A Readers’ Guide to the Finnish Weird in Translation

In her 2011 essay “Weird and Proud of It” (published in the journal Books From Finland), Finnish author Johanna Sinisalo coined the term “suomikumma,” or Finnish Weird, to refer to a new strain of speculative fiction being produced by herself and her Finnish peers. In stark contrast to the realist strain of mainstream Finnish literature, these writers were producing work that Sinisalo describes as having a “diagonal” approach to “genres… hybrids of these genres, and genres that don’t have any other name.” She identities common features of the Finnish Weird as including “the blurring of genre boundaries, the bringing together of different genres and the unbridled flight of imagination.”

Since then, the term has enthusiastically been adopted by editors like Jeff and Ann VanderMeer and by writers and fans of Finnish speculative fiction as a useful way to talk about the unique, inventive, and distinctively Finnish work produced by these writers. In the interim, the genre has only grown in stature, with Finnish writers like Sinisalo, Emmi Itäranta, and Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen winning awards and accolades in English, and the Helsinki Science Fiction Society producing a magazine in the lead-up to Finncon to introduce English-speaking SFF fans to suomikumma and its practitioners.

What makes the Finnish Weird so exciting is its combination of exploratory literary techniques within a tradition of the fantastic outside of the anglophone world. Because of Finnish literature’s avoidance of fantastic or speculative tropes, the writers of the Finnish Weird have had to come up with their own approach to writing the Weird, one that is influenced by their own specific folklore and culture. Speaking as a reader who can only read in English, it is exciting that more and more Finnish speculative fiction is being translated into English so that we can benefit from these fantastic writers’ imaginations.

What follows is a quick guide to the Finnish Weird, with the caveat that, as I don’t read Finnish, there is surely much wonderful and exciting work that I am missing out on. We can only hope that we will see more speculative fiction, from all corners of the globe, published in translation in the coming years. But each of the wonderful books below have been translated into English, and offer an entry point to anglophone SFF readers interested in investigating the Finnish Weird.

 

The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy, edited by Johanna Sinisalo, translated by David Hackston (2005)

Still, Finnish literature has given rise to—and indeed, continues to give rise to—writers who wish to look at the surrounding world through the refracted light of fantasy. It was easy to find dozens upon dozens of authors who have taken bold steps into the realms of surrealism, horror and the grotesque, satire and picaresque, the weird and wonderful, dreams and delusions, the future and a twisted past. [8]

So says Johanna Sinisalo in her introduction to The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy. The stories, selected by Sinisalo and translated by David Hackston, allow Sinisalo to make her case for the Finnish Weird as a distinct literary genre with its own heritage and its own unique perspective. Featuring 23 stories from 20 authors, published between 1870 through 2003, the anthology showcases a remarkable range of Finnish authors and their approaches to the fantastic. The anthology opens with two extracts, one from Seven Brothers (1870) by Aleksis Kivi, who is considered the father of the Finnish novel, which demonstrates that even within the strict realist tradition of Finnish literature, folklore and the fantastic are a key part of the characters’ worldview. The other extract is from Aino Kallas’ Wolf Bride (1928), which draws on Estonian folk beliefs to imagine what Finnish literature in the mid-17th century would have looked like, a time when little to no literature was written in the Finnish language. Thus Sinisalo delineates the context from which the Finnish Weird emerges.

The anthology then goes on to explore various Finnish writers and how they have expanded and developed the genre. Tove Jansson, best known as the creator of the Moomins, makes an appearance with the chilling “Shopping” (1987), in which a couple attempt to recreate their old familiar domestic life in the post-apocalyptic ruins of a city. In this bleakly effective piece, the reasons for the apocalypse are never given; instead the reader is given an insight into the lives of people failing to come to terms with the catastrophic changes around them. Other big names in Finnish Weird appear, such as Leena Krohn, with extracts from her novels Datura (2001) and Pereat Mundus (1998), and Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen with the haunting “A Zoo From The Heavens” (2000), in which we see the disintegration of a man’s life through the eyes of his son, who reads his father’s metaphors as literal. Sinisalo herself contributes “Transit” (1988), imaginatively told in the form of interviews and police confessions, in which dolphins communicate with a child with autism.

