The Famine of 1866–1868 was the last famine in Finland and northern Sweden, it was also the last major naturally caused famine in Europe. In Finland the famine became known as "the great hunger years" (suuret nälkävuodet) and it is estimated that about 15% of the entire population died, with this figure rising to 20% in the hardest-hit areas. One of the reasons that this famine hit particularly hard, was that various parts of the country had suffered previous poor harvests, with 1862 being an exceptionally bad year, that combined with the summer of 1866 suffering severe downpours - causing the staple crops (root vegetables, potatoes etc.) to rot in the fields and creating poor conditions for the autumn grain sowing.
In addition to this the government was ill-equipped to handle it & was also slow to recognise the magnitude of the crisis. With no money to import food and a Finance minister, Johan Vilhelm Snellman, not wishing to borrow in case it weakened Finland's recently introduced currency (the Finnish markka), due to the very high interest rates that the Rothschild bank of Frankfurt were asking. When the stored food ran out, thousands took to the roads to beg, in a winter that was harsh and the following season was no better, as May was the coldest on record, and in many places lakes and rivers were still frozen in June. By the autumn of 1867, people were dying by the thousands.*
This is the background for a bleak yet beautifully written book by Aki Ollikainen and translated by that remarkable family team of Emily & Fleur Jeremiah. In this story we follow the decimation of a family, Juhani, Marja & their two kids Mataleena and Juho, the book starts in summer, although this could by no stretch of the imagination be described as a time of plenitude it will be as good as it gets. By October Juhani will be dying of starvation, having foregone food to make sure his family ate & his wife will be left with the horrifying decision to abandon him, so as to save herself and the children. She, as will thousands of others, takes to the road in search of sustenance, in search of that one chance that could save her and her family.
She sets off with the idea of making her way to St. Petersburg*, a distance of around 400km, or in other words a distance unfeasible by foot in what has been described the harshest winter then known, by someone with two children and who are all starving. In fact after a couple of days travelling she is lost, in a landscape that admits no other colour but a crystalline white. Marja, will meet the rawest elements of humanity as she struggles, lurching from place to place, a harsh reminder to those that had, and unwanted competition for food for those in the same position as herself & her family. Although there are moments of kindness they are few and far between and often come with a price.
This is only half the tale because Marja's struggles are counterpoised by the lives of two brothers, one a doctor and the other a government official. Although they are touched by the relentless poverty & humiliation stretching like an ocean around them, they sit safe, secure & warm floating above it. Their views & conversations are also our point of reference to the political machination of the day that will have such dire consequences and yet will set Finland on a path to eventual nationhood.
As stated above this is a bleak tale, it is unrelenting in it's depiction of the plight of Marja & her family, and yet there is a beauty here, even in the harshest of descriptions a poetic quality shines through the writing with phrases like "hunger is a kitten in a sack, scratching away with its claws" or the description of a snake with "eyes the colour of frozen berries, its twin teeth like icicles" all pointing to a writer with a mastery of words and yet this is a début novel.
This is another fantastic choice by the wonderful people at Peirene Press, and I still don't know how they manage to pick such a consistently high quality of reading material – I'm beginning to suspect witchcraft or something similar.
Aki Ollikainen, born in 1973, has taken the Finnish literary scene by storm with this extraordinarily accomplished debut novel, which has won the most prestigious literary prizes in Finland. A professional photographer and reporter for a local newspaper, the author lives in Kolari in northern Finland.
*The total death toll was estimated at around 270,000 in three years, about 150,000 in excess of normal mortality. The worst-hit areas were Satakunta, Tavastia, Ostrobothnia, and North Karelia.
* During this period of history Northern Finland was controlled by Russia.