This is a remarkably long book, which isn’t surprising given that it is about life in more than one country, only one of which is Finland. It opens with the usual kind of scientist who is only interested in sex and science, lumbering through a series of scenes in which Joe, the Jewish protagonist, behaves with complete boorishness. It’s a bit like Ursula K. Leguin, illustrating first the wife’s point of view and then allowing the uncomprehending husband a few moments of what is absolutely not ‘helping’ with the household, their baby son, or the wife’s vulnerability. What he gets right at this point is the tremendous egotism of the ambitious scientist, whose research absorbs him utterly, to the detriment of everything else. The wife, Alina, is a cringe-makingly stereotypical inferior—although later in the long, long, saga, she seems to have published a book. But we aren’t given much idea of what is in it. Here and throughout, the main problem is that the coding of the characters is utterly mechanical and devoid of empathy of any kind. (Ladies, consider this: ‘but all you had to do was ask me’ from the Utterly Brilliant World-beating Scientist). I can’t see why anybody would want to read this collection of clichés—and I write with all the authority of someone who had ten years hard labour in a Cambridge College surrounded by men just like Joe (except not Jewish).
Did I mention that one of the stereotypes (though badly done) is Joe’s being Jewish, which is lightly sketched here and there in the book, particularly once he’s back in the U.S.A., remarried, and with teen-age daughters? His second wife is named ‘Miriam’, and she gets treatment from Joe remarkably like his treatment of his first wife, Alina, for whom he deserts his American fiancee. I think the reason for Joe’s being a non-practicing Jew is that Valtonen wants to make A Big Point about the importance of traditions and customs, and, of course, everybody knows that Jews have very strong links to both the past and to family life. At the end, it’s worth asking what’s not dealt with in this book, with its New Testament title, Jesus’s words from the Cross: ‘Father forgive them, for they known not what they do’. Quite what Valtonen had in mind here is opaque to me, but read on.
Now that Joe is trying to pay attention to his American daughters, Valtonen opens the real subject of the book, which is the way the world is going to the dogs, and children are seduced into becoming advertising for product placement. Oh, yes, and Joe is a target for animal rights protesters, to a point at which he is impossible to work with—although it seems to me that being impossible is mainly what the character is. Because he leaves his only son behind in Finland, the son is damaged, but has the brilliance of his father.
Now, speaking of product placement and advertising, Finland is a small country, with problems about its ethnic make-up (2017 population 5,500,000), various languages (the elite class speaks Swedish, and the Saami get a bad time), and terrible alcoholism (hardly mentioned in the novel). Joe’s criticisms of his wife’s country mostly have to do with its parochiality, but he’s not keen on the weather, either, particularly the dark winter. Valtonen’s criticisms of both countries are funnelled through Joe, who has, at some points (not his research), parental outrage about what capitalism is doing to his daughters. As Valtonen comes to the end of his book, Joe and his family have bought surveillance and protection to defend themselves. Miriam has bought a gun. This wife, by the bye, also splits up with him. Well, you would, wouldn’t you?
This book is not any of the things the puffs on the back insist upon: it’s not science fiction, not a dystopia, certainly not about science and ethics, nor about ‘people’s inability to communicate with each other’, not about ‘modern parenting’. It might claim to be literary fiction, but the writing doesn’t strike me (I did read it in translation) as replete with the virtues of good prose. Above all, it’s certainly not crime fiction in any of the subgenres. The final pages make me wonder how this book ever won The Finlandia Prize, or, indeed, any prize. It is just over 479pp.