It is noon on a Saturday, a week before Christmas. I'm standing in the hall of Hotel Smedja. A Man looking like Mikael Niemi steps in. We exchange greetings. The man pours coffee in a cup, asking that surely I will take some too.
I congratulate Niemi for the Swedish record: over 700,000 Popular Music from Vittulas sold. He says the success was unexpected.
- Swedes have grown tired of the postmodern and minimalist periods in literature, which are too highbrow and joyless. They wanted humour. But Astrid Lindgren and the Bible are still unbeatable in sales figures, he laughs.
Niemi is a happy man. He returned back home to Pajala in 1997. He bought a house, and his children Toivo and Kåre are going to get another sibling in the spring. Living elsewhere did not suit him. He says he grew tired of constant discussions of career, money and jealousy. Now, the man and the landscape are one.
- I missed fishing, skiing, and the snow. I don't feel well if I don't ski. Yesterday for instance, I skied ten kilometres, he says cheerfully.
It is nice to go to the city and see the new winds in literature and theatre. Niemi saw Susan Osten's play Det allra viktigast [The Most Important] a couple of weeks ago in Stockholm. He describes the play as fantastically chaotic. Nevertheless, the author has not wanted to intervene in the Vittula play that will have its world premiere in Oulu city theatre in February. His conclusion is that the play will be better when it is done by theatre professionals.
The writer's life is in search for balance. He frets the disappearance of time. Writing requires silence and time, but fame takes away that time and peace. Next year, Niemi will travel to Iceland, Italy and Great Britain for the publication of his book.
- I could easily stop writing and be happy, he says.
Niemi is known to be anarchic. He can write about whatever feels fun. He does not reveal the subject of his next book, but says in passing that he could write a book or a play of the heavy drinking culture or silence of Pajala.
Niemi offers to show me some of the places in the Vittula book, and we get going.
- That's where Matti and Niila met each other... and that's where the drinking competition took place. Here, the band held their first concert, and Matti lost his virginity over there... here is where the boys lay in the crossroads.
We come to Laestadius hill, where Matti and Niila rode down the hill to Tornio river faster than the speed of sound. We start talking about backwoods communism and Lestadianism, which still elevated the minds of the northern people in the 1960s. In Finland, communists made a historical compromise with the bourgeoisie, and lived an easy life or slowly drank themselves to death in the local petrol station bars. Lestadians were entrepreneurs and held offices of the welfare state. For them, practicing religion is nowadays a rite where the companionship gets strengthened.
In the Tornio valley, Lestadianism and Stalinism have been important counter forces in building the spirit of the area. Niemi tells how Lars Levi Laestadius tried to save the alcohol loving men of Tornio valley from the curses of alcohol and make them supporters of family values and obedient morals. The communists in the area opposed suppression and subordination. Both ideologies came from the people and were strongly communal. Niemi finds the strict attitude Lestadians had for the worker movement unfortunate.
- If Laestadius had lived later, he would have been a socialist priest, as in South America. Maybe. Maybe not, he ponders.
Lestadianism and communism have molded the morals of northern people. In Lapland, Lestadians still regard themselves as better people, for their place in heaven is secured. However, many Lestadians have become broad-minded when it comes to committing sin themselves.
It can be heard in Niemi's words that there is still something original left of Laestadius' morals in his home area. Here, people value honour, honesty and solidarity high. Social control works when people know each other and problems are noticed right away.
- The crime level in Pajala is low. Old-fashioned morals still reign here, Niemi assures.
Lestadianism is known for emotion and charisma. Laestadius took this Sami tradition skillfully in the use of his religion. Niemi says emotion is more introverted and melancholic nowadays. The women do not jump and scream as before, but cry their sins copiously. Strong sexuality, which is connected with the Korpela movement, lives on only as a rumour of people with a strong need to look for love and ecstasy in sex.
We drive past windows that read Vensterpartiet, Socialdemokraterna and Moderaterna. Niemi says that the labour movement in Pajala chose emotion in the 1930s. It could have gone with reformative social democracy, but it chose Stalinism. Still in Niemi's youth, many people believed they could kill the bourgeoisie or even crush the state, if they came across one. Now, the place seems quiet.
- All that's left of the leftist enthusiasm is a strong support for the left and two social partiers, which argue with each other, Niemi says.
We go to see the legendary Vittula.
- That's where I lived as a child, and Paul Muotka, who translated Vittula into the minority language Meänkieli, lived there right next to us.
We go to greet Muotka before we return to the hotel. Paul tells a story of a man, who got nicknamed the mayor of Vittula. For the man became indignant and snorted that "the cabins are full of brats, the state gives money for brats; and when you have brats, the state pays for your house too, so that whole area is the achievement of pussy alone..."
It has been said that when a man starts to reminisce, he has come to an age where the back wall has started to show. Niemi, too, is excited about old things and late people. The man recalls stories told at home about Korpela, and magical stories of spirits and devils who lived almost everywhere. These were the stories of a time before media. Niemi has told old stories from the Bible and the Sami tradition in his novels Kyrkodjävulen (The Church Devil, 1994) and Blodsugarna (Bloodsuckers, 1997). The Church Devil was recently published in Finnish and, next autumn, also Bloodsuckers can be read in Finnish. Niemi tells how in the former, three young people find a dead devil with black powers in a church. The latter is about the family curses. He wants to tell these stories, so that young people could learn the old story and ghost tradition.
