Matti-Yrjänä Joensuu and his translator David Hackston in conversation with Bob Cornwell
It’s a cold overcast day in April as I walk through Tavistock Square in London’s Bloomsbury, past the memorials to the cause of conscientious objection and to Mahatma Ghandi. But it is not politics that is on my mind, nor the square’s more literary associations with Dickens and Virginia Woolf. I’m making my way to one of the local hotels to meet Finland’s most distinguished crime writer, Matti Joensuu, along with his English translator David Hackston (and hopefully doing the honours again today).
It’s doubtful that either would be available in this way if it had not been for the CWA’s crass and ill-advised decision late last year to exclude translated fiction from the annual Gold Dagger shortlist. Three cheers for the CWA then? Hardly. That acclamation should go to an all-embracing consortium lead by Pete Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail, along with willing cohorts from Arcadia Books and the Bitter Lemon Press, not to mention support from the Arts Council. They, along with a host of arts organisations with an interest in encouraging diversity rather than its opposite, is sponsoring the Bloody Foreigners tour (“the best crime fiction in translation”) now in its second week. Joensuu is about to join Cuba’s Leonardo Padura, France’s Didier Daeninckx (his superb Murder in Memoriam recently republished by Serpent’s Tail) and Louis Sanders who are already touring. Later today they will be joined by Dominique Manotti and Italian Gianrico Carofiglio, both with books new to the UK, for a major event at Foyle’s.
At the same time the tour is inadvertently publicising, with great good grace, the CWA’s new prize for crime fiction in translation (£5000 to the author, £1000 to the translator of the winning book) – and more effectively than the CWA it would appear, judging by the miserly coverage of the new award to date in the posh papers that so decried the original rule change.
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Matti Joensuu was born in 1948. (The birth-name Yrjänä, I discover, has been added to his by-line to distinguish himself from one or two of the other Matti Joensuu’s that populate Finland, at least one , I have discovered, associated with the World Council of Churches. Later Joensuu assures me there is no connection). Briefly a journalist, he then became a full-time policeman in the Helsinki police, a career he has pursued for the past thirty-five years, latterly in the Arson & Explosives Unit. He will retire in a few months time.
His first novel and the first to feature his Helsinki policeman Detective Sergeant Timo Harjunpää emerged in 1976, about five years into Joensuu’s police career. With such a demanding job, Joensuu has never been a prolific writer. Nevertheless he produced a further nine Harjunpåå novels in the seventeen years to 1993. Praised for his ‘social criticism, strong sense of drama, his logical narration and precise use of language’, many of his novels have been translated into various European languages. His 1983 novel Harjunpää and the Stone Murders appeared in English in 1986, published in the UK by Gollancz, and in the USA in 1987 by the St. Martins Press. Two of his novels have been shortlisted for Finland’s major literary award, the Finlandia Prize, giving him a credibility beyond his peers in the field of Finnish crime fiction.
His most recent novel, after a ten-year gap, is Harjunpää and the Priest of Evil, published in Finland in 2003. A major success there, it was recently nominated for the Glass Key, the major prize for crime fiction competed for across all the Scandinavian countries. Translated by David Hackston, it is published here by Arcadia Books as The Priest of Evil.
Dealing with Harjunpåå’s investigation into the apparent suicide of a young man who has thrown himself under a Helsinki underground train, it is a thoughtful and provoking work in which all of Joensuu’s qualities as a writer are evident, along with the striking realism that comes from a lifetime’s experience as a working policeman. Also apparent, as noted elsewhere, is his increasing tendency to move into ‘the inner worlds of his characters, into their dreams, their thoughts and delusions.’
