Review: Maa on syntinen laulu by Timo K. Mukka (Eng. The Earth is a Sinful Song)

GUMMERUS, 2013/1964

Disclaimer: This book has, unfortunately, not been translated into English. Thus all the excerpts here have been translated by yours truly. 

Timo K. Mukka’s exquisite debut novel is like a ballad – startling and beautiful in its coarseness. The story follows Martta, a young woman, and a small village in Lapland where people are torn between feverish religiousness and strong sexual instincts. Martta falls is love with a Sami reindeer herder and their brief and unconventional love story is described in a way that is rough and naturalistic but at the same time very lyrical. Against the backdrop of the powerful and extreme nature of Lapland and the depressing life of a closed community. The religious fervour and the oppressing atmosphere of the homestead create a tough opposition for Martta’s love story.

Timo K. Mukka (1944–1973) published his debut novel at the tender age of 19. The reception of the novel was crushing as the strong descriptions of the sexual and religious acts were too much for the readers at the time. The attitudes of the media and the readers remained conflicted throughout Mukka’s career and the appreciation for his works began rising only after his early death. Nowadays Timo K. Mukka is considered one the most influential Finnish writers of his time.

Having lived some years in the northern Finland, you cannot avoid hearing the name of Timo K. Mukka. Mukka lived most of his life in northern Finland and many of his novels are also set in there. However, although his reputation still lives on, he is not a novelist whose works are particularly read or appreciated. In that sense, there is a clear divide between the readers in northern Finland and in southern Finland, where Mukka’s influence is stronger. As for me, I probably would not have picked up The Earth is Sinful Song for a long while if it were not for the TBR 274 list. The blurb and the themes don’t really appeal to me that much and it was only because of the cover and some reviews praising his unique writing style that I decided to give this novel a try.

The Earth is a Sinful Song describes the people living in a small village in northern Lapland in the 1940s. The main character Martta is a young woman approaching adulthood and the book follows her journey of coming to terms with her sexuality and the realities of marriage in a small, close-knit community. Mixed in to the story are the relationship of her parents, the angry and sickly mother, the father who alternates between heavy drinking and hard working, and the old man who keeps a close eye on everyone. The life in the community revolves around two opposing issues: alcohol and religion, both of which include a hefty dose of sexual acts. When Martta sets her heart on the disreputable reindeer herder, she has to deal with the reactions from both her family as well as her nosy neighbours.

The writing reflects the dialect of the region which sets the story on the context of Lapland in the 1940s. Most of the time the story felt light-years away from modern day and it made it very hard for me to understand the actions of the characters. The praised style of writing was great, and I adored the short snippets of the melody that was strewn between chapters – if only the rest had been as mystical as that I would have given it five stars regardless of the plot. In the end, The Earth is a Sinful Song however was not to my taste and I found myself occasionally very alienated from the book. I understand the controversy as well as the novelty of the book, but the crudeness was a bit too much for me personally. It made the point it was trying, but in no way was it in good taste. Keeping all this in mind, I still very much appreciated how the book challenged me as a reader – it pushed me outside of my comfort zone and made me view things from a different perspective. For that reason solely, I would recommend The Earth is a Sinful Song as an example of experimental and modernist Finnish fiction. Nevertheless, I don’t think I’ll be taking on any of Timo K. Mukka’s other books any time soon. A very conflicting read.




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