But the stories from less well-known names are just as compelling, and between them paint a detailed and varied history of the fantastic in Finnish literature. The Finnish Weird has space for the cynical satirical visions of Erno Paasilinna’s “Congress” (1970), to Markku Paasonen’s obliquely sinister prose poems, to Sari Peltoniemi’s “The Golden Apple” (2003). In the latter, a woman and her child have fled her abusive ex-husband, moving to a new town suffused with folklore. The narrative expertly interweaves the real-life domestic struggle of the young family with a strange atmosphere that is never explicitly supernatural but implies folkloric creatures encroaching on reality and sinister rituals. The line between dream and reality is effectively and imaginatively blurred in many of these stories. In Jyrki Vainonen’s “Blueberries” (1999), an old man collecting blueberries unearths a secret about his past in the forest, whilst in “The Explorer” (2001), a scientist abandons our reality to live inside his wife’s thigh. The anthology as a whole serves as both a convincing history of the Weird in Finnish literature, and an effective argument that the Finnish Weird—with its playfulness, surrealism and rich seams of Finnish folklore—deserves to be considered as its own unique genre.

 

Johanna Sinisalo, Not Before Sundown (2000, translated by Herbert Lomas 2003); Birdbrain (2008, translated by David Hackston 2010); The Blood of Angels (2011, translated by Lola Rogers 2014)

Definitions always presupposes its opposite … Define the word “normal”, and you have to define “abnormal”. Define “humanity”, then you have to define what humanity is not. [192]

Johanna Sinisalo’s own fiction is crucial to the Finnish Weird. Her novel Not Before Sundown won the Finlandia Prize in Finnish and the Otherwise Award (formerly the James Tiptree, Jr. Award) upon its publication in English. Her work epitomises key aspects of the genre, particularly in its use of the Weird and the fantastical to explore humanity’s relationship with nature, and in her commitment to literary experimentation. Her novels frequently feature charged encounters between humans and the nonhuman that challenge anthropocentric views of the world. Sinisalo’s books also tend to be told in fragmentary form, incorporating other texts both real and invented. Not Before Sundown is set in an alternate Finland in which the trolls of mythology have been discovered to be a real species living in the woods. The novel’s protagonist, a young gay man named Angel, finds a baby troll being assaulted by thugs in his city of Tampere, and rescues it and brings it home to his flat. The story is told through Angel’s experiences and the scattered pieces of information, rumours, and mythology about trolls that he researches in order to find out how to look after it properly. The troll’s pheromones cover Angel’s clothes, making him irresistible, but such powers come at a price. Sinisalo expertly uses the figure of the troll to explore a Tampere unseen by many of its citizens—its gay subculture, artist community, and mail-order brides: All these people exist in the same city as the mainstream society that ostracises them, but experience a different version of the place, one marked out by lines of communication interpretable only to those in the know.

Birdbrain tells the story of young Finnish couple Jyrki and Heidi who go hiking in Tasmania searching for pristine wilderness, and reveals the neocolonialist and proprietary attitude inherent in much tourism by interpolating Heidi’s reading of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. As they go further into the wilderness, the nature that surrounds them takes on a sinister aspect, reacting against humanity’s destructive attitudes. The novel anticipates Jeff VanderMeer’s iconic Southern Reach Trilogy in how it uses the Weird to deconstruct the arrogance of anthropocentric attitudes. As Jyrki and Heidi continue their fraught journey, they have their human sense of superiority stripped away from them, as all the trappings of civilisation fail to prepare them for their encounter with the nonhuman. Heidi reflects:

This is how humans function. This is precisely how humans function. You know what lies behind the horizon, but you have to carry on in the same direction because that’s what you’ve been doing, that’s what you’ve decided, and changing direction or turning back would be a sign of giving in, of letting go of everything you’ve achieved so far.

You keep going, fast, although you know only too well what lies ahead. [212-3]

Humanity’s troubled relationship with nature is also the theme of Sinisalo’s superlative The Blood of Angels. In this complex and haunting novel, she explores the grief over the loss of a child paralleled with the existential grief that the human race may be coming to an end. The novel’s protagonist, Orvo, is an amateur beekeeper whose animal rights activist son Eero was killed when an action at a slaughterhouse went badly. Whilst Orvo is navigating his grief over the death of his son, he discovers that the disastrous Colony Collapse Disorder that has led to the disappearance of bee colonies across the world has finally arrived in Finland. Without bees to pollinate their crops, humanity will quickly follow the insects into extinction.

