Thursday, 3 January 2013

Sahlberg: The Brothers

Asko Sahlberg (2012) The Brothers trans. Emily Jeremiah & Fleur Jeremiah; Peirene Press, London; 112 pp.; ISBN 978-0-956284068. Originally published in Finnish in 2010.

One of the first things I noticed travelling on a suburban train in Helsinki was that all the station names were in both Finnish and Swedish. Despite Swedes comprising less than six per cent of the population of Finland, Swedish remains an official language of the country. What we now know as Finland was from the twelfth century part of the kingdom of Sweden and Swedish was the language of government and the elite. At the beginning of the nineteenth century there was a war between Russia and Sweden and from March 1809 Finland became a duchy within the Russian empire. It was only after the revolution in Russia in 1917 that Finland became an independent nation.

This novel is set just after the Swedish-Russian war. Two brothers, Henrik and Erik, fought on different sides of the conflict, Henrik for Russia and Erik for Sweden. The brothers grew up in a rural Finnish-speaking household. While they were close as boys they developed quite different characters as they grew into adulthood. Henrik suffered two great losses growing up, one at the hands of a local farmer and the other because of Erik. Henrik subsequently ran away, first to Stockholm and later to St Petersburg. He tried to make a success of his life but his efforts were beset by failure and as the novel opens he is deeply resentful of his lot.

Erik went to war with a cousin, Mauri, who lives in the family household as a lowly servant. After the war they return home where the mother, Erik’s wife Anna, an old farmhand and a new young maid are all in residence. The father died many years before and the mother’s closest companion is the old farmhand who has worked there since before the brothers were born. There is gossip that the mother and the farmhand are intimate.

Anna is a local woman who becomes increasingly suspicious that Erik has a mistress in the local town. Erik and Mauri go into town on a regular basis and stay overnight. The mother is more concerned that the visits have something to do with Finnish politics and the growing movement that would like to see an independent Finland. Only Mauri knows the truth but people are so used to not seeing him because of his mean status that they never bother to ask him.

The mother is lonely and hankers for her old life in the city of Turku where she lived before marrying. She has never felt at home in the countryside and the house feels old and tired now. On a night in deep winter, Henrik returns after years away. His arrival causes old fears and emotions to resurface. The mother was happier with him gone and Anna clearly doesn’t like him. There was bad blood between them long ago. Mauri knows a dark secret about Henrik from the war which causes him to regard Henrik with deep distrust.

Henrik is poor but returns with an air of arrogance. He seems intent on settling old scores and there is a fear that he will somehow try to wrest the house from the family. As the two brothers manoeuvre and test each other’s will, the tension inexorably rises. In the end the brothers clash and in the process the mother, the old farmhand and Mauri expose many of the secrets of the brothers’ relationship.

Despite the traumatic events that ensue, each of the main characters eventually finds a relief and a liberation that breaks the manacles of the past. They look to an uncertain future but it is more with hope than trepidation.

Asko Sahlberg has written a short, intense novel with prose as sharp and memorable as the icy winter scenes in which the story is set. The family has lived through the conflict of the war and must survive the unfinished war between the brothers. The outcome shows us that our attitude towards the world is the key to the quality of our future.

The novel has been translated by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah, a mother and daughter team, and is published by Peirene Press which continues to introduce outstanding Scandinavian authors to an English-reading public. I was enthusiastic in an earlier review about The Murder of Halland issued by the same publisher and with The Brothers we have another absorbing and richly layered tale.

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