White HungerAki Ollikainen
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?
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Why Peirene chose to publish this book:
Like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, this apocalyptic story deals with the human will to survive. And let me be honest: There will come a point in this book where you can take no more of the snow-covered desolation. But then the first rays of spring sun appear and our belief in the human spirit is revived. A stunning tale.
Written by Aki Ollikainen.
Translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah.
Chance Encounter Series
144pp, paperback with flaps, £12
Published February 2015
Aki Ollikainen, born in 1973, has taken the Finnish literary scene by storm with his extraordinarily accomplished debut novel White Hunger, which has won the most prestigous literary prizes in Finland. A professional photographer and reporter for a local newspaper, the author lives in Kolari in northern Finland. His second novel will be published in spring 2015.
Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah form a multilingual mother-and-daughter translation team. Emily has an MA in Creative Writing and a PhD in German Studies. Fleur, her mother, is Finnish and has translated both fiction and non-fiction for many years. Emily and Fleur have co-translated work by numerous Finnish poets and novelists. They have translated three Peirene books: Peirene no. 7, The Brothers by Asko Sahlberg; Peirene no. 11, Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson; and Peirene no. 16, White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen.
‘In famine-stricken 1860s Finland, the brief epic of Aki Ollikainen’s White Hunger not only brings past hardships to shivering life, but offers a perennial fable of the refugee’s plight.’ Boyd Tonkin, Independent
‘A striking folk tale about austerity politics.’ Christina Petrie, Times Literary Supplement
‘White Hunger is Aki Ollikainen’s debut work, but it is written with the control of someone who has mastered the form. It has won four of Finland’s literary prizes, and I imagine this is not only down to the spare, taut prose, but to the way in which it documents one of the most painful periods of Finnish history.’ Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian
‘This is a slender book, but its theme of the human being’s determination to survive drills down into our most basic of instincts: how can I stay alive?… impossible not to respond to its raw, unsparing drama.’ Elizabeth Bucan, The Daily Mail
‘Ollikainen’s prose is as determined as the characters’ own will to live; and, even where it seems life simply cannot endure, the narrative deals bluntly, leading the reader through a tale of epic substance compacted into a mere seven-score pages.’ Ben Paynter, Los Angeles Review of Books
The rowlocks screech, like a bird.
Two skinny pikes lie at the bottom of the boat. They look more like snakes than fish. They no longer twitch; the cold has made them stiff. Their jaws gape, still trickling blood, which blends in slender swirls with the water around Mataleena’s feet.
Mataleena dips her hand in the cold lake, lets it glide lazily alongside the boat until the chill makes her joints ache. The wind tugs waves out of the water. The sky reflected there is patchy, fragmentary, as if smashed.
Juhani stretches out his sinewy neck like a crane, looking up. Mataleena takes in her father’s face, the thin bridge of his nose, and then the sky, an immense silver spoon over the lake.
‘They’re already heading south.’ Juhani sighs.
‘I can’t see any birds.’
‘That’s because they’ve already gone.’
Juhani looks down, to Mataleena.
‘Anyway, we got some fish.’
Juhani pulls the boat up between some bushes. Marja has come to meet them, carrying Juho. She lowers the boy to the ground, and Mataleena takes her little brother by the hand. Marja looks into the boat.
‘What skinny fish.’
The trees on the opposite shore are reflected blackly in the water. Somewhere, a loon cries. Soon, it too will fly south.
They walk through the forest, along a narrow path. When Marja bends down to look for lingonberries, she hears a quick, angry hiss, as if a glowing firebrand were being dropped into water. She screams, leaps back. Landing, she loses her footing and falls among the shrubs. First, she sees blurry dots: the pale lingonberries, whipped by the frosty night. Then she looks in the direction of the hiss and, slowly, a black coil assumes the shape of a snake. Its eyes are the colour of frozen berries, its twin teeth like icicles. But the adder does not lash out, merely
Juhani steps forward, a rock in his raised hand. Then he strikes. The snake is pinned down by the rock.
With one breath, Marja releases the air that terror had locked in her stomach. Juhani reaches out and helps her get up.
‘Poor devil. Already dazed with cold. Couldn’t escape.’
Marja looks at the rock; it is as if she can see the snake through the grey stone.
‘Is it still alive?’
‘No,’ Juhani replies, bending down to pick up the rock.
‘Don’t, for God’s sake! Leave it be. I don’t want to see a dead snake.’
