Silence and Text in Bengt Pohjanen’s "The Realm of Faravid"

From Kalevala to Uralic literatures

After the end of the Finnish war in 1809, the population of the new Grand Dutchy of Finland, belonging to Russia, decided to become Finns. Nevertheless, behind the new Russian-Swedish border, there was a population speaking the same language as the population on the Russian side, namely in Northern Finland. While the language on the Russian side became as a regiolect a part of the national language called Finnish, the language on the Swedish side was designated as Tornedalian Finnish. The vernacular language on the Swedish side went its own way. The first one, who has formulated the idea about the Tornedalian Finnish as a distinct language, was probably the writer Bengt Pohjanen, and he christened the language Meänkieli, ‘our language’. The opportunity for revising the identity in Swedish Tornedalen was created.

When Bengt Pohjanen first started writing, he wrote in Finnish and Swedish. Since 1980s however, he has used for his artistic and scientific efforts Meänkieli too. In Meänkieli, he has written novels, dramas, poetry, essays, to Meänkieli, he has translated fundamental pieces of the world literature. The crucial position in Pohjanen’s production probably has the so called Tornedalian trilogy, Väylänvarren trilogia, a cycle of novels connected with the best of the Nordic rural and sociographic tradition, the Tornedalian folklore and the Northern Finnish literature, which is within more less the whole Finland’s literature exceptional due to its blend of mysticism and humor. Similar position seems to have the historical novel Faravidin maa (The Realm of Faravid), with a plot of the central narrative from the 11th century.

Before I start with the motives of silence and voices in Faravid, I am going to show the genological and wider cultural context of it, mainly the relation with Kalevala and similar texts. E.g. the themes of Faravid are either similar with Kalevala (i.e. identity and power) or at least inspired by Kalevalaic context and paratext: memory and history, orality and literacy. These themes are strongly present in the creation, the primary concept, reception and discussion about Kalevala, that is in the context and paratext of Kalevala, but not in the text of Kalevala itself. All the themes here, however, – identity, power, memory, history etc. – are obviously linked with motives of silence and voice.

As we know, Kalevala has had within Finnish literature a substantial role. Elias Lönnrot concluded the discussion on written standard of Finnish or “the united Finnish”, he constructed the Golden Age and linear history of Finns, he built the bridge between the old verbal tradition and literature, he expressed mythemata related to Finnish men (as negatives of Finnish women), that are in use still nowadays, and he legitimized the claim of Finns for their own land. In fact, he established the Finnish national literature, or at least he was the main figure in its establishment.

No wonder, that during the second half of the 19th century Kalevala started serving as a pattern for artistic expressions of the concept of particular national Uralic (Finno-Ugric) literatures and also of the concept of Uralic (Finno-Ugric) affinity, identity and subsequently literature. This so called Kalevalaism, i.e. following the pattern of Kalevala and adapting it for the sake of establishment and prestige of particular national literature linguistically kindred with the Finns could happen only on the grounds of the concept of Uralic affinity.1 Kalevalaism is at the same time the most distinctive phenomenon of the Uralic literature. Thus, as we can speak about a particular national literature based in a concept of a collective identity and of a common language, we can speak on the Uralic literature based in the concept of Uralic lingual (and perhaps cultural too) affinity as well.

It is possible to explore the typology of Kalevalaism and different periods, history of Kalevalaism, and Kalevalaism as an intertextual phenomenon is alive and yare even nowadays. The last examples of Kalevalaism are the Vepsian epic Virantanaz, written in Vepsian by Nina Zaiceva and published in 2012, and as I believe the Meänkieli text Faravidin maa, The Realm of Faravid, published in 2013.

If we go further in time and stay closer to the epicenter of Kalevalaism, the reaction to Kalevala is rather refusal and contrasting (but such refusal reaction is still a reaction, it is still a part of the reception we call Kalevalaism – the cultural impact of Kalevala has been of such importance, that to many writers has seemed necessary to make a similar gesture, a similar text in terms of its function – not a direct persiflage in fact, because for another readership then that of Kalevala). E.g. Nils-Aslak Valkeapää’s “Sami national epic” Sun is my dear father from 1988 is in perfect opposition to Kalevala’s epic monophony in Mikhail Bakhtin’s words.2 Valkeapää’s anthology of poems doesn’t petrify any given ethical or social status quo and it hasn’t even such ambition – in opposition to Kalevala. It is rather an individual suggestion, or better, a confession – so, its monophony stays individual. Valkeapää doesn’t answer such questions like Who we, Samis, are? What our origin is? etc., but he shows his own individual answers to questions What does it mean for me to be a Sami? and lets the answers be judged by others. (We can compare this statement to Valkeapää’s own confession in his book Terveisiä Lapista, Greetings from Lapland, published in 1971, according to which his art is anchored in peaks of mountains and the people, who live there, but still it is subjected to the nation’s judgment.

