Chitambo by Hagar Olsson

Translated by Sarah Death

Reviewed by Karen Langley

When we think of Nordic fiction nowadays, we’re probably inevitably aware of the preponderance of Scandi-crime; it not only seems to have taken over as the predominant kind of crime fiction, but has also seeped onto TV screens. However, two handsome new releases from Norvik Press (a publishing house specialising in Scandinavian literature and based in UCL’s Department of Scandinavian Studies) set out to challenge this notion. These books, from women writers of the 1930s, are groundbreaking modernist works and translated into English for the first time; and I’ll consider here Chitambo by Hagar Olsson.

Total meaninglessness is the defining characteristic of all tasks considered constitutionally suitable for women.

Olsson (1893 –1978) was a Swedish-speaking Finnish writer, literary critic, playwright and translator. Relatively little known in the Anglophone world, she was a prolific author, receiving the Eino Leino Prize in 1965; and Chitambo was published in a period that saw many other important modernist texts appear. The book is subtitled The Story of Vega Maria, and does indeed tell the life story of Vega Maria Dreary, a young girl growing up and coming of age in the Finland of the early 20th century. Vega is born in 1893 (as was her author) and her father, whom she refers to throughout as simply “Mr. Dreary”, is convinced she has been born under a special sign and will go on to have an important purpose in life. So much of her upbringing is shaped by her father and his obsessions, his tales of derring-do, his admiration for all manner of explorers. Vega and Mr. Dreary are obsessed with the figure of David Livingstone (who died in a village apparently named Chitambo, though some sources say this was the name of the village’s chief); and Vega’s yearnings to travel and have great adventures are very out of keeping for a girl of her time.

Admittedly with someone like Mr Dreary there is no justification for drawing logical conclusions; inconsistency was his only truly reliable character trait.

And indeed, a counter influence exists in the form of Vega’s mother; a long-suffering, traditional housewife who wants nothing more than a calm life and for her daughter to conform. This is not going to be likely in Finland during the early 20th century; for the country had been a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire for around 100 years, and events taking place in Russia during 1917 had an inevitable effect. There was civil war and conflict; and this would change the society in which Vega was living. There are all kinds of new beliefs developing, and Mr. Dreary comes under the sway of a mysterious doctor, some kind of philosophical leader. The book follows Vega as she struggles with her own viewpoint, her dreams and goals, and works her way through feminism to try to find her own identity. However, her biggest struggle appears to be to break from her past.

It is truly terrible to think how much a small child knows.

Chitambo has a fascinating structure; the memories of Vega’s past are told in first person narrative, in episodic sections revisiting important points of her life. However, these are interspersed with sequences where the adult Vega reflects on that past, humorously at times, but painfully at others. She also undergoes a deep emotional crisis, owing to some unexpected encounters. Several individuals have been important to her, including her wonderful Uncle Eberhard; a more complex relationship is with Tancred, the love of her life, who goes off to fight and comes back changed. The difference between the male and female experience is never more clearly shown that here, and both Vega and Tancred have grown, but in very different ways. Although both wish to build a new kind of world with different relationships between men and women, the old ways are in many ways instilled into their being. Vega will come to some kind of resolution, but it’s clear that no simple ‘-ism’ will be the solution for her.

The idea of reading modernist works can be off-putting for some readers, I know; however, Chitambo is an extremely readable book, full of beautiful and evocative writing, and often very funny. Young Vega is witty and wry, with a quirky and distinctive narrative voice; her pen portraits of Mr. Dreary, for example, are wonderfully entertaining. And the gradual process of growing up and losing much of her naivety is cleverly portrayed in the writing, although Vega never loses her passion for life and exploration. If she does find herself, it’s by jettisoning what has gone before, which is never an easy thing to do.

With every passing day I felt freer, bolder, more vital – and before I knew it, the irrevocable decision had matured within me that I would at any cost steer my course round the submerged rocks of womanhood, around office and housekeeping and other stagnant waters, out towards the freedom of the coast where a human being, one element against the elements, can seize her own fate in her hands.

Chitambo is a stunning book; full of wonderful prose, evocative settings and memorable characters, it charts the life and experiences of its narrator most memorably. Olsson’s characters leap off the page, from the volatile Mr. Dreary through the flamboyant but ultimately disappointing Miss Jonsson via the wise Uncle Eberhard (my favourite, I think) to the young firebrand Tancred. Vega herself is a wonderful creation: passionate, emotional, intense and often sassy, I couldn’t help but wonder how much of herself Olsson poured into Vega’s character.

I’ve read a limited amount of Nordic literature, and much of it has been written by men. I suspect that, as I’ve seen mentioned elsewhere, there is an imbalance in the number of women authors being translated (because they obviously were writing). Chitambo is translated by Sarah Death, who also provides notes and an excellent afterword, giving details of Olsson’s life and work as well as putting the book in context. Chitambo is a wonderful read, a real window into women’s lives and struggles at the time, and kudos should go to Norvik Press for translating this groundbreaking and fascinating book. 

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and is drawn to the coast and big landscapes herself.

Hagar Olsson, Chitambo (Norvik Press, 2020). 978-1909408555, 206pp, paperback.

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Comments

  1. This sounds brilliant – I know something of early 20th century Finnish history thanks to my work with Finnish clients and reading a book set then would very much appeal. Hooray for this new imprint!

    1. It’s an excellent imprint, and I wish I’d heard of them before. Plus the books are very nicely produced. I think you would enjoy this Liz, particularly with your knowledge of the context. A good one for #WITmonth if you’re taking part! ;D

  2. I don’t think that she very well known here either; at least I had never heard of her. But I’ll definitely be looking for her in the Finnish books in English section in the academic bookstore in Helsinki!

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