That is so weird

Originally published in the Seattle Review of Books, October 21, 2015

To talk about the work of Johanna Sinisalo, an author that I have translated, is a bit tricky. I’m like a musician describing the works of a composer to people who have never seen the written scores, and couldn’t read them if they had. All you have to go on are my interpretations. But there is no more careful reader than a translator, so I can tell you a lot about her work. I think she’s a very interesting writer.

Johanna Sinisalo is weird. Weird in the sense that she can be a complete kook (she was a screenwriter for Iron Sky), and also in the fancier, literary sense. She coined the term Finnish Weird (Suomikumma) to describe her work and that of several other Finnish writers of the past two or three decades (including Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, Leena Krohn, and Jyrki Vainonen, among those available in English). Like the broader international New Weird, Finnish Weird harkens back to the Weird Fiction of the late 19th and early 20th century, an era that predated the entrenched literary genre divisions that we now use to find our way around a bookstore. And of course Finland itself is “weird”, its language unrelated to most other European languages, its traditional music and folklore unique, its epic heroes not warriors but singers and shamans.

The distinguishing feature of Finnish Weird for me, though, is the way it inserts the unexpected, uncanny, or otherworldly into otherwise familiar fictional worlds, often using this juxtaposition of reality and fantasy to explore deep, sometimes heady themes.

Sinisalo’s books can be shelved as literary fiction, science fiction, alternative history, fantasy, or magic realism, but a common factor in all of them is a realistic setting that is then given a twist, an element dropped into the mix that alters the state of things and leads to profound consequences. It’s as if each book is set in a sector of the multiverse that is very like our own, except for one or two crucial differences. This makes it unusually easy to provide a pithy, one-sentence question that forms the kernel of one of her books. What if trolls were an actual, rare species of animal living in the forests of Europe? What if Finland had never repealed prohibition? Sinisalo explores these questions with a mind open to their practical, psychological, political, and even spiritual repercussions. She builds her alternative realities by combining straightforward narrative with real and imagined found texts of every sort – letters, scholarly articles, ad copy, reference books, children’s stories, propaganda, and internet invective. Her sources are sometimes actual, sometimes fictional, and often a combination of the two.

Johanna Sinisalo’s works are fun to translate, but working with her is also labor intensive. She understands English very well and pores over every word of a translation to make sure that it captures her intended meaning and tone. When we recently finished up the final revisions on The Core of the Sun, our editor at Grove/Atlantic – who is fantastic, a hero even more unsung than the lowly translator – said it might be the cleanest translation she’d ever been involved with. But Johanna also knows that you can’t wrestle English prose into word-for-word correspondences with any language, let alone Finnish, with its fifteen grammatical cases, free word order, and eschewal of prepositions. She’s a stickler for accuracy both in the factual information that her books heavily rely on and in faithfulness to the tone and meaning of the original. She explained, for instance, that the obscure Finnish word emansipatsioni was one she remembered from the Finnish translation of Gone with the Wind, and that it’s seldom been used in Finnish since. She wanted to be sure that emancipation, my chosen translation, also had a historic rather than current tone in English. She had done enough research of English-language animal rights literature to suggest that the term species-appropriate would better reflect the movement’s vocabulary than the longer phrase appropriate to their species that I had chosen.

Johanna is also enthusiastically open to the serendipitous improvisations that are sometimes the best way to capture the spirit of a work. The Blood of Angels (Enkelten verta) mentions a lovely old Finnish song that English speakers have never heard of, and she was delighted at the idea of quoting a lovely old Bob Dylan song that they may know, particularly because its lyric is uncannily – dare I say weirdly? – appropriate to the text. A key passage in The Blood of Angels uses the Finnish word verta, which can mean both ‘blood’ and ‘worth’, an effect that is unavoidably lost in English, and she welcomed the idea of instead trying to capture that resonance by using an echo of Hamlet’s soliloquy that happens to correspond amazingly closely to the original’s meaning. This kind of active collaboration is one of the reasons that readers have remarked on how consistently her voice comes through in texts brought into English by different translators, including Herbert Lomas’s award-winning translation of Ennen päivänlaskua ei voi, published in the U.S. as Troll: a Love Story, and David Hackston’s translations of the novel Birdbrain (Linnunaivot) and the novelette Baby Doll, a Nebula finalist.

Sinisalo’s inserted “found” texts, carefully constructed excerpts that mimic familiar writing styles, give a translator a chance to try on different textual personas and “perform” them convincingly. In Troll, the main character works on ad copy and reads up on the zoology of trolls (a real, recently discovered, and legally protected species). Birdbrain contrasts the voices of two young people trekking in Australasia with the texts of field guides and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In The Blood of Angels the main character’s first-person narrative is intermixed with the information he reads about the science and folklore of bees, his son’s passionate political blog, and the blog’s bickering commenters. This mix of styles and points of view is Sinisalo’s trademark, and it’s not just fun to translate, it becomes a kind of supporting documentation that the reader discovers as the characters do, making her alternative worlds feel fully formed. And the varying viewpoints assert competing explanations for the events that occur in her stories, giving them their complex, mind-expanding weirdness.

The Core of the Sun might be Johanna Sinisalo’s most linguistically playful text. The novel opens with an enigmatic, prayer-like verse: Teach me, chile, and I shall Learn. Take me, chile, and I shall Escape… We later learn that this is something found printed on the side of a bottle of hot sauce and adopted as a religious creed.

The Core of the Sun is set in the present, in a Finland where prohibition was never repealed and the country has become a closed, authoritarian society. The eugenics movement popular throughout the developed world in the 1930s was never renounced in this alternative Finland, and gender roles are rigidly enforced through compulsory education and the sterilization of any woman who’s insufficiently pretty and docile. Alcohol and all sorts of other substances are completely banned – including chili peppers, due to their possible mind-altering and addictive properties. The heroes of the novel are Vanna, an undesirably intelligent woman who wears an empty-headed pose to stay out of the clutches of the Health Authority, and Jare, an illicit chili pepper dealer who recruits her as his assistant.

The Core of the Sun is constructed from Vanna and Jare’s narration supplemented by grade-school reports (Why Finland is the Best Country in the World), antiquated deodorant ads (Buy some Fresh Scent and don’t tarry, if you ever wish to marry), and only slightly altered 1930s magazine articles (A Few Words about Sterilization and the Sterilization Law), among numerous other textual artifacts.

The stultifying femininity of the society Vanna lives in, with its beauty strictures and mating rituals, is a sharp parody of our own, and the more she rebels, the more aware she becomes of the ways in which she has unconsciously absorbed feminine conformity. She smiles all the time, for instance, whether she feels like it or not.

It never struck me as strange, but it does now. It’s as if I have muscles in my face over which I have no conscious control.

Vanna’s life takes a surprisingly spiritual direction when she and Jare join forces with a religious sect developing a chili so powerful that it can induce shamanistic trance.

After reading The Core of the Sun about a dozen times over the past two years and examining every word and punctuation mark, my understanding of its possible meanings has continued to expand. Is Vanna’s journey taking place within her mind, or in some spiritual realm? Is it a story of supernatural experience, deep psychological epiphany, or both? Or is the literary symbolism, the reconciliation of feminine weakness and strength, the real point?

Lingering questions are Johanna Sinisalo’s forte. She likes to zero in on truths that refuse to settle into one possible meaning, preferring to occupy a place where seemingly irreconcilable ideas can overlap. That’s where the Weird is.

First published in the Seattle Review of Books, October 21, 2015

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