6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
"The Brothers" is Asko Sahlberg's first novel to be translated into English. The action centres on the inhabitants of a Finnish farm covered in snow and surrounded by forest. Henrik, a bitter and frightening man, has just returned after fighting for the Russians in the 1809 Swedish-Russian war, his brother Erik was on the other side. In the claustrophobic atmosphere of the house tensions build; everyone agrees that Henrik's homecoming is a very bad thing, and the reader is prepared for a terrible climax.
Although only 120 pages, "The Brothers" feels much longer as, without being rushed, the reader is exposed to a wealth of characterization and incident. The multiple narrators enable one to see the bigger picture and diverse viewpoints confound assumptions. The writing is beautiful and vivid similes and imagery create a disturbing portentous atmosphere, such as when it is said of one character that 'his words sound like they are being squeezed out through a tangle of worms'. "The Brothers" is a worthy introduction to Peirene Press's year of the small epic.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
This small novel packs a real punch. An epic tale told in intricate fashion, somehow crafted in to 122 pages.
The author has created a dark and brooding atmosphere at an icy Finnish farm in 1809 following the Swedish-Russian war. There dwells two brothers, Henrik and Erik, their mother (The Old Mistress), the much put upon Farmhand and a couple of servants, one of them new to this unhappy household. Henrik and Erik have fought the war on opposite sides and the tension that exists within that farmhouse is palpable. Then there is the horse....or is it just a horse? The Farmhand has grave misgivings about the sense in Henrik owning such a malevolent beast which symbolises so much more than meets the eye.
Sahlberg has created a web of intrigue and mystery which has been compared to a Shakespearean drama and William Faulkener's "As I Lay Dying" ....... well deserved comparisons I must say. It is a supremely talented writer who can create vivid characters with their faults, fears and foibles in such few words. I will not reveal the turn of events for fear of ruining the readers' enjoyment. Suffice it to say that you will be gripped and surprised, no shocked, as the story unfolds.
A wonderful premiere to the fabulous Peirene's small epic series for 2012. They never fail to present us with beautifully translated European fiction which deserves to be enjoyed and not overlooked. Their dedication to this cause is admirable and pretty unique.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 9 March 2012
The Brothers by Asko Sahlberg is set at the end of The Finnish War, fought between Sweden and the Russian Empire (Feb' 1808 - Sept' 1809) the result of this war was that the eastern third of Sweden was established as the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland within the Russian Empire. The book starts with the brothers, who have fought on opposing sides, returning to their family farmhouse. With their return old scars resurface, old conflicts born out of past tragedies. The elder brother, Henrik, is embittered, having long been alienated from his family after first being cheated by a neighbour and then his younger brother Erik. This book manages within it's 122 pages to cover all those epic themes of treachery & conflict, whether through sexual tensions or those family secrets that simmer below the surface or whether contrasting the politics of war with those of family.
As this tale unfolds, each character takes their turn in revealing more of the story in a series of dramatic monologues, that made me think of Alan Bennett's TV show Talking Heads, (written for BBC television -1988) creating a multiple narrative that's dark and full of a foreboding that is as dark and chilling as winter. In fact this whole book is as dark and dense as wading through deep snow, and like traipsing through this landscape, you feel you've been traipsing for ages and nothing has changed until you look up and find you've journeyed miles. This is a small book that portrays grand themes and yet does so by focusing it's lens on this family and it's brooding tale, where the passion burns bitter, another way it reminded me was in the similar themes of death, guilt and isolation.
Asko Sahlberg, born 1964, has acquired a fame in Finland that has yet to be replicated in the English speaking world. He published his first novel in 2000 and has written steadily since then, completing his ninth work, The Brothers, in 2010.
This was a wonderfully told tale, translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah, a multi-lingual mother and daughter translation team. Emily has an MA in Creative Writing and a PhD in German Studies. Fleur, her mother, is Finnish. They have worked together before, translating the poetry of Helvi Juvonen and Sirkka Turkka, this is their take on this book
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 6 March 2012
Translated from the 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."
The Old Mistress in this snowy and tense Finnish tale reflects on her early impressions of motherhood, and what sort of legacy her two sons would be for her. It's right that she worries, for she is desperately miserable in her desolate forest home, where she has to deal with "people whose speech tells you they have rough palms" as well as a sickly husband. Added to this, she has furtive servants and two wildly opposing boys, Erik and Henrik.
Erik and Henrik are introduced as quarrelsome boys who end up on opposite sides during the war between Sweden and Russia (this takes place in 1809). Neither character is fully exposed, so the tension between the two is immediately apparent while the meaning behind it is delayed. As the plot twists, the reader can see that this was intended...for the reader is given no easy clues to unravel the family's drama.
