Saturday, October 11, 2014

Maihinnousu by Riikka Ala-Harja

EDIT: I wrote this entry before learning about the media circus that went on around the novel, and for good or bad, I now have a slightly different view on the story setting. The below is what happens when I do my best not to know anything in advance about the story I'm going to read. 

This may be a language, cultural, and personal issue, but whenever I read a book written in Finnish where the main character either goes to spend time with people who are not not raised or lived long in Finland--but the author is--I scrutinize the book more for cultural inaccuracies. Usually I don't even look hard for them: it's really hard to write about experiences you've never encountered in an authentic voice.

So yeah. I first checked the back cover of Maihinnousu, and I put the book back on the shelf because the novel was described as a story "[...] about a French woman, who is about to lose both her husband and her child." Great, the story will be dotted with stereotypical cues about Frenchness. She'll probably start her day with cafe au lait and walk around in a beret, carrying a baguette.

But then I forgot about reading the blurb, and grabbed the book about a month later because it looked conveniently short for me to read in between other stuff.

At first, I thought Maihinnousu is about a linguistically gifted Finnish woman who was giving tours in Normandy in German, English, and French and building a new life there. When it turns out that she's French, I had a hard time to adjust. There was nothing French about her.
But then again--does there need to be? Ala-Harja just lets her character be. I don't know if it's possible to separate the individual from the cultural background completely, but I was happy to see Ala-Harja not resort to stereotyping as ways of making her readers get where the character was from.

And perhaps that's the genius behind this gut-wrenching, short novel: it's not a story about a Frenchwoman who has to make tough decisions, or a woman living in France needing to make tough decisions; it's about a human who is in a crappy situation and needs to emerge out of it as a winner. It's a universal story.

Then, it also made sense for Ala-Harja to place her story in Normandy: in Finnish, the word used for invasion in the term "invasion of Normandy," maihinnousu, can also mean getting off a boat, or getting onto solid ground after being on the sea. Throughout the novel the character's daily job of making history more personal for tourists is juxtaposed with her own life, where her daughter's body is quite literally invaded by cancer, her marriage has been invaded by another woman, and her home is invaded by a man who does not love her anymore. She is on a mission to find solid ground in a stormy sea.

The protagonist, whose name I had to look up specifically when I wrote this because it hardly ever comes up in the novel, is also a bit of an unreliable narrator: when she talks about her husband having an affair, I started to get the sneaking suspicion that she was just making it all up. She had never actually seen him together with the other woman, and she was constantly coming up with the wildest scenarios about them. Was there a chance that he had fallen out of love because she was a paranoid loony? He barely gives voice for himself in the novel; most of the time the husband is either physically absent or refusing to talk. It makes for an interesting dynamic.

When the beaches of Normandy are now filled with happy tourists and stone skipping locals it gives the reader comfort; things will not remain the same. Things can get better.

Popula by Pirjo Hassinen

This simple, yet funny and heartbreaking book on populist politics and what it can mean to the common citizen was a quick read. In it, three characters become entangled both with the lives of each other and with the populist party Popula, while all the while feeling alienated from people around them. 

Painter Pirjo defames a modern flower painting at the museum and becomes a pawn for the populist party Popula, representing the everyday Finn who no longer has patience for tax funds being spent on art that nobody understands, created by a hoity-toity ruling class. 

Her adult daughter Rita is embarrassed by her mother's antics, but she has her own problems: she slowly becomes an outsider in her family when her husband sides with the adopted daughter of his and his dead wife after Rita makes a racially charged comment.

Pirjo's neighbor and occasional drinking buddy Perttu loses his job as a bouncer when he throws a man on the ground after a day of brewing hatred within him toward authorities: his crime earlier in the day had been to wash his mother's room mate at the Alzheimer patient care home where this old lady had been left to fester in her own feces. He's hired as a bodyguard for the Popula party's leader because he fits the story of a wronged everyday man perfectly (and looks like a blonde viking), but he is unable to stop the party leader from being filmed getting drunk with a bunch of neonazis, praising their efforts.

Each character first blames other people for their misgivings, whether it is neighbors, former teachers, spouses, or police officers. When they take a moment to understand how much they are actually connected to other people in the society around them and how their actions can cause an avalanche--in both good and bad--their feelings of alienation begin to subside. 

It would have been easy to make fun of all these characters for becoming enamored by populist, hyperbolic messages regarding immigration, unemployment, or government officials, but instead, Hassinen empathizes with the everyman. It's understandable that the last person we look to blame is ourselves--it's just human nature. Unfortunately, this tendency can be manipulated easily for political gains. Popula urges in between the lines people to take responsibility for our own lives, because if the crutch we have been relying on falls from underneath us, who can we blame then?