Another type of opposition may be found in another Sami “national epic”, the South Sami poem Epose written by the Swedish Sami from Vilhelmina Erik Nilsson-Mankok in 1977. Although Kalevala is directly mentioned in the preface of the poem as its pattern, Mankok’s Epose among other things that create a strict contrast to Kalevala, doesn’t construct any concept of the Sami nation, but rather destroys it by setting an outsider and ethically problematic person to the central plot and using a concrete milieu and time.3

Valkeapää, Mankok and Pohjanen in his The Realm of Faravid did the same, being inspired by Lönnrot, but their own way. They didn’t want to write their own Kalevalas, even they tried to write against Kalevala, to create an anti-Kalevala, but they couldn’t conceal, that Kalevala as a complex political-cultural gesture is the impulse and primary context for them.

Valkeapää’s link between the landscape, nature and auctorial voice can be found also in Pohjanen’s preface to The Realm of Faravid: ”The long biological memory is longer than the longest arms of the power; we have mountains, rivers, fields, calm waters, lakes, streams and paths that all bear memories and stories. And if these fall silent, then the Book speaks up through silent moss and from the humps in swamplands, from the white flowers beside paths and from the snowflakes, even from the sawdust of an old timber house.”4

Both authors – Valkeapää and Pohjanen – have similar starting point: a voiceless people (Valkeapää had even to re-establish the Sami nomenclature, the system and use of juoigus, the Sami way of naming and recalling persons) and meaningful, storytelling potentiality of the landscapes’ silence, its ability to resonate or to echo the voice of the stories.

However, what are the features of the Kalevala’s pattern in particular? Every genre has its typical qualities and valences to be fulfilled. The term of valence suits here well, since it refers to a core and its potentiality to enter into a relationship with other entities. At the same time it shows, that there is a perspective: the core and its relationship to a margin, the others etc. In the national epics, such valence might be e.g. the quest or struggle of a community or group of heroes for their own country, justice etc. and delimiting its borders (in the related genre of the heroic epic, the struggle is mostly between two or more nations – Germans and Huns in Nibelungenlied, Franks and Moors in the Song of Roland etc. In eastern Uralic epics, the enemies have been mostly Tatars and Russians). In Kalevala, such struggle between definite nations is rather foggy: all its heroes quest for women and it comes out that they are in this respect absolute losers. That’s the basic plot. At the end, the quest for women and love is replaced by the quest for sampo, probably a symbol of a nation’s wealth. However, to fulfill the valence of the struggle by a mythical enemy – pohjolaiset, a people from the North – was a good strategy by Lönnrot. In other Kalevalaic works this indefinite valence could have been fulfilled and actualized by particular historical peoples much easier.

This is also the case of The Realm of Faravid. Its hero (with many names, roles and actually voices too) finds his love in the beginning of the story (this is one of the points constructing the contrast to Kalevala). However, the hero must accomplish his historical mission before he is allowed to consume the marriage and to found the family. The Kalevala’s topographic perspective is inverted in Faravid. The signal of the perspective switch is already visible in the subtitle: Kvenland – that is in opposition to the toponymal Kalevala. (Pohjanen uses the name Kvenlad and Kvens for the historical Norrbothnians and their realm, Norrbothnia and Northern Finland or at least Kainuu.) The story is about a fight for independence of the south powers. The contextual searching for identity is however similar to the searching for identity of the Finns in the 19th century: We are not Finns (anymore), we don’t want to become Swedes, let us be Kvens. And also the historical pattern of the construction of the Finnish identity within tsarist Russia seems to be followed in Faravid: the realm of Faravid, Kvenland, was in the novel restored under the temporary and formal rule of Novgorod. The ethnic identity of the Faravid’s hero is nevertheless in the beginning of the story unclear and he must find his own voice, or chose it from many that have been offered to him: Swedish, Karelian, Russian, Sami, catholic, orthodox, vernacular religious (Scandinavian, Kvenic, Sami). That’s the process typical again for the genre of novel, not epic, and the character’s “ontogeny” represents the nation’s “phylogeny” too.

Faravid is not an epic in above mentioned Bakhtinian meaning of the word. It is a dialogical and polyphonic novel. There are many voices in it and different expressions and voices are set next to the motive of silence. Even the silence itself is stratified here: the “silence about something and somebody”, and the “silence of ”. While “the silence about” is a preterition of something or somebody and replacing one’s voice with another, namely Swedish in the novel, “the silence of ” might be understood as an utterance, having its unrevealed meaning. It is usually used in collocation with topoi of natural phenomena: the silence of nature is its voice or memory. Such meaningful “silence of something” is probably related to the silent potentiality of a pre-text and pre-sign. Probably it has something to do with Pohjanen’s terms “siima” (from Greek séma, ‘sign’) and Girija, the unwritten Book consisting of memories. The Book, the long memory of landscape, nature and people who live there, or at least they seem to be in a way rewritten or “relectured” according to the Girija, the Book that has been written by the stories themselves.

