The Big Finnish

First there was the ice, then came the reindeer – shambling, atavistic giants, pursued by men with spears. In a rush of eleven thousand years, the Finnish National Opera and Ballet’s Kalevalanmaa chronicles what happens next, as heroes fight over the daughters of the north, the land becomes the marches of Sweden and a grand duchy of Russia, and fights for its independence in a bitter civil war. Through it all, the Jack Frost-like child figure of Sisu, the embodiment of Finnish resolve, lurks at the sidelines, urging the characters into action.

Kalevalanmaa is Danish director Kenneth Greve’s parting gift as he concludes his term at the FNOB, a celebration of the Republic of Finland’s first century of existence, rooted in the prehistory of the land and its people. As the audience take their seats, a documentary plays in which dozens of Finns are asked to describe what Finland means to them. Interviewees include everybody from immigrants to farm-hands, and in a moment foreshadowing the bonkerballs about to unfold, a prolonged speech about financial security from a man with his cock out, leading two sheep on a leash. The answers are a flood of contradictory suggestions, a conflict that continues onstage as a master of ceremonies argues with a set builder. What should go into a show about Finland? What will the audience want to see? What will they need to see?

They need to see Värttinä. Take my word for it, if in doubt, throw Värttinä in – that bunch of certified mentalists who have consistently produced some of the best, most haunting music in Finland in recent times. They could have carried the whole show by themselves, and the stage lights up whenever they arrive, even if they’re singing a song about chickens. Backed by a full opera chorus, their “Oi Dai” takes on new meaning – it is both a traditional song and a 1991 oldie, repurposed here as a lament for the depopulation of the Finnish countryside in the 1950s. Värttinä gambol through the whole show like priestesses of cool, stalked occasionally by celebrity accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen.

The Kalevala is, of course, an artificial text – assembled in the 19th century by the folklorist Elias Lönnrot, it supposedly preserves the vestiges of Finnish legend, but arguably owes just as much to the writer’s own life and experience. Perhaps because of this, the creators of Kalevalanmaa have no qualms in shuffling the available imagery, creating the show’s strongest and most compelling subtext. The Kalevala does not stop, as the original does, with the coming of Christianity – religion, in fact, is conspicuously absent from this chronicle of Finnishness. Instead, the Kalevala bleeds into the modern world. The death of the ancient hero Lemminkäinen, and the iconic image of his grieving mother, are presented at the end of World War Two. Musically, too, snatches of song and symphony, Sibelius and Klami are dotted around, sometimes at the time they depict, sometimes at the time of their composition, sometimes at some later date where they seem newly prescient.

An entire troupe of swans from Tuonela, the land of death, swoop in at the end of the first half to lead the war dead away, while Aino, our everywoman, defiantly plants a Finnish flag in the ground. Ilmarinen, the legendary smith of the Kalevala, is seen in the second half building a post-war veteran’s house and shyly wooing a farm girl. I last spotted Väinämöinen, the god of songs and poetry, at the assembly line in a chair factory, a somewhat Gaimanesque touch as the old world thins and yet persists in the new.

Just as the Kalevala weaves its way into modern Finland, the Kalevalanmaa show invades the theatre itself. Soldiers drop a ladder into the orchestra pit to draft musicians as drummer boys. Tango dancers at a summer party drag the audience into a singalong of Unto Mononen’s “Satumaa”. A 21st century rave pelts the stalls with ticker-tape, and in the grand finale, members of the audience join the cast in dancing into the unknown future.

There were, one suspects, enough choices and compromises behind the scenes to make a “Making Of” documentary almost as fascinating as the show itself. I’d love to see the minutes of the meetings where the decision-makers decided what stayed, not only in terms of implied audiences, but what worked best for the story and the more prosaic consideration of what rights were available. It’s a shame, for example, in what essentially transforms into a juke-box musical about the Matter of Finland, combining the myths of the Kalevala with the icons of the long 20th century, that Aarno Raninen’s 1977 Eurovision toe-tapper “Lapponia” doesn’t get a look-in. When Eurovision looms on the stage, it whisks by in a moment of mime – Lordi’s “Hard Rock Hallelujah” would have presumably been a step too far for the Finnish National Opera. There are also enough odd moments of pacing to suggest that certain elements were bodged together, “not quite as well as Strömsö” as a Finn might say. A somewhat awkward prologue and epilogue threatens to ruin everything, at one point literally stopping the show with a Pythonesque apology for how sentimental it is. But this frankly self-destructive quality, hanging a lantern on the jokes and delaying one’s exit with five minutes of pointless faffery, is itself quintessentially Finnish. Greve’s grab-bag of Finnishness is affectionate even when documenting social problems – the men’s chorus get to deliver an impressively drunken rant about the rubbishness of modern life.

