Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Brothers - Asko Sahlberg

One of my favourite jokes (partly because it's one of the few I can remember) is about two Finnish men who go out for a drink. The first man goes to the bar, gets the drinks, sets them on the table, raises his glass, says 'Skol' and then they drink in silence. Second drink same thing happens, silence, third drink and he raises his glass and says 'Skol' again at which point his friend snaps 'I thought we were here to drink not talk'. (Stay with me on this one, I'm not a natural joke teller, when I heard it, it was funny.) I've attempted to share that joke because it was the background I came to 'The Brothers' from, and true enough if you want to fit an epic of love, loss, betrayal, and family into a fraction over a hundred pages you don't want to be profligate with your word count.

This is the 7th Peirene title and each one strengthens their identity. The last two books I read both seemed to take an age to finish, and enjoyable as they were neither was a particularly challenging read, so when I picked up 'The Brothers' I was really craving something 'thought provoking, well designed, and short' - it's all three. I'm not surprised that Peirene are doing well, they have such a strong identity, it's not just that the books are lovely to hold and read, or that the covers are rather pleasing, it's more the whole hearted passion with which they get behind their books and the carefully curated choices they give us that makes them so exciting.

'The Brothers' is one of those books which ticks lots of boxes I normally avoid (historical novel, written by a man, family saga, not British, contemporary...) but I trust Peirene and it's short - both of which are important, we're traditionally not very good at reading translated fiction in the UK; I find it a lot easier to step out of my comfort zone with an elegant little volume like this than I do when a much greater investment of time is demanded. Preconceptions are a limiting thing, once the book was open I realised that it also ticked lots of boxes that attract me - short, told from several perspectives, sensual (is it only men who describe smells, or do I only notice male writers doing it?), and more than a touch of the fairy tale about it.

The action unfolds over a couple of days in a large farmhouse somewhere in the Finnish backwoods, isolated in location as well as by limited daylight and heavy snow there's an uneasy family gathering made more tense by the unexpected arrival of a disinherited older son. The narrative is shared by all the characters, each of whom shares a little bit more of the story, and much of which is concerned with the relationship between the brothers of the title - one is heavy and dark with almost unnatural strength, the other light of foot, easier perhaps to love, and the one who ends up with the girl. There's also a farmhand with a timeless mythic quality about him, and a cousin who has a touch of the troll or the wicked enchanter.

Everything unfolds quite quickly (and indeed it was hard to put the book down once started because I was desperate to see what would come next) although what's happened or is happening isn't always explicit - each character's segment feels like a statement; evidence that the reader has to try and piece together. Finally though I think this is more about the constraints family and home put on us - expectation is a kind of prison and when the family hierarchy is disturbed the results are unexpected freedoms.

Anyway it's a fine read and one I'm eager to share. I'm tempted to go on at length about the elegant spareness of the prose, the power behind so many of the descriptions (between Sahlberg and his translators we've got some really evocative images) and the effective way scent (or smell, or stink) are used to set scenes, moods, and raise tension - but the brevity of the book demands a little restraint.  


  1. I believe the joke involves a Swede and a Finn, in fact, with the joke very much on the latter! ('Cheers' is 'Kippis' in Finnish; 'Skol' is Swedish.)

    As one of the translators of this work, I'm delighted you enjoyed the writing. You're right - the evocation of scents/smells/stinks is perhaps 'feminine'. This is a sensuous and visceral book, and I'm thrilled that others are now feeling its force!

  2. That would probably be a funnier joke. I was told it on a spirits training day and it seemed funny at the time. The single minded way I've seen Faroese and Swedish people drink has always been impressive. Sadly my experience of Finland is limited to one night in a boat next to it.

    I loved the writing and am intrigued by the whole process of translation, one of the things I really like about Peirene books is that they talk about the translators too - after all it's now your book as much as it is Sahlberg's. For me it was very much the evocation of snow crunching underfoot, the smells of everything, the house slowly decaying, that made the story come alive and off the page. I felt like I could smell it by the end.