Finland 100: a midsummer train ride



Susanne Gottberg’s painting, cover of WSOY Finland 100 Classics edition of Juhani Aho’s Rautatie

“Have you heard about the iron road?”

Iron road?”

“yes, iron tracks, and on it, an iron horse that eats whole logs instead of hay, it’s a bit like the Suomela steam boat, only of course it doesn’t have paddles, it has wheels, and the wheels roll along the iron road and it goes incredibly fast, faster than anything you’ve ever seen… you can get on it and go all the way to Helsinki – even to Paris!”

When Matti goes home to tell his wife Liisa that, she certainly thinks he’s been drinking. Whoever heard of such a thing? But he heard it from the vicar, when he went to take his tithes in (by horse and cart, in winter, over the ice road, which takes all day), and the vicar’s wife has seen it, so she should know.

So although Liisa gives Matti a piece of her mind, and they don’t speak for days, weeks, they are both only thinking about one thing. Until spring comes, and then midsummer is a holiday anyway, and the preacher at Lapinlahti is supposed to be so much better, so they might as well walk over and see the train station…

And that is what they do.

Before they know it, they’ve paid a whole mark each and they are off. Except another passenger offers Matti a drink (it is midsummer after all), and they miss their stop…

Juhani Aho wrote this story in 1884, and 18 years later, his home village of Lapinlahti really did have a train station. Aho had also been to Paris in 1884, and described the new Eiffel Tower and the Paris exhibition to his readers at home. He wrote for the regional newspaper that “maybe one day there’ll be another exhibition where they put the Eiffel Tower and the lift where this [stone-age] cave is now and people will smile pityingly at such a poor old shack! So that’s what their buildings used to be like!”

How right he was. It would be easy to smile pityingly at Matti and Liisa, or even laugh out loud, as the vicar and his wife nearly do. But Juhani Aho is gentler in his social criticism than Minna Canth; it all works out well in the end.

Aho was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature twelve times, and it is easy to see why Rautatie (The iron road) is so well loved. The 1973 film is available to watch online on yle areena, the Finnish equivalent of BBC iPlayer, here. There are some great stills of some key scenes, including the moment when Matti and Liisa actually touch the rails for the first time with their own hands. Rautatie is available in Owen Witesman’s English translation, The Railroad, from Norvik Press. You can get a taste of Juhani Aho’s writing in his short story, The Fool’s advice, which was published in Finland: An English Journal Devoted to the Cause of the Finnish People in 1899. Aho himself died in 1921, so he saw the first four years of Finnish independence.

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Posted in books, Finland 100, translation
One comment on “Finland 100: a midsummer train ride
  1. […] You might have read or seen Sofi Oksanen’s Puhdistus/Purge already; the Finnish-Estonian author’s stories about women’s limited control over their own lives and bodies can be brutally painful, but gripping. I read Norma, her latest book, when it was first published in Finnish two years ago. One copy got swiftly passed round the women in my family, from Joensuu on the eastern border to Tampere in the west and back again. Now you can read it in English, as it was published last month. Her translator, Owen Witesman, has also translated Salla Simukka’s fabulous Lumikki/Snow White series, and Juhani Aho’s The Railroad/Rautatie. […]

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