Seven Brothers

Seven Brothers by Aleksis Kivi is a classic of Finnish literature. It was first published in 1870 and has the reputation for being the first Finnish novel. I bought it, along with the Finnish original, Seitsemän veljestä, during the summer of 2000 when I lived in Helsinki. As Mark and I prepare for our upcoming trip to Finland this August (his second time to Finland and my tenth) I will be reading more books from my Finnish or Finland library. I have had this book for nineteen years yet bypassed it as I chose other books from my vast unread collection of Fennica. I must admit why I procrastinated reading this for so long (as well as with Tuntematon sotilas by Väinö Linna, which I read seventeen years after I bought it): I thought that these books, while both classics of Finnish literature, would be dry-as-dust boring to read, and awful translations at that. I dreaded the thought of reading them. How could I have been so wrong–twice?

Since I read Tuntematon sotilas first, I wonder how much Linna was influenced by Kivi. You take a group of young Finnish soldiers deprived of women and drink and compare them to seven young men who were all brothers: there are bound to be similarities in the stories of male bravado, strength, skill and sexual desire. Each brother takes on a specific role, some more distinguishable than others. Juhani as the firstborn is the default leader while the youngest of the bunch, Eero, is often teased. Aapo is the cautious one, always offering warnings and advice. The Jukola brothers (at the beginning of the novel Juhani is 25 while Eero is eighteen) clown around and roughhouse and are always getting into fights with other men. Their superhuman strength pulverizes their enemies while they themselves suffer only minimal injuries. The best part in the entire novel was the brothers’ take on battling herds of bulls. The Jukolas are like James Bonds in their capacity to battle these beasts.

The dialogue was often laugh-out-loud boisterous. I could sometimes not contain my snickering while reading this book in public. The influence of alcohol does wonders to alter one’s personality, and Kivi’s portrayal of the brothers as drunks is entirely believable. I always feared that someone would say or do something that would end up having fatal consequences.

I read the translation by Richard A. Impola and he made this 345-page oversize paperback a rapid read. Even when there were multiple pages of solid text and no dialogue, the story progressed at a rapid clip. As I read along and compared the English and Finnish texts I was struck by some mysteries in the translation. For example, at the beginning of chapter eight, the brothers are still surrounded by a herd of stubborn bulls with no escape in sight (which is depicted on the English front and back cover in an illustration by Carl Gawboy):

“The third day of the brothers’ stay on the rock has come…”

whereas in the Finnish, it’s four days:

= “Tullut on jo neljäs päivä, veljesten ollessa kivellä…”

As this novel was originally written in 1870 some of the Finnish words are no longer used today and I could not find them in my dictionaries. I was thus grateful for the English translation. On-line searches for definitions of these words often cited the same passages from the novel, which surprised me. Did Kivi create neologisms, or were some of his words regional in nature? Were some words so limited in their use that an average Finn–even one from 1870–might not know what certain regionalisms even meant?

I loved the use of Kivi’s simile and the translations are vivid equivalents:

“Timo is sound asleep, but the rest of us are tossing and turning like wieners in a boiling kettle.”

= “Makeasti makaa jo Timo, mutta me muut itsiämme tässä vääntelemme ja kääntelemme kuin makkarat kiehuvassa kattilassa.”

“The others leaped up, blessed themselves body and soul, and stepped out of the hut in a body, their hair looking like witches’ brooms in a birch tree.”

= “Tästäpä muutkin pöllähtivät, siunasivat sieluansa ja ruumistansa, ja astuivat miehissä ulos koijustansa; ja muistutti heidän tukkansa tuulenpesää koivussa.”

Juhani loses a bet where he must pay the consequences by eating ten pounds of beef. After the gruelling task of cramming all that meat down his throat to save face, he cannot look at meat again. Upon seeing a boiling pot of beef, he cries out:

“To have to cram ten pounds of beef into your belly. Ten pounds! Like a wolf. It’s too much. It’s the end of me. Meat is what we live on here, and it no longer tastes good. That pot looks like it’s full of black frogs. Oh, I could almost cry.”

= “Niellä kymmenen naulaa härjästä makoonsa. Kymmenen naulaa! Suttahan se muistuttaa. Mutta nyt olen saanut tarpeikseni, ja suljettu on elämäni tie, koska ei enää liha maista. Ja lihan, lihan nojallahan on meidän täällä elettävä. Mutta nyt on mielestäni tuo pata kuin mustia sammakoita täynnä. Ah! ei paljon puutu etten itke.”

“He sits plumped down there like a boundary marker in the woods…”

= “Niin hän siellä kököittää kuin rajapyykki metsässä…”

“…their sniffling was like the sound of a stout new cloth being swished about in a lye-tub by the hands of a laundress.”

= “…hyrisivät niinkuin lipiätiinussa pesijän kourissa hyrskähtelee uusi, neljäniitinen hursti.”

Kivi included many songs and storytelling within the novel. He would find a way to weave a rural tall tale or drinking rhyming song into the story. I wonder if he was influenced by Elias Lönnrot, the compiler of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. Lönnrot travelled throughout Finland in the early nineteenth century gathering poems and songs which he later compiled into the work known as the Kalevala. Did Kivi mean to do the same with some stories or poems he had gathered (or written himself)?

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