Posted by: chartroose | August 26, 2008

Popular Music From Vittula

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:

On Child Abuse:

…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)

On National Identity:
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)
On Masculinity:
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!



  1. I’m putting this on my TBR list solely b/c of this review – I’d never heard of this before and if I’d seen it I never would have picked it up. But your praise of the writing just made this a must read for me.

  2. Thank you Heather! I think you’ll really like it

  3. What Heather said. Never heard of this before, am bookmarking it now. Thanks! 🙂

  4. This book it totally foreign to me- and sounds fascinating! I’m going to add it to my TBR, and cross my fingers for your giveaway later.

  5. Hadn’t heard of this one either but am adding it to the list – I love the passages you’ve included. Sign me up early if you do decide to give some copies away!

  6. We had an exchange student (actually 2 but one was a girl) from Sweden and he was gorgeous. and had a very odd sense of humor. but quite good looking.

    GRAA! (great review as always) I love that you read such interesting diverse stuff! Any good words to contribute to my growing vocab?

  7. Thanks, Julie, Jeane, Verbivore and Care! You’re my peeps! I just ordered a couple of used copies to give away, so they should be here in about a week or so. I’ll hold a drawing for them after they get here.

    Care–I think you should add ~knapsu~ to your vocab. It’s Northern Finnish, and it really does mean “girly.” It’s used in the same derogatory way middle-school boys use “gay” to define a guy’s more effeminate behaviors.

  8. oh my gosh this one looks so interesting.

    I love books like this- that teach you all kinds of different things. The child abuse section looks a little rough.

  9. Jessica–the child abuse section IS a little rough. There are other abuses in this novel that make you kind of catch your breath as well. It’s definitely not for the fainthearted.

  10. […] this book that will regale you with sample passages, great anecdotes and enthusiastic praise.    [click HERE.]       Here, I will offer up thoughts and odd tidbits of things that caught my attention.   […]

  11. HI! I’m going to offer this in a giveaway, too! Thanks again for this Chartroose. 🙂

  12. Whoa, I absolutely didn’t expect that Popular music from Vittula were translated and published outside Scandinavia! Nice to read that you guys like it, and I’ve always liked reading foreign peoples opinions about Swedish literature. I’m from Sweden (the south of it though) and read it recently. Totally love it, made me actually think about Markus Zusak. Check my blog to read my thoughts about it. (It’s in Swedish, but I think Google can translate it.)
    But, I would like to correct you in some things:
    The narrator’s not namelesss, his name’s Matti. (Nickname for Mattias)

    I’m pretty shure that it’s not like that in Pajala nowadays, remember that the book is set in the late 60’s. And don’t worry about people getting hurt on the dance floors. 😀

    The picture of the boy: yes, that’s what most of us look like! I think I regognize him, remember his name?

    About Mikael Niemi himself, he’s not our hottest topic, (that’s probably the princess’s wedding) but he got a new young adult novel published in winter, and it was pretty good. But Popular Music from Vittula was better.

    Click the link if you wanna see what the book looks like in Sweden:

    By the way, have you seen the movie?

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