an old biddy takes her place on the right hand of God,
Niemi’s ribald and rollicking novel Populärmusik
från Vittula took Sweden by storm when it
was published by Norstedts in 2000, and won the prestigious
August Prize. Depicting the childhood and youth of
a small boy from the far north of Sweden where most
people speak Tornedalen Finnish at home, and regard
southern Sweden as very much a foreign country, it
is based on the author’s own experiences. (It
was reviewed in Swedish Book Review 2000:2.) Hilarious
set pieces are punctuated by flashes of poetry (the
author is also a poet and dramatist, besides having
published several books for children) and surreal flights
of fancy as Niemi conjures up a setting and a life-style
based on his home village of Pajala, way up inside
the Arctic Circle. Niemi claims he expected it to be
read only by a couple of thousand people on both sides
of the border with Finland; he was astonished when
it headed the Swedish bestseller lists, and even more
astounded to find it being translated into most European
languages, not to mention Japanese. (The English translation
is due out from Flamingo in London and Seven Stories
in New York in the spring of next year.) The taster
printed here is Chapter six.
and on the hazards involved in distributing worldly goods
bleak day in spring Niila’s grandma took her leave
of this earthly life. Still mentally alert, she had lain
on her deathbed and confessed her sins in a barely audible
whisper before licking the bread with the tip of her liver-brown
tongue and having her shrivelled lips sprinkled with wine.
Then she said she could see a bright light, and angels
drinking curdled milk from ladles, and when she drew her
last breath her body became half an ounce lighter, that
being the weight of her eternal soul.
relatives were summoned to the ulosveisu the same
day as she died. Her sons carried her coffin round all
the rooms in the house, with the foot end first and the
lid open so that she could take farewell of her home; hymns
were sung, coffee was drunk, and the corpse was eventually
driven off to the freezer at the mortuary.
the funeral arrangements were made. The Pajala telephone
exchange glowed red hot, and the post office started distributing
invitations all over Norrbotten, Finland, south Sweden,
Europe and the rest of the world. After all, Grandma had
filled as much of the world as she could manage and had
time for. She had borne twelve children, the same number
as the apostles, and like them they had gone off in all
possible directions. Some lived in Kiruna and Luleå,
others in the suburbs of Stockholm, and some in Växjö and
Kristianstad and Frankfurt and Missouri and New Zealand.
Only one still lived in Pajala, and that was Niila’s
father. All of them came to the funeral, including the
two deceased sons – the ladies of the parish in touch
with the other side had seen them. They had wondered who
the two boys were, standing with heads bowed by the coffin
during the introductory hymn, but then had realized they
were rather bright round the edges and that their feet
were hovering a finger’s breadth over the ground.
present were grandchildren and great-grandchildren from
all over the globe, strange elegantly dressed creatures
speaking every Swedish dialect you could think of. The
grandchildren from Frankfurt had German accents, while
the Americans and New Zealanders chattered away in Swenglish.
The only ones from the younger generation who could still
speak Tornedalen Finnish were Niila and his brothers and
sisters, but they didn’t say very much anyway. There
was a whole host of languages and cultures assembled in
Pajala church, a very tangible tribute to what a single
fertile Tornedalen womb could give rise to.
homilies delivered by the side of the coffin were numerous
and lengthy. Tribute was paid to the deceased’s life
of honest toil, in a spirit of devoted prayer and self-denial.
She had lugged and heaved, heaved and lugged, fed cattle
and children, raked more hay than three horse-drawn harvesters,
woven five hundred yards of rag carpet, picked three thousand
buckets of berries, drawn forty thousand buckets of water
from the well in the yard, chopped firewood equivalent
to a major clear-felling in the Käymäjärvi
forests, washed a mountain of dirty linen as high as Mt.
Jupukka, shovelled acres of shit from the dry closet without
so much as a word of complaint, and when she lifted potatoes
the clatter of them dropping into the tin bucket had frequently
been mistaken for a salvo from a Finnish machine gun. To
mention but a few of her achievements.
her last years, when she had been bed-ridden, she had read
the Bible from cover to cover eighteen times – the
old Finnish version, of course, uncontaminated by atheists
in the modern Bible Commissions. Naturally, the written
Word was nothing compared to the Living one, the two-edged
sword wielded with such fervour at prayer meetings, but
it might as well be read as she had nothing else to do.
usual at Tornedalen heroic burials, the preachers spoke
mostly about Hell. They described in minute detail the
endlessly burning charcoal stack where sinners and heretics
were fried like pork in tar in the Devil’s red-hot
skillet, while he prodded them with his trident to bring
out the juices. The congregation cowered in their pews,
and the old lady’s daughters especially shed many
a snake-tear into their permanent waves and fashionable
dresses while the men who had married into the family shuffled
uneasily with hardened hearts. But here was an opportunity
to sow the seeds of penitence and mercy over almost all
the globe, and it would have been unpardonable not to try.
