuntsville. It's easy to see why they haven't translated the whole name, it could have caused a lot of debate. It sure did so in Finland.

    Vittula is a derogatory name given to a part of Pajala that was inhabited mostly by Finnish/local dialect speaking population and named thusly because the families had an unusually high amount of children. Presumably because their religion didn't approve of birth control.

    As long as I'm writing a comment I might just as well introduce myself. I'm a new reader of your blog (I only found it last week) from Finland. I like the interesting mix of literature in your blog. Nice to meet you!



  10. whisperinggums – My rereading numbers had dropped off earlier this year, so I spent the whole of July rereading (all Victorian novels, as it turned out!). I think you have to reread; otherwise, why bother buying books at all? As for coming-of-age novels, this one is reminiscent of David Mitchell's 'Black Swan Green', an excellent example of the genre.

    Jo – I haven't read a lot from up there! I think a couple of Peirene Press' 2012 releases are Scandinavian, so that's a couple more I'll be trying 😉

    Jenni – Thanks for stopping by 🙂 There is a later edition of the same translation called 'Popular Music from Vittula', but I don't think many English speakers would notice the connotations! I did read Matti's explanation of the name, and it's part of that deliberate crudeness that marks the book as something different.


  11. If I was daring enough I would only own a small number of staple books that I would read and reread, but while the mind is willing the flesh is weak, and I can't help myself from being transfixed by every new book that piques my curiosity even a little bit. Have duly noted this. I just finished a book by an Icelandic author and am trying to read more international fiction.


  12. I am definitely a reader who believes in rereading (as shown by my tale of Rereading July above!). I think I'll try to throw in a couple of rereads every month next year; otherwise, it's neglect of my poor books 😉

    As for translated fiction, I am one of a loose group of bloggers pushing this area. Obviously, I'm lucky in that I can read some books in the original (especially in German!), but I find it shameful that some people, who are regular readers, struggle to remember anything they've read which was originally written in another language. I remember asking one about reading books from overseas, and they said they had read a few books from British, Aussie and NZ authors – which was missing the point a tad 😉


  13. I think a lot of 'average' readers probably don't seek out books by authors writing in other languages and then translated into their own (am thinking of US readers here), but I really enjoy reading about other cultures. I recently noticed that on my reading list out of the last ten books I finished eight were originally written in some other language–granted reading all those German authors bumped the number up. I do wish I could read another language but I'm just not fluent enough.


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