Tag Archives: Scandanavian Literature

Review: Compartment No. 6 by Rosa Liksom

I received an advance review copy of this title from Graywolf Press.  This title was published in the original Finnish in 2011 and this English version has been translated by Lola Rogers.  This is my first contribution to Women in Translation Month which is taking place all during the month of August.

My Review:
Compartment No. 6As I first started reading this book I kept wondering why a young Finnish girl would choose to attend university in the Soviet Union during the decade of the 1980’s.  But as the plot progresses it is revealed that the girl, who is never given a name, falls in love with Moscow on a trip with her family.  But the Moscow she sees on her trip as a young high school student is the pristine and official one, created and controlled by the government, and is very different than the one the girl encounters as a university student on her trip across the Soviet Union via the Trans-Siberian railway.  When the girl boards the train she chooses compartment No. 6 because it is quiet and empty but her solitude is soon disrupted by a gruff and garrulous ex-soldier named Vadim.

When the girl boards the train on her way to Mongolia she seems emotionally numb and the sexually explicit and crass stories of her traveling companion don’t appear to penetrate her malaise.  The author cleverly emphasizes the girl’s mental aloofness by blurring certain details that we would expect from a main character.  As I have already mentioned, she is never given a name and is simply referred to as “the girl” and her speech is never directly quoted anywhere in the text.  When Vadim and other characters are speaking, traditional quotations and direct speech are used, but the girl’s thoughts and words are always summed up in the third person.  Vadim tells one tale after another of his sexual conquests, fights and outrageous behavior but the girl is too lost in her own world to have the strong reaction to him that one would expect.

As the bleak landscape of the taiga passes her by, the girl reflects back on her time in Moscow as a student where she lived with her boyfriend, Mitka.  Her memories are scattered and disjointed and it felt as though I was looking through an old photograph album with her and getting the barest details about her relationship.  As she describes her life in Moscow, it appears that she is remembering Mitka with a feeling of bitter sweetness and there is something that has happened with Mitka and his mother that has made her flee Moscow and get as far away from them as possible.  There are vague descriptions of Mitka having a severe breakdown and being in a mental institution and the girl’s subsequent relationship with Mitka’s mother.  There is also an intriguing story of a violent encounter that the girl and Mitka suffer one night in Moscow.  This is another example of the details of the text being blurred and leaving the reader to speculate about the girl’s life in Moscow.

As the girl and Vadim get farther along on their journey, they form an unusual bond of what I would loosely call friendship.  Vadim is a man who likes to be the center of attention and tell outrageous stories and the girl listens to him.  She does flee their compartment when he suggests that they have sex, but she always comes back.  Vadim performs small tasks for the girl like brewing her tea and sharing his meals and arranging for places to stay when the train stops overnight.  Even though Vadim has had a rough life and has a proclivity towards violence, even with his own wife, he is patient and protective of this strange Finnish girl.  The culminating moment in their relationship is when they reach Mongolia and she is having a hard time dealing with her government appointed tour guide.  She seeks out Vadim, cries on his shoulder and he sets about making everything right for her.

The two most interesting aspects of this book are the relationship that develops between the girl and Vadim and the amazingly detailed descriptions of the Soviet landscape from one end of that country to another during the late 1980’s.  Even though it is spring, the forests and landscapes which the train passes are empty, untouched,  snow-covered and bleak.  By contrast, the Soviet towns at which the train makes stops are industrial, dirty, and crowded and in shambles.  The people of these towns are trying to squeeze out an existence in whatever ways they are able.  The shelves of department stores are bare and the people are forced to bargain for their vodka on the black market.  One of the most peculiar descriptions are those of the restaurants they visit which have “closed” signs on the doors but are crowded with people and the girl enters anyway.  This brings us back to the conclusion that nothing is as it seems in this brutal, cold and bizarre place that is the Soviet Union.  The author must have visited this place at some point in order to capture such vivid details in her writing.

For those interested in post-Soviet literature then Liksom’s book is a must-read.  Looking at this strange place through the eyes of a foreigner provides a unique lens for us to get another glimpse at the last days of the Soviet Union before it dissolves into oblivion.

About the Author:
R LiksomRosa Liksom was born in a village of eight houses in Lapland, Finland, where her parents were reindeer breeders and farmers. She spent her youth traveling Europe, living as a squatter and in communes. She paints, makes films, and writes in Helsinki.

