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Breaking the ice of adolescence

Popular Music From Vittula, A Novel; Mikael Niemi; Translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson; Seven Stories Press: 240 pp., $21.95

November 23, 2003|Nathaniel Rich | Nathaniel Rich is on the editorial staff of the New York Review of Books.

Vittula is a district of Pajala, a Swedish village that sits on a barren patch of tundra near the border with Finland, just inside the rim of the Arctic Circle, on the buckle of the Vodka Belt. It is a community of soft-spoken women and silent men who drink, fight and work long hours of heavy physical labor. For entertainment, they hold drinking contests, fighting contests and strength contests. They are a rough lot, even by Nordic standards. Matti, the narrator of Mikael Niemi's novel, "Popular Music From Vittula," speaks for his fellow villagers when he says: "We were different, a bit inferior, a bit uneducated, a bit simple-minded.... We had no table manners. We wore woolly hats indoors.... We were nothing." Yet out of this savage landscape, Niemi has created a world so haunting and glorious that it seems only natural when a boy locks himself in an iron boiler and is stuck there for years until he grows so big that he bursts out, or when two friends, hurtling down a hill on homemade skis, fly right off, "whirling round and round in powdery bounces," headlong into the universe.

In the years since his childhood, Matti has moved to a suburb of Stockholm to become a schoolteacher, a decision that has left him adrift and melancholy. (Niemi, it should be noted, grew up in Pajala but, unlike Matti, he's still there.) Matti remembers his youth in the 1960s through a series of loosely connected episodes, each one its own stand-alone adventure. Although we rarely have a clear sense of Matti's age at any given point, we realize by the end of the novel that he has survived, if not solved, the mysteries of adolescence and has emerged an adult. Along the way he earns his first krona by devising a clever means to slaughter large numbers of mice, he gets drunk on mash, a rival gang shoots him in the face with an air gun and he is goaded into his first sexual experience by a vigorous Finnish woman with "thighs as long as a moose cow's."As Matti blunders into adulthood, Pajala suffers through its own awkward age. The novel, enormously popular in Sweden and now being published in English for the first time, takes place at the end of a 30-year period of economic prosperity in which Sweden became, after Switzerland, the wealthiest nation in Europe. When Matti is 5, this wealth has finally begun to reach even the most remote -- and most neglected -- corners of the country. Young Matti watches confounded as "armored monsters" steamroll asphalt over the old dirt roads while Granddad grouses that electricity is "the most ridiculous invention ever to come from southern Sweden." Such innovations as aerosol cans, Volvos and electrically powered saunas plunge the village into a state of disorientation that mirrors Matti's own confusing experience of growing up.

But confusion can be fun too. At a funeral, Matti meets two American cousins who have sneaked into the Old World a token from the future. It is a circular piece of black vinyl. Spelling out the words on the disc, Matti reads: "The Beatles ... Roskn roll musis." When Matti and his friends first hear the record, they are changed forever:

"[A]ll our blood rushed into our hearts, formed a gut-red clump

That first Beatles album teaches him a new language, one he draws on when confronted with other bizarre and overwhelming experiences. At one point, Matti and a friend are standing on a bridge at night near the end of winter watching the ice floes rush past when they hear a peculiar creaking noise beneath them. Suddenly the bridge shakes loose from its foundation and begins to drift down the river, battering its way through the ice. Matti shouts the only phrase that comes to mind: "Rock n' roll music!" These are the magic words. Blissful and ecstatic, he allows himself to be carried down the river "at the start of a long and adventurous journey." Niemi's finest achievement is to have created a world poised between an adult's fantastic memories of childhood and a child's naive dreams of his future. Graceless sentiments like disillusionment or regret are never allowed to trespass upon Pajala's icy rivers and twilit woods. The future remains a frantic hallucination, while the past is absurd and wondrous, populated by such characters as a music teacher who has no fingers, just a thumb that pokes out from the middle of his palm, and a grandmother who comes back from the grave with full male genitalia, eager to pounce on her grandson.

Less than three years after its original publication, "Popular Music" is the bestselling book in Sweden's history. With more than 800,000 sold, one out of every 10 Swedes owns a copy; only one of every 30 Americans, by comparison, owns the latest Harry Potter book. Magic, it seems, does well. But enchantment does better.

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