The summer of 1866 was extremely rainy. The land was soggy and the crops were ruined. The following winter was severe. The country was barren, white and frozen. There was no relief from spring either. In many places the lakes were frozen still in June. Food became scarcer and scarcer. So scarce in fact, that between 1866 and 1868 15% of the Finnish population died. The death toll rose to 270.000 people. It is in this very dramatic setting that in 2012, Award winner, Aki Ollikainen, brought to life his very first novel, Nälkävuosi or White Hunger. That same year Nälkävuosi was nominated to the Finlandia Prize and won the Helsingin Sanomat Literary Award. I meet Aki in downtown Helsinki over a plain cup of coffee.
Please take us to that moment you got the idea for the book.
My wife Milla and I were in the cemetery of Haapajärvi. She was born there and we were leaving some candles for her relatives. On the other side of the path there was a memorial stone for World War II veterans. There were lots of candles for the veterans. I then noticed there was a stone for the people who died in the great hunger years. There were no candles there. No names either. I started to think of those people. I tried to imagine who they were. First, they were a faceless mass, grey ghosts, but I tried to find their story.
How did you research the period?
I knew a little bit about the hunger years. I found some non-fiction books about those years. I did not go to archives. I did most of my research from books.
The hunger years are relatively unknown in Finland. There have been such extreme events in our history afterwards, such as the Civil War and the Second World War, that sadly somehow it became a forgotten time in Finnish history. After the book many people have told me they have found stories of relatives of theirs who died in that period, but until now, they did not know.
How does one understand hunger? Did you deprive yourself of food?
No, I just read and imagined! I also listened to old tapes. There were people who were born at the beginning of the century who left recordings of starvation they experienced after our Civil War (1918). I heard their descriptions of famine.
How did you craft the stories about the plight of a woman, Marja, and her two starving children, Mataleena and Juho, and of two city brothers, Teo and Lars Renqvist?
I wanted to tell the story from two different levels; those that experienced hunger – Marja and her children – and those who were privileged and therefore mostly shielded from it. There is also a Senator who looks at the problem from the perspective of a statesman.
I read somewhere that although the hunger was a natural disaster, relief was slow to come and made the problem worse. Johan Vilhelm Snellman who headed the Bank of Finland at the time, had not anticipated the severity of the problem and thus responded slowly because he did not want the Mark to weaken.
Yes, that is correct. It was a tragedy because when Finland finally did ask for help the sea was frozen and food could not reach the country.
Is the Senator a personification of Snellman?
Yes. In fact, when I started to write, Snellman played the role of the statesman in the book. But then I felt that it would be too distracting to have such a historical figure and decided to have an anonymous Senator instead.
How did you get under the skin of your characters?
At first, I thought it would be harder to describe the life of the poor people. Marja was a widow. She and her children were originally crofters who had their own small plot of land but had to work for a landowner. When there was nothing to harvest and no food around, they had to leave and beg for food. As I wrote, Marja and the children felt very alive. With time, I felt it was actually easier to write about her than writing about the Renqvist brothers.
There is solidarity and cruelty. Food is our most absolute need – does hunger take us to our most extreme condition as humans?
Yes, hunger is some kind of final border. When you don’t have food, the reactions can be extreme. Some people keep their humanity. Others become animals and fight for every piece of food.
Rauli Virtanen, the news correspondent, has mentioned that in war the poor are the most generous. Do you believe this?
I did not want to write a story where the poor are good and the rich are not. Humans are humans.
At the end of the story little Juho becomes a Renqvist. That is an interesting twist.
Yes, I wanted to leave room for hope in the story. But I had to kill his sister Mataleena because of the fact that many people simply did not survive. That was so hard. I felt so close to her!
Mataleena dies in fact from over-eating porridge. There was a woman that felt she was helping by being generous. But it was that overfeeding after such prolonged hunger that ended Mataleena’s life.
Who is the character of the novel you feel closest to and why?
Maybe Teo Renqvist. He was not the character I liked most, but he is most like me. He wants to be good but he is not always doing the right things! Mataleena was the character I liked the most!
How did you get in the mood to write?
When I wrote White Hunger, I was working as a full time journalist. I wrote the book over a period of six years. We have two little kids, so I started writing only after we put them to bed.
Today, I am a full-time writer, so my life has changed after Nälkävuosi. It is funny but it gets harder to write after the first novel. I did not have any readers or expectations with my first book. I write every day. I don’t wait for inspiration because it never comes! It comes when you work.
Did you have the story more or less crystallized before you started the novel?
I had some milestones decided at the beginning but as I wrote the plot of course evolved and the characters became alive and very real.
Are you writing a sequel to White Hunger?
No, I am writing something new, a historical novel set in the 1930’s.
What makes a great story?
Oh that is a tough question! I don’t know what makes a great story. Is there something that can be found in every great story? One can recognize a great story, but why it is great is a mystery. Sometimes it can be that the language is so beautiful and powerful that it almost does not matter what the story is about.
What do you have on your reading table?
I am reading the biography of Yrjö Kallinen, a pacifist who was sentenced to death after the Finnish Civil War. In the end, he did not get killed. Instead, he worked as Secretary for Defense in the Finnish government after World War II. He was a pacifist, a socialist and a mystic.
Who is your favorite author?
I like poetry a lot, for instance, Pentti Saarikoski.
Who is your favorite fictional character?
My favorite fictional character is Corto Maltese, a homeless sailor-adventurer. He’s a comic character created by Hugo Pratt. Another favorite fictional character is private Svejk.
Where do you get your inspiration?
When I write. Or when I read something that interests me, I get writing. But actually, when I wrote Nälkävuosi I hardly read literature. I was afraid that it would impact my own voice.
I wrote during a period of six years, so I did some writing and rewriting. The last two years was really when the book started to crystallize.
I find inspiration in art as well. I always listen to music when I write, usually classical music. When I wrote Nälkävuosi I listened to a lot of Finnish piano music by composer Heino Kaski.
How do you relax?
I have to find out! (laughs).
What is the most underrated value?
What is the most overrated value?
What is perfect happiness to you?
Falling in love.
Do you have a life motto?
I don’t really. I have never thought about it…
Image: Osma Harvilahti