White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen (tr. Emily & Fleur Jeremiah)

White is the colour of death, like the frost that ‘spreads weed-like through the window frames along the timber joints across the wall.’

Finnish writer Aki Ollikainen’s debut, White Hunger, is the first novella in the Peirene Press Chance Encounter series (their theme for 2015). This bleak yet poetic story is rather remarkable, and it’s my favourite Peirene release in quite some time.

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The setting is the Finnish countryside in the winter of 1867. Successive years of crop failures, widespread famine and the harsh winter weather have taken their toll on the inhabitants of the country. Ollikainen’s story focuses on a farmer’s wife, Marja, and her family. As we join them, Marja’s husband, Juhani, is dying. There is nothing more that Marja can do for him, so she wraps her two children, Mataleena and Juho, in their clothes as they set out on foot in search of food. They must move if they are to have any chance of survival – to remain in Korpela would bring death upon the whole family.

She thinks angrily of Juhani refusing to eat and giving everything he could lay his hands on to her and the children. It was stupid: the man should have looked after himself so that he could take responsibility for his family. She and the children would have stayed alive on less, but now, without Juhani, they would not survive the winter in Korpela.

It was not generosity that motivated Juhani’s decision, but cowardice. (pg. 33)

Marja’s aim is to make it to St Petersburg where there is rumoured to be food. As the family travel south, they encounter a variety of people, most of them strangers. Some take pity on them offering shelter for the night and bowls of thin gruel for the children; others are more territorial shunning Marja’s family while they prioritise their own. They are often labelled as beggars (or worse). The most they can hope for is a piece of bread made from the bark of a tree, and maybe if they’re very lucky, a morsel of dried pike. All the while, the hunger persists.

Mataleena walks behind her mother, treading in the footprints, holding her coat more tightly to protect herself from the blizzard. She does not hear the rumbling of her stomach, but she feels it.

Hunger is the kitten Willow-Lauri put in a sack, which scratches away with its small claws, causing searing pain; then more scratching, then more, until the kitten is exhausted and falls to the bottom of the sack, weighing heavily there, before gathering its strength and starting a fresh struggle. You want to lift the animal out, but it scratches so hard you dare not reach inside. You have no option but to carry the bundle to the lake and throw it into the hole in the ice. (pgs. 46-47)

Thousands of others are also on the move, all of them just as desperate for food and shelter. There are several distressing scenes along the way. Marja’s nights are dominated by nightmares, terrifying dreams of all the horrors she has experienced or may have to face in the coming days. By day, she hallucinates as visions of the elusive St Petersburg taunt her mind.

The wind decides now on a direction and pushes Marja over the bridge. Swirls of snow lap around her feet; the current no longer flows under the bridge but along it, towards the snow plain on the other side, where the road vanishes.

Far away she sees the trees edging the open space; they change into the silhouettes of spires and palaces in the Tsar’s city. They flee, fluttering, into nothingness, and towards this nothingness Marja crawls, Juho in her arms. The Tsar himself descends to the crown of the biggest spruce, but dressed up as death, as a black raven. (pg. 103)

Alongside the story of Marja’s family, White Hunger touches briefly on the lives of two brothers, Teo (a doctor) and Lars (a state official). While they are aware of the desperation and poverty facing the country, the brothers are relatively well insulated from it, and their positions provide a counterpoint to the devastation around them. We are also privy to the perspective of the Senator, passages which highlight the detachment of the governing authorities despite the desperate shortages of food. (These brief chapters are interspersed between those focusing on Marja, Mataleena and Juho.)

White Hunger is a short book, so I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot. Save to say it’s a devastating portrayal of humanity at the very brink of survival. It might sound utterly unbearable, but the story ends with a few glimmers of hope, signs of spring and the possibility of renewal. A chance encounter proves vital in the face of adversity. Add to that the quality of Ollikainen’s writing. His prose is spare and controlled – it has a poetic feel, which serves to highlight moments of beauty amidst the bleakness.

