Small Country - Literary Greats
In terms of the number of people who speak it, Finnish is far from being one of the world's major tongues. A member of the Finno-Ugric family of languages, it has only five million speakers and sounds exotic to the neighbouring peoples of both Scandinavia and Russia. Nonetheless, the language is intensively used. The people who speak it have boasted one of the world's highest literacy rates since at least the beginning of the century, and are also heavy users of written information. Furthermore, Finland has always been proud of its writers. The honorary title of National Author was given to Aleksis Kivi long ago, but the names best-known to international readers are Nobel laureate Frans Emil Sillanpää and Mika Waltari, the author of Sinuhe, the Egyptian.
F.E. Sillanpää (1888-1964) was Finland's most respected prosaist in the inter-war period and also the country's best-known author abroad. His main works were the novel Meek Heritage, set against the background of the civil war that erupted after Finland had declared independence in late 1917, and "Silja the Maid", a lyrical description of the fate of a young girl. It was the latter work that won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1939. Sillanpää's main works have been translated into many languages.
Sillanpää, who originally planned to become a doctor, published his first novel, "Live and Sun", in 1916. With its charming descriptions of nature and bold examination of sexuality, it caused quite a stir. It was long regarded as a summer love story, but on closer examination turns out to be a tale of a young student who tries to use his relations with women as a means of boosting his low self-esteem.
The central themes of Sillanpää's output are already staked out in his debut novel. These include the difficulty of sustaining self-esteem, problems of identity, sexuality and the incomprehensibility of death. Sillanpää's characters have a poor awareness of their own needs. They do not know what motives prompt their actions and are therefore astonished at their own behaviour. When internal conflicts and reality threaten, they flee into their fantasies.
Mika Waltari (1908-79) is not only Finland's internationally best-known writer, but also by far the most versatile in terms of output. Yet his enormous productivity as an author of novels, plays, detective stories, cartoon books, fairy tales, travelogues and even wartime propaganda did nothing to lower his standard. Everything he wrote has held its own right across a broad front and the sense of historical reality found through his writer's intuition continues to astonish scientists.
Waltari, who studied philosophy, aesthetics and literature in addition to theology, began his career with a booklet entitled "God in the Leading Role" (1925), which was published by the Finnish Seamen's Mission Society. His breakthrough as a novelist came with the publication in 1928 of "Great Illusion", a youthfully-melancholic and very lucid reflection of the mood of life in the 1920s. From then on he was regarded as a typical Helsinki writer, whereas Sillanpää, who came from the heart of the inland province of Häme (Tavastia), drew his strength and inspiration from the Finnish rural heartland.
Yet the novel that earned Waltari international fame, "A Stranger came to the farm" (1937), described a triangular drama set in a lonely, dilapidated country house. The book has been published in 17 languages. Its great success convinced Waltari that he could write for international readerships, and he decided to do just that.
In 1945 he wrote "Sinuhe, the Egyptian", which describes the life of its main character, a physician, in Egypt between 1390 and 1335 BC. The novel can also be read as an exposition of the Finnish middle class's disappointment and the collapse of life values in the aftermath of a lost war.
With its lively character descriptions and many levels of meaning, Sinuhe is Waltari's greatest achievement in the art of the story. It rapidly propelled him to dazzling world success and is the only Finnish book to have made it onto the bestseller charts in France and the USA. So far, too, it is the only book to have headed the American bestseller list for two years. It was also made into a movie (directed by Michael Curtiz, 1954).
In common with Sillanpää, Waltari wrote about difficult things. He was interested in periods of intellectual upheaval in world history, the plight of humanism caught in the squeeze of tough material values, the eternal problem of good and evil, and people struggling in the cross-currents of ideologies.