"...for a time I was able to watch the boys grow up with at least distant pride. But boys are fated to grow into men, and a mother has to follow this tragedy as a silent bystander. And now it seems they will kill each other, and then this, too, can be added to my never-ending list of losses."
The character of their mother, the Old Mistress, is one of the most powerful female characters to be found in modern fiction: she has no saving grace that makes her likable or even necessary. Her anger and rage doesn't make her a stereotypical obstacle: rather, she intrigues the reader and pulls out an interest in her that detracts a bit from the animosity between the boys. And author Sahlberg makes her a key to the plot-- a veritable loose cannon as the plot proceeds.
"I took up the habit of moving all the yesterdays and tomorrows discreetly to one side. I have never deceived myself in this respect: I gulp down spirits like a sailor".
Along with the Old Mistress, other characters speak in the first person voice, including both boys. But while the world orbits between their opposite poles, another character begins to invade the literal and figurative world of the desolate farm. This outsider quietly alters the lives of everyone involved, and controls the plot to its remarkable ending.
Several details of note: the subtle writing definitely follows the rule of "show, don't tell". Broken veins on the cheeks of a character are a detail not elaborated on, yet critically important. Scenes between silent characters are so detailed that even without the dialogue, one reads an entire conversation. These kind of details made me wish I could go back and read it again, slower, to catch the amazing writing that can capture so many variants of meaning with the same words, even the same characters, at different times. This subtlety seems to mirror the cold, snowy landscape.
I have to confess, I searched a thesaurus to find other ways to say 'tension' and 'subtle'! I really can't emphasize the taut and bare style of the work enough without saying "tension" repeatedly. So, let me just throw it out there: tension. Everywhere.
Here's a great link to the actual details of the war the brothers fought in, with some painfully ironic remarks about the changing nature of their uniforms. [...]
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 1 March 2012
The theme adopted for Peirene Press's latest selection is The Series of the Small Epic. Does an epic novel have to have a page count that helps it double as a doorstop or can the same sense be achieved with something that can be read in an evening? Sahlberg's novella, translated from Finnish, contains just 122 pages but is described as a Shakespearean drama. What that means isn't immediately obvious (you'd think that the breadth of plays he wrote would make it difficult to make his name synonymous with any one style) but it certainly manages to cram in enough history, passion, envy and buried secrets for a drama on a much bigger scale.
In 1809 Finland moved from under the control of the Swedish kingdom to become incorporated into the Russian Empire after war between those two countries. Two brothers, Henrik and Erik, fought on opposite sides and with peace now declared they return to the snow-covered farm where their mother still lives. Despite being the eldest brother Henrik was never interested in taking over the farm and so it was Erik that became the master and who married Anna. Why then has Henrik returned and what is he after? Sahlberg chooses to narrate the novel in the separate voices of each of the characters involved. Short sections from each distinctive voice prove to be an incredibly effective way of cramming in all the backstory and as this is a novella of revelations it also works very well as secrets begin to be revealed.
There is clearly bad blood between these brothers but where does this conflict come from? It has something to do with a horse, and also with a woman, but perhaps most of all with the way in which the two brothers are so different. The farm may be covered in snow but there is nothing bright and reflective about what we read. It often seems to be dark, with lamps or candles providing the only light; conversations happen in moments of stolen privacy and much of what we learn comes from people observing others. The sense of impending doom and the fear that underpins it is well expressed by Anna.
'A man's fear of a man must be different from a woman's. Probably it is colder, like water newly drawn from a well compared with water that has long been standing in a jug.'
Perhaps this is what is meant by Shakespearean. If this were a castle rather than a farm then the themes of power, succession and revenge would be every bit as Shakespearean as any of his histories or tragedies. The dark atmosphere and some of the language helps keep it that way which is just as well because with all the plot twists a less accomplished writer might have you expecting to hear the distinctive drums that come at the end of an episode of Eastenders. Something was famously rotten in the state of Denmark and that atmosphere pervades quite literally here in Finland as Henrik remarks on his return.
'This house is a cadaver. The others are too close to see it, but it has already begun to decompose. I flinch from its decay. It is as if a collection of bones had been unearthed and dressed up in fine clothing to create the illusion of a real body.'