The storm has subsided. The city has won one battle; the spire on the church cupola has succeeded in tearing holes in the blanket of clouds, through which the moon shimmers. (pg. 22)

White Hunger is a hugely impressive book, one with the feel of a classic in miniature. A timely story conveyed with real skill and gravitas. This novella has been widely reviewed elsewhere – links to a range of other reviews can be found on this page from the Peirene Press website. Grant (of 1streading) has just published this excellent review. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publishers.

40 thoughts on “White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen (tr. Emily & Fleur Jeremiah)

  1. roughghosts

    Everything I have read about this book makes me think I would like it. Your and Grant’s reviews have brought it back to mind. I will have to add it to the wishlist.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      There is something timeless about this story…and yes, it’s all too relevant today in light of current refugee crisis. It’s not an easy read, but I think you would like it. Ollikainen’s prose has the sort of stark, poetic quality that lingers in the mind.

      Reply
  2. sharkell

    I have this book waiting to read. I’ve got quite a few Peirrine books on my Kindle. I’ve just finished one of the early ones – Portrait of the Woman as a Young Lady – not my favourite of the series but good nonetheless. I’ll have to bump this one up on my list. I’ve not read a review of it before and it sounds great.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’ve missed out on a few of the early titles in the Peirene list, and Portrait is one of those omissions – I ought to plug a few of the gaps at some point. I thought White Hunger was excellent – a harrowing read, but very worthwhile. “Enjoy” probably isn’t the right word for this book, but I hope you get something from it.

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Very intense-sounding – Peirene seem to bring out books that touch places that others don’t go near. Strange how we can cope with and even enjoy such bleak books!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Intense is the right word for it. You know, it’s funny – I knew this would be a harrowing book so I’d steeled myself for something pretty grim. It is very tough, but there are moments of beauty amidst the bleakness which make it a little more bearable. I’m really glad I found the right time to read this one.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      There is something timeless about it, a sort of universal quality which makes it seem all the more relevant in the current climate in Europe. I really liked Ollikainen’s prose style, too – all in all, it’s a very impressive little novella.

      Reply
  4. Scott W

    The universality of the story struck me as I was reading your post; I immediately thought of China and the desperation that has driven massive migrations from countryside to cities over the last 50 years. Or the migrations from Mexico and Central America north. Or Africans paying smugglers for the risk of being ferried across the Mediterranean. But I’m curious too about the Finnish particularities of the book.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re right, there is a universal quality to the crux of this story – you’ve listed three examples there, and I’m sure there are many more. I’m ashamed to say that I knew very little about this episode in Finnish history before reading the novella, but it is a bit of an eye-opener. If anything, I would have liked to hear more from the Senator’s perspective. Those chapters were a little brief and I suspect there were further insights than could have been gleaned there. Nevertheless, the story of the central family is terribly powerful. Not an easy book to read, but very worthwhile. I’m glad I made time for it.

      Reply
  5. Brian Joseph

    I had heard really good things about this book. It does indeed sound so very bleak. It is a little ironic that tales of such desperate times often make great literature.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is, Brian – the most harrowing stories are often the most powerful, too. I know it’s a cliché, but this is the kind of story that lingers in the mind for a very long time.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I felt I had to mention something about the tone of the ending – otherwise there’s a danger than pretty much everything (with the possible exception of the moments of poetic beauty) sounds terribly harrowing. I really had to steel myself to read this book, but I’m so glad I did. It’s just the sort of challenging story I’ve come to expect from Peirene.

      Reply
  6. 1streading

    Thanks for the link. I really liked this as well. The ending bothered me a little as it seemed to suggest that it was all inevitable and hope came in the form of spring – simply a case of waiting rather than doing anything. But this was perhaps because I never quite got a handle on the political scenes!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome, Grant. I thought your review was excellent, especially the scene setting at the beginning of your piece – it really put the story into a broader context.