In a story that ties together the Orpheus myth with the mythology of fairyland, Orvo discovers a portal to an unspoiled, Edenic world in his attic—a world in which the vanished bees and his dead son might still be alive. The novel forces the reader to confront humanity’s complicity in the destruction of the environment and the resulting ecological collapse and loss of species, as Sinisalo expertly interweaves her story with folklore about bees and the afterlife, from Virgil to Indian mythology to the Finnish Kalevala. For me, it is Sinisalo’s most powerful and emotionally devastating book.

 

Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, The Rabbit Back Literature Society (2006, translated by Lola M. Rogers 2013)

Dear creatures, sometimes we are allowed to experience wondrous things and go places we couldn’t reach even in dreams. Only someone who hasn’t learned anything from it all can think that they’ll be able to hold on to what they’ve found forever. [315]

Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen’s The Rabbit Back Literature Society is a gloriously strange novel full of mythic weirdness and unexpected literary allusions. It tells the story of Ella Milana, a literature teacher who returns to her home town of Rabbit Back to become a high school teacher but is unexpectedly selected to become the long-awaited tenth member of the prestigious Rabbit Back Literature Society. The Society was created by beloved children’s writer Laura Wilder, Rabbit Back’s most famous literary celebrity, in order to nurture literary talent, and its nine members are giants in the Finnish literary world. But soon after Ella is invited to join, Wilder disappears at a party in a flurry of snow. As Ella gets to know the other members of the Society, it becomes increasingly clear that they are hiding something from her. Ella must learn the rules of the Society’s bizarre games and rituals in order to uncover the dark truth.

In Jääskeläinen’s novel, the mythical and the sinister converge on the sleepy town of Rabbit Back. From a strange disease infecting books that causes serious changes to the storylines of beloved works, to the wooden statues of Wilder’s creatures that seem to have a life of their own, the dreamlike and the bizarre are never far away. The novel also delights in exploring the clandestine world of secret societies, with their shared rituals and buried histories. Linking it all is the preposterousness of the act of writing itself. Jääskeläinen explores how the stories that we tell about ourselves are central to our conceptions of ourselves as people, while simultaneously artificially shaping our memories so that they become further and further removed from the truth. At the same time, he explores the peculiar insanity of being a writer, of inventing imaginary worlds and people, and the sheer obsessive intensity required. As Aura Jokinen, the Society’s resident SF author, says:

“Everybody knows that no healthy person would take up writing novels. Healthy people do healthy things. All this darned hoopla and hot air about literature—what is it really but mental derangement run through a printing press?” [281]

For Jääskeläinen, it is this tension between our need to tell stories, and the sheer ridiculousness of storytelling, that makes stories so compelling. And it is this tension—between dark humour and darkness, between the joyful imaginings of children’s literature and the dark folktale archetypes they are often built on, between the self we present to the world and the secret self we would rather not know—that drives his novel.

 

Leena Krohn, Tainarion: Mail From Another City (1985, translated by Hildi Hawkins 2004); Datura, or a Figment Seen by Everyone (2001, translated by Anna Volmari and J. Robert Tupasela 2013)

This is what I think I’ve learned: reality is nothing more than a working hypothesis. It is an agreement that we don’t realize we’ve made. It’s a delusion we all see. Yet it is a shared, necessary illusion, the end product of our intelligence, imagination, and senses, the basis of our health and ability to function, our truth.

Hold on to it. It’s all—or nearly all—that you have. Try to step outside of it and your life will change irreversibly, assuming you survive at all. [447]

Leena Krohn is one of Finland’s most iconic and inventive writers. Jeff VanderMeer has cited her multi-award winning novel Tainaron as a pioneering work of the New Weird; and it is the only work in translation to appear in VanderMeer’s list of crucial New Weird texts and in excerpted form in his and Ann VanderMeer’s genre-defining anthology The New Weird (2008). Tainaron is a startlingly original work that nonetheless contains echoes of Italo Calvino and Franz Kafka, and is an ideal introduction to Krohn’s idiosyncratic mosaic narratives.

