Wow. That was quite something. Like Moby-Dick, Kai Erik’s Paha Kirja (The Evil Book) is unlike any novel I’ve read before—though in a completely different way to Melville’s book.
Reading The Evil Book (2015, Otava) book reminded me of my favourite kind of literature: stories that rise above the mundane and self-evident, and made me question why I would ever settle for anything less. For me, the most enjoyable books tell an entirely new kind of a story, or with entirely new kind of characters, or in an entirely new kind of way. I want to be questioned, challenged, woken up by the book—and that, by the way, doesn’t mean the book will be a struggle to read. So many blurbs I see in bookstores these days seem to me to be about circumstances and people we are much too familiar with and have already witnessed in numerous films, other books, in our own lives. I can see the appeal in wanting to read a story that speaks directly to us by way of familiarity, but I often find that the writers who do write about something new or using a new approach manage to say more profound things about our reality and everyday lives than those who strive to describe it.
Right, rant over. The Evil Book is what you would call humanist horror as it’s set within the literature department of the Swedish-speaking Åbo Akademi University in Turku, Finland. The main characters are one of the department’s literature professors, the 50-something Mickel Backman, nicknamed Iron Man by the students due to his bad back; and the literature student Calle Hollender, who is struggling to find enough interest to do any of his coursework and prefers instead to dabble in stand up, smoke weed and watch Netflix. The events kick off when one of Mickel’s students, the talented but self-destructive Pasi Maars tells him he wants to write a dissertation on poetry collection by an obscure 1920s modernist called Leander Granlund. The collection was never published, and it carries a horrifying reputation of making anyone who reads it kill themselves. Mickel is shocked by the sudden mention of Granlund: turns out one of his friends from his own student days committed suicide after going mad writing a Master’s thesis on the poems.
Mickel’s personal life isn’t in great shape either as he confesses to his wife Myrna that he had a relationship with one of his students years ago—after finishing the affair she had walked under a bus and has been in a vegetative state ever since, something Mickel blames himself for. His confession prompts another from Myrna, an author who has been sleeping with her brutish and sexually charged publisher that Mickel has always found thoroughly off-putting. She consequently runs off to a writing retreat in Sweden, leaving Mickel to struggle alone at home with his bad back. The couple’s uncommunicative son is studying in Denmark, possibly using drugs, and a source of constant worry to his parents.
Calle is going through a rough patch too: his student funding has been cancelled due to not achieving enough credits, his girlfriend Helena breaks up with her, no one laughs at his stand up gigs, and he’s doing his best to look after his depressed mate Pasi. His biggest problem, however, is his inability to follow through with anything he starts—something I could definitely identify with, though mine isn’t thankfully as as epic in proportion as Calle’s is! He is, however, also a very creative problem solver, and decides to sort out his immediate financial issues by stealing valuable old books from the department’s library and selling them to collectors online. While running (literally) after Helena he falls over ending up in hospital and meets Marjut, a wholesome religious girl who develops a crush on him.
And behind all of this the evil powers of Leander Granlund’s poems are at work: according to the legend, he read them at the wedding party for his brother whom Leander was deeply envious of and which took place during a solar eclipse in the Finnish archipelago. Once the eclipse was over, a quarter of the wedding guests were found around the wedding venue, presumed to have killed themselves. Granlund himself disappeared, his shoes found on the seashore rocks.
All of this could be terribly cringy, but Erik is, without a doubt, an excellent writer. His protagonists are first and foremost fascinating, multifaceted people. He writes about the echo-y hallways and dark libraries of the university, the grimy and claustrophobic student halls, the frozen horror of a nursing home, and the sweaty, smelly student parties with equal confidence. His language is precise and revealing, his metaphors fresh and exciting. It’s precisely this freshness with which he approaches the story that makes you realise: “I’ve felt just like that before but couldn’t put it into words”. He writes with great pace that drives the reader forward. His tone slides effortlessly from chuckle-out-loud comedy to panic and nausea. He creates a world, an atmosphere that is thoroughly enjoyable despite the occasionally rather nasty events (and people). Most importantly, he handles the horror element extremely skilfully. As you can probably deduct from my words, this definitely ticks my aforementioned wish list for a great book.
It’s been at least a decade since my feet last battered the old streets of Turku, the original capital of Finland, and though Erik’s Turku isn’t the one a tourist would encounter, but rather a collection of bleak bridges, dirty rapids, and parking lots covered in light November snow, it didn’t put me off visiting it. Literary tour, anyone? Let’s just make sure we skip any poetry readings…
An extra special mention goes to the novel’s Finnish translator, Laura Beck, for a translation that matches the original in confidence and freshness (the book was originally written in Swedish). I hope it’ll be published in English soon too!
Rights sold to / Published in:
Denmark (Art People / People’s Press)
Germany (Bastei Lübbe)
Italy (Sperling & Kupfer / Mondadori)
Turkey (ÜÇBİRİKİ Publishing)
World Spanish (Plaza y Janés / Penguin Random House)
The Netherlands (Ambo/Anthos)
Spain (Plaza y Janés / Penguin Random House)
For enquiries contact Otava’s Foreign Rights Manager Leenastiina Kakko
“I want the reader to feel that my novel is a mystery box; and while reading, I want them to be obsessed with the urge to find out what’s inside that box.” – Kai Erik
Bio from here
Featured image from here