Joensuu and I meet in the hotel lobby and quickly move to a largely unoccupied (and marginally less bleak) bar area, adjoining the lobby. Joensuu is a tallish, fine-featured man with wavy greying hair, somewhat ascetic in appearance and manner. He orders a mineral water. He speaks some English, but prefers to conduct the interview in Finnish, relying on his translator David Hackston, who has now joined us, to get over the finer points of his answers. But, as becomes evident later in the interview (he will drop a comment or two into our conversation in response to a question in English to Hackston), there is not too much wrong with his understanding of the spoken word.
We start by talking about his new book. Why such a long gap, I ask. “A whole series of difficult things happened, a divorce, I moved house a lot,” says Joensuu. “It was a difficult period.” Elsewhere he has revealed that over that period he wrote ‘hundreds if not thousands of pages.’ Now he says “I don’t believe you can force creativity, if it doesn’t emerge of its own volition. In order to write or be creative you have to have some sort of order or balance within your self, and if that crumbles, then you have a problem.”
But he held on to one thing. At the start of his creative hiatus, he had discovered some of the underground tunnels that burrow beneath parts of Helsinki. Such mysterious places are now rare in modern Helsinki, a problem also remarked on by those melancholy masters of Finnish cinema, the Kaurismäki brothers. So the Brocken, a key location in Joensuu’s new novel, is a real place? “Yes,” says Joensuu. “It does exist and it is situated at the meeting point of a number of railway tracks. There is a bridge that goes across this area. At one point I went off the beaten track, climbed over some railings and ended up in this terrifying place, or a place that you could imagine as being terrifying.” Further investigation revealed that “beneath Helsinki there is over 300 km worth of tunnels and infrastructure, places that we don’t know about, right beneath the city.”
It is within these tunnels that we discover the Priest of Evil, conversing with himself in what appears to be Latin, as he goes about his curious rituals, one of those characters whose ‘inner world’ is explored with great thoroughness. “I really enjoyed writing the chapters written from inside the Priest’s mind, because I could let my imagination run loose”, says Joensuu.
Did his approach to this book differ very much from those he has written in the past? “In my earlier novels I have also explored the minds of the different characters, and the different narrators,” he says. “But in the past I have always attempted to explain what has contributed to making someone a criminal. In this book, that is left unexplained, an absolute inexplicable evil.”
This aspect of the novel is indeed disturbing, a weakness some might argue. But, in so doing, Joensuu makes of the Priest a more universal figure, one that can be interpreted in several ways.
The book touches on many other ideas: the welfare of children, the treatment of mental illness, for instance, explored through an unusual range of characters, an unborn child for example. Are these responses to specific trends in Finnish society I ask? “The question of the welfare of our children is one that has come to fore particularly in recent years, in Finland and, I’m sure, everywhere,’ says Joensuu. “In that new born child, like Sinikka in the book, there is not the capacity to kill someone. It’s the way that children are treated and brought up that makes them emotionally damaged, and which causes them to do things that might have been prevented. So criminals are made. The cause is fundamentally a lack of love.”
As for mental illness, there are echoes of the UK’s ‘care in the community’ policies: “In my work, in the arson and explosives section, you often meet serious pyromaniacs who are so mentally ill that it is impossible to interview them, and that often you have to call in a doctor to refer them to a mental hospital, rather than communicate otherwise with them. On the other hand, in Finland, you can’t commit people against their will. And if they don’t want to go to a hospital there is no real way of forcing them to do so. And then they are just left drifting...”
Are such themes are important to Joensuu? “Yes, very important and very deliberate. Whilst it is a misconception that it is the only genre in which one can comment on social problems, crime sells well. I felt that I could actually have an effect. Subjects that come up in a novel, this novel, which then several years later are talked about in the media as if they are a new problem. The issue of women’s violence against men comes up in this novel, published several years ago in Finland, but that issue has recently emerged again and is discussed as something new.”
“As a police officer,” he adds, “you have a ringside seat, and you can see the way things are going. You can almost predict trends before they happen. In an earlier novel (Harjunpää and the Stone Murders, 1983), I wrote about crimes committed by children. Then in 2001, this problem hit the headlines with a double murder committed by teenagers.”
