Outside of Finland, Finnish literature is something that has been largely neglected. To some extent this is related to the fact that only a small fraction of Finnish literature has been translated into English – although a greater number of Finnish books is available in German, Estonian or French, for example. And perhaps it would also be fair to say that Finnish literary accomplishments, apart from the Finnish national epic Kalevala, have somehow just slipped under the radar of the international audience.
However, it seems that things are changing. The Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest trade fair for books named Finland its guest of honour in 2014. Under the ill-chosen slogan Finland.Cool the country’s literary and cultural achievements were presented at the book fair. In addition, a literary programme of readings and conferences is taking place in Austria, Germany and Switzerland from June until December. As a welcome side effect, German and international media have discovered that the Finnish literary landscape has in fact quite a lot to offer – even beyond Tove Jansson’s beloved Moomins.
Sofi Oksanen, the Finnish-Estonian writer with her eclectic hairstyles has been the country’s literary poster child for several years. Her novel Purge, which was based on her first play about two women during the Soviet occupation of Estonia, became a huge success and was translated into thirty-eight languages. Stalin’s Cows, her first novel, is sadly not available in English but her latest book When the Doves Disappeared, due to appear in translation early next year, is set once again in Estonia and portrays the fate of her protagonist Juudit against the backdrop of the conflicting and problematic historiography of Soviet and Nazi occupation.
The ghosts of twentieth-century history also haunt the work of Katja Kettu, a native of Finnish Lapland. Her novel Kätilö (‘The Midwife’) tells a tale of the burden of history and a forbidden love story between a Finnish midwife and a German officer in Lapland during the Second World War. Her latest publication, Piippuhylly (literally, the pipe rack) is a collection of short stories told from the perspective of the midwife’s father.
However, not all of Finnish literature explores such solemn topics – some books are actually rather funny. Hannu Raittila’s novels such as Canale Grande, a story of amusing cross-cultural confusion, take a light-hearted approach to Finnish mentality and humor. Arto Paasiilinna, who has written by now no less than 35 comic novels reflecting on the peculiarities of common Finnish life, is another example. The Year of the Hare was first published in 1975 and remains one of the author’s most popular books. The protagonist is a frustrated journalist, who, after nearly killing a hare with his car, decides to spend the rest of his life venturing through Finnish wilderness with the hare.
The Finns are avid readers and about 13,000-14,000 books are published in Finland every year. Only Iceland sees the publication of more books per capita.
In addition to books published in Finnish, there is also a wealth of literature that has been produced by members of the Swedish-speaking population – the Moomin books being its most prominent creation.