Wolfram Eilenberger wrote a long love letter to his wife and her country, Finland. Now it has been published also in Finnish.
When a German philosopher, specialized in cultural philosophy, Wolfram Eilenberger, was still an exchange student in his 20s in Spain, he fell in love. The object of this love was not a "chica latino", but an almost two metres tall Finnish student and basketball player Pia Päiviö, who many Canadian Finns probably know best as the Finnish professor at the University of Toronto.
In 1995, Eilenberger followed his love to Finland and to Turku. This launched a series of events, which led to the couple getting married and starting a family.
This period of time is what Eilenberger writes about in his book Minun suomalainen vaimoni (in English, “my Finnish wife”, the original book Finnen von Sinnen was published in German in 2010).
– I wrote a book about one Finn. My Finnish wife. And her family. I like to think of the book as a long love letter. It just felt right, Eilenberger explains.
Nowadays, Eilenberger, Päiviö and their children live in Toronto, Germany and Finland, but Minun suomalainen vaimoni focuses on the time Eileberger has spent in Finland: on the cold winters, the eternal darkness and the summer cottage.
From his personal point of view, Eilenberger studies odd habits of his wife and his wife’s family and the cornerstones of the Finnish culture. This weaves into a rather amusing and perspective analysis of the unique North-European nation. In a way it seems that Finland and its culture are almost like a state of mind to Eilenberger.
– True, a philosopher might speak of a Finnish life form. I think there is such a thing, Eilenberger says. – The chosen perspective to describe it is a very personal one. Hence, the book makes no claim to “objectivity”. That being said, I of course tried to do justice to my own experiences in terms of accuracy. And to do justice to my writing in term of inventiveness.
Also the heroine of the book, Eilenberger’s Finnish wife Pia Päiviö points out that the image of Finland in her husband’s novel is a very subjective one.
– It reflects the reality of Wolfram. And there are as many of this kind of realities as there are foreigners in Finland, Päiviö notes.
However, Päiviö feels that the Pia Päiviö of Minun suomalainen vaimoni is pretty close to the real Pia Päiviö, even though a few of her characteristics were lost in translation.
– Yes, the character called Pia in the book is a very positive image of the wife of the book’s Wolfram. In the process of translation, some qualitites of the character “Pia” were dropped out, such as her bad German. But on the other hand, the translator did a great job in translating Pia’s Finnish lines into a very short and succinct form – a habit very common to Finns when talking with foreigners in Finnish.The Country in Change
The book describes the first seven years of Eilenberger’s and Päiviö’s relationship, and therefore the book takes place in between the years 1995 and 2002. Eilenberger says that the era was chosen intentionally.
– I think that these seven years from 1995 to 2002 were very truly transformative for Finland. The country joined the EU, conquered an economic crisis, emerged as a world leader in the most influential technologies of that age. In a word, Finland became a key player in this process called globalization, Eilenberger explains.
He adds that the Finland of 1995 does not exist anymore and in that sense his book can be read as a narrative of that lost country.
In Eilenberger’s book, the Finns are described as a quiet, yet proud, and a very homogenous nation. This description does not seem to be far from the Finns of 2011, when the masses vote for the “true Finns” and immigration is seen as a threat to the country.
– The rise of the so-called perussuomalaiset is an interesting development. I think part of it is triggered by a very concrete and possibly even justified dissatisfaction with EU’s financial politics. One the other hand, the ideological base for the political claim to true Finnishness has always been around and – from the perspective of a foreigner – very visibly so, Eilenberger ponders. – In that sense, the only surprising thing about this rise in terms of party politics might be that it didn’t happen before.
The answer to the question whether Eilenberger could imagine a multi-cultural Finland is a clear: no.
– I even have a hard time imagining a multi-cultural Canada!Adjusting the Image of Finland
Even though Eilenberger’s novel is a very personal one, it offers a window for a reader, who is not that familiar with Finland, to peek into this culture. Such as most of the Germans.
– The situation is really odd, as Germans generally think in very positive terms positive about Finland. But this very positive image, as rule, is not based on detailed knowledge or first hand experiences. In other words, it is a rather phantasmatic image – a constellation the book tries to address in various ways, the author says.
Partly because Minun suomalainen vaimoni is a very personal book, Päiviö has not found anything from his spouse’s work with which she would strongly disagree.
– For me, the most rewarding thing has been the opportunity to peek into the ideas, thoughts and experiences of my beloved one. Something that might have never came up during an everyday conversation. Based on this book, I can start to familiarize my husband to the Finnish culture even more... Now I know where we’re at in that! Päiviö says.
In addition to describing the “Finnish life form”, Minun suomalainen vaimoni is about the prejudices the author confronted himself in Finland. For example, references to Germans burning Lapland are hard to avoid when discussing with a Finn. Still, Eilenberger does not get upset over that kind of things.
– I don’t think that prejudices are such a terrible thing. There is a common cultural prejudice against prejudices, in the sense that one, it is suggested, should approach a foreigner without any preconceptions concerning his cultural heritage and existence. No one came even close to explain how to actually do that.
Eilenberger continues that the Finnish people still do cultivate some stereotypes concerning German men: They are thought of being punctual, orderly, good in crafts and engineering, analytically skilful and without any sense of humour.
– Personally, I tried my best to disprove every single one of these points. And being a German, I am sure that I did a terrific job!From One Cultural Shock to Another
Eilenberger describes the cultural-shock-like experiences he has had in Finland as an “ongoing series of micro-trauma”. He says that he still could see himself living in Finland full-time one day.
– Philosophers, after all, specialize in people and problems they do not really understand, he jokes. – But seriously, Finland – its people, its habits – still keep me thinking, sometimes just gazing. I like it.
The author hesitates to judge how well the Finnish characteristics he describes in his book can still be seen in the expatriate Finns.
– The people I met in Toronto are still proud to be Finns, proud to be part of that heritage. That is noteworthy in itself. Not all Germans are.
Päiviö, who has lived several times outside of Finland for long periods of time, says that understanding especially the German culture can be a challenge sometimes.
– Some of these difficulties are described through the Pia of the book. Now that I am older, the cultural shocks don’t manage to surprise me as much, partly because I am aware of the “inevitability and the necessity” of them. But when I was younger and lived for four years in the States and one year in Sweden, cultural shocks were everyday life for me - and often a real “shock” too. I think that when it comes to Canada, we’re still going through the honeymoon stage!
Päiviö says that despite of the cultural shocks and the difficulties with German culture, she is not planning to write a “counterpart” for her husband’s novel: a book where the German culture would be described through Finnish eyes.
– Wolfram’s book explains the German culture too. Of course one could write a book like Wolfram’s about the Germans as well and go beyond the old-fashioned stereotypes and dig up the real German culture of today. But I am not the one to write that book.
Eilenberger’s Minun suomalainen vaimoni, or Finnen von Sinnen, has been a success especially in Germany, where there are plans about filming the book into a movie. So far the book has not been translated into English, but perhaps that day will come too.