A Week in Books: Finland's literary history

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The Independent Culture

Yet we're on the 60th parallel here, not the 56th; in Finland, not Scotland. The piper outside Stockmann of Helsinki is indisputably female (not often seen near Jenners of Edinburgh); and, unlike Ian Rankin, the local king of crime still serves, as he has for 34 years, with the city police.

Matti Yrjänä Joensuu - a scholarly cop who might get along better with Morse than Rebus - has emerged from a long silence with a ninth novel about Inspector Harjunpää. He's still arson and explosives expert on the Helsinki force, and reflects that "As a policeman, you have a kind of ringside seat to look at society". British readers can share his vantage point when, next year, Arcadia publishes Joensuu's The Priest of Evil.

Finland has the same size of population as Scotland. It shares a history of subjection: first to Sweden, then to Russia. But, after 1917, it had its independence - and a national language nurtured by a fully-fledged state. So the singular tongue (related to Estonian, over the Baltic, but not to much else) could thrive in glorious isolation, spawning a richly autonomous literature while Finnish industry, design, music and sport met and often beat the outside world - as Kimi Raikonnen just has in the Turkish Grand Prix.

You can find accounts of the treasures hidden in this unique language readily enough, thanks to a valuable website run by the Finnish Literature Information Centre, FILI: www.finlit.fi/fili. In order to sample the real thing, the swiftest route has proved to be via genre literature; which, in Britain today, manages to sidestep barriers that stay closed to "literary fiction". Nordic crime, of course, can slip past even London's publishing gatekeepers. Its formal conventions will often provide a pretext for searching, subtle work, as in Lang (published this spring by Harvill) by the Swedish-language Helsinki author, Kjell Westö.

Then there's fantasy, which in Finland has roots that stretch down into the myth and lore of the national epic, the Kalevala. Johanna Sinisalo, author of the Finlandia Prize-winning novel Not Before Sundown (Peter Owen), has edited a wide-ranging anthology of Finnish fantasy, which Dedalus aims to publish at the end of this year.

As for children's fiction, Finland can already boast its global icons - in the rotund shapes of Tove Jansson's Moomin family. Jansson (who died in 2001) wrote and illustrated the wise, witty Moomin fables in her light-filled, book-lined eyrie of a studio in central Helsinki. They still flourish around the world, but Sort of Books also scored a hit with a non-Moomin work: The Summer Book, about young Sophia's life-shaping adventures with her grandmother on an island. The "real" Sophia (Tove's niece) points out that, though the details might be "entirely fictional", the essential insights in her aunt's writing about children and adults continue to feel "so true that it's scary".

These days, Sophia Jansson manages the rights to the Moomin characters. She spends a lot of time saying no to foreign firms who want to exploit them. Think of how Disney coarsened E H Shepard's Pooh figures, and you'll grasp why. But she does approve some plans, which is why I can buy a mug emblazoned with, on one side, a smug-looking Moomin who gazes in admiration at his reflection in a puddle. On the other, he presents to the world a huge, rude and ungainly rump. Now, why does that remind of much (though, thankfully, not all) of the British book business?