The show is framed as the reminiscences of Aino, a centenarian who hence is as old as the Republic of Finland herself, and who supposedly is the only person in the room who knows the Kalevala by heart. I suspect, however, that the true narrator’s perspective is that of the implied audience, and of many of the Finns sat around me – a Helsinki urbanite in her sixties, who thinks fondly of her heyday in the era of post-war reconstruction, and is faintly befuddled by the onrush of the 21st century. This raucous, exciting show is most certainly a gift for the Finns, not from them – you need to be steeped in Finnishness to see not only the touchstones before you, but the manner of their repurposing. In the midst of the Civil War conflict between Reds and Whites, a girl in a blindfold is carried across the stage on a stretcher. This is, any National Romanticist will immediately see, evocative of Hugo Simberg’s painting “The Wounded Angel”, but it is out of time, removed from its original context. My own experiences with Finnish history have taught me repeatedly that many such references are all too often lost on young Finns, although even they will see the significance of a dancing Angry Bird. This is not a show that will go on tour. It will fade away, like the northern lights, into the winter with the last show in February 2018. See it while you can.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.

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New Finnish Grammar

One day, I asked my Finnish teacher if it was true that her language had 30 different words for snow. She fixed me with her big, blinky eyes.

“No, you poor deluded fool,” she sighed. “We Finns only have one word for ‘snow’. The trouble is, you English think that everything white that falls out of the sky is ‘snow’.”

Finnish actually has more than thirty words for frozen precipitation in a variety of forms, including a word for “powdery snow that’s melted just a little bit” (nuoska), a “thin bit of snow on top of ice” (iljanne), and even “the grey lumpy stuff that turns up when slush refreezes” (kohva). Finns have a similarly large number of words for “reindeer”, and an oddly precise verbal toolkit for describing cupboards. However, their language doesn’t distinguish between sponges and mushrooms, and a single vowel sound separates the differing semantics of “My shelves are nearly full” from “My madness is soon to end.”

Of course, there is nothing “special” about Finnish. Every language has its little peculiarities, evolved in reaction to particular situations. The Navajo don’t distinguish between pilots, insects or helicopters, while the Chinese have over a dozen shades of red. And Japanese has 1194 ways to say “I love you”, along with a culture that refuses to use any of them. Having studied many languages and mastered none, I always return with joyous appreciation to English because it is such a catastrophic car-crash of Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norman French and Viking Danish, with grammar rules deriving from several different countries, and a veritable multicultural bar-fight of contending nuances, much of which comes down not only to class, but to what someone’s great-great-great grandfather did for a living.

In his novel New Finnish Grammar, Diego Marani latches upon Finnish as a test subject for the human condition. In 1940s Italy, an expat Finnish doctor finds a patient with amnesia so severe that he cannot even remember how to speak. Finding evidence on the man’s person that he is a Finn, the doctor begins to teach him Finnish from scratch. As Sapir and Whorf once argued with their Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis, the language in which one thinks affects the thoughts that one can have. What if this man isn’t Finnish at all? What will this re-programming do to him?

And if he isn’t a Finn called Sampo Karjalainen, who is he? And who will he be when his brain is wired with thirty words for white stuff that falls out of the sky? There are numerous precedents in fiction, most notably the Kaurismäki film Man Without A Past, and many science fiction novels that deal with the power of language to shape thought. But Marani, a professional linguist, latches onto Finland and Finnishness itself for an extended meditation on human nature, patriotism and the soul.

Finnish has vowel harmonies and consonantal mutations like Turkish, and a cavalcade of odd little cases that make it infuriatingly precise. Most languages have basic items like singular and plural, nominative and genitive. Finnish has its own bonkers additions, like the abessive, which is the case you use for things that are nothing to do with you, and the partitive, which is a sort of superglue case to fix all the others.

Marani’s book returns to the age old tug-of-war between nature and nurture. Is Finnish the way it is because of Finland, or are Finns the way they are because of Finnish? He delves into the Kalevala, that crazy national myth of mighty duels over a sci-fi McGuffin, itself was knocked up as an exercise in bootstrap nationalism in the 19th century. He points to the savage rending of Finland into Reds and Whites during the Russian Revolution, an apocalyptic shattering of social cohesion that is still largely unspoken-of today, and yet which, only recently, I have still seen erupt into a bar-room brawl around me.

Talking to a Finnish history teacher this year, I heard the tale of her grandmother’s funeral, to which only a single cousin came. The reason: sixty years ago, grandma married someone of “the wrong colour”. Tellingly, I was not told which colour, Red or White, was wrong. It only mattered that the twain could never meet.

And, of course, there is Mannerheim, that national demigod – a former spy and orientalist, catapulted out of a dead-end military career into a role as the country’s leader in the unwinnable Winter War. Mannerheim, too, was a reluctant student of Finnish, living for most of his life with only a smattering sufficient to deal with the servants. It was only in middle age, called upon to deliver speeches to his public, that he swotted up sufficiently. Extant speeches show his Finnish to be halting and strangely accented – a sign that this hero of “Finnish” nationalism was a native speaker of Swedish, who had spent 30 years in the Russian army.