Niemi is of a generation who have heard stories of shamans and healers, and he has been raised to think that the forest posesses magical powers and divinity. He has learned to walk quietly in the forest not to anger gods and spirits. Old Sami tradition still lives in the Pajala area.
- When we are about to stay overnight in the forest, we still greet the spirits and ask for a permission. Half of it is play, the other half serious. We think there´s a lot in life one cannot see. I love un-intellectual things, Niemi says and leaves for a quick visit back home.
A video of Niemi's summer theatre play Tahto rautainen on [The Will is of Steel] kicks off Tornedalsteatern's celebrational night. After the show, we proceed from the cultural centre to Smedja to enjoy the local food tradition. Men quaff beer. After each pint, it is as if the spirits of a feminine man ("knapsu") and a provincial man ("jante") move towards something. The drinking culture is still alive. When a northern man drinks, a show or a suicide speech is said to follow. Niemi says that women don't drink much in this area, but men have a strong urge to get drunk, lose control and get to Bethlehem.
- Man is looking for a connection with God by getting drunk, and here getting drunk is a sign of trust. People reveal themselves truthfully to each other when they are drunk. There's great beauty in that, Niemi says and lifts his glass.
The atmosphere gets tighter, and the trance is getting closer. Storytelling turns into singing. Among Finnish folk songs, the Swedish Lång må han leva is sung. After that, it is time for some chain schottische. After a few beers, encouraged by the knapsu from Pajala, the jante from the east sings the tango Satumaa with Niemi. At the end of the evening, everyone sings together: "Tahto rautainen on", my will is made of iron.
In the morning, it feels like Niila and Matti have met again after a long time. I was very anxious about meeting the author of a classic. I slept badly the night before, in vain. Niemi is just one of us.
In Smedja, I sit under "Keksin tulva" and "Pub knapsu" paintings by Hugo Rantatalo. I reminisce the Pajala area for a while before heading home. You could write a novel called "Three Hundred Years of Solitude" about the place. The area has a 200-year solitude behind it, for it was forgotten somewhere between Kalix and Tornio rivers in the peace of Hamina (1809) where the czar of Russia took control over Finland from the Swedish king. In front of it, awaits a loneliness of another hundred years. In a century, no one will speak meänkieli, nor will anyone live here anymore. Perhaps.
I sit in the car and start it. The 14-year-old car starts up with a roar in the cold weather like an old gelding. In my Lada, I sneak from the north's Macondo to the dark night like Stalinism and Lestadianism snuck to the arms of mother Sweden.
Tornedals theatre preserves culture
Tornedals theatre (Tornedalsteatern, ToTe), was established in 1986. Then the director was Bror Astermo, who rose from the mines of Kiiruna for the job. He received NSD magazine's culture award some time ago. ToTe has performed over 180 pieces. Among them, there are programs for Radio Norrbotten and co-operation with Finnish and Swedish television and radio.
ToTe is part of the Vittula filming which starts in January. In February, a revue directed by Mervi Jaako is performed in Pajala. Bengt-Ola Kauppi and Ture Skogsfält's musical Taas meno päällä is going to be performed at the bends of Tornio river next summer.
ToTe's activities stretch all the way from Kiiruna to Haaparanta. From 1999, the theatre has been financed by EU and the Swedish government. Amateur theatre is still the basis of everything.
- That's never going to change, even if they took the money away, Astermo says.
Vittula at Oulu city theatre
The world premiere of the stage adaptation of Popular Music from Vittula takes place at Oulu city theatre in February 2003. Ilpo Tuomarila has dramatised the play based on the novel by Mikael Niemi.
In the play, Matti and his silent friend Niila live their childhood and youth in the 60s and 70s in an area of Pajala called Vittula due to its many children. The small farms are closed and rock music comes into town. The older generation marvels and opposes new fashion: the traditions and memories of the hunger years in 1930s and Lestadianism are still deeply rooted in them. But Matti and his friend dream of a different life. In the horizon of the future, they can see the dream of being famous rockers and having a different Tornio valley.
The play is directed by Katariina Lahti, who before Vittula has directed Timo K. Mukka's Kyyhky and Unikko (1985) and Bengt Pohjanen's Jerusalemin tanssi (1992) which described the Korpela movement.
Lahti tells how her interest in northern stories goes back to the beginning of the 1980s, when she worked in Norrbottens theatre for four years. She was taken to the dramatic and intensive lives of northern people, where hard opposites as well as sin and mercy are close to each other.
- Those are strong things. Intense feelings, and good for portrayal, Lahti says.
Alienation is the basic emotion of modern people. People are far from their roots or on the road. The story of Vittula appeals to homesick people. The director of the play is charmed by how the play is so touching and pure. Everything happens in it before falling into sin.
Theatre programs have moved closer to entertainment. Accoring to Lahti, there is no point in making theatre that has nothing to say. Good theatre takes time, thinking and ethics.
- When you get people to laugh, it would be good to get them to cry and feel as well, Lahti says.
Culture is an expense to an economist. However, there is evidence of the power and usefulness of culture in the Tornio area. Lahti stresses the meaning of Mikael Niemi and Bengt Pohjanen. They have written a language, face and identity to a people, a bunch of inhumans who were near extinction.
- And some say culture has no effect, Lahti snorts.