It's is difficult to say much more without giving too much of the plot away but if you get the chance to sit down on a cold, dark evening and read the book in a single sitting as I did then it provides a perfect little (and yet epic) entertainment; very much the literary cinema that it claims to be. Think Bergman. And Shakespeare of course.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 3 November 2012
I've been a convert to Peirene Press's editions of contemporary European fiction since I read The Murder of Halland by Danish author Pia Juul, andMaybe This Timethe short stories of Austrian author Alois Hotschnig. The Brothers comes from Finland and is by Asko Sahlberg, one of the country's best poets and prose writers, but very little known in England. The book blurb was terse and very brief, but when I read it, I knew I wanted to read the book:
'Finland, 1809. Henrik and Erik are brothers who fought on opposite sides in the war between Sweden and Russia. With peace declared, they both return to their snowed-in farm. But who is the master? Sexual tensions, old grudges, family secrets: all come to a head in this dark and gripping saga.'
It all begins with a horse - Henrik `was a man born to understand horses'. As a young boy, working his father's estate, Henrik sees a young colt in a neighbour's field and knows immediately that he wants it. It's a big, ugly, beast of a horse, which has`the burning eyes of a wolf or a lion, or maybe the Beast of the Book of Revelation', but there's a definite, uncanny, connection between boy and colt.
Henrik works five years to get the money to pay for the horse, but in the end he is cheated out of it, as he is cheated of the woman he loves. He leaves the house in anger and despair to fight for the Russian Emperor, in the war over Finland, while his brother fights on the Swedish side. Henrik hopes to find a new identity in Russia: `In St Petersburg, I thought I could strip off this nation like a torn shirt, but it was not that easy.' There is too much unfinished business at home, particularly the enmity between the brothers.
When Henrik returns, his presence causes ripples of fear and unease in the house. As the Farmhand remarks, `A human being never sheds his past. He drags it around like an old overcoat....' Henrik's father is dead, his brother Erik now manages the estate and his mother, `the Old Mistress' is in charge of the house. Henrik has little regard for her either, commenting, `I might as well pay my respects to the whore of Babylon.'
We are inside each character's head in turn and this gives the narrative a certain intensity, but also a claustrophobic feeling, as if you are in an Ibsen drama, inhabiting one character after the other, playing them all. It took a little getting used to, but in the end I thought it was very effective, and the language is as economical as poetry.
Henrik has returned home at a critical moment. His brother Erik is mysteriously absent, Anna, Erik's wife, believes he is having an affair. Henrik's mother has taken to drink and the destitute cousin, Mauri, who lives with them as a kind of superior servant, is behaving oddly. Only the Farmhand is what he has always been. Although Henrik treats him with contempt, he is also aware that `he is the only one of us who is free from the sin of lying and thus he is innocent'. The atmosphere inside the isolated farmhouse is tense with mutual distrust and dislike.
The novel builds to a very satisfying climax, which I didn't expect. Because you see every character from every other character's perspective, you begin to have a detailed picture of each person and a cumulative knowledge of what is about to happen.
It's wonderful to get these glimpses into what is going on in European literature at the moment. What is published in England these days seems mostly to look across the Atlantic to America. In Europe there are different traditions of story-telling and much more experimental writing. I suppose the nearest I've read recently would be The Lighthouse by Alison Moore, published by Salt - that's definitely in the European tradition, and about the same length. I've got a couple more Peirene Press books on the virtual bookshelf, but I'm saving them for a treat! Peirene Press have the added advantage that their e-books are very attractively priced in relation to the paper back.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
This novel may be short, indeed it is about 122 pages, but despite that don't be put off, because it is brilliant. The story is told in multi-narrative form and the sparse prose builds up a tale that others haven't managed to do with writing hundreds of pages.
Finland, late 1809, and the Finnish War has been won by the Russians. Henrik returns to the family farm, where Erik, his brother, fought on the losing side. As we read the multiple narratives we find out each characters' perceptions and perspectives on what will happen. You have a sense of brooding that something is going to come to a head, especially amongst the bleak, wintery landscape, with the farm in isolation.
We find out what has happened in the past as we progress through this story, which has an underlying sexual current in places, and how animosities have been building up. Deftly written this is short, but you feel like you have read something much longer.
You may think that this is Nordic, and that is fashionable at the moment, so of course people are going to say it is good, but this really is good, and it isn't one of those Nordic crime books, this is excellent literature. You may think this is too short, it is only a small novel that can be read in a couple of hours, but don't be mistaken, short it may be, but it feels more like a much longer story.
This would be an ideal book for a reading group, and should please anyone who is into good literature. Hopefully we will find this author's work more available in translation after people have read this one.
on 15 January 2013
I bought this book when it was one of Amazon's daily Kindle deals last year. The blurb seemed interesting, and at 99p, I figured I couldn't go wrong.
And so it sat, unread and unremembered on my Kindle for months, languishing in my ever expanding "To Read" collection. It would probably be there still, if I hadn't been for the rapidly approaching new year. I wanted a short book to get through before the years end and, at 120 pages, "The Brothers" fit the bill.
