Leaving everything behind is not always a free choice – this isn’t the year of the hare, the open road doesn’t necessarily lead to freedom. When hunger and death drive you out of your home in the depths of winter, you might not get very far at all.
Nälkävuosi/White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen is a slim, light volume, but much heavier than it looks. Set in the winter of a terrible famine 150 years ago, it feels both far away and strangely contemporary. This is Finland with a Swedish-speaking elite, under Russian rule, on the cusp of huge social change. Reading it, I was reminded of 19th century hymns – “the rich man in his castle, the poor man in his gate” or “Brightly shone the moon that night, tho’ the frost was cruel”. There is a vast gulf between the people living and dying on the land and the ruling class in the comfort of the city. Only at the very end does one man help one little boy bridge that gap. There’s a lesson in there for the reader. Seeing what both desperation and comfort does to people in hard times, I certainly wondered how I’d have responded. But Ollikainen isn’t Dickens – he lets you make up your own mind.
The story starts cruelly, with the first of many deaths, and as winter deepens, it seems that spring will never arrive. But when it does, it is not easy. The past is not forgotten.
Ollikainen has a wonderful way with words. The night sky is the colour of a snake’s eye – the first star lights up, and the eye opens, staring right at you. The gruel ladled out to the poor is thin and grey, no more substantial or appetising than dirty snow at the end of winter.
I read this in the original Finnish, but mother-and-daughter team Emily and Fleur Jeremiah have produced an excellent English translation for Peirene Press. You can read an extract here. If you do, I’ll be surprised if you don’t end up buying the book. Which wouldn’t be a bad choice for Finland’s 100th anniversary year.