The Brothers by Asko Sahlberg is set at the end of The Finnish War, fought between Sweden and the Russian Empire (Feb’ 1808 – Sept’ 1809) the result of this war was that the eastern third of Sweden was established as the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland within the Russian Empire. The book starts with the brothers, who have fought on opposing sides, returning to their family farmhouse. With their return old scars resurface, old conflicts born out of past tragedies. The elder brother, Henrik, is embittered, having long been alienated from his family after first being cheated by a neighbour and then his younger brother Erik. This book manages within it’s 122 pages to cover all those epic themes of treachery & conflict, whether through sexual tensions or those family secrets that simmer below the surface or whether contrasting the politics of war with those of family.
As this tale unfolds, each character takes their turn in revealing more of the story in a series of dramatic monologues, that made me think of Alan Bennett’s TV show Talking Heads, (written for BBC television -1988) creating a multiple narrative that’s dark and full of a foreboding that is as dark and chilling as winter. In fact this whole book is as dark and dense as wading through deep snow, and like traipsing through this landscape, you feel you’ve been traipsing for ages and nothing has changed until you look up and find you’ve journeyed miles. This is a small book that portrays grand themes and yet does so by focusing it’s lens on this family and it’s brooding tale, where the passion burns bitter, another way it reminded me was in the similar themes of death, guilt and isolation.
Asko Sahlberg, born 1964, has acquired a fame in Finland that has yet to be replicated in the English speaking world. He published his first novel in 2000 and has written steadily since then, completing his ninth work, The Brothers, in 2010.
This was a wonderfully told tale, translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah, a multi-lingual mother and daughter translation team. Emily has an MA in Creative Writing and a PhD in German Studies. Fleur, her mother, is Finnish. They have worked together before, translating the poetry of Helvi Juvonen and Sirkka Turkka, this is their take on this book
Fleur on translating The Brothers:
“As a Finn, I took an instant liking to the book because of its Nordic quality and the way this quality is combined with universal themes. I felt this combination would make it attractive to readers outside Finland, and translating the work would be a wonderful challenge and a way of making Sahlberg accessible to non-Finnish speakers.”
“And a challenge it proved to be. I began the task by producing a literal translation of the original, grappling with the long sentences and convoluted word orders that are made possible by the Finnish language’s fifteen cases. The result was a comprehensible English text that served as ‘raw material’ for Emily to work with. I believe that the finished product achieves the aim of translating the spirit of this original work.”
Emily on translating The Brothers:
“The Brothers is a powerful and atmospheric book. Dense, dark, and poetic, it takes us right into the minds of its characters, who speak to us directly in turn. It is taut and concentrated, but covers years in the lives of its protagonists, also taking in political and historical developments and vividly evoking a bleak, beautiful Finnish landscape. It is a short text, but it feels like a vast, sprawling epic.”
“One of the key tasks we faced was to hit on a convincing voice for each character. There’s the frank common sense and good humour of the Farmhand, with whose voice the narrative begins. Then there’s the rage and vulnerability of Henrik, which contrasts with the wry resignation of his brother Erik. There’s the dreamy lust of Anna, the woman who comes between them. Finding the right voices for all the characters has been both challenging and exciting.”