It is considered as a crime novel, but perhaps this is due to a habit rather than to a true adherence to this style. Well, the triggering event that starts the book’s plot is indeed a murder, and obviously not just the murder, but the investigation that follows.
In short, an elderly man, Martin Udde, is found dead in his home, sliced open by a harpoon like a salmon, in fact. This brutal crime took place in Pajala, a small commune of the Swedish Norbotten on the border with Finland, in the valley known as Tornedal in Swedish, Tornionlaakso in Finnish, and Meänmaa in Meänkieli, a Finnish dialect.
This linguistic information is far from being redundant, since this is the real pivot of the narration: language becomes in fact immediately central to the novel, and from the very beginning the author addresses issues of emotional and scientific relevance: for example, the question of minority languages, linguistic identity, bilingualism, the epistemological status of language and dialect, and so on, to the even more nebulous concepts of culture, ethnicity and roots.
The true protagonist of the book is meänkieli, a linguistic variety (considered a dialect in Finland and an official minority language in Sweden) that is spoken in this valley. Meänkieli began to develop in partial isolation from standard Finnish in 1809, when Sweden handed over Finland to Russia using the Torniojoki River as a geographical border. In this way, those who lived on the west bank of the river remained politically and linguistically separated from the rest of Finland. Sweden then strongly suppressed the use of meänkieli: not only the schools in the area only taught in Swedish, but children were forbidden under penalty of physical punishment from speaking their own language. Today meänkieli is administratively protected, but it is still at serious risk of extinction.
So we can clearly see that the crime plot created by Niemi is a pretext. Not that this is obvious, or at least not that this is annoying; the underlying environment is much worthier of attention than the plot itself. That and the single scenes: tension, construction, resolution are almost always brilliant, laced with a constant politicization that is often hidden but still total and immersive. It strongly appears in passages such as: “What if it became like in Palestine. Here, in Tornedal. What if the pressure grew stronger, he thought. What if the power tried to muzzle us”.
It has a firm, concrete beginning, and then everything becomes more evanescent but also somewhat deeper, less anchored to the story. This style of writing that ‘hooks’ the reader ‘like a salmon’, and then plunges him into political and theoretical reflections, makes the book really interesting.
Therefore, without revealing too much, we can add that the storyline is better than the resolution, as it makes the reader care about a little-known history and people.
And there is really a lot in these pages: sometimes the issues are deeply discussed, sometimes they are only sketched. Anyway, there’s History, the big one, the one of kings and battles, and little and individual stories, stories of forgotten abuse and unheard violence. Not everything Niemi dwells on is equally carried through and balanced, but this is one of the strengths of the book. It allows us understand much of a land left alone swarming, corrupting, getting lost, losing a sense of community without really finding a new one in the new institutional power.
It is a synesthetic novel: the reader is immediately carried into those places, into that nature. It is much more than a cinematic book, and it is clearly written by someone who absorbed that land using all five senses. The atmospheres, smells and feelings are symbolic of the North: solid wood, sauna, soil, poverty, and then food, fresh potatoes, cloudberry jam, marinated salmon. These are not Swedish dishes or traditions, but Northern ones, and there is a difference. It is a geographic dimension, not at all national, and Tornedal/Tornionlaakso/Meänmaa is a land on the sidelines of pretty much everything, a border land, whose identity has been cut off. This is also often showed by the names of the characters involved, half Swedish half Finnish: Eino Svedberg, Sonny Rantatalo, witnesses of broken identities.
Of course, one could rightly argue that multi-identity, multiculturality are inherently positive, but these two visions are not necessarily at odds: Niemi does not tell us about melting pots, he tells us about identity abuses, where something has been ripped apart, this is what he wants to tell us (and he tells us all this in Swedish, in the original version).
The dynamic between the victim and the protagonist is also reversed: Therese Fossness, the investigator sent by the Stockholm National Organized Crime Division, is a woman, and the victim is a man. Very few times can we find this balance in a Nordic thriller: it is a clear inversion of the classic canon of a Swedish crime novel, where the victim is often a woman, and the resolver who unravels the mystery and solves the crime with his wisdom is a man. And this is not at all a random choice, it is dense with meaning. Not only because it shows an acute sensitivity, especially considering that the author is a man, but also because he perfectly knows he is overturning a custom, a status quo: it is explicitly said that the news of the death of this old man will be quickly forgotten because in southern Sweden some woman will surely be killed. The author also mentions Leif GW Persson, so yes, there are some clues that make us realize that there is interest in the classical and popular Swedish crime novel.
In Niemi’s will there seems to be a specific intention to reverse preconceived ideas and habits – he presents situations in different ways and from different perspectives, and then questions what is really right. Rather than providing easy (or easily presented) answers, he explores the questions, wondering what corresponds to actions and events, initially short or minimal. Everything is perfectly summed up when the genesis of Tornedal people is shortly narrated: “Alexander I drew a line in the middle of the map. He used chalk. The chalk is red […]. A stroke of red chalk. The course of history is that easy to change. This is how a population is split. Villages cut in two, like slices of bread […]. Families are separated by air, cut off by the elegant flick of a wrist”.
These words are as simple and clear as they are tragic and philosophically open to any kind of debate – about what a boundary is, what history is, what a people is, and how individual intimacy has much more to do with the great events of space and time than we might think.
This novel is really full of interesting ideas, and it leaves us fascinated by a harsh, unfair and sad history, but also seduced by the lights, the grassy fields and the woods of the North.
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Mikael Niemi is a Swedish writer born in Pajala in 1959. He has written poems and tales for children and young adults, but it is with Popular music from Vittula that he has reached critical and commercial success. In fact, the novel, published in 2000, immediately became a best-seller in Sweden, won the August Prize and has been translated into 30 languages.
Thanks to the integration of segments in meänkieli in his works and his reflections upon it, Niemi made this people’s ethnic and linguistic question known in Sweden and all around the world; it is with The man who died like a salmon, though, that Niemi really tackles the issue at a theoretical, historical and linguistic level.
Translation edited by Camilla Girardi