There are also a number of auto-biographical parallels in the book. Another key character, for instance is Mikko Matias, once a successful writer, now ‘blocked’ and with a problem teenage son. Amongst the many poignant details of a writer struggling to regain his lost creativity, is a mention of the fact that his fellow-workers in the post office where he has worked regard him first as a writer, rather than as a colleague, thus reinforcing his isolation. Has that been a problem for Joensuu in his career as a policeman? “I did have such a problem,” he replies. “In the 80s for instance, there was an attempt to push for a sort of equality, and I as a writer stood out. Now the situation is the opposite, and my work is seen more as PR. They see me more now as ‘our Matti’!”
He goes on: “The younger generation of police officers is very different; the whole spirit of the force has changed. For instance, they are educated to a much higher standard than was available to the older generation.”
A less obvious autobiographical parallel concerns Matti, the withdrawn, troubled teenage son of Mikko Matias. Elsewhere Joensuu has spoken of using his experience of his own ‘creative reawakening’ in his depiction of Matti’s mental landscape. Can such autobiographical parallels be read into other areas of the book? Joensuu replies cautiously: “Ultimately the book must stand by itself, it’s just a book. but undeniably there are elements of things that I myself have experienced. It would be quite impossible to write about things that you haven’t.”
It is also apparent as you read The Priest of Evil that Joensuu likes to unsettle and disturb his readers. Narratives are not always straight forward, not quite what they appear to be. This trait is apparent throughout the book, but is used most effectively in its closing pages. It is perhaps the most disturbing ending I have read in a crime novel for quite some time. I ask how it came about. "In the planning of the novel, I have a pretty good idea of its scope, “ says Joensuu. “but only halfway through the work, you realise that this is the way it has to be. Many of these things only become clear once you are in the middle of the work”
Does such an ending reflect his own innate pessimism? “Deep down I am something of a pessimist,” he says. “After working in the police for thirty-five years, you realise that as one case comes to an end, another one is immediately on your desk. And you realise that the evil you see is not only restricted to that one case.”
We turn to more general matters. I’m curious, for instance that Joensuu, with a successful series under his belt, and with many of his novels available in translation across Europe, has never felt able to leave his job and live solely by his writing. Does this have to do with the nature of the Finnish market for crime fiction? “If you are the kind of writer who writes a book a year,” replies Joensuu, “ that sells at least 30,000 copies (which in Finland, is a lot) then you could live off the proceeds. But I have not dared to leave my job because, when I finish a book, I always have this feeling that this book may be the last one.”
Finland, in fact, has a lively history in crime fiction, one that goes back to the late nineteenth century. Many Finns would claim Alexis Kivi, for instance, the ‘father’ of both Finnish literature and of its theatre, as the distinguished precursor of the crime novel too. His classic 1870 novel, translated into English in 1929 as Seven Brothers, apparently has a closing chapter in which a locked room mystery is solved.
It would be some time however before another writer would build on this example. Finland was part of Sweden until the 18th century, and Swedish still exists as an ‘official’ (if retreating) language of the country. Not surprising then that the first recognised Finnish mystery, Harald Selmer-Geeth’s Min forsta bragd (My First Case),which appeared in Finland in 1904, was, in fact, published in Swedish.
The acknowledged ‘father’ of the Finnish mystery is Rudolf Richard Ruth, a versatile writer who, under a number of pseudonyms, published a series of mystery novels, starting in 1910. One of the most prolific writers was Mika Waltari (1908-79), a mainstream writer of historical novels with titles such as The Egyptian, The Wanderer, and The Etruscan, who also created Inspector Palmu, a predecessor of Harjunpåå’s in the Helsinki Police, and who became an iconic figure in Finnish films.
