Friday, May 28, 2010

Finnish cultural ambivalency; history of words

14. Maata meren alla by Riikka Ala-Harja ("Ground under water")

This is a glimpse into the life of Ida, a thirty-something Finnish woman who was adopted from Namibia--which was populated by Finnish missionaries at the time--by a staunch socialist factory worker, Kati. Scuba diving is her passion, and it is the only element in her life where she seems to welcome any excitement or fear. And who can blame her for desiring stability--as the only brown person living on the shores of Bothnian Bay, Northern Finland, raised as a Finn but never accepted as one, her daily routine consists of "stand out of the crowd today."
When long-time pen pal of Ida's mother--a fellow socialist--goes traveling and leaves her Berlin apartment in need of a house-sitter, Kati suggests that Ida go live in Berlin for a while. After fighting back, she gives in and goes, into an environment where she is out of her comfort zone.

The title of the book is a play on words. Although the movie version, from where the book's cover is taken, was translated as "Ground Under Water", the title literally means "Ground under the sea." It can also be read as "To lie under the sea." It reflects both Ida's desire to find her groundings, a place where she feels comfortable, and the almost-suicidal nature of scuba diving, where you consistently have to ask your diving buddy whether everything is OK by using hand signals.

The story has such great premise, but falls nevertheless flat. There is Ida, who has grown up in Finland but sticks out like a sore thumb because of her skin color but who is almost stereotypically Finnish: she hates talking about her feelings, hates conflicts and is scared of meeting her neighbors in Berlin and talking to them--except when she gets drunk at the bar.
Now, not many books have been written in Finland from the point of view of someone who experiences racism while being as Finnish as one can get, so it's great to read one. Although Ala-Harja's attempt was admirable, the end resulted in Ida being a character, who is constantly defining herself by her Namibian past; by a place, where she hasn't been since she was three years old. On the one hand I understand what the author is trying to say: when Ida does not feel at home in a country where she grew up in, where she got her education, and which is, well, her home, she might have the desire to define herself the same way others define her; the foreigner, the outsider. Yet, I could not help but think how many non-white Finns Ala-Harja interviewed for this book to really understand their experiences beyond having the usual racial epithets thrown at them. My guess would be: not that many.

Stylistically, the novel follows a stream-of-consciousness model, where conjunctions and full stops are the enemy and the comma rules the land. Ala-Harja underlines her analogies by marching them out time and again: you will get very familiar with the story of Zacchaeus from the Bible, as well as the thoughts of death combined with the lure of the sea, and the conflicts of socialism versus capitalism.

Although the story seems to be huge in scope and its underlying theme, I still felt as if nothing happened in it. Ida's time in Berlin is almost a secret to the reader, save for two notable events and name-dropping of some famous attractions. She has no more understanding of her life or her mother at the end of the story than she had in the beginning, although she decides to return to Berlin with her diving buddy after having an internal monologue about her mother. Although I feel that this should serve as criticism to the novel, it could be seen as praise, too: how much more life-like can a novel get?

15. Semantic Antics by Sol Steinmetz is a book that On the Dot wanted to be but instead, posed as something else (still bitter about that, yes). Semantic Antics goes alphabetically through the evolution of some choice words. The cover refers to the word 'meat', and how it used to simply mean 'food', but later evolved to mean, well, meat. The two most common ways a word evolves are amelioration, where people begin to use words with negative connotations in more positive contexts, thus making the word itself positive; and pejoration, where the opposite happens.

Although the writing gets a bit jarring after a while, what with most of the entries beginning with phrases such as "The word [repeat the word in the subheading] was first used as..." or "The word [repeat the word in the subheading] is nowadays known as X, but did you know that...", the history of these words is fascinating. Also, without explicitly meaning to do it, the book works as great teaching material for people who think they can use pejorative and insulting terms just because the words originally, about a hundred years ago, were neutral or had different connotations. And meat used to originally mean 'food', but nobody goes around saying that they should be allowed to call all food 'meat'. Sure, you're allowed to do that, but you'd sound stoopid, because that's not how the word is used any more.

To quote a reviewer on, it's true that this book is merely a "short short short version of Oxford English Dictionary" (just like On the Dot and The F word are as well), but I do welcome these short versions of it if it means that more people are able to access the OED *pines after her free OED-subscription*.

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