A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Ella, a high school teacher, is perturbed when a student’s copy of a very well-known novel tells the story in a different way. Why are the library books rewriting their stories? And why has the eminent novelist Laura White invited Ella to become the long-awaited tenth member of the Rabbit Back Literature Society, when she’s never written a novel in her life?
Kate (British) and Leena (Finnish) had a conversation about this Finnish novel now in translation ….
Kate: The Rabbit Back Literature Society is a bemusing thriller. I’m not sure how else to describe it, perhaps something like ‘Tove Jansson writes modern psychological crime novel’. It’s Finnish, hence the Jansson comparison, which probably isn’t fair since Jansson is the only other Finnish author I’ve read. However, there are unmistakeable connections with Jansson the author and the Rabbit Back character, the great Finnish novelist Laura White. Translator Lola Rogers anglicised ‘Laura White’, since all the other personal names in the novel are satisfyingly ‘other’ to Anglophone readers, properly Finnish or Scandinavian-sounding. That way she’s pushed the reader away from assuming that White, the apparently famous and much-loved author of children’s books populated with fantastic and mythical creatures, and a spinoff marketing empire from her Creatureville stories that brings Japanese tourists on pilgrimage, is modelled on Jansson.
That would not be a good assumption to make, because Laura White is also an elitist monster of child domination and psychological manipulation. She selects a group of children as the next generation of great Finnish writers, and teaches them weekly how to be writers. Those who aren’t selected harbour grudges and envy: those are selected become egomaniacs and desperate to keep their social and artistic status. They are induced to play The Game, which is a really nasty question-and-answer session involving naked bodies, egos and minds, and sometimes blood, often helped along by a truth pill.
Nothing could be further from the cosiness of the Moomins, but there are some strange connections that must, I suppose, stem from Finnish culture, since Jansson and Jääskeläinen both use them. Creatures with supernatural origins and habits prowl around the dark edges of their stories, and in Jääskeläinen’s imagination, they are deadly and horrifying. There’s a freakishly terrifying magpie-eating phantom in the back garden that freezes people just as Jansson’s Groke does, but the Groke just glides away, whereas Jääskeläinen’s nameless monster is destroyed by a pack of feral dogs. Laura White has been seen transparent, and she disappears in a snowstorm at the top of her stairs. A local woman lies in people’s back gardens to do myth mapping, and reports on the supernatural activity in the shrubbery. All this is totally fascinating, but is ignored in the plot, which is part-crime, part-psychological thriller. As I said, bemusing. But very good!
Leena: Funny you should mention Laura White’s anglicised name: the original title is actually an untranslatable wordplay on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I’m not entirely sure why the translator decided to keep this reference, though you’re right, it does help to distance her from Tove Jansson! Interestingly, Laura White’s original name – Laura Lumikko – has a double meaning, as ‘lumikko’ actually means ‘weasel’.
Luckily Jääskeläinen’s writing is otherwise more easily translatable, and this has got to be one of the best – if not the best – translations from Finnish to English that I’ve encountered. The Finnish language has a lot of peculiarities and it’s very difficult to translate convincingly, but this one is smooth and readable. In fact, I preferred to read it instead of the Finnish original (though that’s no reflection on Jääskeläinen’s writing, just that I’m more accustomed to reading in English). Hats off to Lola Rogers.
The Rabbit Back Literature Society does have a lot in common with some of Jansson’s darker stories, and the setting has a similar timeless quality about it – a Finnish person doesn’t necessarily recognise it as being the Finland she knows, and not only because of the magical realism. I would say it’s like a Finland filtered through a dream. Yes, that’s it. Just like a sense of familiarity becomes something eerie in a dream, and nothing you see seems quite right, though when you’re dreaming, you’re unable to understand why.
This isn’t exactly a complaint, but I found the novel very busy; which makes it rich and rewarding, but also not an especially light read when your brain is feeling sluggish! On top of the interesting (and quite bonkers) story, and the quirks and various supernatural goings-on that you mentioned, there’s so much going on thematically. The theme that struck me most powerfully was the relationship between minds and stories, memory and creativity, changing stories and Alzheimer’s. I’m suddenly reminded of one line in the book: ‘Every imperfect essay left a dent in Ella’s mind’, as the central character, a teacher, is grading her students’ essays … in this book, there’s something pathological about reading and writing. Stories read and (mis)remembered almost seem like traumas.
Kate: Now that is interesting, about the link between the mind games and the stories and mental health. I hadn’t really noticed that before: I was focused on the plot, and trying to hang onto some sense of what-is-going-ON? while the characters did what they did. I was strongly reminded of that Talking Heads film, True Stories, in which some very odd and eccentric characters are presented, and you’ve just got to get on with their stories, there’s no way back once you start watching, or reading. I found Ella an excellent focaliser, I was very comfortable in her head, even if now and then she did some things that made me jump. The plot fits the ‘stranger comes to town’ model, when the reader can follow and be introduced to everything along with the protagonist.
There were some really weird things going on, though, don’t you think? Grown adults – respectable citizens and famous authors! – trying to break into each other’s houses to challenge them to The Game. Ella’s father succumbing to Alzheimer’s by seeing goblins in the garden. The awful fight with the dogs and the phantom had me metaphorically behind the sofa, but it’s hard to turn the page and read on with my eyes closed, so I had to pull myself together on that.
I thought the translation gave a strong sense of otherness. There was colloquialism, there was ease and flow, but there was also something that was absolutely not English, in the missed-out steps in a series of actions, so perhaps that was Jääskeläinen rather than the translator. I was thinking all the way through, is this how it’s meant to read? I was conscious of it being a translated text, so maybe that’s not so good.
I love the idea of books changing the story: I don’t think even Terry Pratchett has come up with that idea. But I do wonder about why no-one in the novel thinks the whole situation was mad.
Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, The Rabbit Back Literature Society, translated by Lola Rogers (Pushkin Press, 2014), ISBN 9781782270430.