Popular Music by Mikael Niemi is undoubtedly the strangest book I’ve read this year. It was recommended and lent to me by huskyteer. We’re agreed that promoting the author as ‘the Nick Hornby of the Arctic’ is misleading; if you were expecting a Nordic High Fidelity, you’d be disappointed. I snuggled under my IKEA duvet cover to read about Matti growing up in Pajala, Tornedalen, in the far north of Sweden; within the Arctic Circle and a very long way from Stockholm. It’s a salutary reminder that ‘the sixties’ were far from being a homogenous experience, because we’re talking peasant society here. And what a society! Seldom can such a cast of grotesques have formed the background to a child’s life. This is part of the charm of the book, of course; just as in Lake Wobegon Days adult life as seen by a child is desirable but completely alien and incomprehensible. We see Matti through various life stages: starting school, first drink, first gang, first sex. There are some extraordinary and confusing scenes. One event is definitely an hallucinatory experience but several others *might* be. Did these things happen, or not? On finishing the book I read the Swedish reviews at the back and found them referring to ‘tall stories’ and ‘fabulism’, so I was over-credulous.
Rokunroal muzzeek is central to Matti’s growing up, though there’s less of it in the book than the title suggests. The story of how Matti makes enough money to buy a guitar is quite revolting, though I see it could be hilarious. He teaches himself to play and to sing in English: Ollyu nidis lav and Owatter shayd ovpail; I had to read those titles twice. Then he forms a band with his best friend and two other boys and they proceed to astonish and shock the neighbourhood. ‘Some of our mates gave us the highest praise you will ever hear from the mouth of a Tornedalen citizen: “You weren’t too bad, really”’. Pure Wobegon. Matti has been warned by his father that thinking too much and reading lead inevitably to madness. He and Niila worry that rokunroal may be knapsu, a dialect or Finnish word meaning ‘unmanly’ (like knitting) but nothing can stop them playing.
In its way this book is an elegy for a lost society, a village community in terminal decline. It’s very sweet and I loved it. Wish I could read Swedish though, because I feel I'm missing something.