Friday, April 16, 2010

Popular Music from Vittula by Mikael Niemi; translated by Laurie Thompson

If someone whose taste is impeccable hadn't given me this book for Christmas, I'm sure I would never have picked it up. If by some strange chance I had, I probably wouldn't have finished it. I may not have made it past the first three chapters or so. And that would have been an absolute shame.

The thing is, Popular Music from Vittula is pretty far away from my usual read. And for the first half or more of the book I was extremely ambivalent. My notes are full of things like "parts of this are excruciating, but I think I'm glad I'm reading it." A little later is a note that says "There is something about this book that's worming its way under my skin." Like maggots. Which appear multiple times in this book.

Ahem. So, yes. This is a novel about growing up in Pajala, a very northerly town in Sweden, right on the Finnish border. Matti is our narrator and protagonist, and we follow him from the time he is five to his teenage years. Though formatted as a short novel with chapters, it's really a series of short stories, loosely interconnected, and populated with fascinating and often unsavoury characters. It's full of contradictions; full of beauty and horror, violence and joy. Some parts are recognizeable to anyone who has lived in a small town anywhere in the world, others are completely, magically foreign.

The writing is vibrant, and often vulgar, though never crude. By which I mean that I believe the vulgarity is always carefully placed and carefully thought out. I think I got used to this by the latter half of the book, although I'll admit it did take me some time. The rawness of the language and the emotions and the images was what I found so difficult at the beginning. And though this book is quite funny, and I believe it's quite funny all the way through, it also took me until halfway through to settle in to Niemi's sense of humour. But by the end, I found this whole paragraph, part of a section in which Matti is being initiated by his father into manhood, made me giggle:

The most dangerous thing of all, and something he wanted to warn me about above all else, the one thing that had consigned whole regiments of unfortunate young people to the twilight world of insanity, was reading books. This objectionable practice had increased among the younger generation, and Dad was more pleased than he could say that I had not yet displayed any such tendencies. Lunatic asylums were overflowing with folk who'd been reading too much. Once upon a time, they'd been just like you and me, physically strong, straightforward, cheerful and well balanced. Then they'd started reading. Most often by chance. A bout of flu perhaps, with a few days in bed. An attractive book cover that had aroused some curiosity. And suddenly the bad habit had taken hold. The first book had lead to another. Then another, and another, all links in a chain that lead straight down into the eternal night of mental illness. It was impossible to stop. It was worse than drugs.

Actually, I really enjoyed that whole chapter. I also loved the wedding chapter, where Matti is witness to a whole lot of territorial, manly pissing contests, including arm wrestling and a sauna. Then there's the chapter about Matti's grandfather's birthday, the final chapter in the book, which is the crowning glory, I think. The humour and the tenderness lightened the cruelty and darkness enough that reading this wasn't unbearably painful.

The thing is, this book is often graphic but also fascinating; it has a kind of melancholy but also a warm fondness. It's not quite a longing for the way things were, because there's no doubt that it wasn't always the good old days. But there is an understanding that it was what it was, and it will never be like that again, and I sometimes feel that way about my own childhood. And I think, in the end, that and the absolute stark beauty of the language were what kept me reading. This book crept up on me, but now that I am done I'm very glad I read it.


Little Messy Missy said...

Thanks that is a book I may have passed by too!

Unknown said...

I hadn't even heard of it when my friend gave it to me; she read it because her boyfriend read it first in Finnish. It seems to be under most people's radar. Which is a shame, I think.

Ana S. said...

It was definitely under my radar - thank you for fixing that. The setting alone appeals to me. And I love your final paragraph.

Unknown said...

Oh, I'm glad! I'd be really interested to see what you have to say about this one. It's not an easy read but it's definitely worthwhile. And it's quite engrossing.

Jill said...

It's funny how unnerving it can be, moving beyond our usual comfort zone with a book. That's great that you have a friend you trust so much that you stuck with it, and were glad you did. Sounds like a really interesting book!

Unknown said...

You are so right. It is such a strange experience; sometimes I even felt like I was on the outside, watching myself wrestle with this book for the first bit. It was weird. I really don't read beyond my comfort zone very often and I'm generally okay with that, but it doesn't hurt to push myself a little sometimes. It was definitely interesting. I'm trying to decide if I will ever pick it up again, now!

Anonymous said...

It was amAzing! There was something dark and beautiful about the way it was written ! Definately worth it!