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In Helsinki

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‘People are like boats, we head off for a place we’ve been longing to visit for ages,’ says a character in ‘Pirate Rum’, a short story by Tove Jansson. ‘Maybe an island. Finally we get there. And what happens? We go right past, further out.’ Having set off in a canoe, the man gets caught in a storm and is sheltered by two women living on a secluded island. There are thousands of islands in Finland, some of them uninhabited. Archipelagos are prominent in Finnish literature, including Jansson’s work, both the Moomin series for children and her adult fiction written in later life. Jansson was born in Helsinki in 1914, when Finland was an autonomous part of the Russian Empire. The country declared its independence on 6 December 1917. As part of this year’s centenary celebrations, Finnish Literature Exchange (FILI) put together a programme of events to promote Finnish books abroad.

Walking in Helsinki – I went on a FILI-sponsored trip – I saw statues of Elias Lönnrot, who collected folklore for the Kalevala; Aleksis Kivi, the author of Seven Brothers (1870), the first notable Finnish-language novel; Johan Ludvig Runeberg, the national poet of Finland; and Zacharias Topelius, who established the Finnish historical novel. The last two wrote in Swedish (as did Jansson), still the country’s second official language. Helsinki’s street signs are in Finnish and Swedish, with the occasional Russian addition. Some buildings looked German, some Scandinavian; Uspenski Cathedral, designed by a Russian architect, stood out from afar. Everyone I approached spoke fluent English. My walk took me to a bookshop where three Finnish writers were speaking. One of them, Jussi Valtonen, talked about Finland’s lack of diversity, a subject explored in his novel They Know Not What They Do (translated by Kristian London, it’s coming out in the UK in November). When I mentioned the examples of diversity I’d just seen, he said that Finns tend not to give them enough credit.

Several of the writers I met brought up the problem of xenophobia. Henrik Meinander, a historian at the University of Helsinki, said the army is the only place where immigrants are treated equally in Finland. We talked about the populist Finns Party, the second biggest parliamentary party until it split in June, when the more nationalist group was left out of government. Last year, 39,000 foreign nationals were granted residence in Finland, whose population slightly exceeds 5.5 million; out of 28,000 processed asylum applications, only 27 per cent were granted.

Sofi Oksanen, whose 2008 novel Purge (translated by Lola Rogers) was an international bestseller, drew parallels between Finland and Estonia, which ‘has to fight for the right to write its own history’, as Finland did decades earlier. Oksanen’s new novel, Norma, about to be published in Britain in Owen Witesman’s translation, focuses on the status of women in Finland, a country that prides itself on its gender equality.

Pajtim Statovci, whose family fled Kosovo and settled in Finland in 1992, talked about his first novel, My Cat Yugoslavia, in which a talking cat voices its unpleasant opinions on ethnicity and sexuality. David Hackston, who translated the book into English, remembered how its New York Times review was widely discussed in the Finnish media. ‘Finns are obsessed with their image abroad,’ Hackston said. He took Finnish citizenship after the Brexit referendum.

In ‘A Trip to the Riviera’, another of Jansson’s stories, a Frenchman hears two Finnish women talking and thinks of ‘these poor Scandinavians who lived where it was so cold and dark’. Sort Of Books, an independent London publisher, has been reissuing some of her books and publishing others, including the short story collection Letters from Klara (translated by Thomas Teal), for the first time in English. The protagonist of ‘About Summer’, a young artist, says of her murals: ‘It’s kind of a shame I can’t show them to anyone. But I know what would happen. Either they’d scold me or else praise me. And then it wouldn’t be the same any more. Since the summer is over tomorrow, I’ve nailed shut the door to the woodshed. Sometimes it’s good to make a decision.’

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