Besides, Grandmother had filled a whole exercise book with
instructions as to how the funeral was to be conducted,
and there was to be much Holy Writ and a modicum of the
Gospel in the service. None of your forgiveness scattered
glibly hither and thither on an occasion like this.
when the heavenly gates finally opened at the end of the
ceremony, when the angels breathed sweet-smelling Grace
into Pajala church and the earth trembled and Grandma was
delivered unto the Heavenly Father, the women sniffled
into their handkerchiefs and wept and quivered and hugged
each other in the name and blood of Jesus Christ amen,
the pews and aisles were filled with the scent of new-mown
hay and the whole church rose half an inch from its foundations
before crashing back in place with a resounding, deafening
thud. And the faithful saw the light, the light of Paradise,
as when you open your eyes briefly while sound asleep in
a silent summer’s night, when you open your eyes
towards a window and see the gentle glow of the midsummer
sun gleaming in the night sky, a brief interlude in a dream,
then close them again. And next morning when you wake up
there is only a faint memory left of something great and
mysterious. Love, perhaps.
the funeral everyone was invited back to the house for
coffee and cakes. The mood was suddenly relaxed, almost
exhilarated. Grandma was with Jesus. Time to breathe again.
only one not to thaw out was Isak. He prowled around in
his old preacher suit, and although it was a long time
since he’d left the straight and narrow, a few words
over the coffin in praise of God had been expected from
him. A testimony from the prodigal son. Some thought he
might even have seen the light once again – greater
things than that had been witnessed at the funeral of a
parent after all, a time when one’s own transience
and mortality crept up one generation closer to home. The
forefinger of God plunging like an iron rod into a hardened
heart and breaking the ice, messages from the Holy Ghost,
confessions of sins draining the penitent soul like the
emptying of a brim-full chamber pot, then forgiveness transforming
it into a highly polished Heavenly Chalice into which the
Grace of God can fall like a summer shower. But Isak had
merely mumbled over the bier, softly, to himself. Not even
those in the front row had heard what he said.
and buns were served up at the children’s table.
We had to eat in shifts as there were so many of us. Niila
looked uncomfortable in his tightly buttoned Sunday shirt.
While the old folk sat around cackling away like black-clad
crows, we youngsters wandered off outside. The boys from
Missouri followed us out. They were twins, aged about eight,
dressed in smart suits and ties. They spoke English to
each other while Niila and I conversed in Tornedalen Finnish;
they kept yawning due to jet lag, and were shivering noticeably.
They both had crew cuts and looked like miniature marines
with ginger hair, like their Irish-American father. You
could see they were bewildered by being transplanted to
the Old World and their mother’s roots. It was May,
the snow was melting after the long winter, but the river
was still covered in ice. The birches were naked, and last
year’s grass was flat and yellow in the meadows where
the snow had barely finished thawing away. They trod cautiously
in their patent leather shoes, peering around uneasily
on the look-out for Arctic predators.
was curious and started chatting to them. They told us
in sing-song Swedish-American that on their way to Sweden
they’d broken their journey in London and seen the
Beatles. I told them to cut out the fairy-tales. But they
both swore blind the Beatles had driven past their hotel
in a long, open Cadillac through rows of girls screeching
and shrieking. It had all been filmed from a lorry following
twins had bought something as well. They produced a paper
bag and took out a record with an English price tag.
spelled out slowly. “Roskn roll musis.”
roll music,” they chorused, correcting my pronunciation
with a grin. Then they handed the single over to Niila.
a present. To our cousin.”
took hold of the record in both hands. Fascinated, he slowly
slid out the circular piece of vinyl and stared at the
hair-thin grooves. He was holding it so gingerly, as if
afraid it would crack, like a wafer-thin disc of ice from
a frozen water-bucket. Although this disc was black. Like
mumbled. “Tack. Fenk yoo.”
He sniffed at the plastic, then held it up towards the
spring sun and watched the grooves glittering. The twins
glanced at each other and smiled. They were
already composing the story about their meeting with the natives they’d
recount for their buddies back home in Missouri as they all sat around chewing
hamburgers and slurping coke.
undid a few shirt buttons and hid the record under his
clothes, next to his skin. He hesitated for a moment. Then
he beckoned to the twins, inviting them to follow him towards
the road. Wondering what he had in mind, I accompanied
them over the meadow, through the remains of the last,
stopped when we came to the ditch. There was a culvert
running underneath the road, made of large concrete tubes.
