Tuesday, 3 March 2015
White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen
review by Maryom
In 1867 after several years of failed harvests, a great famine descended on Finland, threatening the lives of all but the wealthiest. As winter takes hold, Marja's husband lies dying of hunger. Realising that if they remain on the farm, both her and the two children will die too, Marja leaves him and heads south towards St Petersburg where, rumours say, there's bread for all. Others are on the road too, a rag-tag hoard of beggars desperately seeking aid, and not all places are welcoming to starving travellers. Moved on from one place to another, Marja refuses to give up hope but keeps doggedly plodding on.
Meanwhile in the city, life goes on much as it always did - senators squabble over whose plan is the best to deal with the crisis, the rich refuse to help out, and Teo, a doctor, continues his work among the taverns and brothels of the seedier districts.
A chance meeting of Teo and Marja on the road leads to the first signs of hope....
White Hunger is a tale of endurance and hope. Marja's determination to continue despite the odds stacked against her, her constant belief that one day they will reach their goal and it will welcome them with open arms and full baskets of bread, is inspiring but heart-rending as her quest seems doomed from the start. Living hand to mouth, relying entirely on the kindness of strangers, her spirit seems indomitable even though starvation causes her mind to wander and her body to collapse. The reactions of the people she meets en route are understandable - everyone is suffering from the famine and, unless you're among the cosseted wealthy classes, to give even the smallest amount of bread or gruel to a beggar, may mean your own death.
Teo's experiences are different. Living in the city, he's comparatively sheltered from the dire effects of the famine, but he comes to realise that the problem of beggars roaming the countryside in search of food can't be solved by those like himself who have little real understanding of the plight of the people - a situation seen today in the attitudes of governments towards the poor and refugees.
It's a story that takes the reader to unknown places - with our centrally-heated houses and shop-bought food we're hardly likely to encounter such conditions, but the unrelenting frozen landscape slowly seeps into even the well-fed, armchair-snuggled reader's mind. I could easily imagine the frozen feet and hands, the soggy clothing, the tedium of taking to the road each day, the exhaustion at the end of it.
The story does end on a happier note with the return of warmer days in Spring and the natural hopefulness that comes with it, but there's a feeling of a nation waking from a long nightmare and still being haunted by it.
As a slight aside - Although circumstances are very different I found a lot of similarity between Marja and Izolda, the heroine of Hanna Krall's Chasing the King of Hearts published by Peirene a couple of years ago. Both women show a determination to cling on to every last scrap of hope and persevere through adversities, even though their goal seems to move further and further away.
Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Peirene Press
Genre - Adult Literary Fiction, translated fiction
translated from the Finnish by Fleur Jeremiah and Emily Jeremiah