White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen (Nälkävuosi, 2012) translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah (2015) Peirene Press (2015) 136 pp
In 1866 Finland suffered an appalling famine due to successive years of poor harvests caused by cold. Government action, or rather the lack of it, made it worse. This, the last naturally occurring famine in Europe, or suuret nalkavoudet (the great hunger) as it is called in Finland, killed 270,000, about 15% of the population. Next door Sweden called these The Lichen Years as moss and tree bark was added to bread mix for lack of other available ingredients. By any measure this is a major event, and I bet this is the first you have heard of it. It was unknown to me until I read Aki Ollikainen’s satisfying novella White Hunger, whose slightly esoteric subject exemplifies the kind of territory claimed by the excellent little London publisher Peirene Press. Its thrice-yearly releases of translated contemporary European fiction are attractively packaged — cleverly stimulating the urge to collect — and are separated into categories such as “Chance Encounter” and “Male Dilemma.” They excel in bringing to us works that would otherwise be simply invisible to most of us. White Hunger has also made Ollikainen a literary star in Finland (I never expected to put those last five words together), where he has won four awards. But this does offer a slight hint into the difficulty of truly deep engagement with a novella whose subject seems so much to depend on national collective memory.
We join a family comprising parents Juhani and Marja and their children Mataleena and Juho in the northern Finnish countryside as they begin to prepare to travel four hundred kilometers southeast to St Petersburg, where, they have heard, there is bread. They forage for fish which “look more like snakes” due to the extreme cold to which all living things have been subjected. As well as lichens, ground human bones are also added to bread mix. Anything even remotely edible is stripped from the entrails of dead dogs lying at roadside. Rocks are used to throw at snakes in order to kill and eat them. Conversations are staccato, kept to maximum brevity for lack of energy. Movement is tortuous.
Her father grabs the child’s wrist and manages to twist her face into the shadow of a smile.
‘Dear child, get me something to drink.’
Mataleena stands up, intending to fetch water from the saucepan on the stove.
‘Frozen,’ Marja says.
This, by the way, is summer.
Meanwhile, Helsinki locals in far more favorable circumstances play chess and discuss whether women or booze have the greater effect on a man’s sanity. A prostitute squats over the sink for a post-coital wash which is detailed in lurid and probably unnecessary depth.
‘What’s your name? I mean your real name.’
‘Isn’t Cecilia good enough for you? It’s Elin. But Madame wanted to call me Cecilia. Or actually, Cecile.’
‘And you’re really Swedish, from Dalarna?’
An hour later she can be Urika from Poland, if that’s what is require.
These two widely differing vignettes comprise the opening to the novella, and in their own ways illustrate some of its limits. The latter takes place in Katajanokka, which, with its “miserable homes,” is now an extremely desirable district of Helsinki. Some of its resonance will be lost to readers who, through no fault of their own, simply won’t have the references to draw upon. A politician we are introduced to is based, I learn from another reviewer, on the then Finnish Finance Minister Johan Vilhelm Snellman, whose determination to push an austerity program to its completion in the face of a currency crisis deepened the difficulties caused by the successive failed harvests. Extra local context is given by the area of northern Finland from which the family wishes to flee being under Russian rule at the time. Some of the social attitudes amongst those unaffected resonate more, such as those who rather strangely think that being hungry is offensive to those with food. The influx of starving refugees into the cities is resisted by locals. Townsfolk try to barter for the children of refugees for want of extra help in the house whilst relieving the burden of starving families.
Whilst aspects of this novella may be somewhat abstract to those who are not Finnish, it does create the unusual position of its shortcomings being the fault of neither the author nor the reader. Ignore the context and there is lots to appreciate. Its lyricism juxtaposes its bleakness and a vivid image is created of the suffering, both through descriptions of the physical environment as well as the extraordinary human activity required to simply survive. A horse’s ribs “resemble fingers clasped in prayer.” Desolate frozen vistas are “pallid spectres.” One character’s conclusion that “it is the world’s loneliest fate, not being able to afford to take wrong decisions” is particularly striking. As profound as the effect of the cold on life is, even death itself is not spared as “lumps of frozen soil thud against the lid of the coffin” when mourners scatter earth into the grave. This is accomplished stuff, especially from a debut author. The somewhat optimistic conclusion is deftly presented and offers at least some sense of a future. The danger here is of all sorts of cliché and sentimentalism, though Ollikainen skillfully avoids this charge having also spent the earlier pages demonstrating the key function of being willing to be cruel to characters for whom he has an obvious high regard, though on occasion this could be taken further still.
In the current edition of Cabinet Magazine Charlie Fox says that “snow’s richest metaphorical potential probably lies in its capacity to accurately map states of mental desolation, ranging from inertia to catatonia, through its exquisite blankness.” This coincides with several aspects of Ollikainen’s craft in White Hunger, which is redolent of James Dickey’s World War Two novel To the White Sea. Ollikainen has succeeded in blending the human stories of those affected by the famine with the effects on the natural world of the weather which produced it, as well as a broader glance at younger and wealthier urbanites with different concerns. Any one of these might have been tricky enough but to balance all three is skilful, not least for a debutante dealing with a topic so well known in Finland but some of whose drama will be lost practically everywhere else. There are bound to be comparisons with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (there is one in large text before the copyright page, in fact), but one difference is Ollikainen’s supply of warmth in his evocation of human endeavor and sacrifice.