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The day of Finnish literature
by Asa Butcher
2008-10-10 09:23:04
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Finland has its flags up again today to honour both Aleksis Kivi Day and Finnish Literature Day, since Kivi is commonly referred to as the creator of modern Finnish literature. When it came to deciding how to approach an article for today my choices were narrowed by Thanos' excellent article for the same day last year.

In the end my inspiration came from two sources close to home - in fact, they live at home - the first was my Finnish wife and the second was our two-year-old daughter. I asked my wife what was the last Finnish novel she had read and she guessed it was probably one of her high school set texts back in the 1990s and even then it was not an enjoyable experience. She is not a fan of fiction preferring to flick through a magazine or read non-fiction, such as health food books and child-raising manuals.

Finnish Literature Day should aim to encourage both Finns and foreigners to read something written by a Finn, whether in the original language or via a translation. While making notes for this article the number of Finnish books I had actually read surprised me, although it pales into insignificance when compared to Ovi's Greek bookworm. My list includes Arto Paasilinna's The Year of the Hare, Tove Jansson's The Summer Book and Väinö Linna's Under the North Star and Unknown Soldier, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed.

In his articles Thanos has emphasised the importance of good translation or there is a danger the heart of the original will be lost, but whether the translator has performed a good job or not it is still worth reading a selection of Finnish literature to gain an insight into its cultural heritage. I am sure many Finns have read works by William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens in Finnish, so they will be aware of the slight nuances between the two, although this does remind me of a moment in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country when Chancellor Gorkon says, "You haven't heard Shakespeare until you've heard it in the original Klingon," to which General Chang performs Hamlet's famous line, "taH pagh, taH be?"

From "To be, or not to be" to Tony B, my brother, who was the lucky recipient of Charles Dicken's David Copperfield on his birthday last year because he had never read anything by one of England's greatest writers and he found that fellow train passengers would be reading it over his shoulder on the commute to and from work. It wasn't until a few months before him that even I had read my first Dicken's novel, which brings me on to the second influence of this article, my daughter.

At present she has is learning Finnish and English simultaneously from her mum and I, which is aided by a large selection of children's books in both languages. We're not inflicting Dickens on her just yet, I prefer to read her Spot the Dog's stories, while Äiti calls him Puppe, although she is more interested in lifting the flaps than paying attention to the puppy's name. As the foreign language speaker I will have to be cunning in my attempts to maintain her interest in reading English books by surreptitiously adding books to her library that I loved as kid, such as Roger Hargreaves' Mr. Men series, Roger McGough's books and maybe some politically incorrect Enid Blyton "Famous Five" adventures, which will then lead on to heavier literary works.

I am cheered that Finland has a Literature Day to encourage everybody to pick up either a classic or contemporary piece of Finnish literature because even if just one person is inspired then the world will have become a better place. It is a shame that the UK doesn't implement an English Literature Day on February 7th to commemorate the birth of Charles Dickens and promote reading among more adults because a book can offer us all the best of times and the worst of times...

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Emanuel Paparella2007-10-10 12:17:13
Inspiring article on the celebration of literature. Judging from its music, surely Finland must have a great literature too. I may well pick up what is recommended, hopefully it will not be "murdered" in translation. It is rare, but some say that some translations of Shakespeare in German are better than the original. Since I don't know German I'll never be able to confirm or disprove it. At any rate, before there was literature there was narration (Homer) and the common sense and wisdom of the people. A literature merely looking at the future and unable to turn the telescope around and retrace its steps to its origins in narration runs the danger of becoming sterile. Hurrah for authentic literature where life and art meet.

Eero Nevalainen2007-10-10 20:12:50
I'm not going to recommend Kalevala as it has its own day (and is tough going even for native speakers of modern Finnish), although it really shows how much could be done with the language thousands of years ago. Finnish has just got poorer after that...

Kivi's Seitsemän veljestä is a favourite of mine as it gives an insight into how Finns viewed and still do view themselves, and actually dare be proud of it, to the horror of those who would consider themselves more "civilized". Compare to Runeberg, and you will just see this huge difference... he seriously wasn't in touch with the majority of the people in any way.

Anyway, there is interesting modern literature being written in Finnish too, you shouldn't be stuck to reading the classics. Jari Tervo is just absolutely brilliant in his "Myyrä", which is my favourite Finnish book of recent years... his treatment of Kekkonen is fascinatingly quirky, while not exactly being disrespectful...

Asa2007-10-10 20:50:21
Eero, have you ever read any Finnish literature in another language?

Jack2007-10-10 22:32:17
As a former one, the Unknown Soldier hit close to home. Thank you Viano Linna and the Finland's Hall of Fame group of authors.

Authors who greatly impact other (eventually) great authors...what better compliment can there be.

AP2008-10-10 19:27:21
Finnish literature is rich, even the contemporary one, Eero. The originality and the ambiance make it special. There are even good short-story writers. The problem is with the translations, because those are fundamental for a language that not many know/want to learn. The important thing is that the translator should command exceedingly well the "destination" language so he can find the right words and expressions, because even if languages differ, the human nature is the same.

And of course, if you want to get deeper knowledge about a given culture, just try reading its novels.

Hank W.2008-10-17 19:13:06
About the statue of Aleksis Kivi... some contemporary said "Isn't it a bit rude to put someone died of hunger sit in front of the larder?"

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