A soft, sizzling sound, as the burning spill hits the water in the pail. The dim light succeeds in tracing Juhani’s shadow on the wall as he rises from his bed, lifts Marja’s dress, places his hands on her knees and pushes her legs apart. Marja takes hold of Juhani’s erect penis. She wants it, too, but her fear is even greater than her burning desire. What if she were to fall pregnant? Another mouth to feed, in this misery. Marja pushes Juhani back on to the mattress. He sighs, trying to hide his disappointment.
Marja moves her hand slowly back and forth, squeezing his member. A subdued groan escapes Juhani. She places her free hand between her legs. He comes first. Marja bites the collar of her nightdress, waves pass through her body. After, she feels empty again. She strokes Juhani’s limp member and thinks of the skinny pikes.
He should sacrifice the pawn. Otherwise, the white queen will drive the king into a corner and the bishop, a few moves away, will not have time to come to the rescue.
Lars Renqvist has to admit that the situation on the board looks hopeless. Teo taps the edge of the table irritably.
‘Just give up, why don’t you?’ he says to his brother.
‘Or let’s stop for now and carry on another time.’
‘All right. We’ll finish the game when we next meet,’ Lars replies.
Teo watches his brother’s face with amusement; Lars is still examining the pieces on the board. He notices that Lars has taken to wrinkling his forehead like his revered superior in the senate.
‘In my opinion, that senator of yours is mistaken,’ Teo says.
‘You don’t understand the essence of this nation.’ Lars sighs and gets up to ladle punch into small glasses. Passing one to Teo, he goes on: ‘We need to provide people with work. If you start pouring grain into their silos for nothing, you’ll end up with a bottomless pit. Our most pressing duty is to secure work for the unemployed.’
‘Work’s fruitless when there’s no food to be had. What’s the point?’
Lars is getting agitated. The senator arranged a loan without guarantees from Rothschild’s. He was only able to do so because of the country’s good name. Skittishness at the first hurdle must not be allowed to jeopardize that trust.
‘I can’t see why you don’t understand,’ Lars snaps.
At that moment, the salon doors open and Raakel comes in with a tea tray, which she places on the small table. Good timing. Lars takes a deep breath, calmed by his wife’s tender glance.
Raakel is wiser than her husband, Teo thinks. She would have solved the begging problem by now, if only someone had had the wit to ask her. She would have encouraged everyone to go back home, told them: just be patient and wait, there’ll be food once we find a big enough saucepan.
‘The idea was that businessmen were to arrange emergency supplies of grain. That was the senator’s proposal and he was quite right. It’s not his fault the merchants didn’t get their act together.’ Lars sounds like a long-suffering father, explaining something to his child for the seventh time.
‘No one ordered that grain. After all, you might just as well urge a minister to give one of his fellow men the shirt off his back as ask a merchant to feed the poor,’ Teo says.
The mention of ministers silences Lars for a moment, and Teo supposes his brother still feels guilty that neither of them fulfilled Father’s wish and devoted himself to theology.
‘I know someone willing to give up his shirt for the whores of Punavuori,’ Raakel says.
‘I am a doctor of the poor, like the great Paracelsus,’ Teo says, spreading his arms.
‘The whores of Helsinki have nothing to worry about, with our Paracelsus looking after them.’
Lars bursts out laughing. Raakel slams the door shut triumphantly as she leaves. Teo, too, is amused as he pictures the victorious smile playing on Raakel’s lips because she has had the last word. What a good mother Raakel would make, if only she were not barren. Although the problem could be with Lars, Teo thinks; their family may be condemned to die out with the two of them.
Perhaps that is the crux of the matter. Hunger eliminates the weakest citizens, just as a gardener prunes bad branches off his apple tree.
For Reading Groups
Take a look at our reading guide, with some conversational impetus:
1 Does this novel make you feel more sympathetic to the plight of refugees?
2 Although this is a historical novel, what is it about the story that makes it feel contemporary?
3 ‘A novella that feels like a great, huge novel’ (Satakunnan Kansa), how does the author achieve this?
4 What will become of the families Marja and her children stay with on their journey?
5 Do you think this novel has a central character?
6 Do any of the characters have a meaningful relationship with God?
7 The Senator is a prominent yet mysterious figure in the book; does it matter that we are not fully informed of the story’s politics or do you wish there was more explanation of the historical and political issues?
8 Do you think we are given more insight into the inner lives of the wealthier characters? If so, why might this be important to the story?
9 How does the change in the sexual relations in the book reflect the change in society?
10 Memory, or the lack thereof, is a theme of the book. How does collective memory influence a nation? What implications might it have for the industrial future hinted at in the novel?
This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.
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