Saturday 4 April 2015

Book Review: White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen

Aki Ollikainen's award-winning fiction debut opens with a sort of premonition:
Two skinny pikes lie at the bottom of the boat. They look more like snakes than fish. They no longer twitch; the cold has made them stiff. Their jaws gape, still trickling blood, which blends in slender swirls with the water around Mataleena's feet.  
Food is already in short supply in the remote isolation of northern Finland for Juhani, Marja and their two children Mataleena and Juho. The cold is setting in and their way of life, at best a sort of subsistence, will have no defence against the devastating famine of 1867.

Juhani begins refusing food so that his family can eat, but this leaves him weakened and close to death. Marja is angered:
It was not generosity that motivated Juhani's decision, but cowardice.
He should look after himself, she thinks, so that he can look after his wife and children.

It is Marja who makes the heart-breaking choice to set off on foot through the snow with the two children, leaving Juhani behind. The travellers find shelter from the cruel winter in the house of a neighbour, but must venture much further afield - as far as St Petersburg, they are told - to find a place where bread is more plentiful.

In each new village they are greeted warily; there may be a shortage of food but there's never any shortage of beggars. At times they are shown great kindness - given hard-to-spare bread and shelter for the night - but, at others, great brutality. The relentless cold and hunger deprives people of their humanity; in desperation they are prepared to slay each other for morsels of bread or meat. It takes its toll on the already weakened Marja and her children.

White Hunger has been compared in style and subject to Cormac McCarthy's The Road; its descriptions of poverty and starvation also remind me of Émile Zola's Germinal, although there the grinding misery in a mining village is brought about by industrial rather than environmental factors.

Still there is a common economic thread. In White Hunger, politicians stand accused of not doing more to alleviate the suffering of their people and they in turn blame businessmen for not getting emergency supplies of grain out in time.

Ollikainen has won a slew of awards for this remarkable, piercing novella in his native Finland, where the suffering endured in this famine is still etched on the national psyche. His writing comes with a warning from Meike Ziervogel of independent publisher Peirene Press:
There will come a point in this book where you can take no more of the snow-covered desolation.   
And so it felt to me, despite this being a slim volume of less than 140 pages. Ollikainen writes pared-back, beautiful but unsparing prose which, although rooted in real historical events, has a timeless, apocalyptic quality. The book's translation by mother and daughter team Emily and Fleur Jeremiah conveys all the harshness of the barely imaginable conditions, a battle for survival that is painful and vivid.

About two thirds of the way through, I wasn't sure whether I would be able to carry on with this eloquent but relentless bleakness. Yet the moment at which all hope has been extinguished is also a turning point where the first hint of spring can be glimpsed on the horizon. The ending is masterful and leads you to reconsider the whole of this novella in its light.

Pictures courtesy of Peirene Press and many thanks to them too for my review copy.

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