A probing novel about grief and coming of age
Herman Koch became known for his plot-driven literature, full of page-turning suspense and the seductive lure of evil. They’re thrillers and situation comedies at the same time, in which Koch castigates the latest well-intentioned trends. With this new novel, he opts for a different, more autobiographical approach.
1973. Herman Koch was nineteen and trying to figure things out. Six months after graduating high school, shortly after the death of his mother, he left for Finland. In the dense forests of the eastern province of North Karelia, he sped around on a tractor, milked cows, plowed fields, dragged trees around, made merry at village parties, drank methylated spirits, sawed into his own limbs and kissed a rural beauty. ‘I wait for you,’ she told him.
But Finnish Days is not a love story. The youthful Koch had gone to Finland to be alone, acting on a deeply-felt existential urge that he wasn’t to under- stand until much later in life. His father had told him to think about his future. In Koch’s reflections on the subject, we recognize a portrait of the writer as a young man, or rather – a portrait of a young man in mourning, who wants to be a writer but daren’t admit it.
In Finland, where physical labor served as an antidepressant, he couldn’t use language to get by, let alone hide behind irony. He knew two words of Finnish: ‘äiti’ (mother) and ‘kuollut’ (dead). Nearly all of the Finnish episode is recounted in the first of the book’s three parts, although Koch makes strategic use of some omitted information towards the end. But Finnish Days covers Koch’s entire life, complete with tangents and detours – from his love of motorbikes to his strange relationship with hotel rooms.
Koch has found a clever alternative to the powerful, convergent quality of his previous, plot-driven work. Here, following the path of his life gives the book the required structure, and the core theme – the genesis of Koch’s life as a reclusive writer – throws that life into intriguing relief. And the truth? ‘The only truth is the book,’ he says. Finnish Days is a book about how stories are shaped and reshaped, about the strength and weakness of memory, and an intimate portrait of the writer as a young man, contrasted with the present day.