2017 Book Reading Challenge, Book 4: Finnish Short Stories 

Title: The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy 

Author: Johanna Sinisalo (editor), David Hackston (translator)

Publisher: Dedalus

Location of publisher: United Kingdom

Year of publication: 2005, 2010 reprint

Number of pages: 337

Date I finished reading it: 19 January 2017

Have I read this before? No

Fiction or nonfiction: Fiction

Genres: Fantasy, sci fi, horror, short story, Finnish literature, English translation

Personal reflections upon reading this text:

As I sat down to write this post I realised that I might need to change the format of this blog. I do read a lot of short story compilations and usually they take me a long time to finish. I think that, going ahead, it might work better for me to break apart such compilations and record or review each short story separately. That way I can maintain momentum with the blog while also giving each short story the attention it deserves. That is, while I am using the term “book” for these blog reflections, I might need to broaden the scope of it to include short stories, and maybe in the future I can include texts like journal articles and, for example, different books within large texts like the Bible. It’s just a thought. The temptation is to be far too rigid in how I write these reflections, but ultimately they’re meant to be a way to help me reflexively interact with the texts I read, as opposed to just checking off ideas on a list.

 

The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy was a birthday gift from my sister, and I have to say she was spot-on with this choice. I had never thought to look into Finnish literature before – I imagine the closest I’ve gotten so far was coming across a Tove Jansson short story in a collection of ghost stories I own, and, by a stretch of the imagination, some of Tolkien’s writings which surely have to be influenced by Finnish mythology.

So, why Finnish stories?

I am not in the slightest bit Finnish – at least, not that I know of. My most recent ancestors came from England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and France – but that said, on the Scottish and English sides, and possibly the Irish, they can then be traced further back to Scandinavia. Specifically Norway, Denmark, and (if I recall correctly), Sweden. My late grandmother once mentioned that some of our Scottish side were descended from Spanish survivors of the Armada in the 16th Century. My most distant ancestors for whom we have names on the genealogical charts were Norsemen and Normans, the Viking invaders of England. I have to credit my sister and some other relatives for doing the bulk of the research. I have read somewhere that my maiden surname comes from a combination of Norse-Gaelic words and roughly translates to “thieves or pirates of the valley or ravine” – I wonder if that’s a throwback to some memory of Viking invaders? It’s true that my family’s history has a number of sailors and explorers, including one of the first English people to set foot on Australian soil prior to the English convict ships, so perhaps the sea is in our blood. My family has handed down the stories and the genealogies over the generations and just a couple of years ago I took my children to a big event in our city where descendants of an early pioneering Anglo-Australian family gathered at our distant ancestors’ memorial stone. It was surreal to think that this space of strangers mostly comprised of my kids’ and my distant cousins.

By contrast, my Anglo-Ukrainian husband knows virtually nothing about the Ukrainian side of the family, as sadly much was lost during the Second World War, and it didn’t occur to anyone to ask his grandfather for the family history while he was still alive. He left behind a Bible – either in Russian or Ukrainian language, I don’t know – but well-meaning relatives shipped it off to Christian missionaries in far eastern Russia, as they couldn’t read it, and it didn’t occur to them that (a) if it were a Ukrainian Bible, as I suspect it was, Russian and Ukrainian are different languages and far eastern Russians probably didn’t have much use for it; (b) there’s a good chance that the names of their Ukrainian relatives were named somewhere inside the Bible. All we have now are some prisoner of war papers and the name of a village in western Ukraine, and the surprising knowledge that a number of people with the same surname live in that village.

The thing is, I am fascinated by European history, mostly because it represents something of my own heritage. As someone who is several generations Australian, I am not European and Australian culture really is quite different in a lot of ways. I took World War I and II history as part of my Bachelor of Arts degree, as well as subjects like Indigenous Australian history, and Australian migration and racial politics. I enjoy learning about the past and different cultures and I wish I could speak other languages. But failing that, I find that listening to my friends tell me about their diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds does suffice. Reading books and listening to music from other cultures helps too.

I am particularly drawn to late 19th Century European literature, especially the gothic tales from that time, like the incomparable Irish novel Dracula. When I married a guy with Ukrainian heritage, who knew hardly enough about his culture to satisfy my own questions, I added Slavic literature to the mix. Slavic mythology is something else, absolutely amazing, and I know that The Husband and our kids have enjoyed learning more about that side of their heritage. Writers like Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky became some of my favourite writers. At the same time, the Celtic mythologies of my own heritage were solidly woven into my reading habits and cultural expressions as a child, and I grew up familiar with Norse and Ancient Egyptian mythologies and beliefs, too.

At the same time, as a keen, albeit very amateur, musician from a young age, upon taking up bass guitar in my teens I soon began to identify as a ‘metalhead.’ I love heavy metal music. In my late 20s I discovered folk metal, a fusion of folk mythologies and instruments with heavy metal. It reminded me in many ways of some of the songs by bands like Led Zeppelin (‘No Quarter’) and Jethro Tull (albums like Songs From the Wood and The Broadsword and the Beast), those records being on regular rotation in our home.

A lot of the best folk metal (in my humble opinion) comes from Finland and is sung in a variety of languages. At some point I realised that a vast majority of my favourite bands were Finnish and the themes in their songs often derived from a blend of Norse mythology and Finnish pagan beliefs. It turns out that there are a lot of Australian metalheads, like me, who love folk metal. Whenever I’ve gone to concerts by European folk metal bands I look around and wonder who all these people are – and why is it so hard to meet them in day-to-day life? I’ve seen bands like Ensiferum and the Swiss Celtic band Eluveitie and I just love the music, the energy, the vibe… the sheer geekiness of a bunch of my fellow folk mythology fans singing along in different languages to songs about ancient gods and warriors and history. I’ve been to concerts where fans turn up in kilts or chainmail or all manner of European ethnic costume.

So, really long story short – because I love Finnish heavy metal and, as a result, find myself really intrigued by their culture and creative arts, my sister gave me this short story compilation of Finnish (and at least one Estonian) writers in the fantasy genres.

Overall the stories strike my personal story aesthetic as rather strange. They are not like English stories, with predictably happy endings and a sense of hope. A lot of the stories are quite bleak – I don’t know if that’s just this particular collection of authors or if that’s representative of Finnish literature in general. The closest I have ever read to these stories are some of the 19th Century Russian and Ukrainian authors I like. But where those Slavic stories have an intense, passionate drive – lots of emotions in the face of despair – in this particular collection of Finnish tales I often came away with a sense of a kind of hollowness. That isn’t a criticism, by the way – it’s genuinely refreshing to read stories where I couldn’t ever predict the ending. The fantastical elements are thoroughly woven into the stories, without explanation. They are taken for granted within the stories. Often the stories seem to be left with a lot of loose threads. They aren’t spelled out so that I didn’t always completely understand what exactly the narrative was describing. Again, I found this really fascinating and a good challenge to my assumption that stories need to have clear-cut endings.

I like that the stories originate in a few different language groups – Finnish, Swedish and Estonian – and come from different story eras. Male and female authors are well-represented. They vary in length, and some of them could be considered poetry. It’s a book I’ll probably come back to at a later date – I do enjoy short story compilations. Usually they serve me well as bedtime reading because I can get in a story before sleep; however, this particular compilation was at times disturbing enough that I found I preferred reading it in broad daylight!

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