Sunday, August 26, 2012

More Fiction with Finnish: A Fool’s Paradise and We Sinners

Anita Konkka’s A Fool’s Paradise, which I read in A.D. Haun and Owen Witesman’s translation of the Finnish original Hullun taivaassa, and Hanna Pylväinen’s We Sinners share more than Finnish ancestry: structurally, both books link vignettes or stories into novels, and both books offer straightforward writing and rather bleak, atmospheric pictures of loneliness. 

I read A Fool’s Paradise first, enjoying Konkka’s first-person narrator’s dark humor: her storyteller is an unemployed young woman who’s involved with a married man and enjoys referring to Russian literature and writers. In the first chapter, she has a stone from Pasternak’s grave in her pocket. The woman’s accounts of her life, much of which isn’t particularly interesting in term of activity, read, to me, like a stream of vignettes, often incorporating observations about strangers and descriptions of dreams. “Our life passes in sleeping and waiting,” she says. She also says her only duty in society is to report to the unemployment office.

It’s Konkka’s use of detail—a bird flying into a room, a gypsy on a ferry, childhood memories of learning about Yuri Gagarin—and tone, as conveyed by Haun and Witesman, that made A Fool’s Paradise so strangely engaging for me. Here’s an example:
A young man is distributing leaflets in front of the K-Market and asks whether I believe in Jesus. No woman has ever asked me that. Perhaps they’ve agreed that men will save women and women save men, since people are more responsive to the allure of the opposite sex.
Repentance and sin are, as promised by the title, a crucial element of We Sinners, a novel-in-stories that chronicles the lives of the Rovaniemis, a family of Finnish descent living in the U.S. that has nine children. The Rovaniemis are Laestadian Lutherans who aren’t allowed to watch movies or TV, go to school dances, use makeup, or drink alcohol. Among other things. Of course they break the rules a lot, and several of the Rovaniemi children leave the church during the course of the book. One of the younger Rovaniemis sums up the church this way, “It’s a kind of Lutheranism where everyone is much more hung up on being Lutheran than all the other normal Lutherans. End of story.”

All those rules and alleged deprivations (I love life without a TV!), along with the expected transgressions from all manner of sinners, were less interesting for me than Pylväinen’s grace in structuring the book, her debut novel. She tells the family’s story chronologically, economically covering a couple decades in under 200 pages by carrying threads from one story to another. In the first story, children get chicken pox and their father, Warren, may be offered the job of pastor at their church… Pylväinen starts the second story by letting the reader know what happened for Warren.

Pylväinen also creates an interesting illusion with her story-chapters, many of which focus on a key episode in one character’s life with references to other family members. The characters—from father Warren, who grits his teeth from anger until a crown breaks, to Brita, a daughter whose first press of the keys on her new piano is silent—are members of a crowded family living in a crowded house but they often feel tragically alone in their anger, disappointment, and relative poverty. Much of the siblings’ interaction comes through solidarity in leaving or staying with the church.

Two scenes involving the mother, Pirjo, especially stuck with me. In the first, her discovery (at the movies!) that one of her sons is gay seemed especially alienating for everyone involved, “She felt slapped, she felt rejected, she felt like he had looked at the life she had made for him and he had spit on it.” So much for forgiveness. Toward the end of the book, Pirjo tells one of her daughters over the phone, “We’re here to remind you of what is right. We know you know in your hearts what the right thing is, of course we know you know that—” But then her daughter cuts her off, yelling, “Assholes!”

Up Next: Seven Days by Deon Meyer.

Disclaimers: I received a review copy of We Sinners from publisher Henry Holt, thank you!

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