The last natural famine.
Publisher: Peirene Press
First Published: 2012 in Finnish; 2015 in English
Date Reviewed: 26th February 2015
Original language: Finnish
Original title: Nälkävuosi (Hunger Year)
Translated by: Emily and Fleur Jeremiah
As the Finnish famine makes it impossible to remain at home any longer, Marja leaves her dying husband and begins a journey, on foot, across the continent with her two children. In a wealthier place, the senator looks to the new railroad to solve the issue, and a doctor lives away from the horror until it creeps into his life, too.
White Hunger is a novella about the effects of the Finnish famine, particularly in the year 1867. It may be short but it illustrates the famine at large; what would have happened over a period of a few years. The text, in terms of the translation, is generally clear and an unexpected joy to read when considered alongside its subject. There are a few places that may invite confusion but not for long.
Marja and her children set out in the dead of winter in the hope of reaching St Petersburg, so the journey is particularly brutal. Snow is waist deep, they live from one day to the next at the mercy of the households they come across, and are subject to the horrors of desperation and the breakdown of social order.
Whilst the need for food forms the reason for the story, it’s this desperation and breakdown that is the major theme at hand. In a way very similar to Némirovsky’s Suite Française, White Hunger looks at the effects a disaster can have on people, the way that class systems can remain when it would be best they too were destroyed. Marja is labelled a whore because the higher classes are able to take advantage of her physical weakness, and the educated and political elite are in no danger of starvation. The poor are to be given but ‘thin gruel’, and whilst this makes sense – as one man says, a sudden lot of food in an emaciated body will cause more harm than good – most of the time this ‘thin gruel’ is a symptom of a people unwilling to help those with nothing, unwilling to share the food they have that for them is easy to replace.
Death is never far away in this book, but neither is hope. The balance makes it easier to keep going, even when the hope is comprised of an arrival in St Petersburg, a dream the reader will understand as one of the characters does – as improbable.
The sole drawback of this book is, surprisingly, the length. Whereas in everything else the length is a boon, when it comes to events in the story it means the events seem closer together than they truly are, which can lessen the effect they have. Due to this it is best to read the book slowly, perhaps in more than the usual one sitting, and to keep track of the passing of time.
Focusing on a well-known period of Finnish history and looking at the constant divide between those who have and those who have none, White Hunger may be short and sparse in overall detail, but it succeeds in making its crucial point in the limited time it has.
I received this book for review from the publisher.
February 28, 2015, 1:04 am
This sounds pretty amazing. I’ve been looking for more books in translation to add to my TBR and this sounds like one I’d really like to try.
February 28, 2015, 1:37 am
Ugh! I know next to nothing about Finnish history. This feels like a problem I must rectify.
March 3, 2015, 12:57 pm
Andi: It’s a good one to opt for in that regard. You get to try out the concept, author and translator in a short period of time.
Heather: This did help me with that (I know very little, too). Wikipedia was very useful once I’d finished the book.