White hunger by Aki Ollikainen
Translator – Fleur and Emily Jeremiah
Original title – Nälkävuosi
Source – review copy
I carry on with my journey through books on the MBIP2016 contenders. This is the first if two Peirene titles that could be on the longlist and given Peirene recent history of always having a book on the old IFFP longlists it is a good shout that they should have one this year on the new prize. This was the debut novel by Finnish writer Aki Ollikainen it won the best debut novel in Finland the year it came out and even cooler was the fact the book had won something called the Finnish book blogger book of the year.
The colour of death is white, at funerals, people wear black, the living that is even the deceased is in black, because he is dressed in best clothes he owned while alive, but his face is always white. When the soul leaves a human, only white remains.
The color is being drained from Juhani’s face the first to go was red, the colour of blood. Red changes into yellow, then yellow too, vanished, leaving grey, which is now gradually fading into white.
A brilliant description of the way a dying person turns sallow in the way they look then white after death.
Marja is the main character in this story we follow her and her two children as we follow her on her journey to try to get to the Russian city of \St Petersburg where she has heard there is bread to eat and food available. This is 1867 and it is the second year in the 3 year Finnish famine. This was after three rainy years that saw crops fail which like Irish potato famine of the 1840’s the finnish problem is caused because they rely on Root crops for the main stable of their diet. What we see in part as the story of Marja desprate journey is the wider story that of the finnish government through a senator who didn’t want to borrow money to save the population The minister Snellman struggles to cope with the crisis that has gripped his country (there is a good wiki page with info on these year ).This is one womans journey through hunger to save her kids and the boy they manage to gain along the way. as they survive on thing like poisons lichen bread and Pine bark.
By way of a response, the senator feels an icy breath on his face.
He spent the whole of yesterday leafing through the bible, reading about Joesph’s prophecy, about those seven lean and those seven fat cows. Years of crop failure have now passed, one after the other, but there is no sign of the fat cows on the horizon. Has his incessant talk of finlands beautiful forests been in vain ? are these people good for nothing, apart from tearing bark off trees to supplement their bread.
I like the way used the figure of the Senator and his life to show a wider picture of the famine
I loved this when I read it last year but as always I put it to one side and decide a quick reread and found myself even more captivated by the way Aki capture Marja desperate life. This is as one may say a warts and all account of a journey into hell. This uses one womans life to paint a great picture of true horror that saw one in five Finns die during these years of famine a really interesting story of famine hunger and the search for hope that isn’t just Finnish but universal in the nature Marja could be Mary on her way to Dublin , or Maryse on her way to Addis Ababa and so on. In 130 short ages Aki has maybe done a better job than Hamsun did in his great book Hunger at putting over how it feels to be hungry and struggling to find that food.
Have you read this book ?