While Peirene Press have covered a fair chunk of Europe (and beyond) in their quest to bring us quality novellas in translation, some countries have had more attention than others. Given Meike’s background, the focus on German-language fiction is understandable, but the latest offering is the third from Finland, a rather impressive proportion of Peirene books for a small country. Of course, as always, it’s the quality, not quantity that counts, and after reading today’s book, I doubt many people will be disappointed that we’re crossing the Arctic Circle again…
Aki Ollikainen’s White Hunger (translated by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah) takes us back to the Finland of 1867, a time and place beset by famine and hunger. As the luckier members of society let their servants go, so as not to have to feed them, the poorer Finns supplement their food with bark and grass. When even this is not enough, it’s time to hit the road, to see if fortunes are better elsewhere.
This is the choice taken by Marja, and her children Mataleena and Juho, when her husband lies on his death bed in the middle of a harsh, unforgiving winter. With no food left, she decides that setting out for St. Petersburg is the only way she and her family might possibly make it through the winter. In such an intemperate climate, though, the chances of making it that far are virtually non-existent, and the surplus of migrants pouring out of the frozen north means that even the kindest of folk have no choice but to force the beggars to move on. As the story progresses, it’s clear that not everyone will survive to see the following spring.
White Hunger is another excellent choice by Peirene, no doubt suggested by the Jeremiah mother and daughter translation team. The blurb mentions Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and the journey through a (semi-) deserted wasteland does have obvious parallels with that book. However, you can also see links to other Peirene books (such as Beside the Sea and The Blue Room) with a focus on the mother, a feminine twist on the apocalyptic story.
Marja is forced to make an impossible choice, one which proves to be merely the first of many. Leaving her husband behind is hard enough, but what should she do with her children? The reader is left in no doubt that this will be a cruel journey, a trip across frozen wastelands:
“They are the ghosts of this winter, the statues of snow that the wind knocks up on the icy open sea. The ship never came; winter came, without warning, overnight.”
p.63 (Peirene Press, 2015)
The statues of snow piled up on the sea are more than just eery figures in the twilight – they’re also a chilling foreshadowing of what is to come.
While the cold is bad enough, it’s hunger which is the real enemy. With a steady supply of food impossible to come by, an empty stomach is a fact of life, and the story abounds with descriptions of the physical pain of a lack of food:
“Mataleena stares silently ahead. Her stomach is hurting. At first the pain pinches, but soon there is an angry cat scratching, scraping, sinking its teeth into the pit of her stomach. Claws push through to her ribs from inside and the animal mauls her so brutally that she starts to writhe.” (p.55)
The irony here is that it’s not just the hunger that hurts: when food is available, the stomach struggles to cope with it after days of deprivation.
Everyone’s in the same boat, though, and there’s not a lot of sympathy to go around. Those who try to acquire food that doesn’t belong to them will also feel pain, albeit of a very different kind, with the family witnessing several examples of on-the-spot justice during their travels. Of course, as in any difficult situation, there are some people around who are prepared to help out, even if they don’t have much themselves. One of the interesting features of the book is the way in which true character, whether good or bad, shines through in a time of need.
There’s more to the book than just the family strand, though. The details of the journey are interspersed with scenes from a town, focusing on a doctor with a good heart but a weak – and easily led – body (although I’m probably being over-generous here…). In contrast to the earlier scenes from the countryside, these parts show us views of the urban poor and their plight – it’s only towards the end that we see how the stories intersect.
As well as having an interesting story, White Hunger is beautifully written in places. The language can be powerful, especially when describing the majesty of the climate and the landscape:
“The drifting clouds were low. They pressed everything down with an unrelenting strength; the peninsula on which the town stood seemed on the brink of yielding. A mass of whooshing water would then sweep over the villa Kalliolinna and the observatory, and, with a solemn roar, drown St Nicholas’ Church with its cupolas, and the Senate House. The new Orthodox cathedral would plunge thunderously into the waves.” (p.21)
However, these descriptions are frequently interrupted by more earthy descriptions, looking at life and death, hunger and sex. It’s a book of contrasts, just like the characters it contains, but one which keeps the reader’s attention to the last page.
Like most Peirene books, this is a quick read, and again, like the rest of its stable mates, it’s a book to be read more than once. Enjoyable, well written and with an ending which perhaps leads you to consider the rest of the book in a new light, this is definitely one I’ll be picking up again at some point. Perhaps I’ll leave it a few months, though – having first tried it during the Australian summer, I may get a different feel for the book if I try it on a cold winter’s night…