Thursday, October 10, 2013

Honouring the national literature

October 10th is the Aleksis Kivi Day in Finland. Kivi (1834-1872) was the first Finnish novelist to write in Finnish, which earns him the title of the National Author. Until him, Finnish was regarded inferior and unsuitable language for literature; the cultural elite came from the Swedish-speaking minority so the earlier Finnish literature is written in Swedish.

Seven Brothers (1870, Seitsemän veljestä in Finnish), the book that transformed Finnish literature, is his only novel; the body of his work consists of plays and poems. It’s the only work of his that I’ve read too, and I didn’t read it voluntarily. It was part of the school curriculum and, like all schoolwork, felt like a chore. I didn’t think I needed to read it anyway, because I knew what the book was about, having had seen at least two stage productions and a TV-series based on it.

In the end, I’m glad that I didn’t take the easy way out, because it’s a good book. For such a momentous book in Finnish history, it’s easy to read too, both fun and poignant. As the name reveals, it tells a story of seven brothers who live simple life in their country village, farming their land, minding their business. However, the modern world disrupts their lives in the form of the church and its demand the brothers learn to read if they want to be part of the society – especially if they want to marry. It doesn’t go well and, thoroughly incised, the brothers flee in the middle of an untouched forest – there were a lot of those still left in Finland – to start a new life unharrassed by demands they couldn’t meet. Eventually, though, civilisation wins and the brothers return home and become well-respected members of their society.

It’s a story about the transformation of the society that happened in Finland during the 19th century. The brothers represent the old, rural world. Simpler world. That doesn’t mean the brothers are simple or that the book is. Each brother views the world in their unique way and watching it through their eyes offers a lot to a modern reader. Especially their views about nature and living in harmony with it would be understandable today too.

We had to pick a favourite brother and write a report on him. Mine was Lauri, a unique thinker and an artistic soul. He must have felt like a kindred spirit, an introvert like me. Unfortunately, I can’t remember what I wrote. I got a good grade, though, and we all know that’s what counts. Right?

I haven’t picked the book since, but I’ve seen some productions on TV and read a children’s picture book version of it quite a few times. None of these diminish the value of the original. They add to it. It is, quite simply, a well-loved piece of our literature and will mostly likely remain so too.

Seven Brothers is available in English, but I havent seen the translation and cant tell if its any good. However, I found this video of some summer theatre production of the play based on the book. Its in Finnish, but for some reason it manages to convey a lot about the spirit of the book, the wildness of the brothers especially. The scenes arent in any particular order, theyre just glimpses into the play.