If you're looking for a funny and tender coming-of-age story set above the Arctic Circle, this is the book for you! It's set in Pajala, a small town in the remote Tornedalen region of Sweden, far north and near the Finnish border. The semi-autobiographical story is told through a series of twenty self-contained short stories that take Matti roughly from age 5-15 or so from the mid-'60s to mid-'70s. One is immediately given a taste of the book's style in the prologue, in which the adult Matti manages to freeze his tongue to a metal plaque atop a Nepalese mountain. He only manages to free himself (and live) by using his urine to break the bond, which then launches him into the story of his youth. The broad outlines of his experiences are similar to those of any other boy growing up in a remote place forty years ago. Life was boring and filled with hard work, some things were manly (hunting, work, fighting, hockey, eating, drinking, machines), and everything else is "women's work." If you're not good at manly things, well... at a minimum you won't fit in very well.
Of course, Matti is a little outside the mainstream, but manages to make his way with best friend Niila by his side. Where the book shines is in the the specifics of his childhood, in which wacky antics shine with humor and pathos, and magic realism rears its head every now and then. Some of the events covered include: discovering rock and roll music via the Beatles, a summer job as a mouse hunter, a raucous arm wrestling contest, an equally grueling sauna endurance contest, a sermon in Esperanto, a mind-boggling teenage drinking contest, tall tales of family prowess, a will reading degenerating into a brawl, starting a band with a cardboard guitar, the vagaries of a fundamentalist Christian sect (Laestadianism), first sexual encounters, and a BB-gun war. And let's not forget the transsexual hermit magician... All these individual parts are quite entertaining, even if they never quite add up to a complete hole. It's an amusing, and sometimes very funny look at growing up rural which would probably resonate much more with other remote cold climate dwellers than the average reader. A welcome oddball addition to the coming-of-age genre.
Note: The book was a runaway bestseller in Sweden, selling one copy for every twelve Swedes! Naturally, the book has been adapted as a film--which was co-written and directed by an Iranian who immigrated to Sweden as a teenager!
on August 7, 2004
Usually, it's my husband who keeps me awake laughing at whatever book he's reading in bed. This time, it's my turn! This is the first book in years that has made me laugh out loud over and over again. Yes, it's crude in spots -- but that shouldn't surprise anyone who has spent time with teenage boys. The amusing stories are just part of the author's arsenal of techniques for conveying the sense of living on the very scary edge of reality that comes with growing up.
I'd give a special award to the translator for the freshness of the language. I put this book in a class with the works of Tom Robbins and John Barth and will be looking for more from Mikael Niemi.
on February 26, 2004
I never stopped laughing while reading this funny yet tender coming of age book set in the Swedish backwater of Pajala in Tornedalen Sweden. North of the Arctic circle on the border of Finland and Sweden lies this small community of survivors in a harsh climate. In a social milieu that rewards heavy manual labor like hunting and logging, there is little room for a young man whose greatest interest is listening to and playing rock and roll music. From descriptions of his six fingered guitar playing music teacher to the limited ability of these northeners to express their feelings, this is a marvelous window on the soul of Pajala. So limited are their communication skills that most social interaction takes place in the context of manly physical contests like arm wrestling or moose hunting. These occassions are liberally lubricated with alcohol of dubious quality. Often they end in alcoholic stupors. Obviously, the dark northern winters take their toll on the residents' psyches. The narrator and main charcter, Matti, has a best fiend whose family is a member of a fundamentalist christian sect. As such Niila is even further deprived of human warmth and conversation. His family would be aghast at their son's interest in rock music. Thus, this interest is secreted in Matti's cellar where they play at being musicians with homemade semblances of instruments. Not until a new music teacher comes from skane to teach at their school do they have the advantage of real instruments. Matti and Niila assume that the music teacher plays authentic american blues because he is from Skane in southern Sweden and therefore familiar with authentic southern american music. Such is their cultural deprivation. Yet in spite of the bareness of their youth in this landscape, they maintain their interest in what the Pajala menfolk would consider women's work. That anyone in this dismal backwater could maintain an interest in the arts is a testament to the main charcter's inner strength. One wonders if this book is at least drawn in part from the author's interest and career in writing and teaching Swedish. The villagers who speak a Finish dialect view the standard Swedish taught in the school as a snob's language. Normally I don't care for translations, but this one is excellent. The only word(s) the translator confuses is "pry" and its conjugations with "prize."I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and recommend it highly. It is both technically well done and a quick, easy, enjoyable read.