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Filed under Literature in Translation, Scandanavian Literature, Travel Writing

Review: I Refuse by Per Petterson

This title was published in the original Norwegian in 2012 and this English version has been translated by Don Bartlett.  Graywolf Press has just released the title in a paperback version.

My Review:
I RefusePetterson presents us with the story of Tommy and Jim who grew up together under difficult circumstances in the same small town in Norway.  They lose touch with one another and a chance meeting on a cold morning on a bridge brings them back together and causes memories of their troubled childhood to flood their lives.  The story alternates between 2006, when they are middle-aged men and the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when they are teenagers.  Since their early years are full of tragedy, we get the feeling that for the rest of their lives they are fighting a constant emotional battle, pushing back against the darkness and continually having to say “I Refuse” to unpleasant circumstance.

Tommy’s mother abandoned her family when he was a small boy and she left his abusive father to care for Tommy and his three younger sisters.  Tommy’s father beats his children on a regular basis by kicking them in places that do not leave visible marks.  The children console themselves by gathering in their bedroom and comparing bruises.  One day Tommy’s father goes too far and beats him so severely that Tommy’s bruises take weeks to heal.  This is the first time in the book that Tommy steps up and says “I Refuse” to his father’s abuse as  he takes a bat and breaks his father’s ankle.  After this day Tommy’s father disappears, leaving the children alone to fend for themselves in the world.

The first part of the book is full of foreboding and gloom as the author foreshadows the fate of Tommy and his siblings.  After Tommy’s father disappears, their house is boarded up and the children are dispersed among different families  Tommy’s youngest sisters, five-year-old twins, are taken to a neighbor’s house to live.  Siri, his other sister and his closest friend, is taken to town to live with another family.  Tommy himself is taken in by a man named Jonsen who is a lonely bachelor that shows pity and compassion for Tommy.  But this man is not just being kind to a troubled teenager; we learn that Jonsen has more details and intimate knowledge of Tommy’s mother and her story.

Although on the surface Jim’s story appears to be less tragic than his best friend Tommy’s, his emotional wounds run just as deep.  Jim is raised by a Christian mother who sends him to a Christian school.  She never speaks about Jim’s father and Jim has no idea who he is.  Growing up with no male role model seems just as damaging to Jim as an abusive father is to Tommy.  Jim’s emotional state is fragile and all it takes for him to have a breakdown is an innocuous incident on a ice skating outing with Tommy.  Jim’s mental illness causes him to disconnect from his best friend and the saddest part of the story is the parting of these two friends.

In the end, it is Tommy who is able to resist the evil and dark forces that have surrounded him for most of his life.  Tommy becomes a successful businessman and at the end of the book there is even a sweet love story for him.  Jim, on the other hand, who appeared to have a bit more of a stable home life is no where near as resilient as Tommy.  Jim has a successful career as a librarian but a series of panic attacks force him to take a leave of absence from his job and he spends long periods of time alone and in bed.  In the end Jim cannot muster the spirit to say “I Refuse” and he gives into the darkness.

This is my first Per Petterson book and I enjoyed every aspect of it: the writing, the characters and the alternating narrative.  I am eager to read more of his novels.  Please let me know if the comments what other Petterson books you recommend!

About the Author:
Per PettersonPetterson knew from the age of 18 that he wanted to be a writer, but didn’t embark on this career for many years – his debut book, the short story collection Aske i munnen, sand i skoa, (Ashes in the Mouth, Sand in the Shoes) was published 17 years later, when Petterson was 35. Previously he had worked for years in a factory as an unskilled labourer, as his parents had done before him, and had also trained as a librarian, and worked as a bookseller.
In 1990, the year following the publication of his first novel, Pettersen’s family was struck by tragedy – his mother, father, brother and nephew were killed in a fire onboard a ferry.

His third novel Til Sibir (To Siberia) was nominated for The Nordic Council’s Literature Prize, and his fourth novel I kjølvannet (In the Wake), which is a young man’s story of losing his family in the Scandinavian Star ferry disaster in 1990, won the Brage Prize for 2000.
His breakthrough, however, was Ut og stjæle hester (Out Stealing Horses) which was awarded two top literary prizes in Norway – the The Norwegian Critics Prize for Literature and the Booksellers’ Best Book of the Year Award.

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Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Scandanavian Literature