Would the real Finland please stand up?

Finland, Finland, Finland
The country where I want to be
Pony trekking or camping
Or just watching TV
Finland, Finland, Finland
It’s the country for me

You’re so near to Russia
So far from Japan
Quite a long way from Cairo
Lots of miles from Vietnam

Monty Python, ‘Finland Song’

My first youthful awareness of Finland came via the affectionate musical tribute by the Monty Python team. A keen ‘Fin-o-phile’ ever since, I’ve very much enjoyed reading crime novels set amongst its ‘mountains so lofty’ and ‘treetops so tall’. Along the way, via the novels of Jan Costin Wagner, I’ve developed an image of the country in line with Nordic writers such as Indridason (Iceland): freezing cold, austerly beautiful, and as melancholy as can be. This brief excerpt from Costin Wagner’s Winter of the Lions illustrates the point: ‘Then he got to his feet, walked down the dimly lit corridor and through the driving snow to his car. He drove to Lenaniemi. As the ferry made the crossing, he stood by the rail in the icy wind’ (… before visiting his wife’s grave and keeping a late-night appointment with a bottle of vodka). 

However, I’ve just had an interesting reading experience that’s challenged this romantic-melancholic view of Finland. Having finished – and very much enjoyed – Costin Wagner’s Winter of the Lions (see review here), I embarked on James Thompson’s Snow Angels (HarperCollins 2010), another police procedural, set in northern Finland (Lapland), which presents a much grittier image of a country characterised by high rates of violent crime: ‘Per capita, our murder rate is about the same as most American big cities. The over-whelming majority of our murders are intimate events. We kill the people we love, our husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, parents and friends, almost always in drunken rages’. The kaamos, the ‘darkness’ that falls over the land for long winter months, is shown to trigger high levels of depression, drinking, violence and suicide, and the way that it’s depicted here moves well beyond melancholy to something altogether darker.   

These divergent depictions of Finland ‘clashed’ for me as a reader, particularly as I read the novels more or less one after the other. Much of that sense of disjunction lay in the very different tone of the novels, which in turn reflected the contrasting literary traditions in which the authors had chosen to locate themselves. Costin Wagner (German with a Finnish wife) draws heavily on the model of Nordic crime established by writers such as Sjowall and Wahloo, Mankell, and Indridason (which reveals the underbelly of society, but has a highly controlled, pared-down style, and an introverted and melancholic feel). In contrast, Thompson (American with a Finnish wife) has channelled the grit and tone of the American thriller to create a hybrid text which his publicity blurb describes as ‘nordic noir’. It’s an often engaging, but very hard-hitting first-person narrative with frequent, extreme depictions of violence (a topic for another post another time).

The contrast between these texts and their depictions of Finland acts as a useful brake for those of us who might unquestioningly accept the portrait of any given country in a crime novel – or indeed any novel – as ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ (literature as travel guide). It’s a timely reminder of an obvious point: that authors provide representations of countries in their novels, which are often very beguiling or sell well in the literary marketplace, but which may or may not be accurate in the eyes of their citizens. And it’s not necessarily a case of ‘would the real Finland please stand up’: some Finns might identify more strongly with Costin Wagner’s portrayal of Finland than Thompson’s, or vice versa, or even think that both have validity. 

A final thought: how intriguing that neither author is Finnish by birth. Given this, one could argue that neither has a true ‘native’ insight into Finnish society, although the counter-argument that the ‘outsider’ can often see you more clearly than you see yourself could equally be applied. In the case of Costin Wagner and Thompson, it would perhaps be more accurate to speak of a complex ‘insider-outsider’ status, as foreigners who have married Finns, lived in the country for a number of years and learned the language (respect!). This dual status grants the authors a highly valuable perspective from which to write about Finland, albeit in strikingly different ways.

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