What do you do when you have nothing left? It’s a question that’s generally treated existentially in literature rather than in relation to absolute poverty. Yes, novels are littered with characters who lack money, but how many of them are so desperate their continued survival is threatened by want? It’s a question with more relevance than ever as we consider the thousands making their way to Europe driven by that same desperation. While conflict is largely blamed for this migration, another underlying factor is the droughts caused by global warming and the famine which follows in their wake. Aki Ollikaininen’s White Hunger deals with this very topic, albeit in 19th century Finland.
The novel follows the fate of one family driven from their home by hunger. Ollikainen cleverly opens with a Prologue which shows the family working together in already difficult circumstances, establishing the bonds between them. The father, Juhani, catches fish, but even they are “skinny”. Winter is approaching – the swans, he says, have already headed south. When Juhani and his wife, Marja, make love that night she fears falling pregnant: “Another mouth to feed, in this misery.” Hunger is already a problem and, with winter approaching, it will only get worse. When we next meet them, Juhani is dying, having stopped eating so that his wife and children can. If they are not to quickly follow him, Marja and the children, Mataleena and Juho, must leave:
“Marja places the last of the straw bread in Juhani’s hand. She fills the saucepan with snow and carries it to the side of the bed, within her husband’s reach.
‘This is all I can do,’ she whispers.”
And so they leave their home, falling first on the mercy of a neighbour, towards their own promised land, St Petersburg because “Marja cannot imagine anyone being permitted to starve in the Tsar’s city. There’s enough bread for everyone in St Petersburg.” They continue in the face of the disbelief of those they encounter:
“Best forget all that. Who knows if it’s possible to get away from here at all…”
They are met with a mixture of kindness and suspicion – food is short everywhere. Often they are only helped on the promise that they will move on the next day; sometimes there is no help at all:
“You’re not carting your beggars here, surely. Oh no, you don’t…You look after your own. We’ve got enough here as it is, no need to ferry in more from neighbouring parishes.”
The family’s story is told in chapters each focusing on one member; their titles, for example The Book of Marja, are in keeping with their timelessness. This does indeed feel like a Biblical famine. These are alternated with shorter sections, one of which is simply headed The Senator and tells of the apparent powerlessness of a politician in the face of this suffering. The other is dated, beginning in October 1867 and finishing in April 1868. In this narrative we meet two brothers, Lars and Teo. Lars works for the senator, whereas as Teo is a doctor of dubious morals. When we first meet them, they are playing chess – Lars’ reference to the situation on the board looking “hopeless” feels like a description of the country, as, perhaps, his consideration of sacrificing a pawn. Teo seems the more human of the brothers, but his work with the poor is at least partly driven by sexual desire. We next see him with the prostitute Cecelia – a perk of his work at the brothel. He claims to feel affection for her but she dismisses his attempts to discover her background, presumably driven to the city and her occupation by starvation – another migrant.
The stories do, of course, become intertwined, but adding these other narratives allows the novel to be more than a tale of suffering and instead to reflect on the way in which the country itself is affected and changed. You might say they give us the bigger picture the senator considers most important:
“People seem terrible interested in details, he thinks. The most important thing, however, is to see the whole; only the bigger picture gives the details their significance.”
However, it is the horrifying details of Matja’s family’s story which we retain. Though set in the cold north (white is the colour of hunger because nothing grows in the winter; it also suggests white skin stretched over white bone), this is a timely reminder of the hopelessness people can face and the impossible choices which result.