Growing up anyplace isn't smooth, it isn't describable exactly. If you search your memories later, trying to ask why you did something, you can't, for the life of you, remember why. You just did it. Things happened. You tried to get to China. You mimicked the rock stars when you thought you were alone. You might even have licked cold locks---if you grew up in northern climes--- and got your tongue stuck. You were never the hero of your own legend. Well, folks, this novel captures that confusion perfectly. I've never set foot in Sweden, let alone in its far north by the Finnish border, where all the growing up takes place. But now I feel I know what it was like. Niemi's description, magical realism and all, gives you such joy, such interest, that I assure you, you will read POPULAR MUSIC IN VITTULA as quickly as you can. I haven't laughed out loud over a book so much for years. Hey, I even laughed in the Boston subway like some kind of weird, public transport cackler. But I didn't care. Kids fight in the woods with B-B guns, try to start rock bands to impress girls, experiment with sex and alcohol, get up the teacher's nose, visit scary old healers, watch the grownups pass out at huge drinkups, and dream of fast cars. In the very end, things turn out quite differently, but that's really familiar too. Most of the themes are hardly unique to the area, but it's Niemi's genius that he makes you feel it exotic and familiar at the same time. It's contemporary writing at its best and I think all readers in English owe a vote of thanks to the translator too.
You've got to have a strong stomach for a couple sections, say for example, if large piles of dead mice are not your forte. If you have ever seen Kaurismaki films like "Leningrad Cowboys Go America" or "The Man without a Past", you will recognize the same deadpan Finnish humor in Niemi's novel, whose characters are mainly from the Finnish minority in Sweden's rural north. I could recount a scene or two for the surfing reader, try to "deconstruct" whatever, go literary if I could, but your best bet would be to read the book. You will not regret it.
This book was super amazingly crazy popular in Sweden. It was widely adored, and also made into a film. The reviews of the English translation have also been glowing, and words like "luminous" were thrown around as though they cost absolutely nothing instead of 50 cents.
I feel as though I must have missed something BIG. After I looked at the reviews (I generally don't look at 'em until after I'm done with a book) I found myself paging back through the book, looking for what everybody found so wildly new and exciting.
Don't get me wrong, I didn't hate the book. I thought that it was a nice little coming of age story, made interesting by the theme of the impact that popular music can have in the midst of isolation. The fact that it is set in Norrbotten made it particularly interesting for me. (I actually would really like to visit Haparanda sometime, but that's a different story.)
No, my issue is that I am not really sure why there is so much to love about it. I'm not sure if it is the translation or the writing, but I find the prose kind of clunky in places-- not luminous, whatever that means. It has its moments where it gathers itself to take flight, and almost succeeds. But then I found it sank back down into more predictable sociology of the far north-- saunas and schnapps and what not.
Anyhow, I would recommend the novel, but with reservations. It was a quick smooth read, and interesting enough. Particularly if you have an interest in Swedes or Sweden, it is worth the time to read.
on April 12, 2013
Niemi's novel delivers a literary breath of fresh air. The opening pages made me laugh out loud with a scene I will never forget. While the novel covers memories of a young boy from Vittula in short chapters, there is no linear narrative drive. Rather, the novel is a series of vignettes that together form a portrait of a young boy growing up in a remote part of the world. Some chapters are much more successful than others, but the chapters that succeed are incredibly successful and memorable, far surpassing the efforts of most novels written today if one is looking for true innovation, imagination and humor. Parts are a bit crude, but so are parts of being human. In this case, Niemi includes the good, the bad and the ugly. The writing is lush and amusing, creating wildly funny images that will remain in the reader's mind for a long while. This novel is for those who appreciate experimental writing, are bored with formulaic novels, and enjoy magical realism.
This enterprising novel begins at the top of the Thorong La pass, near Annapurna in Nepal. The narrator gets his lips and tongue frozen to a metal plaque -- a terrifying moment but comic at the same time -- until he hits upon an unusual (and gross) method of freeing himself. The memory takes him back to his childhood in Pajala in Northern Sweden, above the Arctic Circle, where the inhabitants grow up speaking a dialect of Finnish and learn Swedish later. And we are off on the story of a childhood that is both ordinary and eventful, occasionally terrifying, mostly comic, more than once a little gross, and always compulsively readable.
Autobiographical? Like his protagonist, the author grew up in Pajala in the 1960s. And the bare bones of the story are entirely believable, taking him from early childhood into high school, with the usual sagas about teachers, bullying, boys' gangs, and the discovery of alcohol and sex. And friendships. Early in the book, in another gross scene, the narrator meets a boy called Niila who seems entirely mute until he bursts out in Esperanto. At about the same time, the boys hear their first single by Elvis. The novel ends when the group of friends has grown to four, and the teenagers are on the verge of their first tour as a band.
But while each of the twenty chapters starts normally, they soon become what can only be described as tall tales. That two first-graders could stow away on a bus is believable enough, but that they could continue by prop plane and then by jet and get as far as Frankfurt is pushing it -- yet what a story it makes! A few of the tales leave the reader in no doubt of their tallness, as when the protagonist in inadvertently locked in a cistern by a school janitor, and stays there not hours but years, emerging only when he has passed puberty. Or when he starts a summer career as a mouse-catcher for a former German soldier writing his memoirs in an isolated cabin and ends with a slaughter of Biblical proportions. Others are violent but more ordinary, such as the air-rifle war between two rival gangs, or when Niila and his elder brother beat up their father, a lapsed fundamentalist preacher who rules (often literally) with a rod of iron. The constant uncertainty about when the line may be crossed between truth and exaggeration gives the book an intriguing edge, and is responsible for much of its humor.
