This month, the #FinnCultBlxBookshelf series features Katja Kettu’s Yöperhonen (2015). The novel is set in the year 1937, when a young Finnish girl sets out to defect to the Soviet Union to be with her lover. A captivating premise to be sure – but what did our resident book critic Eppu have to say? Read on to find out!
Katja Kettu: Yöperhonen (2015)
Book number five from the FinnCultBlx Bookshelf is from Katja Kettu’s 2015 novel Yöperhonen (‘moth’). Kettu is another well-respected Finnish author with a number of prestigious literary awards. Her books have also been translated into many languages – this one at least to Swedish, Danish, Estonian, German, Hungarian, and French.
The story concerns a young girl living in the northern Finnish border zone towards the Soviet Union in 1937, Irga Malinen. She falls in love with a Soviet man and decides to defect across the border – in the winter and on skis! What happens is that instead of living a life in a Communist paradise, Irga gets interrogated as a possible double agent trying to undermine the Soviet government. She is condemned to a life in a prison camp in the Komi Republic, far away in the north.
Her destiny was shared by many Finns who decided to search for a better life. Not everyone moved to Sweden or North America, there were many who went to the east. The immigration to the Soviet Union has been studied and talked about more only relatively recently – Kettu’s book was probably spearheading the fictionalization of the phenomenon.
It is also a story about friendship as Irga finds a sister in Elena, a Mari woman voluntarily in the Vorkuta camp. It is about love as Irga finds another love, Aleksei. It’s about legacy as Irga’s granddaughter Verna tries to figure out what really happened in her family’s past. And perhaps most importantly it’s about the human resilience and will to survive even in the most horrible conditions possible.
Kettu’s language is wild and inventive, sometimes challenging even to a native reader! It is poetic and beautiful, but sometimes irritating as common words seem to get very different meanings. I truly wonder how it has been possible to translate it satisfactorily.
Intriguing and touching, though also challenging.
– Eeva-Maria Viitanen (Eppu)
Katja Kettu is an award-winning author, playwright, and animation producer. Much of her work explores cultural encounters in history especially from the perspectives of women. In 2011, she was awarded the Kalevi Jäntti Award, the Runeberg Prize, and the Thanks for the Book Award for her breakthrough novel Kätilö (Midwife).
Follow Kettu on Instagram to learn more.