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The Magic Revival of Tornedalen

Malin Linstrom Brock

Mikael Niemi
Popular Music
Translated by Laurie Thompson
Perennial, 2004
400 pages
ISBN 0007145519

ummikko (noun) – 1. a monolingual person; someone who does not speak Mean Kieli; 2. a man of importance; a southerner.

If language is suggestive of how we understand the world, then ummikko speaks volumes about the culture that coined it. Ummikko is Mean Kieli (lit. ‘Our Language’), a Finnish dialect that is governed by the rules of Finnish grammar but which includes extensive and imaginative borrowing from Swedish vocabulary. It is spoken or understood by approximately 40,000 people, most of whom live in the north of Sweden close to the Finnish border. This area, usually referred to as Tornedalen, provides the setting for Mikael Niemi’s best-selling novel Popular Music, published in Sweden in 2000.

The various meanings of ummikko hint at a culture suffering from a severe lack of self-esteem, isolated from the rest of Sweden by language and geography. Perhaps this is why the commercial and critical success of Popular Music took the Swedish literary establishment by surprise. Not only was the book written by an author from Tornedalen (situated about as far from Stockholm, the country’s capital, as is possible—approximately 100 km above the Arctic circle), but the book takes as its setting this same Arctic location, a surprisingly exotic background for a best-seller. The establishment quickly recognised the book’s promise, however, and awarded it the August prize (the Swedish equivalent of the Booker prize) while promptly dubbing Niemi Sweden’s latest ethnic writer.

On the surface, Popular Music tells a familiar story. Growing up in Tornedalen in the sixties, Matti sees his village struggle to keep up with a fast-changing world, and discovers girls and rock and roll in the process. Add to this a society that cultivates a definition of men that involves farting, binge drinking and sauna marathons—not to mention the abhorrence of everything knapsu (‘unmanly activities’)—and it is not surprising that Mikael Niemi has been compared to other lad lit-writers such as Nick Hornby and Roddy Doyle.

Like many authors who write about the era of their adolescence, Niemi trades on nostalgia. The sixties in Sweden witnessed economic growth and positive visions of the future, very different from the soaring unemployment rates and half-empty villages that now characterise much of the country’s backwater. With a population of only nine million, many Swedes can trace their recent ancestry back to those now declining small towns and villages in the north. While Niemi is not the first writer to describe northern parts of Sweden, other authors, such as Kerstin Ekman (Blackwater, 1993) and Goran Tunstrom (The Christmas Oratorio, 1983), tend to write books that feature characters burdened by poverty, premature deaths and the endless plowing of muddy fields.

The contrast between these novels and Popular Music could not be more stark. While Niemi does not shy away from topics such as religious bigotry and child abuse, his deadpan sense of humor and burlesque characterizations of Tornedalian idiosyncrasies rescue the novel from unbearable melancholy. Touches of magical realism worthy of Gabriel García M√°rquez result in a book that makes you laugh and cry at the same time: the realistic portrayal of northern village life repeatedly transforms itself into a supernatural farce. In one of the most memorable and hilarious episodes in the book, Matti’s friend Niila is haunted by the ghost of his grandmother and decides to visit the local witch doctor, a mad transvestite, to put an end to granny’s spooky visits. The reader here ends up on ground as unsettling as Niila’s own: in this scene, Niemi cleverly refuses to allow one’s interpretative faculties to distinguish fully between reality and hallucination.

In his latest collection of essays, The Irresponsible Self (2004), critic James Wood expresses a preference for comedies of forgiveness in place of the comedies of correction that he sees predominating the Anglo-American literary landscape. Wood insists on the moral and aesthetic superiority of laughing with the characters, not at them. While it’s doubtful whether Popular Music would pass muster with Wood—it is far too funny for that—it does make a serious effort to be compassionate with its comedy. Although the novel is narrated by Matti’s adult self—who has migrated south from Tornedalen—it remains loyal to the younger versions of Matti and Niila and to the boys’ imaginary version of the world. The dual perspective of boy and man results in an intermingling of tragedy and comedy that slowly becomes inseparable.

With this blended tone, Niemi successfully maneuvers around accusations of cultural exploitation. Matti and Niila are representatives of the differing temperaments found in Tornedalen as a result of the area’s appropriation of neighboring cultures. Of the two characters, Niila is undoubtedly the more tragic. It is in his home that religious fanaticism reigns supreme and significantly, his primary language is Finnish, or more exactly, Mean Kieli.

Although the book is written in Swedish, Niemi’s occasional use of Mean Kieli has also endeared him to those who work to preserve the language. In 2000, the EU charter for regional and minority languages was passed in Sweden, which brought recognition to Mean Kieli as a minority language and the right for its speakers to use the dialect when dealing with local government officials. For a people who had long been deprived of these rights, it was a bittersweet victory as the language risked extinction. Inspired by the book, a weeklong festival bearing the novel’s name was created in Tornedalen in the summer of 2004 and included theatrical performances throughout the village of Pajala, where some of the book is set. This fall, a movie adaptation has also been released, bringing further attention to the area.

Of course, this expansive influence and positive reception does not mean that Popular Music is without flaws. Niemi’s anecdotal approach makes the book an easy read, but sometimes disturbs the linearity of the plot, as it begins to read like a series of separate and unrelated stories. At times, the writing also risks becoming more ethnography than fiction, as the particularities of Tornedalian culture are spun out in great detail. Furthermore, women are strangely absent from the story. The ‘Popular Music’ festival should perhaps be interpreted more as an expression of the entrepreneurial skills of a village than as an expression of unreserved admiration for its local hero.

Whatever its failings, Popular Music has appeared at a time when pride in Tornedalian language and culture is on the rise, and Niemi has single-handedly managed to introduce awareness of this cultural resurgence to the society at large. And in doing so, he may also have provided a key to an area long misunderstood. When Linneaus traveled through Lapland in the eighteenth century, he expressed disgust at the people he met in Tornedalen and incomprehension when facing the fertile yet unfamiliar landscape. Condemning the region as backward and illiterate (Tornedalian literature was a matter of oral tradition, and therefore failed to trade beyond its linguistic boundaries), Linneaus’ scornful account has dominated the official view of the region for centuries, and its inhabitants have seldom had widespread opportunity to refute in writing this reputation and defend their culture’s virtues.

Mikael Niemi has done a great deal to alter this perception. In a wonderful prologue to the story, the narrator is caught on a snowy mountain after foolishly licking a frost-bitten monument. Only the vernacular knowledge of his childhood saves him and loosens his tongue, both literally and figuratively. Through the use of self-deprecating humour and a love for storytelling, Niemi has produced a novel that describes Tornedalian culture without betraying its origin.

The definition of ummikki has also changed in the last couple of years. Where once it referred to a man of importance, it is now generally used to describe a person who does not know Mean Kieli, a person who is deprived of the riches of a culture that has managed to incorporate many others without losing its originality; a man to be pitied rather than admired.

Malin Linstrom Brock is a DPhil student in English Literature at Pembroke College, Oxford.