White Hunger is the story of a famine which takes place in the winter of 1867 in Finland. Central to the story are two families: Marja, her husband Juhani and children Mataleena and Juho, a family from the farming community in the North; and Teo and his brother Lars, both from the south of the country, both holding important positions: Teo, a doctor, and Lars a member of government. The story of White Hunger centres around the impact the famine had on both families.
The situation for Marja and her family is grave. Being from a poor community, they are soon struck down by starvation. When Juhani grows sick, Marja and her children abandon him in order to seek food and shelter in the South. Specifically Marja is hoping to reach St. Petersburg, where she believes food and shelter will be available. The story of their journey is one filled with small acts of kindnesses – the generosity of those other farmers and communities who each have little to spare but are still willing to share the little they have with the mother and her two children. It is also a journey fraught with danger; the danger of the cold, the relentlessness of the snow and ice, as well as the danger from others. Marja encounters many kind people, but also many who are angry and abusive and who will take advantage of or take out their anger at their circumstances on the beggars that cross their path. Consequently Marja’s journey is one of slow, relentless loss.
Meanwhile in the South, Teo and his brother argue about the solution to the endless battle with famine and hunger. This is a battle between Finland and the outside world, which would seek to attach conditions to the supply of grain. Yet neither brother goes hungry, and the battle with hunger here is a purely ideological one. Instead a different kind of hunger consumes these people. In Teo’s case it is alcohol and sex, as another character observes: “Booze or cunt – men get the same look with both,” Leo, however, is consumed by his wife’s desire for a child, as well as the dire situation in the rest of the country.
This contrast between the fortunes of the two families is interesting. Whilst Teo and Lars play at politics or sex from the safety of their relative wealth, Marja and her family live out the realities of the desperate situation. Theirs is a torturous journey, filled with loss and desperation. The cruelty of winter, the cruelty of starvation, cold and living on the goodwill of others is seemingly endless and there’s a sense that those who are kind will find themselves not far behind Marja in throwing themselves on the kindness of others. Through Matalena we come to understand both the reality of how it feels to starve. As she describes here:
“Hunger is the kitten Willow-Lauri put in a sack, which scratches away with its small claws, causing searing pain; then more scratching, then more, until the kitten is exhausted and falls to the bottom of the sack, weighing heavily there before gathering its strength and starting a fresh struggle. You want to lift the animal out, but it scratches so hard you dare not reach inside. You have no option but to carry the bundle to the lake and throw it in a hole in the ice.”
White Hunger is an interesting read. It is relentless in its presentation of famine and its impact on the population struggling under its grip. Even so, I found this a somewhat frustrating read. In particular, the presence of women in this book was very much as object: object of hunger, object of abuse, object of sexual desire. Even though the main character in the Northern family is a women, even here she serves as an object of hunger, oppression and male desire. In contrast, the men have thoughts and desires of their own, they play with intellectualism even starting the novel on a game of chess whereas Marja is rejecting the sexual advances of her husband (for fear of pregnancy). It reminded me of that peculiar characteristic of certain Nordic crime that has to place sexual torture of women central to the story and there’s always a half-naked female body on a slab for our ‘titillation’. There’s also a sense that the endless references to sex, the use of sexual language, is there to make the story ‘edgy’, a cheap trick which the novel did not need and, somehow, did not add anything.
That quibble aside, this short story of a country’s battle against hunger makes for an interesting, quick read. There is much beauty in the language, despite the bleakness of the snowy landscape against which it is set, and whilst it is a tale of desolation and loss in the end there remains hope for a brighter future. It is not an easy read, not entertaining in the traditional sense, but if you are interested in stories of endurance this could be a good read for you. For me, I am still torn. There is much of interest and merit in this story, but it was slightly spoiled by the lazy cliché of woman as object, and I’d have liked it if Ollikainen had given Marja more of a voice and a presence beyond the physical.
With thanks to Peirene Press for the review copy