White Hunger is about the famine in 1867 in Finland and looks at the lives of two very different families – one poor and one rich – whose paths cross and enmesh. The Senator, based on the finance minister of the time whose stringent policies did nothing but provoke the crisis, also has a voice.
I was expecting to love this novel. It has won many literary prizes and has a theme I am usually drawn to. However, I was somehow, like many of the characters within its pages, left in the cold. For the first time in an age of reading translated works, I wondered if it was the translation I was struggling with. Austere prose is one thing, but the novel seemed full of general platitudes about the baseness of man reduced by hunger that did nothing to set my literary desires aflame. I was disappointed. It is nothing new to read of rich people making unfair decisions about poor people. It is nothing new to see poor people turn thief in the face of death. Elevating this into a narrative that forces new neural pathways, that challenges the reader to think differently about poverty and hunger, is what books like this should be doing and whether it was the translation (from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah) or the novel itself, I was disappointingly taken nowhere new.
I say disappointingly because as well as the praise I read for the novel, I also love the publisher’s, Peirene’s, aims and the causes they support. Everything about this book makes me want to love it. And still, I remain unconvinced, unmoved by the image of a boy watching his mother’s dead body slowly shrouded by a blanket of snow. This lack of emotional response comes in a week when I was lucky enough to see the birth of my friend’s beautiful baby son.
I won’t say that you will not enjoy this novel. It is compelling enough. I only wish I could read it in Finnish. Then I would know for sure where my frustrations lie, with the novel or the translation.
I will read Aki Ollikainen’s next novel. There is the seed of something promising here, but more in hope that anticipation.