Mikael Niemi, 2003, 237 p.
This novel was originally published in Sweden in 2000 and almost instantly became a bestseller. It won Sweden’s prestigious August (Strindberg) Prize for literature later that same year. I didn’t know any of this when I started reading it about a month ago. I borrowed the book as a substitute for At the Edge of Light (which I didn’t think any library was going to lend me). Both books came in at about the same time, and after failing to connect with the subject matter in At the Edge of Light, I decided to give this one a quick shot. I was almost positive that I wouldn’t like this either, so it was with some trepidation that I began to peruse it. I needn’t have been fearful, for I was hooked immediately. Mikael Niemi can write—boy can he write!
It reminded me of Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude just a little bit. Like Fortress…this novel is filled with the joy and wonder and cruelty and loss of innocence we all experience in different forms and at different times while growing up.
Popular Music From Vittula is set in Pajala, a town in extreme Northern Sweden. Pajala (pop. approx. 7,000) is so far north that it’s inside the Arctic Circle, and it borders Finland, so both Finns and Swedes make up the population. A large portion of Pajala’s citizens speak a kind of bastardized Finnish dialect, and they have also adopted some of the more bizarre Finnish traditions, like beating themselves ecstatically with birch switches while practically boiling to death in communal saunas.
The narrator is a nameless young Swedish boy who sees everything and interprets what he sees with honesty, humor and a bit of pathos thrown in for good measure. Through him, the reader learns a great deal about family and community life in that part of the world.
Here are some memorable passages from Popular Music from Vittula:
…the father flung his sons to the ground, grabbed them by their ankles, one son in each hand, and dragged them backward and forward over the gravel, smoothing out the surface with their front teeth until everything was nice and tidy again. And by the time he had finished, both brothers were crying their eyes out, sobbing, and they’d turned back into boys again.” (p. 27)
Ours was a childhood of deprivation. Not material deprivation—we had enough to get by on—but a lack of identity. We were nobody. Our parents were nobody. Our forefathers had made no mark whatsoever on Swedish history…Our home villages were too small to appear on maps…We were nothing.” (pp. 48-49)
Certain activities are basically knapsu (girly) and hence should be avoided by men. Changing the curtains, for instance; knitting, weaving carpets…that kind of thing. Other occupations are definitely manly , such as felling trees, hunting moose, building log cabins, floating logs down-river, and fighting on dance floors.” (p. 203)
Fighting on dance floors? Good Lord! I couldn’t find any pictures of manly Northern Swedish men to show you, (presumably because macho Swedish men don’t have their pictures taken very often), but I did find a picture of this really cute young Northern Swede whose looks are probably pretty typical of the area:
I hope he doesn’t grow up to be an abusive alcoholic moose hunter!
Popular Music from Vittula is so good that I’m thinking of purchashing a couple of used copies to give away at a later date. It’s so good that I think I’ll have to place it in my top five reads of the year. It’s just so very, very good.
And, by the way, Niemi is so revered in Pajala that the chamber of commerce gives walking tours of the places mentioned in Popular Music from Vittula. Mikael Niemi must be the Jo Rowling of Northern Sweden!
Here are some photos of Pajala and its surrounding areas:
Pajala boasts the world’s biggest sundial.
The Northern Lights
The Pajala Airport
I think motorcycles are kind of a big deal in Pajala.
Pajala’s very own Partridge Family!