Mikael Niemi - from Rock Music in Vittula
Translated by Laurie Thompson
This article appeared in the 2002:2 issue
Mikael NiemiMikael 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.
– how an old biddy takes her place on the right hand of God,
and on the hazards involved in distributing worldly goods

One 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.

Close 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.

Then 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.

Also 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.

Valedictory 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.

In 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.

As 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.

But 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.

After 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.

The 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.

Juice 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.

I 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 close behind.

The twins had bought something as well. They produced a paper bag and took out a record with an English price tag.

Beatles,” I spelled out slowly. “Roskn roll musis.”

“Rock ’n roll music,” they chorused, correcting my pronunciation with a grin. Then they handed the single over to Niila.

“It’s a present. To our cousin.”

Niila 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 sin.

Kiitos,” he 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.

Niila 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, dirty snowdrifts.

We 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 depths.

Present,” he said with a smile to the twins.

They 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.

From cemetery,” said Niila.

The twins eyed me sceptically as I endeavoured to work out what Niila was trying to say.

“When 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.”

Niila found a rusty old coffee tin. The twins stared wide-eyed at the tadpoles in the pool.

Angels,” Niila explained.

“If you rescue them they turn into angels and fly off to heaven,” I added.

One 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.

Suddenly a dark, slimy mass slithered out of the culvert and dropped into the pool with a splash.

Grandma!” exclaimed Niila.

One 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 with tadpoles.

Niila 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 hearty hand-shake.

Thank you! Tack! Keytoes!

Holding 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.

Then all Hell was let loose.

Grandma 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.

Simply 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.

In 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.

When 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.

“Hrm. Hrrruuuuummm…”

As 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.

A storm of agitated voices.

The 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.

The noise grew louder still.

The next-door neighbour’s wife asked where the spinning wheel was, but was told in no uncertain terms to shut up.

A 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.

Another 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.

The drunken cousin started hammering on the door with a lump of firewood, demanding to be let in.

The 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.

Then 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.

Immediately 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.

Then all Hell broke loose.

I 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.

I shall merely record that it was Gehenna.