Monday 19 December 2011

Rocking Out In The Snow

Last week, somewhere on the net (alas, my memory has failed me here), I came across a mention of Mikael Niemi's Popular Music, a coming-of-age novel set in the far northern provinces of Sweden, and I decided I wanted to reread it.  So I did.  Life really can be that simple sometimes :)

I got the book as a Christmas present a good six or seven years ago, and while I remember liking it, I hadn't read it since.  On a second reading, it hasn't lost any of its charm; in fact, I probably enjoyed it more this time around.  Popular Music (translated by Laurie Thompson) follows Matti - a thinly disguised Niemi, no doubt -, a young Swedish boy beginning to move through the treacherous time between childhood and manhood.

Living in an Arctic village so remote that most Swedes would have trouble pin-pointing it on the map, the male residents of Pajala are encouraged to be manly and, above all, to avoid any activity regarded as knapsu (unmanly, effeminate or - my preferred interpretation - poncy).  Probably not a good idea to be the lead singer of a pre-pubescent rock band then...

The book is structured into a series of loosely-linked stories, following Matti (and his best friend Niila) from elementary-school days to late teens, and the narrator tells the story in the first-person, looking back at his distant youth.  However, he's not always your standard narrator; at times, he can go off into flights of fantasy, and some of the earlier stories seem to be told more by the boy than the man (unless you believe that Matti really did spend a winter cooped up in an old boiler before bursting out in the Spring!).

Life in the region of Tornedalen was not a particularly easy one, and although Niemi's style is light and playful, the events he describes are not always so fluffy.  In an area of great isolation, alcoholism, casual sex and violence are rife, and while Matti himself has a relatively normal family and upbringing, some of his friends, in particular the hapless Niila, appear lucky to reach adulthood unscathed.  Of course, a part of growing up is learning how to cope with adversity, and it isn't long before Niila and his brothers start to rebel against their strict and unnecessarily cruel upbringing...

Another interesting result of the isolation is the cultural and linguistic diversity on display.  Marooned in the frozen north, close to the Finnish border, the residents are seen as country hicks by those from the south, and this is shown in the school scenes, where the children who can only speak Finnish (or the local dialect) are hesitant to even open their mouths.

Of course, this goes both ways, and the northerners are scornful of the 'soft' Southerners, with their fancy inventions like electric saunas...  When the families gather for weddings or funerals, the interplay between the various family members, those who emigrated, those who moved to Gothenburg or Stockholm, and those who stayed behind in Pajala, is a fascinating study for anyone interested in intercultural communication.  Or domestic arguments ;)

In the end though, Popular Music is primarily about Matti and his friends in the band.  As the years go by, Matti and Niila are joined by the guitar prodigy Holgeri and the rhythmically-challenged (but usefully-muscled) Erkki on drums, and by the end of the story, our fab four have finally started to perform real music in front of actual audiences.  We leave them (literally!) at a crossroads, flat out in the snow with the whole world ahead of them.  Despite a rather poignant epilogue, it is this image of joy and hope that the reader takes with them on finishing the book.  And a wonderful one it is too...