Herman Melville‘s classic Moby-Dick (1851) is a great book and unlike any other novel I’ve read, but I’ve been at it for so long that I’m very happy to see the back of it!
I first cracked it open in May 2015 on a ferry back to Helsinki from Tallinn, Estonia, where I’d bought it in a nice little bookshop. It all started so well: how lovely to read about “getting to sea” on the gentle glimmering waves of the Baltic Sea! Fine, Melville’s a bit verbose here and there, but Ishmael‘s witty remarks and explorations on shore, such as sharing a bed with the Polynesian harpooner Queequeg at an inn, make up for it. Ishmael meets the broody Ahab, the captain of the Pequod and a man on a mission to kill the whale that maimed his leg—all good. It’s only when the long whale hunting journey begins in earnest that my attention started to waver.
Moby-Dick is about whales, and one whale in particular. The premise is very straightforward: Ahab wants to find the monstrous white whale called Moby-Dick, dissimilar to any other whale cruising the bottomless waters of the worlds, and kill it. This jolly pair have met before, and thanks to that encounter Ahab now clunks around with a wooden leg. Ishmael is the narrator of the story, and hovers somewhere between an omniscient narrator and an active participant in the story as a sailor on the Pequod.
This is a new series in which I will be presenting and talking about books from Finland. First up: a very short introduction to Finnish literary history up until the 1980s.
Finnish literature might just be the next big thing. Sweden and Norway are both quite well established on the world literature scene after the successes of Karl Ove Knausgård, Jonas Jonasson, Henning Mankell, and many others, but Finland is still waiting for its big break. You might in the past heard the names of Tove Jansson (of the Moomins fame), Arto Paasilinna (who enjoys popularity in France), or more recently Sofi Oksanen. Pushkin Press published the YA novel Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff a few months ago, and Aki Ollikainen‘s White Hunger (Peirene Press) was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016. Finland was also the guest of honour at the 2014 Frankfurt Book Fair. So much great Finnish literature is being translated right now, you really should stay in the loop!
Moominpappa enjoys life
While I was at it, I decided to go for two other short stories from Joseph Conrad. It was actually enjoyable to read fiction of which I had no preconceptions at all—usually when choosing a book I make my decision based on what I assume the story will be like.
Conrad himself apparently held An Outpost of Progress (1897) in higher regard than Heart of Darkness. It’s a much tighter story, taking place in just over 20 pages, and restricted both in terms of place and characters. Two white men, Kayerts and Carlier (presumably Swiss), are brought by steamboat to a tiny trading post by the river Congo, where they join a Sierra Leonean man called Makola, an assistant to the previous station chief who has tragically died of fever, or possibly too much exposure to the sun. Kayerts, the new station chief, and Carlier, the second in charge, are tasked with participating in the ivory trade, and generally improving the station in the hope that it’ll one day be something grander:
“In a hundred years, there will perhaps be a town here. Quays, and warehouses, and barracks, and—and—billiard-rooms. Civilisation, my boy, and virtue—and all. And then, chaps will read that two good fellows, Kayerts and Carlier, were the first civilised men to live in this very spot!”
Surprise! Instead of finishing one of the items on my now-reading-list, I decided to go for a little amuse-bouche and read Joseph Conrad‘s novella Heart of Darkness instead—not that there is very much amusing about this story.
Heart of Darkness (1899) is a real blast from the past for me. It was one of the set texts for a module I took as a first year student back in 2007–2008. I didn’t get very much out of it then, mostly because I was fresh from school and unaccustomed to reading fiction of this level in English. Because of that, rereading it was really experiencing it properly for the first time.
The story is of course so well-known. It’s recited in first person by Marlow, a seaman and explorer, who tells to his fellow sailors, perched on the deck of the cruising yawl Nellie in the Thames, of his nightmarish adventure in the Congo. Marlow, who wants to see for himself the enthralling river Congo, which on the map, unexplored and empty around its banks, resembles
an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land.
Map showing David Livingstone’s travels in Africa (1873)