If we bent down, we could see a white circle of light at
the other end. Dirty grey melt-water was flowing through
the culvert and splashing down at our feet, forming an
oval-shaped pond. Next to it were the shrinking mountains
of snow piled up by the snow ploughs, looking like heaps
of filthy old bed linen. Niila pointed down into the murky
said with a smile to the twins.
leaned forward. Just under the surface were some big, slimy
lumps. From close up we could see there were little things
moving inside. Tiny black embryos wriggling about. Some
creatures had already forced their way out and were swimming
around in the muddy water.
cemetery,” said Niila.
twins eyed me sceptically as I endeavoured to work out
what Niila was trying to say.
the snow melts the water runs through the coffins,” I
elaborated in a low voice, “and the souls of the
dead are washed along and end up here.”
found a rusty old coffee tin. The twins stared wide-eyed
at the tadpoles in the pool.
you rescue them they turn into angels and fly off to heaven,” I
of the twins took the coffee tin and started to unfasten
his patent leather shoes. The other one hesitated, but
soon followed suit. They quickly pulled off their socks
and their immaculately creased trousers and stood barefoot
at the edge of the pool in their baggy American boxer shorts.
Then they waded into the mud with short, tentative steps.
Within seconds they were going all out to rescue souls.
The melted snow was up to their thighs. They were shivering
with cold, but gripped by the excitement of the chase.
Before long they were shouting with glee and holding up
the coffee tin with a few tadpoles swimming around inside.
Their lips had taken on a shade of blue.
a dark, slimy mass slithered out of the culvert and dropped
into the pool with a splash.
of the twins plunged his hands down into the mud, searching
around for Grandma. Then he slipped and fell. His head
disappeared under the slimy surface. His brother grabbed
hold of him but lost his balance and was dragged down as
well, flapping frantically with both arms. Spluttering
and snorting they crawled back onto dry land, so cold by
now that they could barely struggle to their feet. But
the coffee tin was still standing in the grass, complete
and I were struck dumb by this display of bravery while
the twins got dressed again. They were shivering so violently
we had to help them do up their shirt buttons. They pulled
off their underpants and wrung them out, then removed the
worst of the filth from their hair with their elegant tortoiseshell
combs. Their eyes gleamed as they gazed down into the coffee
tin. A handful of little tadpoles were circling round and
round, their tails wriggling from side to side. Eventually
one of the brothers gave us a frozen stiff but nevertheless
you! Tack! Keytoes!”
the coffee tin between them, they strode back towards the
house, jabbering eagerly in American.
That same afternoon the arguments began over Grandma’s estate. The family
waited until the interment rituals were over and the neighbours and preachers
had gone home, then all the house doors were closed to outsiders. The family’s
various branches, shoots and grafted-on stock assembled in the large kitchen.
Documents were laid out on a table. Reading glasses were winkled out of handbags
and perched on noses shiny with sweat. Throats were cleared. Lips were moistened
with stiff, sharp tongues.
all Hell was let loose.
had actually written a will. It was in the exercise book
she’d left behind, and was comprehensive to say the
least. Detail after detail, page after page, in her shaky
handwriting. This and that person should receive this and
that under the following conditions. But as the old bird
had been preparing her final exit for the last fifteen
years or more, and was extremely capricious into the bargain,
the pages teemed with alterations, crossings out and additions
in the margin, not to mention a loose sheet covered in
cramped endnotes. Some relatives had been disinherited
several times over, but then reinstated equally often.
Others would only be allowed to inherit if certain conditions
were fulfilled, such as declaring their allegiance to the
Living Faith and renouncing the demon drink in the presence
of the whole family, or begging all present plus Jesus
Christ to forgive them a whole host of meticulously detailed
sins they had committed over a number of years. The entire
text had been signed and witnessed several times, but alas
not the crucial loose page. Moreover, it was all written
in Tornedalen Finnish.
reading the document aloud in the stifling atmosphere of
the kitchen took several hours. Every single word had to
be translated into Swedish, standard Finnish, English,
German and Persian, since the daughter living in Växjö had
married a Sunni Muslim immigrant. Not least the religious
sections caused great difficulties. A fundamental requirement
for inheriting was embracing the Living Faith, something
most people from Tornedalen interpreted as meaning Laestadianism.