Did the young Joensuu read widely as a child? "Yes,” he replies. “I went to libraries, to bookshops. In particular John Steinbeck was a writer that I admired, and I thought, if only one day I could write like that. And as far as subjects at school are concerned, Finnish was the subject that I excelled at. Then I wrote short stories, thrillers, and they were published. But the final push to write crime fiction was discovering the discrepancy between reading crime fiction and its image of police work, and what police work really is.”
Which writers particularly influenced the crime writing? “Georges Simenon, I bought and read them all," responds Joensuu quickly, "otherwise I would describe myself as an omnivorous reader. I don’t just focus on crime fiction. Also, on a practical level, if you write crime fiction, and crime is your day-in, day-out job, the last thing you want to do with your spare time is sit down and read crime fiction.” He laughs.
Anything specifically Finnish amongst his influences? Without hesitation Joensuu mentions Mika Waltari (see above), Väinö Linna who wrote a seminal war epic in the 1950s called The Unknown Soldier (and still reprinted, the translation that is, despite its widely acknowledged failings, adds Hackston) and Hannu Salama, whose late-60s novel Midsummer Dances lead to the author’s appearance in court, accused of blasphemy.
I ask Joensuu about the Finnish literary scene today. Is crime the most popular genre? “Yes, probably,” he replies. “And it has grown over the years. Every year there are new writers of crime fiction. In the 70s things were very different. Crime fiction was ridiculed. But I was the first writer to win the Finnish State Award for Literature [in 1982] with a crime novel. This may have helped to give crime fiction a higher profile and contributed to a boom.”
But does Joensuu regard himself as crime writer, or simply a writer? He answers simply: “I think of myself as a writer, but I understand the need of some people to put writers in categories.”
Today, Finnish crime fiction fans appear well-served by its contemporary crime writers. English readers may be familiar with Pentti Kirstilä whose short story Brown Eyes and Green Hair was selected by Patricia Craig for her 2000 OUP anthology, The Oxford Book of Detective Stories, and who also writes mystery novels. One of them, in fact, won the major Finnish award for crime fiction, The Clew of the Year. Another Clew winner was a novel by Harri Nykanen, one of a series featuring his tough detective, Raid. Other highly rated writers include Matti Rönkä (the 2006 Clew of the Year winner in fact) and female writer, Leena Lehtolainen.
But of course J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown and other translated writers account for a considerable chunk of the Finnish fiction market. Which means that Joensuu is amongst those Finnish writers who are alarmed at the widening impact of EU Public Lending Right directives. Whilst this means that those writers lucky enough to be translated into English or other languages, can increasingly claim appropriate payment from the funds of the countries in which their translated work appears, there is most often a substantial downside. Where translated books dominate a particular market, as in most European countries, PLR payments claimed by ‘foreign’ writers are likely to be at the expense of locals – unless local funds are increased accordingly, an unlikely scenario.
“Finnish readers think nothing of reading a book in translation.” adds Joensuu. Not the case in the UK, as we know. It is yet another reminder of the injustice of the CWA’s original decision to remove translated work from competing in the most effective forum for increasing British sales of such books, the Gold Dagger. Much will depend on the impact of the new International Dagger, the first winner of which will be announced in late June.
It is time to consider more cheerful matters. I bring in young David Hackston, this time in his own right, into the conversation. David has lived in Helsinki since 2001, where he works as a translator, to date mainly in the theatre. He graduated in Scandinavian Studies from University College London in 1999. He is currently working on a master’s thesis on the translation of Finnish slang and dialect into English.
But first I ask Joensuu if he thinks there is anything particularly Finnish that might cause his translator a problem. He gives an example: “The use of police slang. It is very much a closed world. If you are not yourself in the police force, you won’t know the terminology, and it is not in any dictionary.” Hackston agrees. “Sometimes, yes. Sometimes I would translate a word thinking I knew the meaning, and then I discovered it was something different.”
