Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Unfinished: Vieras by Riikka Pulkkinen

With regret I am informing you that I did not finish Riikka Pulkkinen's newest novel, Vieras (Stranger/Unfamiliar). I haven't felt this... uncomfortable, I suppose, about closing a book without reading it through in ages.

I thoroughly enjoyed her first novel, Raja, (available in English as The Limit, translated by Seattle's own Lola Rogers!) but her second novel, Totta, (True in English, also with a translation by Lola Rogers) really hit all the sweet spots: an unreliable narrator, which is a rare treat and difficult to execute well; beautiful language without tripping into purple prose; new ways of describing things. Everything in that story, from the plot to the flashbacks to the narration was just fresh and alive, and the only reason I have been waiting this long to even try rereading it is because I don't own a copy and I want to forget it enough to recreate that first read experience again. Please check it out from your local bookstore. I love it to pieces.

So after that, I was obviously filled with anticipation.

Was she in a rush to produce a third novel? I was sitting there on the bus, reading this novel, baffled. (EDIT: I went and stalked Finnish bloggers who have written about this book and the consensus seems to be that this is Pulkkinen's best, and much better than the earlier ones. Obviously, I'm missing something.)

It is about a young woman pastor from an interracial background in Finland. She snaps within the first pages and steps onto a ferry to Sweden, from where she flies straight to New York. We quickly learn that her mother of unspecified ethnicity who died when she was young was from the US, but they never went there while she was alive. It's time to carpe the diem, I suppose.

Not a bad setting, especially as a bit of mystery is thrown in: she makes references to Yasmina, a girl whose diary she now possesses, and we see flashbacks to Yasmina learning Finnish through using the diary and sitting in the pews, but there is an element of dread. Something bad has happened to Yasmina by the time we become familiar with our main protagonist. Still so far so good.

[An aside. I don't know why suddenly (white) Finnish authors need to be participating in discussions about racism and prejudice, especially when it boils down to cliches and "racism is bad, mmmkay?" The motivation behind writing is perhaps noble, but often the result is just kind of black and white--what else would it be without extensive knowledge of a foreigner's personal experience of living in Finland? I now dread my next Finnish book waiting on the shelf, which is also a book about a Muslim girl in Finland, this time written by a white, cis middle aged man. I've heard it's good. Please let it be good. The previous "Muslims in Finland" book I read was very touching and brilliantly written--by a cis middle aged white woman--but I still felt a bit uncomfortable reading it.]

What really bugged me about this story was the protagonist's trip to New York: she has never been to the US or South America, but she fluently recognizes ethnicities on the streets (such as stating that a Colombian woman was doing this and that) as she marvels the melting pot. Wow, that's a pretty observant Finn. It would be believable if we were told why the protagonist is so apt at recognizing ethnicities simply by looking at them, but not really. Or is this again an unreliable narrator, and we find out on the very last pages that she just had delusions of grandeur and was faking it for the listeners? That in fact, she has no idea what she is talking about? That may be the only way I can finish reading this book--thinking that this is the reason for her behavior.

To top it off, the first few pages dealing with her arrival in New York are exhausting run-throughs of the city that sound more like name dropping and a tourist guide than anything else: we don't stay to dwell on the protagonist as in quick succession she takes the train from station X, then goes to Madison Square Garden, then to this or that location, sees someone rapping (OMG New York is so urban and ethnic), then is on the train again, sees another famous sight, someone is eating a hot dog there how quaint, then back onto the train, and...

Then she successfully rents a room on Manhattan. Without a credit or background check. With cash apparently? I almost gave up there, but figured... Let's see where this is going.

She goes to Chinatown to eat dumplings. OK... a timid Finnish priest who has barely been outside of the country before is suddenly by herself in Chinatown, ordering food that she says she has never eaten or seen before and has no idea what is in it. Right.

At this point, the novel sounds less of a story and more of a soap box for the author's possible personal experiences in the United States. It sounds like Pulkkinen has a lot of opinions about the United States, but instead of writing a column or an autobiography, she uses this priest. But it does not work: it's weird that while the priest is having a slice of pizza, a small remark about obesity in the US is thrown in and dwelled upon rather than the priest's own experience of eating a gigantic slice of pizza for the first time ever, especially considering her background with anorexia. It just sounds like these are not the priest's thoughts and experiences at all.

