DRIED REINDEER MEAT

Niemi in Edinburgh
Pmusikvittulaniemei
Popular musicniemi1111
Musikniemi1
Populärmusik från Vittula Mikael Niemi
Norstedts (2000)
ISBN:9113007734

'Niemi amused himself and his audience by offering each fan a taste of his dried reindeer meat. He carved slices from the chunk of dark red, compact matter, using his alarmingly sharp hunting-knife.'

by Anna Paterson

A tall, thin man, youngish and studious-looking, has taken centre-stage in book-signing tent at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Mikael Niemi, for it is he, is surrounded by people clutching their copies of Popular Music from Vittula. Since its publication the year before (2002) Niemi's novel has had an amazing, worldwide success. 'Amazing', because the book is an adolescent boy's story of growing up in Pajala, a village in the remote Tornedalen area on the Swedish-Finnish border.

Niemi amused himself and his audience by offering each fan a taste of his dried reindeer meat. He carved slices from the chunk of dark red, compact matter, using his alarmingly sharp hunting-knife. A PR trick? Yes, but also a gesture of affinity; Mikael Niemi is both knowing and genuine.

The very success of Popular Music made it seem a tasty morcel for a global readership that adores the exotic. But the story is Niemi's own, and the book a work by an author committed to Tornedalen and to its spoken language, a variant of Finnish. The jokes are often on the reader, including 'from Vittula', which means 'from the cunt' in Finnish. Vittula is the local name for the block of flats where the boy grew up.

The powers-that-be promote Swedish, grudgingly accepting 'proper' Finnish as a second language. It upset Niemi that Tornedalen people are made 'illiterate in their own tongue'. Brought up speaking Swedish, Niemi prefers 'the robust humour and imagination of Finnish culture'. He claimed that he 'feels in Finnish' and has written poetry and plays for the locals. His neighbours were delighted and proud to hear their own speech used on stage: 'You can't laugh loudly in Swedish'. It made Niemi decide that he would like to do for Tornedalen Finnish what Irvine Welch did for street Scottish, make it inclusive of all that is new, but respect its roots in regional habits of speech. It seems to be working, he said hopefully, but added that other northern languages are even more at risk, notably the southern Sam spoken by less than 300 people.

The economic effects of Popular Music on Tornedalen pleased him. Fishing and agriculture, always dominated by six winter months of darkness and intense cold, are just about unsustainable. Young people are leaving in droves and unemployment is high among those who stay . But things are changing now as tourists turn up by the busload, wanting to be shown all the places and people they have read about.

In a serious aside, Niemi referred to his conviction that you can 'find the universal in the local'. This is not a mystical belief, just as his intense identification with wild nature is part of his heritage and has nothing, he insists, to with magical realism. There is a direct relationship between a loved and respected local culture and political awareness. Local self-confidence has grown stronger recently and maybe Tornedalen can become an independent region. This is at the heart of Niemi's task as a writer.






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