The novel is told through the letters written by an unnamed human visitor to the city of Tainaron, which is inhabited by giant insects. Whereas insects in speculative fiction are frequently used to represent the Other, in this case it is the human narrator who is the outsider, who must adapt to the customs of the city and its insect inhabitants. The story is told in a series of vignettes, as the narrator navigates the strange city of Tainaron, sometimes with the help of their guide Longhorn. In one particularly memorable scene, the narrator tries to find a cake shop they had walked by on a previous occasion, and asks Longhorn for a map of the city. Longhorn explains that there are no maps of Tainaron, because the city changes so quickly any attempt to map it would immediately be rendered obsolete:

“A map cannot be made,” he continued, “because Tainaron is constantly changing.”

“All cities change,” I said.

“None as fast as Tainaron,” Longhorn replied. “For what Tainaron was yesterday it is no longer today. No one can have a grasp of Tainaron as a whole. Every map would lead its user astray. … Tainaron is not a place, as you perhaps think. It is an event which no one measures. It is no use to anyone trying to make maps. It would be a waste of time and effort.” [125]

In this incredible novel of alienation, the city, like ourselves, is intrinsically unknowable because it is always changing, impossible to pin down.

Krohn’s later novel Datura is just as surreal, confounding and brilliant. The novel’s narrator works for an eccentric magazine called The New Anomalist that specialises in the bizarre, and works in the magazine’s parashop. As part of their job they encounter various eccentrics, such as the Master of Sound, a keen investigator into alternative audiotechnology who has invented a Detector of Silent Sounds, Loogaroo, who believes that she is a vampire, and Sylvia, a woman who has four people living inside of her. All this is compounded by the narrator’s addiction to the poisonous datura plant, which causes hallucinations and erodes the user’s sense of reality.

As the narrator’s grasp on reality disintegrates, they come to understand that the world around them is far stranger and more complicated than even the readers of The New Anomalist might guess. Over the course of its relatively brief span, Datura explores ideas around consensus reality, plant consciousness, paranoia, and pareidolia. As the narrator says when they realise that a vision of self-driving cars that they thought was a hallucination was actually a government test,

“I couldn’t help thinking about the vision that was actually real. It proved to me that the city itself had begun to resemble a giant hallucination, and that it was getting harder and harder to tell private and shared delusions apart.” [566]

If what we call reality is simply the world we perceive through our senses, and we cannot trust our senses to convey what is actually there, then the idea of a stable objective reality begins to fall down. Krohn’s surreal and bizarre fiction confronts these big ideas about self, identity and reality as effectively as any Philip K. Dick novel, and with just as much blazing originality.

***

 

Between them, these short stories and novels offer a sense of just how wide-ranging, imaginative, and inventive the Finnish Weird truly is. It is a genre that combines the speculative flights of fancy of the best science fiction and fantasy with playful experimentation and an abiding love of mythology. And this selection is only the tip of the iceberg. For those looking for more Finnish Weird short stories, there is the excellent anthology It Came From The North: An Anthology of Finnish Speculative Fiction (2013), edited by Desirina Boskovich, and Giants At The End Of The World (2017), edited by Johanna Sinisalo and Toni Jerman, which was produced for Finncon. Jyrki Vainonen’s short story collection The Explorer and Other Stories (2013) has also been published in English.

In terms of novel-length work, there is Maria Turtschaninoff’s Red Abbey Chronicles, a trilogy for younger readers. Writing in English, Leena Likitalo has written the Waning Moon duology, a fantasy inspired by the Russian Revolution, and Hannu Rajaniemi has written the science fiction novels in the Jean le Flambeur series: The Quantum Thief (2010), The Fractal Prince (2012) and The Causal Angel (2014). Emmi Itäranta, who writes both in Finnish and English, has written the excellent Memory of Water (2014) and the New Weird-esque The City of Woven Streets (2016), both of which deal imaginatively with climate change.

There is a wealth of wonderful and strange Finnish literature already waiting to be discovered by anglophone SFF readers, and hopefully the coming years will see even more examples of the Finnish Weird translated into English.

Jonathan Thornton has written for the websites The Fantasy Hive, Fantasy Faction, and Gingernuts Of Horror. He works with mosquitoes and is working on a PhD on the portrayal of insects in speculative fiction.

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