-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson–
Asko Sahlberg has written a tight and compact little saga in The Brothers (entitled He in the original Finnish – which I gather translates as ‘They’ in English). This English translation, courtesy of mother-and-daughter team Fleur and Emily Jeremiah, is the first in Peirene Press‘ new series, The Small Epic.
You might remember Peirene Press translations from our review of Alois Hotschnig’s Maybe This Time, part of 2011’s The Man series. For 2012, Peirene’s focus is on The Small Epic, and there are two more to come in this series. As its name implies, The Small Epic is all about big stories told in a short form (I polished off The Brothers in a matter of hours). This particular Small Epic takes place in what is now Finland, just after the Finnish War (1808-9) between King Gustav IV Adolf of Sweden and Czar Alexander I of Russia. In February 1808, the Russian Czar began a war against Sweden intending to draw that country into Napoleon’s Continental System; his prize for doing so was the newly-created Duchy of Finland.
The Brothers begins as it means to go on: with a sense not only of the Finnish cold but of the immediacy of everything. That’s not just because of the present tense narrative, but also because the Jeremiahs’ translation makes a virtue of this and it all feels punchy and immediate – there’s no messing around or unnecessary waffling here. There is a tension in the first few lines that never quite goes away and that always threatens to erupt into violence.
‘I have barely caught the crunch of snow and I know who is coming. Henrik treads heavily and unhurriedly, as is his wont, grinding his feet into the earth. The brothers are so different. Erik walks fast, with light steps; he is always in a hurry, here then gone.’
Elder brother Henrik treads heavily and has a lot of baggage to carry around. He’s returning to the family farm, in the isolated, snowy Finnish countryside – he has been to the war and it shows in his face. But Henrik fought for the Russians and will never be quite at home anywhere again. His betrayal hangs about the pages of the book, mingling with the bitter clouds of betrayals by his mother and brother. These are high emotions and deep feelings (high and deep not only in the sense of being intense, but of carrying a human nobility and universality); they are experiences of the human condition as much as they are the experiences of specific human beings: regret, bitterness, lust, despair.
But then Sahlberg’s characters are very much frail human beings, whose failings make them who they are, for better or worse. The Brothers is shot through with a bleak truth and honesty, and that’s most visible in the characterisation. It’s as true of the Farmhand, the Old Mistress and the brothers as it is of their cousin Mauri and the local bailiff. That each of these characters gets to voice their thoughts and perspective through a first-person narrative is another strength of Sahlberg’s writing, making each event and character multi-faceted as we see them from inside as well as outside. It makes for a genuinely three-dimensional realisation of the Finnish farmstead in the prose, even before that makes its way to the imagination.
The background to Sahlberg’s story is certainly the stuff of epic. Empires and kingdoms clashing, Napoleon, families torn apart by war, betrayal and secrets, and whole life stories piling into the briefest chunks of time. But what Sahlberg has done is make a pivotal moment in Scandinavian history accessible and empathetic. The Brothers makes the sweep of history personal and shows its impact on individuals, on people with whom we can identify much more easily than we can with kingdoms, empires or their rulers. That’s what The Small Epic is all about, and that’s its great strength.