I started skipping pages to see if I would find something I can grab onto.

Leafed through probably 10 pages of pretty gimmicky typography and dancing.

Then, while she is spending an evening at her new American roommate's place she engages in a conversation with her in extremely poetic language and difficult vocabulary, and that's where my disbelief was no longer suspended, especially as little Yasmina's broken Finnish seemed to fluctuate from perfectly commanding vowel harmony to making vowel harmony mistakes. Why wasn't Yasmina given a voice in perfect Finnish if for fiction's sake our protagonist was given perfect English? Although her mother was American, it is made clear that her mom only spoke Finnish with the family to learn it well, except for some expletives.

Of course authors always use their protagonists to tell a story the authors want to tell, but this just did not seem genuine: the priest character seems like a voodoo doll that has absolutely no personality but who espouses suddenly political and cultural views out of the blue, or is a world traveler for no apparent reason. It just doesn't gel.

I don't know what happened here. I was not expecting to dislike this story as much as I did.

Those of you who have enjoyed it--why? Maybe I'm missing something crucial, or I had a bad day... I'm willing to give it another try.

Until then, I'm going to leaf through to see what happened with young Yasmina. That part of the mystery is still gripping.


  1. I had the same problems with Vieras that you did. That thing about knowing the difference between, say, a Puerto Rican and a Columbian at a glance, having presumably never met anyone from either country before, was baffling. And her fascination with brown people felt as if the author did not imagine the audience for the book to include any brown people. So the beginning was kind of unbelievable and the attitude about ethnicities felt foreign for a reader from a more diverse community than Finland. But the story of her earlier eating disorder was very vivid and moving to me, and by the end of the book I felt that she had wrapped that story into a religious theme that created the kind of poetry she is so good at. I finished the book with the feeling that it was a flawed but worthwhile story.

    1. You write so well. What a delight to read that comment. Ahem! Back to business!

      And her fascination with brown people felt as if the author did not imagine the audience for the book to include any brown people.

      Yes! I had the same feeling as with reading White Oleander, where the author writes about Norwegians as if the audience is only going to consist of Americans proud of their faraway Norwegian ancestry, and who desire everyday Norwegians to be much more fantastical than their real-life counterparts.

      Here, everyone is so darned exotic; it borders on anthropological gawking and exoticism.

      Thank you for pointing out the connection between the protagonist's eating disorder and religious themes; I may continue reading! By the time I stopped reading, her story of anorexia seemed like something simply tossed in there to make her more believable, but it was still at that point such a middle school text book description of the eating disorder that I did not find it interesting (as opposed to, say, Sofi Oksanen's treatment of the same topic in Stalinin lehmät).

      If this were someone else's book I would not give it a second chance, but... I loved Raja and Totta so much that I still want to believe I'm somehow wrong about Vieras.

    2. I feel like I ought to add that there's nothing wrong with writing a book for a specific audience. I just maybe am not quite a member of that intended audience. And yet I liked the book.

    3. That is certainly true; at least, in nonfiction writing it is crucial to know your target audience. In fiction, perhaps less. I think it is fine to intend this book's audience to be primarily white Finns, as that would be the majority of the audience reading in Finnish language, anyway. Still, deciding on a target audience should not give a free pass to invent a reality and then cross your fingers and hope that no representative of that reality reads the story and comes forward to question it. I don't think that is the intention of the author here, but it probably explains the apparent lack of research that went into the experience of a fairly unworldly woman visiting New York. Pulkkinen's progatonist is at the same time a white Finn gawking at non-white people because she finds them so exotic (doing stereotypical things, such as an Asian couple is seen eating noodles in the park), while also being so culturally aware that she recognizes differences between Puerto Ricans and Colombians simply by looking at them and is immediately accepted into her roommate's exotic dancing in-group. This sounds like a fairytale designed for open-minded Finns who have not have much contact with other ethnicities.