Some of the problems just cannot be anticipated. “ My translator into Hungarian” mentions Joensuu, “had problems with the word ‘forest’. Forests in Finland are understood to be tall, thick and dense. Whilst in Hungary the word conveys something sparse and low to the ground. Similarly in Finland there is a word for an open-air dance floor with a band performing behind the dancers, for which there is no English equivalent. The Hungarian translator had trouble with that too.”
What about problems with dialogue? “I think it is important that the dialogue is convincing,” says Hackston. “I have translated a lot of drama, and that is a great help. Lines have to follow on from one another. This book is a good example. The dialogue works something like a play script. But I’m cautious of not overdoing that approach, because it can so easily become a parody of itself.”
Also difficult to handle is the balance between the Finnish original, the British sensibility and the demands of the international market. I mention that the term “bollocks” was singled out in a Canadian review of Gunnar Staalesen’s The Writing on the Wall, as too specifically British. Hackston laughs. “My own use of the word ‘bollocks’ was removed from my translation by Gary Pulsifer [of Arcadia, the publisher of the Staalesen book], no less. In fact I refused to use specifically American slang because I didn’t think it was appropriate. So we went for something a little more neutral, whilst being careful not to water it down.”
“One thing that is good about the book from the translation point of view,” adds Hackston, “is the different narrators. I was very conscious of, during the whole process, making for instance the Priest speak differently from Harjunpää, so that was quite a challenge.” What other instances can he point to? “The children speak very slangy, itself very difficult to handle,” he says. “You either have to go all out to make everything slangy, and then I think it becomes parody. Or you have to introduce elements somewhere else which indicate that the children banter with each other, the way thirteen year-olds do."
“The Priest’s chapters on the other hand", Hackston goes on, "are in not formal but very correct Finnish. So I would omit abbreviations, for example, because I thought he would be very obsessively correct about it all”.
At this point Joensuu joins in. “Slang changes very very quickly now. The next unit along from us is the Sexual Crimes unit, investigating a paedophile case and they were checking on-line chat rooms and couldn’t understand what the kids were talking about. I had to ask my children how younger people talk to each other now".
But finally, is Joensuu happy with his translator? “I don’t read English well enough to get the flavour or the nuances,” he says,“but I trust David to get it right.”
Our time together is drawing to a close. This afternoon Dominique Manotti is holding a seminar for tyro translators at the French Institute in Kensington, whilst the rest of the touring Bloody Foreigners, accompanied by their respective translators, will assemble for the evening Foyles event.
One last question, a traditional one, but pertinent to a writer whose last book took ten years to complete. Is he working on a new novel? “The process for me is very slow, because I am still at work full time,” answers Joensuu. “But any writer would be lying if they ever answered ‘No’ to that question!”
Matti-Yrjänä Joensuu (and David Hackston) thank you very much.
© Bob Cornwell
Unattributed quotes come from an interview with Joensuu, conducted by Jarmo Papinniemi that is available on the Books from Finland website (http://dbgw.finlit.fi/fili/bff/303/papinniemi.html).
Also useful were
1. an unattributed article called Murder in the Land of the Midnight Sun, from the website G.J.Demko’s Landscapes of Crime
2. Finnish Whodunnits by Pia Ingström,a critic on the Finnish Hufvudstadsbladet newspaper.
Checkout also the website of the Finnish WhoDunnit Society at www.dekkariseura.fi Click on The Finnish WhoDunnit Society (top right hand corner) and follow the links for key information in English.
Priest of Evil - Arcadia Books
Translated from the Finnish by David Hackston
There have been a strange succession of deaths at the Helsinki tube stations. The police are baffled: there are no witnesses and the CCTV tapes show nothing. Detective Sargeant Timo Harjunpää of the Helsinki Violent Crimes Unit has seen more than his fair share of the seamier side of human nature, but the forces of evil have never before crossed his path. It emerges that his adversary is a deluded but dangerous character living in an underground bunker in the middle of an uninhabited Helsinki hillside.