Book Reviews 2018 - #2 Herra Darwinin puutarhuri

How much do I know of Finland?  Very little.  Without recourse to [insert search engine of your choice] I go roughly as follows:
  • Scandinavian country, north east of Sweden and next door to Russia.
  • Used to be occupied by the Russians.  And the Swedes.  And others?  Hasn’t been independent all that long.
  • Not very big – 3 million people?
  • Frighteningly good at winter Olympic sports, especially cross-country skiing.
  • Had an awful famine in the middle of the nineteenth century.
  • Has given the world my friend Ellie Kivinen, who as a child would venture out to saw a hole through the ice and wait for fish, and who is one of the most amazing people I have ever met.
  • Has one of the weirdest languages ever, disconnected from almost the entire European family of Greek and Latinate languages and similar only to Hungarian.

It is for this last reason that I am immensely grateful to Emily Jeremiah and her mother Fleur Jeremiah who, between them, translated ‘Herra Darwinin puutarhuri’ into ‘Mr Darwin’s Gardener’.  ‘Mr Darwin’s Gardener’ is a short, beautiful, haunting book set in Kent in the 1870s where the villagers of Downe – where Charles Darwin really did live – are grappling with the relationship between the faith that has supported them and their forebears for generations, on the one hand, and - on the other - the new insights and perspectives (still vague and ill-understood and almost mythological) emerging from the mind of the man behind the garden wall.

I am immensely grateful, too, to Kristina Carlson.  Kristina is, I learn, highly acclaimed in her native Finland, has won many prizes and has written many books, for both adults and children.  ‘Herra Darwinin puutarhuri’ is one of those books.  In its guise as ‘Mr Darwin’s Gardener’ (the only guise in which I shall ever know it) her book is written in a soft, hallucinogenic style, with the frame of reference endlessly shifting into the first person.  We meet, at the beginning of a chapter or a paragraph, a particular person, and then suddenly – but gently – we are inside them, speaking as ‘I’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’.  Sometimes – as in a scene in the church – the first person is plural, and ‘we’ the congregation are the narrator.

It is a little bewildering to begin with, but is remarkably effective as a technique for helping we the reader (me the reader, you the reader, her the reader, etcetera) really feel the sense of dislocation that is the book’s theme.

Finally, I am grateful to the London-based publisher’s Peirene, who are responsible for bringing the work of Emily, Fleur and Kristina into my life.  Peirene has the tagline ‘Contemporary European Literature.  Thought-provoking, well designed, short.’ and, since I met them two or three years ago, they have become a beacon to me in any bookshop wherein they reside.  They are a little expensive (‘Herra Darwinin puutarhuri’ costs £12 in paperback) but they are worth every penny.   I now own several.

I own ‘Mr Darwin’s Gardener’, for example, which is the story of a man battling an almost unbearable grief.  He is Mr Darwin’s gardener and he lives in the village of Downe, in Kent, in the 1870s, amid a community that is grappling with the very early ripples caused by the (unmentioned) The Origin of Species.  He, too, of course, is grappling with those ripples.  Is the source of his grief an act of God?  The outcome of a scientifically explicable chain of events?  Or just ‘bad luck’?

It’s potentially heavy stuff.  It’s potentially unbearably weird.  It’s potentially completely inaccessible.  Instead, it’s soul food of the highest order.  Try it sometime.

Footnote #1 – I didn’t really know about the famine, but then I read ‘White Hunger’ by Aki Ollikainen – also from Peirene, also originally in Finnish and also translated by Emily and Fleur.  You should read that one, too.

Footnote #2 – I am ashamed to discover I was quite a way out on the population – it’s about 5.5 million…  Apologies all around (especially to the 2.5 million Finns I omitted…)

Footnote #3 - Finland formally declared independence from Russia on 6th December 1917.


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