Monday, December 14, 2009

Nordic crime; class issues in a supposedly equal society

Liza Marklund and Leena Lehtolainen have proven that the crime lit genre has its place within the more "serious" genres. You'll catch my drift:

43. Väärän jäljillä by Leena Lehtolainen ("Chasing the wrong one")

Väärän jäljillä is the 10th in line of Maria Kallio-novels. Maria Kallio is a policewoman, who, well, solves crimes. That by itself would not be quite that exciting, especially if we are talking about the Finnish crime scene. Maria Kallio is an interesting figure in the crime scene because firstly she is a woman. Secondly, she is a woman who can carry a conversation with other women about something other than a love interest.

(For more on passing the hilarioiusly simple Bechdel test, follow the link).

This is already refreshing, because usually whenever there is a main female character, she will have a trusted lady friend with whom she can cry about the lack of a boyfriend/husband/a successful date--other adult conversations are left for the female character to have with her (often) male colleagues or male friends. This of course does not mean that Maria Kallio does not or should not talk about men and relationships: she is married and has two children, and this often plays into the stories realistically, as she has to make tough choices between her family and her career. The stories often feature two plot lines: the first one is the case Kallio is currently working on, and the second one involves her life, namely how her police work affects her personal mental health and how she has to navigate child-rearing responsibilities with her husband, who also has a career to take care of.

It's fairly refreshing to read stories about a really tough profession (police!), where, once the shift is over, the worker goes home and slips into her real life, with issues about who goes to pick up the children from daycare the day after. The violence and terror at her workplace is juxtaposed with the anxiety at home; of never being good enough a mother, friend or a wife. Reminds me of a lot of British detective stories, where the police world and the home life are first kept separate, but soon one of them starts to affect the other, and the two are intertwined -- just like in real life.

When we meet Kallio again in Väärän jäljillä, she is no longer working for the police force, owning to a harrowing experience she had on duty earlier. She is now working for a group that researches domestic violence, financed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Through her friend and business partner, Leena, she meets a journalist who has been injured in a bad accident. She speculates that someone tried to kill her in that accident and now is again after her. The reasons for this are clear to her: her expose on the Finnish track-and-field drug usage a few years ago accumulated the threats. When some of the prank calls seem to take on a more serious note, Kallio is sent back to the police force to work on the case. What you get is a police officer with a bad case of PTSD, forced to work on some practicality in a contract.

The Kallio books are like any good old crime lit: after a while they start to repeat a clear pattern. Still, they are mostly very enjoyable to read.

44. Paikka auringossa by Liza Marklund (English translation of the novel can be found under "A place in the Sun")

Liza Marklund has her own Maria Kallio. This time, the crime solver is Annika Bengtzon, a tabloid journalist. Because her profession requires her to be fairly ruthless, she often ends up solving crimes while investigating a story for her paper. Whereas Lehtonen's Kallio is an all-understanding, analytical thinker, Bengtzon is sometimes, quite frankly, an asshole. She explodes over issues that seemingly do not warrant such behavior, and she is a pain to work with. However, we the readers do not see this because Bengtzon's thoughts and moods are very visible to us. Only when a new intern lets slip that of course she did not want to work with her because of the rumors she has heard of Bengtzon, does the reader stop, offended: how dare you say that of dear Annika? Don't you know her at all? She's not a meany! This is good writing: only when Bengtzon is forced to think about the way she behaves does the reader understand why others treat her so badly.

As with the Kallio books, the Bengtzon books follow a scheme: there is always a big case that Bengtzon is sent out to investigate, but the second story line follows Bengtzon's personal life. In the earlier books, that part focused intensely on the slowly crumbling marriage of Bengtzon's, which was like a train wreck; had to keep on reading, although you knew it wouldn't end well. The story is made realistic by Bengtzon's angry cluelessness of how to work out her and Thomas's problems, and only after a book or so later does she finally see (and allow the readers to see), what the main problems were. And the main problems were not late nights at the office, or answering a work phone during dinner.

