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Popular Music from Vittula

| 1.7.06
Popular Music from Vittula: a novel, by Mikael Niemi
(translated from Swedish by Laurie Thompson)

While this short novel is mostly a coming-of-age tale for two boyhood friends who grew up in Vittula, a town near the Finnish-Swedish border, I enjoyed it both for its evocative imagery of life within the arctic circle, and the role that Laestadianism plays in the lives of the two main characters. Niila is the son of an emotionally and physically abusive Laestadian preacher. Matti, who is also the voice of the narrator, is his best friend. Matti is not a Laestadian.

As a third generation American of Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish ancestry, the occasional sauna and lefse is as close as I get to rediscovering my roots! From my perspective, the world presented in Niemi's novel seems very far away. Yet while I read it I couldn't help but feel haunted by images which evoked vivid memories of childhood. Perhaps this haunting is not entirely coincidental, as I recently found out from a relative that my ancestors originate from this very region of Finland and Sweden.

The wedding banquet chapter reminded me of the strong black coffee, hearty rieska, and earthy camaraderie that existed at family events growing up. The portrayal of the mother-in-law as a woman whose purpose was to force the guests to eat and eat until they could eat no more --and then eat a few more things-- recalled to mind the important role that food played in hospitality. The wedding banquet concludes with the men taking an intense saunas where, "the steam was as merciless as a Laestadian sermon." (p. 122)

Seeing Laestadianism through Matti's eyes left me with a "grass is greener on the other side" reaction. Growing up as a mainstream Lutheran, Matti's father warned him that "[i]t was particularly important not to brood about religion. God and death and the meaning of life were all extremely dangerous topics for a young and vulnerable mind, a dense forest in which you could easily get lost and end up with acute attacks of madness. You could confidently leave that kind of stuff until your old age, because by then you would be hardened and tougher, and wouldn't have much else to do. Confirmation classes should be regarded as a purely theoretical exercise: a few texts and rituals to memorize, but certainly not anything to start worrying about." (p. 176) While I wouldn't go that far, I was struck by the mirror image of Laestadian spiritual excess painted so starkly.

"Life is a vale of tears." I don't know if that idea is primarily Laestadian or primarily Finnish, but it is an important theme that pervades the novel. While the novel is not unhappy, or depressing, life in Vittula is hard and rough, and pleasure, while obtainable, is always understood within the context of suffering.

PUBLISHER: Seven Stories Press. New York. 2003. ISBN: 1-58322-523-4
KEYWORDS: Fiction, Sweden, Finland, Laestadianism

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