      ***************Possible spoilers*************

      Ah, the ending. Yes, I think I know what you mean (certainly the bit about the advent of spring, I agree with you on that part). I guess the most significant element of hope comes where the two stories interconnect, and the lives of Teo and Lars cross paths with those of the family. That’s sort of what I was trying to hint at there. You’re right to raise the point about the lack of other actions/interventions, though. All those other people….it really pains me to think about it. (By the way, I’m not sure I really got to grips with the Senator’s sections of the story, either. They were fairly oblique, and if anything, I would have liked to hear more from his perspective.)

      Picking up on the conversation from your review, Lie you, I’ve yet to read either of the other two Chance Encounters. It’ll be interesting to see how they compare – I wouldn’t be surprised if White Hunger proves to be the standout!

      Reply
      1. poppypeacockpens

        Yes… They have to be one of my favourite finds since joining Twitter. Short reads that really pack a punch then linger indefinitely…

        I’m planning a Novella challenge for November so will be exploring quite a few more of their back catalogue…

        Reply
  7. Emma

    Oh dear, “white hunger” needs to be taken literally. It’s hard to read about hunger, it generates a gut reaction in us coming a memory of hard times our brain still has, I suppose.
    Have you read Hunger by Knut Hamsun? Terrific book as well.

    Pereine choose their books very well, readers are often raving about their titles. Congrats to them.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s not a comfortable read, that’s for sure. Another very thought-provoking choice by Peirene.

      I’m glad you mentioned Hamsun’s book. As I haven’t read it, I didn’t feel I could speak to any possible parallels with White Hunger, but it did cross my mind! One for the future, I think.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’m glad you liked it as well, Melissa. Meike (at Peirene) seems to have a very good eye for picking these books. Each one feels like a window into another world.

      I’m looking forward to reading the next two in the Chance Encounter series – delighted to hear you enjoyed them!

      Reply
  8. Max Cairnduff

    Peirene do have a good eye as you say, but it does seem clear that even so they’ve outdone themselves with this one. It sounds brutal, yet beautiful if that’s remotely the right word. Probably not, but it sounds brutal without being ugly which is perhaps the better way to put it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a good way of putting it, Max. It is a very tough read, but the prose style lifts it. I’ve yet to try Veronique Olmi, but I couldn’t help thinking about your review of Beside the Side as I was reading White Hunger. I suspect there are a few parallels between the two – they could be part of the same series.

      Reply
  9. Violet

    I’ve only read a few Peirene editions and they’ve all been full of misery. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but you do have to be in the mood to read them. Sometimes, the real suffering in the world gets to be a bit much to bear without adding fictional suffering to the mix, if you know what I mean.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I do know what you mean. I had to find the right moment to read this book as I knew it would be a harrowing experience. I’m trying to think of a ‘lighter’/less miserable book in the Peirene list…The one that springs to mind is Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig, a deliciously dark collection of eerie short stories. They reminded me a little of some of Yoko Ogawa’s work – strange, unsettling and beautifully written.

      Reply
  10. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  11. Claire 'Word by Word'

    I enjoyed this book and found it very atmospheric, such a strong sense of place and suffering, and will to survive, to move on and confront the ever present menace of death. So poignant and surprising at the end, so accomplished, great to see it make the longlist for the Man Booker International.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, yes, yes to all of your comments, Claire. For such a slim novella, it packs quite a punch. One would hope that by now this kind of suffering might have been consigned to the past, but it made me think of the plight of refugees in various parts of the world today. All too relevant in the current climate, sadly. Anyway, I’m really pleased to see it on the longlist. Peirene seem to have a good track record when it comes to this prize (if we include its previous incarnation, the IFFP).

      Reply
  12. parrish lantern

    I read this last year & thoroughly enjoyed it, loved the telling of the story loved the background history of it even loved writing about it.

    Reply

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