Sunday, December 6, 2009


41. Elämänmeno by Pirkko Saisio ("The way life is")

Trying to translate these titles into English is good exercise for my brain: should I take the literal route, or should I take concentrate more on what connotations the title brings to my head? Mostly I go with the latter. Alternative translation suggestions are accepted gladly!

Elämänmeno is a darned rough book about a family in the early part of the 1900s in slowly industrializing Helsinki. The 5-person family lives in tiny, cramped conditions as all working class families do; they struggle with work or the inevitability of unemployment or bad working conditions, alcoholism, and whether they can afford to send their kids to school themselves further (yes--now Finns just take the whole "free education for all wheeee!"-thing for granted...). The narration switches between Eila and Marja; mother and daughter, who are like day and night. Eila is a manic, Eastern Finnish character who curses, drinks and screws, and whose worst fear is to be looked down upon by people who think they are better than her. Which makes all of her actions defensively aggressive.  This behavior is targeted at her family, with Marja, the illegimate child of Eila's, bearing the worst of it: she is constantly reminded that she is not good enough for... well, anything. Later Marja watches in horror when the youngest of the siblings in her teenager years talks back to her mother, and gets away with it. The reader follows the confusion and bitterness of these characters as they grow older and try to figure out how much they can personally change and how much their living conditions and their class status affect their lives. With Eila, the case is already lost: she has basically given into a thought that her life was ruined the day she got pregnant with Marja, and there is no possibility for improvement, whereas Marja sullenly and patiently waits for better days.

It's a wonderfully written book, although at points terribly difficult to read because of the subject matter. I'm looking forward to reading more of Saisio's books, as I hear that she tends to slip in some autobiographical elements into most of her stories.

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