By Asko Sahlberg
Translated from Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah
. . . I sensed that motherhood was terrible, perhaps sweet at times, but above all terrible. Not because one human child would be more horrendous than another, nor is it so that offspring cannot bring joy when little and be useful when grown up, but because motherhood makes it possible for future generations to be rocked by dark tragedies. (46)
Asko Sahlberg (1964-) is one of Finland's most famous living authors. He published his first novel in 2000 and has received numerous awards. He currently lives in Sweden.
Published in 2010, He (The Brothers, translated by mother-daughter team Emily and Fleur Jeremiah) is Sahlberg's ninth work. Henrik and Erik are two brothers born to an old family of Finnish landowners. While Erik stayed behind, the restless and ambitious Henrik fled to the glittering cities of Russia to be seduced by the wealth and power of empire. In the Russo-Swedish War of 1788-1790 he fought for Russia, while Erik enlisted himself and his downtrodden cousin Mauri to fight for Sweden. It is now 1809 and Henrik has returned to the old farmstead, instigating a chain of events that threaten to expose long-buried secrets and finally upend an unstable status quo.
The story is told through several first-person narrators, including not only Erik and Henrik but also their mother, Erik's wife Anna, Mauri, an old farmhand, and occasional one-shots such as a maid and a city bureaucrat. Peirene publisher Meike Ziervogel compares it to As I Lay Dying and it is easy to see why. One of my English professors described Faulkner's novel as Cubist, with each of the narrators reflecting a different facet of the story, akin to a Picasso painting revealing all angles at once. In The Brothers this form allows the various secrets to be revealed to the reader but not the other characters, allowing for an omniscient view and numerous twists. I was also reminded of Chekhov's play The Cherry Orchard, with its faded aristocrats forced from their traditional complacency where they least expect it. Altogether, the combination of a slowly unfolding plot and dark but subdued prose is a tightly-wound tale whose intensity is in its brevity. Recommended.