Marani is a good linguist, with a fine ability to romanticise issues that most people would find dull. He describes the construction of a Finnish sentence with allusions to orbits and trajectories in an imaginary solar system. He delves into the etymology of the simplest words with a verve that conjures wizards in primeval forests and witches chanting spells over swamps. He also writes himself a get-out-of-jail-free card, using his narrator’s student status as an excuse for numerous typographical and grammatical errors – annoyingly, even in a book that sings of the joys of vowel harmony, there are misplaced umlauts and errant letters.

One day, New Finnish Grammar is going to be a great movie. Some worthy agglutination of government funding bodies will knock up a Europudding that shoots in Trieste and Helsinki, starring a great Finnish actor like Mikko Kouki as the amnesiac Sampo. There is just enough plot in Marani’s narrative to sustain a movie, with cutaways to the essence of Finnishness, and fight scenes on the Eastern front against the Russians, perhaps even with magic-realist scenes that illustrate the wonder of Finnish grammar with Marani’s warlocks and witches, paintings of Akseli Gallen-Kallela come to life, or symbolic representations of what happens when a subject switches from accusative to partitive.

Well, maybe not the last. Three years into my Finnish lessons at the London School of Slavonic and East European Studies, mere weeks away from attaining my Lower Intermediate diploma, my teacher coughed nervously, and told the class to prepare themselves for a Finnish bombshell.

“The thing is,” she said, “Finnish doesn’t really have an accusative case. Don’t panic, we can use the genitive or partitive just fine, but everything I have told you so far about the accusative has been a convenient lie.”

She patted the arm of one of my fellow classmates, who had started to sob.

“Don’t cry,” she said. “It’ll be all right. It’ll be all right.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.

Into Songland

companyI have been out into the wilds of Finland, up near the Russian border on the edges of songland, the place that supplied so much of the material for the Kalevala, the Finnish national myth. In the company of Mrs Clements, Delia Sherman and Ellen Kushner, I spent a fascinating day at Kalevala Spirit, a recreation of a medieval Karelian stockaded clan-house, wherein the inhabitants lived, worked and cooked using only the means and materials described in the pages of the Kalevala.

As regular readers will know, I have been writing on matters Finnish for several years, but there was much to learn at Kalevala Spirit, thanks to Akke Virtanen, a man with a mission to codify and preserve some atavistic sense of Finnishness. Able to answer questions on any subject, from skis to saunas, bears to berries, he demonstrated old-world skiing and the right way to grill a salmon, and we kept him busy with plenty of the sort of questions that only authors really need to know. While our fish was gently tanning by the fire, Akke’s colleague Ilkka led us into the forest to inspect bear traps and fox snares, and to spend an idyllic time fiddling with hammer, anvil and bellows in a reconstruction smithy. Our tour ended on a distant hilltop, where amid totem poles depicting the ancient Karelian forest gods, there was an incongruous metal cube carved with intricate sigils in classical Chinese. I recognised it as the legendary sampo as depicted in the film Jade Warrior, now on permanent loan to the Kalevala Spirit in thanks for their pre-production assistance. And I can believe it, too — I left the place with Finno-Ugric metre in my head and the sting of embers on my hands, with new words and new connections roving around my brain in search of places to turn into prose.

We were even getting poetic ourselves by lunchtime, as witnessed by my Heroic Omelette: “To the fridge went Lemminkainen / searching for the milky dregs / on the upper and the lower / shelves he sought for several eggs”. Akke talked at lunch about his Damascene moment, as an advertising man who realised one day that he lived his life in airports, turning back into his native culture with a vengeance, not merely to recreate it, but to do so from solid, empirical bases in surveys of national character. And to use a book of poems and legends as the blueprint for an entire community… just think of the possibilities! You won’t get *that* with Harry Potter. Or at least, I hope you won’t.

After taking our leave of Akke and his minions, we headed into nearby Kuhmo, the home of the Juminkeko Foundation, an organisation dedicated to the Kalevala itself. If there were any proof needed of the international appeal of the Kalevala, it came in the form the guides on duty that afternoon, Natalia from Russia and Giorgia from Italy, without a Finn in sight. Juminkeko was perfect for me; it had a collection of music that included an Inehmo CD I have meaning to buy for four years, but also a selection of in-depth documentaries on the collection and compilation of the Kalevala. We had the place pretty much to ourselves, so we just took the lot, sitting in the auditorium and watching one excellent film after another, until we sheepishly got to the end and filed out in the realisation that we’d kept the gracious staff waiting past closing time.

It was an inspiring, wonderful day, and fired all of us up with thoughts of Finnishness and Karelianism, and the glorious, quixotic mindset that bootstraps a revolution and an entire country out of a book of poems. Ellen, I know, is already percolating ideas around for a story based on her experiences; Delia is sure that something fictional will come of it in her own work… and so am I.