As it turned out, though it was promoted from "To Read" to "Reading" at the end of November, I didn't actually start it until this weekend. (Procrastination, thy name is Danny)
A part of me wishes I had read it sooner -another part of me is happy I didn't as it means I can share my impressions of it with you. (Hint: I loved it!)
The book has been described as "A Shakespearean drama from icy Finland", and, though apt, I don't feel that truly does it justice. I feels more like a sweeping 19th century (Russian?) epic, condensed down to its most pure, distilled form - like good Finnish vodka!
Reading this book, it never feels like there is a single wasted line or superfluous word -yet at the same time, each of the multiple viewpoint characters feels completely unique and engaging, their voices all individual.
The book is set in 1809, in the aftermath of the Finnish war between Sweden and Russia, in a large farmhouse Finland. Sweden has lost the war - and the Finnish territory to the Russian Empire, and as a result, things are very unsettled.
The Brothers of the tile refer to Henrik and Erik - previously close, they had been driven apart prior to the war over matters of love and honor To further complicate matters, they each fought of opposite sides during the conflict - Erik for the Swedes, Henrik for the Russians.
Erik, though the younger brother, is in possession of the house, following events that are slowly revealed in the course of the book, and lives there with his wife, his mother, his manservant - who is also an impoverished relative, the loyal Farmhand, and various servants.
Henrik, who left the farm for initially unstated reasons years before, returns at the start of the book, and serves as a catalyst for the events that follow.
The Brothers is a book that, despite its short length, is so full of twists and turns, secrets, grudges love and hatred that saying to much more could ruin someone enjoyment.
Sahlberg (and the translators) brings it all together masterfully, creating engaging fully realised world, one that you can practically touch and taste and smell.
It may not be to everyone's taste, but I would urge anyone looking for a good, thought provoking work of historical fiction to read to give this book a try.
on 3 January 2013
The Brothers is about Henrik and Erik, Finnish brothers in 1809 who fought on opposing sides of the war between Sweden and Russia, that made Finland a part of the Russian Empire. Although they share blood, there has long been conflict between them, and when Henrik finally returns home, it's to a broken house full of people that hide secrets of their own. In the wintery wilderness, Henrik and Erik must face up to each other and the revelations that are to come.
I enjoyed The Brothers, mainly for the atmosphere. I read this novella in one go on New Year's Day, snuggled up in a blanket with the heating turned up. So it was wonderful to read about the icy Finnish winter, the rugged Farmhand, the distant wife and the frozen rivers. On the back cover, it states that The Brothers is a 'Shakespearean drama from icy Finland' and the atmosphere reminded me a cross between Hamlet and a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. I wanted to dive right into this book, the setting was that vivid.
Despite the historical elements, The Brothers is mainly a story about what can happen to people when they live in isolation from larger communities. Some of the drama and secrets centre around Erik's wife, Anna, but in a way that's inevitable as she's the only woman we read about existing in the community of what seems to be only two houses. When you live so shut off, boundaries between relationships blur and people have to take on multiple roles in your life. That said, I didn't guess the big reveal near the end (although there are plenty of smaller reveals along the way) and I loved that Sahlberg was able to surprise me.
Although I very much enjoyed this book, there was a distance from the characters that stopped me loving it. I don't mind less than perfect characters, so the flaws of Henrik didn't concern me, but it was written in a style that reflected the cold, icy Finnish winter. Whilst I admired the writing, this technique also stopped me from connecting with any of the characters properly, and it was this that made me only like the book, rather than love it. It is a wonderfully written book though, and well worth reading for the atmosphere alone.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 9 February 2012
This is a highly impressive, highly condensed novel, packing an epic sweep into its 122 pages.
Set in Finland in 1809, as Finland passes from Swedish to Russian rule, it focuses on one family - two brothers, who fought on opposite sides in the Russo-Swedish war; their mother; a wife who could have belonged to either son; the farmhand; a poor relative given grudging house room - and the real war within. Despite its specific historical setting, you are not aware of that; its taut writing and controlled plotting give it an elemental quality. It is the literary equivalent of Sibelius, the Sibelius of the tone poems, rather than the symphonies, the Finnish myths behind which stand the even starker, stripped-back myths of classical Greece.
Its only slight flaw, for me, was its use of the Greek deus ex machina, the get-out-of-jail card of the abject relative's sudden wealth from a New World uncle no one knew existed, enabling him to intervene dramatically in the outcome of the family's breakdown. I did find it disappointing that Sahlberg couldn't have contrived this intervention within the game rules he had set himself.
That aside, it is an immensely powerful book, with the heft of far longer novels, and the tautness of poetry; gripping in its revelations right to the end.