The dialogical structure of Faravid is evident furthermore from the changes in the topic of borders. The main character is in the beginning strictly against bordering (he is unaware of his ethnicity), but he changes his mind and even he becomes the agent or exponent in lining up the boundary stones: “The boulders have come and stone doesn’t rot. Now, the time of borders have come. Those peoples that have lined up borders should vanish from Earth’s surface.”5 Putting stones up means a dramatic and unrevisable change here, both, in landscape and in story, this is perhaps making text from voice of the Girija. The stones and the written text stand in opposition to weak and continuous phenomena like flowers, paths, water, and they are limiting, structuring and categorizing them. But this is still good. Much worse it is, if the structuring is not based in the local stones or texts: “There has been enough silence about us. We have lived for too long time in oblivion about our origin. Too long time we have heard foreign words about ourselves from those, who clogged up our mouths and silenced us.”6 “It is time to melt the words. Since the Book wants to open her mouth and to express the feelings of our people by visible words.”7 The visible words are just a written text. Its role is ambivalent. It is a sign, it refers to something else then what it is – unlike the silent moss, which is the story, the voice, the meaning itself - perhaps. On the other hand, there is a sign, in Faravid called Siima. This sign is related to Christianity and the central position of signs that are signs of themselves.

To make a text from a voice and to demarcate boundaries seems to be an inevitable evil and violence in the process of constructing nation. In fact, if I want to be intelligible, than I have to limit myself in my expression – in terms of language etc. But it is me, my texts and my languages, who are limiting me: “The conquerors have defined us by their own words, said what and who we are, written our history…”8

The Girija is an impartial resource. To write its part down is an act of violating its integrity the same way as delimiting a state based in a particular criterion (religion or denomination, nation, desire for power, unity or peace…) is also violating the integrity of the mankind. But in the actual state of affairs, it is necessary to do so to be Kvens’ voice heard. At the same time, Pohjanen knows that the story ”reveals that our long memory doesn’t only belong to us, since in it have during epochs fitted gods, stories and even singing swords of other peoples, tribes and areas of the world”.9 What the Kvenic voice is made of is the specific mixture in specific proportions of other voices. It is nothing essential.

The role, the function of the Kalevalaic texts has been the same, although the voice of the new political nation in its own autonomous state of Kalevala is strong and unified, while in Valkeapää’s poems very subtle and individual and in Pohjanen’s Faravid multiple and stratified. All the texts in fact have constituted the opportunity for the particular peoples to have their own voice.

1 Many Eastern Uralic Kalevalaistic works from 1920s and 1930s were written in Russian by local patriots of Russian ethnic origin. This is however nothing unusual, if we take into consideration the fact that this is even a regular occurrence in the national awaking of Central and Eastern European peoples, cf. the role of Germans in the Czech, Esto­nian, Lithuanian etc. national awaking, the role of Swedes in the Finnish national awaking, the role of Slovaks, Serbs, Jews etc. in the Hungarian national awaking…
2 Mikhail Bakhtin defined basic narrative features of three basic Western literary genres – epic, poetry and novel: epis is monophonic, and its voice is the voice of the whole community, it constitutes fundamental ethical, moral and other social rules e.g. Poetry is also monophonic, but the voice is voice of the lyrical subject only, the narrator, the author. Novel is polyphonic, there are many voices in it, arguing, changing their perspective in dialogues and disturbing the prevailing social and political discourse of particular times.
3 Cf. KOVÁŘ, Michal. A Sámi in Bohemia, a Czech in Sápmi. L’Image du Sápmi III, Örebro, Örebro University, 2013, p. 280-289.
4 P. 8: Pitkä piulookinen muisti oon pitempi ko vallan pissiimät käsivarret; meiläki oon vuoret, väylät, vainiot, lompolot, järvet, virrat ja polut, jokka kaikin kantava muistoja ja tarinoita. Ja jos nämä vaikenevva niin Girija puhhu hiljaisen sammalheen läpi ja jänkkien pounukoista, polkujen kieloista ja lumihilheistä, jopa vanhaan hirsitalon sahajauhoista.
5 Mutta kivipaalut olit nyt tulheet, eikä kivi laho. Nyt oli rajojen aikakusi koittanu. Net heimot, jokka oli laittanheet rajakiviä, tulisit katoaahmaan maan kamaralta.
6 Kyllä meistä on kylliksi vaijettu. Kyllin kauon met olema elähneet meän alkuperän unholaa. Kyllin kauon meän korvat oon kuunelheet meistä viehraita sanoja niiltä, jokka tukit meän suut ja tehit meistä mykkiä.
7 Nyt oon aika sulattaa sanat... Sillä nyt Girija halvaa auasta suunsa ja näkyvillä sanoila ilmasta kansamme tuntheita.
8 Valottajat oon omala kielelä määritelheet meät, sanonheet mitä ja ketä met olema, kirjottanheet meän histuurian...
9 Se paljastaa, ette meän pitkä muisti ei pelkästhään ole meän ko sinne oon aikakausien kuluessa mahtunu muittenki kansojen, heimojen ja maanäärien jumalia, tarinoita, jopa laulavia kalpoja.

© Michal Kovář, 2017