Sunday, July 15, 2012

Riikka Pulkkinen’s True

Riikka Pulkkinen’s True, which I read in Lola M. Roger’s translation from the Finnish original Totta, is a novel about family, death, and dying that tells the story of three generations. Though it’s the grandmother, Elsa, who is dying in the present day, Pulkkinen tells much of the family’s collective story through an affair in the 1960s between Martti, Elsa’s husband, and Eeva, the nanny for their daughter Eleonoora.

The situations in True—a torrid affair with the nanny while Elsa is away on business—sound trite and soap opera-ish, but Pulkkinen offers a new angle by letting Martti and Elsa’s granddaughter, Anna, imagine the affair. This isn’t a stretch for Anna: she and Martti have a long-standing habit of looking at strangers and inventing life stories for them. Anna combines imagination with her own life, projecting her own pain, left over from her relationship with a past boyfriend’s young daughter, onto Martti and Eeva’s story, thinking Eeva would also suffer from being separated from Eleonoora.

Interpretations of reality and relationships float through True. Martti, a prominent painter, tells stories, too, through his art, including portraits of the women in his life, and Elsa is a well-known psychologist. Pulkkinen also weaves in the social changes of the 1960s, referencing protests about the Vietnam War and sending Eeva to Paris. Eeva is no activist, though, and Pulkkinen contrasts the personal and the social. Here’s a paragraph from one of Anna’s chapters imagining Eeva’s voice:
No one will admit it but all of us are actually more interested in the lake and the sauna and the half of a blueberry pie on the table than we are in the fact that reality is being created at this very moment in offices and meeting rooms and on speakers’ platforms and who knows maybe underground in the kinds of groups whose names have only just been thought up.
Pulkkinen refers to other Finnish sweets, including some of my favorites: breads with cardamom, which my mother used to bake using my Finnish grandmother’s recipe, get several mentions as do candies from Fazer, which I used to buy in airports on my way to and from Moscow. I suspect they draw on Finnish readers’ senses and—more importantly—memories even more than they draw on mine.

In Rogers’s translation, the narrative voices of True feel neutral and, considering the emotional subject matter, almost flat, as they describe landscapes, family relationships, and even Elsa’s death, which the reader knows must come. But Rogers’s tone felt true to me: it prevented the novel from becoming maudlin, and it fit nicely with True’s Finnish settings, where characters endure, with stoicism, hot saunas, cold swimming, and all sorts of emotional pain and distance.

I think it’s the combination of stylistics, Finnish motifs, and, of course, stereotypical elements of stories about family—meaning everything from the book’s narrative tone to the birds, the sweets, the lake, the rotting boards in the sauna, the love of ice cream, and even the closet holding Eeva’s old dress—that hold True together, making an old story feel worthy of retelling, with, of course, variations.

Disclaimers: I received a review copy of True at BookExpoAmerica from Other Press, thank you! I enjoyed speaking about Russian literature in translation with Other Press during BEA. More on disclosures: here.

Up Next: Michael Frayn’s Skios, which I enjoyed very much.

Image credit: Photo of Finnish breads from Mikalaari, via Wikipedia

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