Paikka auringossa sends Bengtzon to Mediterranean sun to solve a gas murder in a rich Swedish tourist resort. When the murdered family turns out to be that of a famous former NHL player, Bengtzon becomes intrigued: who would want to get rid of a family that has been doing nothing but good in the community? But the  more she interviews the player's friends and investors, the more blurry the case becomes. At the same time, her former colleague now has been promoted to be her boss, and he is enjoying the power trip to the extreme: instead of the murder case, he wants Annika to focus on a Swedish cocaine trafficing ring in the same area. As usual, Bengtzon walks around like -- excuse the Finnish saying -- a bear shot in the ass, while her boss is being unreasonable, her previous case comes back to haunt her, and she has no idea what her ex-husband actually wants these days. Whereas the previous book ended with a bang and on a very sour note, this one comes to the rescue to wrap, at least momentarily, Annika's life up, releasing her from her feelings of bitterness toward, well, almost anyone.

45. Luokkaretkellä hyvinvointiyhteiskunnassa. Nykysukupolven kokemuksia tasa-arvosta by Katriina Järvinen and Laura Kolbe ("Taking a class trip in a welfare society. Experiences of equality from the current generation's view point").

Beware. I loved this book, and I'm writing this fast. I want to tell you all about it, so I have to resort to long quotations and raving about it!

"Most of the time it is considered a taboo to bring out your class background in modern Finland. There is this mindset that all the people in this country are one big, happy middle class. Does a person's background then not matter at all? Finnish welfare society with its attempts at equality has brought people from different class backgrounds to the same schools, work places and to be neighbors in a way that would have been impossible in a class society. These encounters are eye-opening and enriching, and they create genuine friendships. On the other hand, the encounters might feed feelings of difference, of being an outsider, even of shame. It's easy to recognize a Finn among foreigners - but is our class background as easy to recognize, and how does it affect us?"

The "class trip" in the title comes from Swedish, where "klassresa" has become a term to describe a working class person's social ascent.

This should be required reading for anyone who has idealized thoughts about Finland (I'm looking at you, long-term expatriates!). I am not saying that Finland doesn't have a lot of good things going for it: universal health care, free education, good benefits for the unemployed. These seemingly make it easy for everyone to get an education and hop on board to join the middle class. This thought is imprinted into the minds of Finnish kids already at a young age, and you can imagine where that takes you: for one, you are proud of the country you came from, this land of equal opportunity for everyone! Then again, if you can't make it, you only have yourself to blame, because the Finnish myth tells you that as long as you work hard, you can do whatever you want. And now that you are unable to do what you wanted, maybe you just were a lazy no-good and should settle for less, right? Shame on you for being a failure!

The book is a collection of short essays written by Järvinen and Kolbe. Järvinen comes from a working class background, and Kolbe from an upper middle class background. Although they both have been born and schooled in Finland, and are now working in academia, they have a very different experience of growing up and becoming what they are. This has been strongly influenced by their class backgrounds:

- Järvinen and other people from working class backgrounds that were interviewed in this book feel that although money did not play a role in getting an education, the mental capital that they received at home certainly did. In most working class families, reading was considered a "waste of time", because if you had time to read, you were not earning money to bring to the table. Likewise, the idea of small talk was unheard of. One man says how he brought a middle-class girlfriend over one time. His parents had sat silently in front of the TV after offering her some coffee, while the woman tried to engage them in a conversation. Finally the man had to tell the woman to stop speaking, because his "parents would get scared--they're not used to that". This is understandable--if you do not read, and the majority of your time is taken by some kind of a physical or half-physical labor, what do you need to talk about beyond the basics of life? This interaction with other people comes up again and again in the book: at parties, Järvinen feels that she has to be more proper than the rest so that she will be taken seriously, whereas a man from a middle-class background licks his plate clean and nobody bats an eye. He has the privilege of not caring what other people think of him, because it would not affect his status. Järvinen feels that for her, life is still a struggle of proving herself worth of this new class that she has transferred into. Although now firmly in the middle class with her work in academia and with no immediate money problems, she is still conscious of her habits of finishing whatever is brought in front of her on a plate, whereas her friends who have grown up in more well-off households usually take only a few bites out of their foods and throw the rest away.

