Monday, October 26, 2009

“Helsinki Homicide: Against the Wall” by Jarkko Sipilä. Long dark nights do not noir necessarily make.

On my way to Brussels last week I happened to notice in an airport book shop a recently translated Finnish detective novel – “Helsinki Homicide: Against the Wall” by Jaakko Sippila. Although I’ve only read (and liked) the first two of Steig Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, I know there has been a bit of craze in recent years for Scandinavian crime fiction in the UK and US. For instance, I first heard Larsson reviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air and bought the first novel on that basis. So it seemed pretty cool to read a crime book set in my hometown and particularly one where the original Finnish version had won an award as the best crime novel of the year.

The book has been translated and published by a small, new American publishing house, started by Sipilä and his brother, and I wish them good luck in bringing more Finnish crime fiction to the English speaking world. But they still have some room for improvement. Not being good enough at Finnish to read the original is a bit annoying as it would be interesting to know whether it is the translation or the original Finnish that is a bit flat. With the book having won this crime novel of the year award, I presume it’s the translation because otherwise it doesn’t say much about Finnish crime fiction currently. Being translated primarily for an American market means that there were some slightly confusing American terms in there; it took me a second to remember that a “streetcar” is a tram and I’m not really sure if “half an ounce of meth” is a lot or not. It is not just that I'm used to British terms, but more that I’ve spoken English with Finns for over a decade and never heard one of them call a tram a “streetcar”. Likewise a Helsinki cop would have an even harder time than me working out what half an ounce is, so it just sounds unnatural for the word to be put in his mouth.

I guess these are really hard issues for a translator to resolve, but in Against the Wall, it seemed the translation never really did go one way or t'other. Things are half translated – the road Kehä I gets translated as “Beltway I” (despite the fact the Swedish name for it – remember Finland is bilingual so the signs say both – is ‘Ring I’, exactly what everyone, both Finnish and foreigners, call it in English). Yet the street where one of the characters lives is only half translated as “Tehdas Street”. This totally confused me: Tehdas means ‘factory’ and as I know that part of town I was trying to think where there is a “factory street” – completely forgetting the genitive of Tehdas turns the streetname in Finnish into Tehtankatu – a street name that EVERYBODY knows in Finland. Tehtankatu is the address of the imposing and rather intimidating bulk of the formerly Soviet, now Russian, embassy – a building that has long cast shadows over both the street and Finnish political life far more widely. So why does “Beltway” need a translations whilst Tehdas only needs half of one? Similar issues crop up through the book, which had me back translating words into Finnish so I could work out where or what in Helsinki was being discussed.

Having said all that, it is an enjoyable read if you like that sort of thing and anyone who knows Helsinki will enjoy spotting places they know. For example, my old local in Kallio – a dump admittedly, but a cheap one at that – appears to be where to go when trying to make contact with a contract killer. I never noticed this when I used to drink there but was probably distracted by cheap beer. I also, rather embarrassingly, realise I know most of the petrol station cafés of the greater Helsinki region and have eaten donuts in many of them. They pop up quite regularly through the book and the author even gets to note which serves the best coffee (personally I see myself as more of a donut connoisseur).

I think perhaps I was hoping for the book to say a bit more about modern Finland, being Finnish, and the like – like Steig Larsson’s distopian vision of modern Sweden. But Sipila isn’t that interested in this – it’s a detective story from a bloke who clearly know about how the Finnish police work. There are few nice snatches that hint at more – the modern Finland I know; a scene where a middle aged man can’t bring himself to hug his grieving grown-up daughter. Finns aren’t the most ‘huggy’ of nations. Helsinki is also dark and cold throughout the book, but also generally damp. In these days of warmer winters forget any tourist bureau bollocks of arctic winterscapes, at least down here in the south. The damp cold is a fitting background to a story of corruption and people trying to rip each other off. But don’t expect Against the Wall to make and deeper points, it sticks within a formula and keeps to the rules, even if the hero cop gently prods at the margins of acceptable behaviour.

It is may be not a fair comparison but I also read in the last few days 1974 by David Peace, the first book in his Red Riding Quartet. Peace is James Ellroy’s British acolyte, and a worthy one at that. That book drips with despair like, well, piss and shit would once thrown in your face by a corrupt rozzer in a cold interrogation cell. You may not actually enjoy reading that descent into hell but it is bracing to say the least. Peace’s world is one where there are no rules: as one of the policemen screams as he beats the “hero” half to death “THIS IS THE NORTH. WE DO WHAT WANT!” Maybe in the Yorkshire of 1974 but not in Sipilä’s Helsinki. The good guys are generally pretty decent, and they hold the line. The book may be more realistic but is less exciting as a result.


Anonymous said...

I've wondered a lot why so many of contemporary Finnish detective and mystery writers get translated into German, but Sipilä's average book is the only one appearing in English. Maybe the Germans like more the Finnish style of "Krimi."

But if your Finnish allows it, try Mika Waltari's two first Inspector Palmu novels: Who murdered Mrs Skrof? and Inspector Palmu's Error. Very nice for entertainment that also makes a couple of points of time and place.

And yes, I agree with your comments on translating trams and places.

ed said...

'completely forgetting the genitive of Tehdas turns the streetname in Finnish into Tehtankatu'. I like this bit of your post the best!

Tony said...

The genetive of Tehdas turns it into Tehtaan. There is a double a. This is necessary because tehdas ends with an s.

Can I borrow the book? I have a Swedish Wallander which you could borrow if you fancy a slightly more respectable Rebus.

Toby - Northern Light Blog said...

Tony - you're right. Do you know how annoying it is to have someone point that out after you've written it? So no. You can't borrow the book...

Oh, ok! Enough with the puppy dog eyes. I've forgiven you. You can borrow it after all. :-)

I should read at least one of the Wallander books actually, so that's a deal. I will probably have to darken my heart and further lose faith in humanity with the rest of the Red Riding Quartet first though. Take care in Kalymnos. Make sure there is a knot in the other end of the rope on those monster pitches!

Tony said...

I wouldn't have been able to pronounce it anyway.

By the way, we think we have found someone to repeat George Bush don't like black people, Jihad to be there and handle bar moustache gully

Anonymous said...

Who is the translator, by the way?