Saturday, June 18, 2016

Book Review: White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen (translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah

Publication date: March 1, 2015 (first published in 2012 in Finnish)
Author links: Goodreads
Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 136
Purchase links: Amazon - Book Depository

Description (from Goodreads):

What does it take to survive? This is the question posed by the extraordinary Finnish novella that has taken the Nordic literary scene by storm.

1867: a year of devastating famine in Finland. Marja, a farmer’s wife from the north, sets off on foot through the snow with her two young children. Their goal: St Petersburg, where people say there is bread. Others are also heading south, just as desperate to survive. Ruuni, a boy she meets, seems trustworthy. But can anyone really help?

The first book by Finnish author I've read in years and I didn't even read it in Finnish... Though I usually prefer reading everything in English, I wish that I would have picked this one up in the original language, because while I really enjoyed it as a translated work, I think I would have gotten even more out of the original Finnish novella. But since the English translation was so conveniently available in the library, I couldn't resist picking it up. 

My interest towards White Hunger was sparked after I saw it on the Man Booker International Prize 2016 Longlist which was announced in February 2016. The longlist includes thirteen titles in total, and if I am not completely wrong, this is the first time a Finnish author has made that list. Though Finnish literature isn't my thing AT ALL, this kind of international acknowledgement definitely caught my attention.

White Hunger in Finland in 1867 (at that point, Finland was not independent country but under the rule of the Russian Empire) during a year of devastating famine. The famine years, 1866-1868, was the last famine in Finland and Sweden, as well as the last naturally caused famine in Europe. In Finland, this time period is known as suuret nälkävuodet. During this famine, about 15 % of the entire Finnish population died. Though this period of Finnish history is something that is covered probably in like 6th grade history, my recollections of those lessons are very hazy, as a result of which I went into this book not really knowing that much about the time period it is set in. 

Only the words "devastating famine" will probably make you understand that this book is not a happy one. Rather, like the famine, it is quite a devastating reading experience. The images Ollikainen creates of the never ending fields of snow, the days that get sunlight only for a few hours a day and the hunger scratching in the stomachs of the characters is so vivid and tangible. Growing up in Finland, I have gained experience from the never ending snow and the short days, but the description of hunger is only something I can try to imagine. 

The novella focuses on a poor family consisting of a father, mother and two children who are forced to leave their home and become beggars, as well as a set of people living in Helsinki in something that resembles luxury when compared to the lives of those begging on the streets (also the people from higher classes suffered from the famine, but to a much smaller degree, which means that they still had houses to live in and at least something that resemblances actual food). For the first 20 pages of or I had a little difficulties in getting into the story because I felt like it kept the reader very distant from the events, but after that little moment of hesitation of how to feel, I couldn't put it down. 

Within a fairly small number of pages Ollikainen is able to deliver a story that really left an impact on me. While I would not have minded to know more about these characters, I am kind of happy that White Hunger wasn't longer, because right now there are no parts in it that drag or parts that I think didn't really add anything to the story. There are so many things here one could start to analyze more thoroughly, like the way it represents women or how is manages to echo some of the current problems that Finland is struggling with, but I will leave that for another time. All in all, White Hunger really impressed me and I am curious to see how whether it makes the shortlist of six books which will be announced later this month.

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