Book review: White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen

In Finland in the bone-chilling winter of 1867 – the year of a devastating famine – the colour of death is white.

By Pam Norfolk
Tuesday, 31st March 2015, 10:00 am
White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen
White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen

White ice flowers cover window panes, white frost spreads weed-like through window frames, white snow pushes in through doors ‘like a cadaver’ and all around is a procession of ‘the snowy dead.’

Steel your nerves, harness your emotions, brace your stomach and prepare to be moved by a prize-winning Finnish novella… 136 pages of death and despair shot through with an extraordinary ray of redeeming light that dazzles as it disturbs.

Newly translated into English by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah, Aki Ollikainen’s remarkable debut follows the fortunes of a farming family as they struggle to survive the last major natural famine in Europe.

The 1866-68 famine, caused by failed crops, storms and endless months of freezing conditions, killed 270,000 people – about 15 to 20 per cent of the population – and is still known in Finland as ‘the great hunger years.’

As stores of food ran out, thousands took to the roads to beg and soon there was suffering, starvation and mortality on a scale unimaginable in Europe today.

Ollikainen’s apocalyptic tale is a stunning evocation of the indomitability of the human spirit, and comes courtesy of Peirene Press, an exceptional independent publisher on a mission to open our eyes to the best contemporary European literature.

And White Hunger is a tour de force, a journey through a snow-filled wilderness, a suffocating, soul-searching and unsettling odyssey in which starvation – its physical and psychological emanations – becomes the primary, pitiless character.

When the thin ration of tree bark bread finally runs out, Marja watches her shrunken, starving, bedridden husband Juhani slowly fade away and abandons him to his fate in their cottage where the only thing left is death.

Her only hope of saving her two young children now is to make the long walk to St Petersburg, the Tsar’s city, where Marja cannot imagine anyone would be permitted to starve.

But being hungry is ‘a sin,’ an offence to those who have food, and hordes of migrant beggars bring only ‘unrest’ in a country where lazy landowners have thrown out their workers so that they have more for themselves.

And thousands of others are also heading south, all of them just as desperate to survive. It’s a road to frozen hell on which Marja and her children will suffer the physical realities of having no food.

Hunger is a kitten in a sack, scratching away with its claws, it’s discovering that wintry sunshine can momentarily fill the hollowness of an empty stomach. It’s eating lichen bread even if it’s poisonous, stealing and killing to try to stay alive and listening to other people’s voices to forget for an instant the pain of starvation.

It is only the kindness of strangers and the friendship of an orphan boy called Ruuni which bring hope and comfort to Marja but, seemingly abandoned by both God and the government, can anyone really help?

It is no surprise that Ollikainen’s searing novella has taken the Nordic literary scene by storm. Although unremitting in its portrayal of a people brought to the chilling edge of existence, there is yet an almost elegiac beauty in their will to survive and the sense of hope that refuses to be extinguished.

Such a powerful, honest and thought-provoking story deserves an audience far beyond the shores of Scandinavia.

(Peirene, paperback, £12)