- Kolbe expounds on the privilege of learning to communicate with others. Her middle class family, with semi-academic professions and enough money to travel abroad on holidays, has taught her to converse with a variety of people during their trips. She has learned how to behave at restaurants and at dinner parties, how to talk with people from a variety of cultural backgrounds, and she has learned how to debate furiously about politics. All this she has learned simply through her everyday life, not from school. She, and others from a similar background interviewed for the book, feel that this has given them another edge in life: they have an easier time of communicating their thoughts to others, which works marvellously in most current working environments, where a lot of energy is spent on work groups or brainstorming meetings. Järvinen agrees, saying that people from working class background who suddenly find themselves in a similar situation are at loss: they do not have the same communication and interpersonal tools as these middle class people have, and this causes immense frustration and shame.

Shame and guilt is also another recurring topic in the book. The shame of your background when you find that your better-off friends thought that your bohemian lifestyle is actually not a cool choice, but dictated by your parents' lack of money; the shame of educating yourself, and feeling that you have betrayed your class background and your family, when you can't even carry a conversation with your parents anymore because they don't have a clue what you are talking about; the shame when you find out that your cleaner is actually your old college classmate, and you haven't worked a day in your life. The shame when you have to rely on your spouse for money, just because you are too proud to take the handouts from your rich parents, lest someone call you pampered.

It's very difficult to discuss about class in a constructive manner. When these class-related problems are brought out, the conversation often veers into people defending their class backgrounds, and suddenly we are giving points to whom is more oppressed, or which class is actually the better one. That is what this book tries to avoid: it introduces problems from both working and middle class (and the odd class in between: enterpreneurs), making us face the fact that although the nation prides itself for creating an equal opportunity environment for all, there are still hidden inequalities at work. And because they are hidden and not talked about, the class division and unequality between classes keeps on growing. It also makes us recognize our privileges and to face the fact that yes, my life might have been easier just because I was encouraged to read and study at home, compared to the kid whose parents scoffed at an inquiring mind.Of course individual responsibility should not be shrugged off completely, but neither can we say that an individual is totally free to decide whatever they want if they do not have the assets to honestly do so. In Järvinen and Kolbe's opinion, the people who often say that it all depends on how hard you want something are those who are not at risk of living on the streets any time soon.

Järvinen writes about her wake-up call to class issues: "I specifically remember [at a college course] this one lady who was divorced from her priest husband. She stated that everything depends on you personally. She also calmly stated, that if she doesn't have enough money otherwise, then she can maybe sell her house and move to a smaller apartment. This lady forgot that not all of us have even that apartment or anything else to sell off."

Järvinen and Kolbe state, that Finland is going back to inherited professions, and fast. It is already visible now, when the kids of well-to-do middle class folk obviously go to high school, and then obviously go to a college--no questions asked. Kids from working class backgrounds often choose a vocational school instead of high school, and decide to become what their parents have been, because they might already be good at the job as they have watched it being done all their lives.

Again, choosing a vocational school over high school is not bad per se, or vice versa. There is only a problem when we encourage our children to only stay in their comfort zones and not seek out anything else.


  1. Oooh, that class book sounds awesome -- too bad it's not translated. :/

    (this is Johanna from LJ/DW, btw -- not signing in using that OpenID b/c I'm at work [on my lunch break, I hasten to add ;P ] & don't want to leave traces, ha ha.)

  2. Hehe, go ahead and use any IDs ;)

    I so want to translate that class book, because I think it would be a good read for any expatriate Finns/2nd etc generation American-Finns who have been absent from Finland for a long time. I think I might write the authors to see if they would be interested in collaboration. I know that the national Finlandia Foundation gives scholarships for Finnish culture related projects, among them translation work.