‘The Brothers’ by Asko Sahlberg ****

The Brothers is an early Peirene publication, and one I had not been able to find a copy of.  It really took my fancy, particularly since I will happily read anything set within the bounds of Scandinavia.  This particular novella takes the Finland of 1809 as its setting, and has been translated from its original Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah.  The blurb hails it ‘a Shakespearean drama from icy Finland’, and it has been written by an author who is quite the celebrity in his native land. 9780956284068

The brothers of the book’s title are Henrik and Erik, who fought on opposing sides in the war between Sweden and Russia.  To borrow a portion of the blurb, ‘with peace declared, they both return to their snowed-in farm.  But who is the master?  Sexual tensions, old grudges, family secrets: all come to a head in this dark and gripping saga’.  Its attention-grabbing beginning immediately sets the scene, and demonstrates the chasm of difference between our protagonists: ‘I have barely caught the crunch of snow and I know who is coming.  Henrik treads heavily and unhurriedly, as is his wont, grinding his feet into the earth.  The brothers are so different.  Erik walks fast, with light steps; he is always in a hurry, here then gone’.  Later, of Henrik, Erik tells Anna: ‘… he said that we came into this world in the wrong order.  That he’s not comfortable here and doesn’t want to remain here, that he wants to see the world’.

Multiple narrators lead us through the whole.  We are treated to the distinctive voices of the farmhand, Anna, Henrik, Erik, and their mother, the Old Mistress.  This technique makes The Brothers feel like a multi-layered work from the very beginning.  Their voices are distinctive, and the farmhand especially – contrary perhaps to expectations – is sometimes rather profound: ‘A human being never sheds his past.  He drags it around like an old overcoat and you know him by this coat, by the way it looks and smells.  Henrik’s coat is heavy and gloomy, exuding the dark stench of blood’.

As one might expect, the landscape plays a big part in this novella, as does darkness, both literally and metaphorically.  Characters are often compared to things like trees and woodpiles.  Sahlberg captures things magnificently; he is perceptive of the smallest of details.  Of the Old Mistress, he writes: ‘Her eyes change again.  A moment ago, they were shaded.  Now they darken, open out in the middle, become tiny black abysses which suck in the gaze’.  His prose is thoughtful too, and he continually views things through the lens of others, thinking to great effect how a particular scene will make an individual feel.  For instance, the Old Mistress says, ‘But boys are fated to grow into men, and a mother has to follow this tragedy as a silent bystander.  And now it seems they will kill each other, and then this, too, can be added to my neverending list of losses’.  Sahlberg is that rare breed of writer who can get inside his characters’ heads, no matter how disparate they are, and regardless of their gender and age.  Each voice here feels authentic, peppered with concerns and thoughts which are utterly believable, and which are specifically tailored to the individual.

The politics of the period have been woven in to good effect, but Sahlberg makes it obvious that it is the characters which are his focus.  Their backstories are thorough and believable; they are never overdone.  The Brothers is an absorbing novella and, as with all of Peirene’s publications, a great addition and perfect fit to their growing list of important translated novellas.

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