After hearing the translation, there were protests from
the Sunni Muslim, the son-in-law from New Zealand who was
a Jew, and the daughter in Frankfurt who had become a Baptist:
all of them argued in turn that their faith was just as
much a Living Faith as that of anyone else present. Grandma’s
younger brother from Ullatti maintained noisily that as
a West Laestadian he was the most Christian of all those
present, whereupon an East Laestadian cousin, another one
from the Assembly of Truth and several fundamentalists
protested strongly. An old biddy from a Finnish sect immediately
went into a liikutuksia and started moaning and
jumping around in ecstasy, sweat pouring off her. Others
decided to play it safe and began confessing a multitude
of sins while flailing their arms about, sobbing, embracing
their neighbours and tripping over the rag carpets.
the end Isak leapt to his feet and bellowed something about
keeping traps shut, in both Swedish and Finnish. A drunken
second cousin from Kainulasjärvi was caught red-handed
adding a codicil of his own to the will, and was thrown
out. A truce was declared, and after a series of protests
and counter-accusations, a tense calm ensued. Several requested
that the confessions they had just made, together with
other proof of their allegiance to the Living Faith, should
be recorded in the minutes, and this was accepted after
a vote had been taken.
the reading of the will was complete, the atmosphere was
one of total and utter confusion. A laid-back engineer
from Uppsala in the field of newfangled computing techniques
suggested that the whole of the will should be put into
a punched card program, so that with the aid of logic a
just distribution of benefits could be achieved by running
the program a number of times. Others immediately maintained
that a southerner, ummikko, and only a member
of the family by marriage in any case, would be well advised
to keep his big gob shut when important family matters
were being discussed. Brothers and sisters, cousins and
third cousins then huddled together in a series of small
clusters to discuss tactics. The air was thick with whispers
and mumblings. Feelers were put out, proposals made and
rejected, alliances formed and dismantled, more or less
hidden threats dispatched by messengers from one huddle
to another. A few of the men withdrew for a pee in the
garden and came back in suspiciously elevated spirits.
Looks were exchanged. Sleeves were rolled up. The minute-taker,
a balding civil service clerk, tapped his coffee cup with
a pencil and called the meeting to order. People thronged
towards the kitchen table, jabbering in excitement and
piously urging everybody else to be quiet.
far as the clerk could see, from his position as a neutral
observer, the estate – that is, the total value of
the small-holding and cottage, outbuildings, land, household
goods, cash, bank accounts and a small area of forest – should
be divided into one hundred and forty-three equal parts,
apart from the spinning wheel which had been specifically
bequeathed to the next-door neighbour’s wife.
storm of agitated voices.
official observer, a retired customs officer, requested
that a reservation should be recorded in the minutes. In
his view, admittedly not a very significant one although
it was an opinion free of any partisan prejudice, the previous
speaker had omitted to take into account the codicil on
the loose sheet, paragraph three, about the evil and sinful
nature of southern Sweden, and hence the small-holding,
cottage, outbuildings and household goods should go to
the deceased’s son Isak, while the remainder of the
estate should be divided equally between those members
of the family who were officially registered as domiciled
within the constituency of Pajala.
noise grew louder still.
next-door neighbour’s wife asked where the spinning
wheel was, but was told in no uncertain terms to shut up.
nephew who worked in the iron ore mines in Kiruna maintained
that his home town could hardly be designated as southern
Sweden, and in any case, he had a summer cottage in Sattajärvi
and hence demanded to be categorized as a citizen of Pajala.
nephew from Kieksiäisvaara pointed out that the previous
speaker had overlooked the paragraph on page fourteen in
which the LKAB works in Kiruna had been dismissed as the
Babylon of the North, its employees condemned to the eternal
fires of Hell, and that an illegally built property in
Sattajärvi did nothing to alter that.
drunken cousin started hammering on the door with a lump
of firewood, demanding to be let in.
Jew grabbed the Sunni Muslim by the collar, but was thrust
back into the rocking chair. They shouted and cursed at
each other while their wives stood by, translating. More
and more of those present wanted to speak, and the clerk’s
pencil-tapping on his coffee cup was drowned in the uproar.
a fist was raised. A Sunday-scrubbed labourer’s fist
rising like a mushroom from the black-clothed melee. It
swayed back and forth on its sturdy stalk, twisting round
like the head of an owl. No doubt it was intended as a
gesture, implying that enough was enough.
another identical mushroom sprung up. And another. A whole
crop. People shouted each other down. Curses rung out in
every conceivable language and dialect, threats swished
through the air like whiplashes, and the house started
shaking like the walls of Babylon.
all Hell broke loose.
shall stop at this point out of consideration for all those
present. I shall desist from describing the punches, the
bleeding lips, the scratches, the nosebleeds, the false
teeth sent spinning though the air, the smashed spectacles
or the sly kicks and throttle-holds. I shall refrain from
listing such weapons as frying pans, kitchen chairs, Wellington
boots, shovels, dog bowls and the Finnish family Bible.
I shall omit all the un-Christian expressions, all the
swear-words, especially the endless stream of those in
Tornedalen Finnish, all the devastating accusations of
stupidity, ugliness, obesity, inbreeding, senility, mental
illness or perverted sexual practices that were exchanged
in over-excited voice registers.
shall merely record that it was Gehenna.