Niemi writes well and the translation by Laurie Thompson is a good one. On a chapter-by-chapter basis, I was loving it and was sure I would end up with five stars. But somewhere towards the end, I was reducing it to four, because the normal progress through childhood does not automatically generate narrative momentum, no matter how fresh the writing, and the fantasy ultimately reduces the impact of reality. This is a whole that is less than the sum of its parts, though some of those parts are very good indeed.
on October 10, 2003
Don't be discouraged by this book's jacket, which makes it look kind of dark and serious. It's _hilarious_--as well as humane, moving, and gorgeously written/translated. I kept thinking as I read it, "Wow! Is the original this good or is the translator just really brilliant?" I think the answer has got to be both: gifted author, gifted translator. I'm planning to give a lot of copies as gifts this winter.
on June 13, 2008
This novel was recommended to me by fiddler Colm O'Riain and poet Pireeni Sundaralingam, both much more cosmopolitan than I. They keep in better touch with great European writing. It's as wonderful as they said it would be, and hard to describe because Vittula is truly another world, a least as Niemi portrays it. Picture kids at the far end of nowhere trying to make out the Beatles on short wave radio and practicing on broomstick guitars. Picture winter-goofy Scandinavian men with too much to drink, too long in the sweathouse, and too little to shoot at--in a funny/weird sort of way! Really, this book will take you to place you'll remember more vividly and strangely fondly than most of the places you've actually been. Take Me With You When You GoNutty to Meet You! Dr. Peanut Book #1
on November 29, 2010
POPULAR MUSIC FROM VITTULA is, quite simply, a terrific book! As a coming of age story, Mikael Niemi's novel often brought to mind another book from Scandinavia titled simply, BEATLES, by Lars Saabye Christensen, which I also loved. Originally published in Swedish, I am quite confident that PMfV lost nothing in its excellent translation into English by Laurie Thompson. The book is full of humor and all the special poignancy that comes with tales of childhood and the tortured rituals of adolescence. There is even a chapter on the air rifle wars amongst the not-really-so-violent-or-evil teenage 'gangs' of Pajala, a town located inside the Arctic circle in the northernmost reaches of Sweden near the Finnish border. The BB gun story also brought to mind, naturally, Jean Shepherd's classic story (into classic film), "A Christmas Story." There are other wonderful, funny stories about relatives, weddings and funerals, and various local "characters." I got a good chuckle in reading about what things are 'manly,' as well as comments on "the most dangerous thing of all," according to the father of Matti (the book's narrator), which "was reading books ... Lunatic asylums were overflowing with folk who'd been reading too much."
Perhaps, however, it was the Beatles connection that made the book stand out for me. Because, like the Christensen book, the storyline also portrays four young boys who are electrified by their discovery of rock music and depicts, often in howlingly funny scenes, how mesmerized they are by their first exposure to the Beatles, in the form of the 45 rpm single, "Rock 'n' Roll Music." Matti, the book's narrator, soon forms a musical alliance with his friends Niila, Erkki and Holgeri that will catapult them into local notoriety and a new popularity with girls - a time they will always remember.
A more personal connection for me between the Niemi and Christensen books is found in the references to Radio Luxembourg, often the only link between remote areas of the world and popular music. As a young man in the US Army, I was stationed on a mountain top in northern Turkey in 1963-64, and one of the greatest pleasures for me and my comrades was to sneak a listen to the top tunes on Radio Luxembourg, when we should have been practicing our spycraft of electronic eavesdropping. In fact, I first heard the Beatles on Radio Luxembourg, not long before their first two Parlophone LPs made it to the local PX. Having grown up on Elvis (also mentioned in the Niemi book - Matti's sister had "Jailhouse Rock"), Ricky Nelson and other American pop, we didn't at first quite know what to make of the Beatles, but quickly decided we liked them. A year later, I was a hanger-on with a GI cover band in Germany, who played many of the Beatles tunes as part of their repertoire. In fact, when The Panics' lead singer was injured for a brief time, I got my own chance to be a "rock-n-roll star" for a few shining moments of my youth. (It's all in my own book, SOLDIER BOY.) So maybe that's why I was so caught up in Matti's story that had many of the same ingredients as mine - small towns, sex, drinking, rock & roll. The fact that the story was set in the most remote region of northern Sweden, inside the ARCTIC CIRCLE, for cripes sake, didn't seem to matter. This was just a great story! There, I'm back where I started. I'm so very glad I read Popular Music in Vittula, and plan to tell other folks about it at every opportunity. - Tim Bazzett, author of the memoirs SOLDIER BOY and BOOKLOVER