Finland’s first fictional work written in Finnish, Seven Brothers by Aleksis Kivi, is still seen a classic today, almost 150 years after it was published. I decided to use a free assignment in one of my university courses as an opportunity to write about the birth of Fenno-languaged literature and this one is mandatory for such an assignment.
Back when I finally got my high school degree I had to write a larger mandatory assignment and seeing that I was starting to get really into my Finnish heritage at the time I decided to write about Finnish history and identity in relation to their war literature and depictions of the wars.
Since I did that assignment I became obsessed with Finnish literary history as I found it fascinating that Finnish had only been the national language for about 150-200 years – before that status belonged to Swedish as a result of Sweden crusading and colonising Finland. The whole movement of claiming that status for the Finnish language and partly doing so by publishing works that had been written in Finnish rather than translated from a Swedish original was fascinating to me. So it was only a question of time before I had to read the first novel written in Finnish.
The Jukola brothers are a rowdy bunch and outcasts in their municipality. Their mother has died and they now have to take care of their farm. Society expects them to learn reading as a way to assimilate themselves into the community and, most importantly, get their church confirmation, in order to get the right to marry. Because of their ruthless behaviour and arrogance, very few families see them fit to marry their daughters.
Fed up with all this prosecution, they decide to move out into the forest to get away from civilisation and all its expectations and live all by themselves. While out there they encounter various problems – including a sauna mishap leading to their cabin burning down – and as the years go by they start to mature and teach themselves to read, leading to them eventually returning to their old community and living fairly successful lives afterwards.
I liked it. I really liked it actually. Having researched Finnish literature to the extent I have, I recognised so many of the common literary tropes – nature becoming a character by itself, the modern human returning to a natural state to become a civilised human being etc. – and it made me giddy to know that this, along with Kalevala, Elias Lönnrot’s gathering of Finnish myths and folk tales, is where these tropes began. The novel also conveys this relationship to Finnish mythology by having one of them retelling folk tales, much to the delight of his brothers and the reader.
The book also is also constructed in a slightly untraditional fashion with it having long sections of describing the sceneries of nature and situations for the brothers, only to change completely during dialogue scenes, giving it almost a dramatic nature by stripping it of all intermediate text, leaving only the characters’ names and their lines. The best part is that Kivi knows how to still convey everything that would have in the missing intermediate text: Even without the descriptions of their tone or emotions or the atmosphere in the room during the dialogue, you feel the tension through their words, the escalation of conflicts and resolution afterwards. While the scenic descriptions tell you about the brothers and their character development over the years, this becomes more apparent during these dialogue sections because Kivi shows it from the chapter to chapter.
And of course, I cannot avoid talking about the tragicomic nature of this book. The main characters are extremely arrogant and ruthless by the beginning of the book and hilarity often ensues as a result of their hubris, e.g. the scene where they burn down the cabin or the one when the brothers go to propose to some young women and are sent away humiliated and laughed at by the entire community. As the novel goes on and we get to know the characters more, though, we start to feel sorry for them as it becomes clear that most of their reluctance to adapt to society’s expectations is not laziness, but rather feelings of inadequacy; they feel like they are not capable of living up to the modern world and what is considered civilized and respected despite trying so hard, leading to them becoming misanthropic and apathetic to rest of the community. Because of this, the ending is that more satisfying, as we see how they finally find their place in society. Despite this tragic aspect of it all, however, you cannot help but laugh at some of the situations the brothers get themselves into because their luck is just ridiculously awful.
If you like Nordic literature and want to read something aside from the Scandinavian ones, I can highly recommend this book. It is hilarious, touching and, most of all, an important pillar in Nordic – especially Finnish – literary history that one should not miss out on.