DEEP IN THE DENSELY forested countryside, the cold consolidates its grip on the land. Sick men can’t chop firewood, and frost invades the households. A mother and her two children flee their peasant’s hovel to follow the dwindling food supply chain into the towns and cities, barely able to walk in the waist-high snow. Elsewhere a town doctor discusses the famine over a game of chess and then goes to his whore, whom he is fond of and would befriend, if only conventions allowed. A nameless senator, for whom the doctor’s brother works, muses over the state’s response to the plight of its people and its decision to invest a vast fortune in a railway line. These scenes play in parallel to one another, largely unconscious of their painful contrasts. Finland in the 19th century is a horribly polarized nation, with 85 percent of its population employed on poor terms on the land or in forests. Power and wealth is in the hands of the few, something exacerbated by the fact that the country is a fiefdom of the notoriously imbalanced Russian Empire. Finns are struggling to modernize their economy and simultaneously form a credible social identity. Famine threatens to annul their efforts. Both the senator and the doctor see that their society teeters on the brink of collapse — an observation that the peasants have no need to dwell on, for they feel it in their bones.
I’ve never suffered life-threatening hunger, and I wager Aki Ollikainen never has, being a citizen of a famously generous welfare state and a successful photographer and reporter to boot. But he has viscerally imagined the travails of the hungry, and for this alone his novel is a notable achievement. With a surprisingly small expenditure of words in White Hunger, Ollikainen transports us well into the white-blitzed backlands of Finland, during the famine of the 1860s, the last such natural disaster to afflict Europe, a continent that now tends to take its necessities for granted.
It is surely worth noting the irony in how the peasants had to turn to their traditional overlord Russia for succor in their hour of need, or flee to America, while the Europeans were busy arranging exploitative bank loans. All this history, though, is a context more familiar to the readers of the original than to those of the English translation. As is another major Finnish cultural issue, the elitism of the Swedish-speaking minority (also traditional overlords) and pauperism of the Finnish-speaking majority this tension has a linguistic dimension that any translation will struggle to articulate, and a little of the drama is undoubtedly lost. But the novel transcends such cultural specificity and examines the atavistic behavior of humanity in terrible straits, and whether the fight for survival will bend us toward competition or cooperation. One can never be certain whether the next person encountered will steal the bread from out of your pocket or offer you his last spoonful of gruel. Meike Ziervogel, the book’s publisher, likens it to The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and the comparison isn’t mere spin: much as in McCarthy’s stories, the characters in White Hunger are endowed with richly nuanced attitudes, meaning there are few signs by which the reader can anticipate a goodie or a baddie. Ollikainen is perhaps even subtler than McCarthy, because unlike the American writer’s almost universally malicious population, these characters are often torn between selfishness and a somewhat guilty desire to aid the desperate. Thus, the tale is all the more unpredictable, more intriguing, and more like life as we think we know it.
Even if history, the structural framework, were entirely removed, the narrative would retain its substance and life. Amid abstract cultural machinations the plight of the hungry is the truest and most affecting phenomenon. When Ollikainen describes the ravaging famine, the starving children with their mother, he does so with such sympathy and authenticity that any loftier themes seem to fade out of consideration, as the prose sharply and glaringly depicts the agony of hunger. The wording at such times is as straightforward as the trek across a frozen lake: plain, hard, direct, and yet constituted of discreet beauty. The life force is a “heavy water” that “bursts out, unrestrained, wetting her feet and seeping into her legs all the way up, until she is a dirty sheet heavy with liquid. The dampness crystallizes into powdery snow, through which the wind blows.” Hunger itself is “an angry cat scratching, scraping, sinking its teeth into the pit of her stomach […] The cat raises its mangy tail and comes out of her mouth, bloody porridge.” The children’s perspectives are wholly focused on the mysterious conditions that so icily envelop them. Ollikainen’s prose is as determined as the characters’ own will to live; and, even where it seems life simply cannot endure, the narrative deals bluntly, leading the reader through a tale of epic substance compacted into a mere seven-score pages.
Despite his remarkable facility for empathy, the author occasionally succumbs to his alter-ego-photographer’s ideal of objective depiction. As a result, several moments of acute grief are unfortunately stunted, moments when the potential for expressing psychological trauma or turmoil has not been fully seized upon. There is, however, a fine line between this being a fault and a virtue: one of the powers of the narrative is that it cauterizes sentiment as frostbite does to the exposed parts of the body. In many ways I was glad that it didn’t deviate too emotionally from the people’s own arduous physicality.
Ziervogel’s Peirene Press is a valuable entity in the Anglophone literary world, introducing many cracking works of fiction that have long been praised in other European tongues. They like to publish fiction that, as one reviewer put it and as Peirene itself quotes, can “be devoured in a single sitting.” This work, though, I couldn’t help thinking, would have benefited from some elaboration — of its mysterious “Senator” character in particular. His role is to provide that point on the compass where the famine is largely a question of theory and debate; but if Ollikainen intends to provide such compass points in his narrative, then it would be better that they were more roundly justified. This slim volume of a starving family’s struggles is, nonetheless, totally compelling and sustains the publisher’s reputation for high-quality and excitingly unfamiliar literature. On the critical side, furthermore, it’s won a fistful of Finland’s top prizes.
For all that silverware, I wouldn’t have expected an author to so effectively instill in me a fear of the cold and of the vanishing of all food. (And, yes, I have read Hamsun.) I’ve been given pause for reflection and thankfulness, after a winter’s season of excessive consumption. I’ve been reminded, furthermore, that these months are not so kind to the great numbers migrating across our world in search of shelter and safety.