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The Works of Frans Eemil Sillanpää: An Exploration of Finnish National Identity

Picture of Lindsay Parnell
Lindsay Parnell
Updated: 6 January 2017
Through his poetic bildungsromans and political essays, Frans Eemil Sillanpää has brilliantly captured the essence of Finland. Lindsay Parnell explains how the writer’s portrayal of rural life and exploration of the country’s tumultuous history earned him a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1939.

Finish literature is defined by its respectful observance of traditions and evocation of cultural folklore. These timeless mythologies transcend generations, providing an exceptionally rich history and stimulating search for national identity. In fact, by exploring their culture and identity, Finland’s writers and artists have produced works of great creativity. But there is no writer whose work has succeeded so well in analysing these ideas as Finland’s only recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature: 1939 winner Frans Eemil Sillanpää. Fusing together the arts with the political, Sillanpää’s works not only demonstrate an exceptional literary talent, but they have also inspired the writer’s fellow countrymen for decades.

Born in 1888, Sillanpää was raised into a peasant family. Although poor, he was afforded a proper education and, at the age of twenty, moved to Helsinki to pursue a career in medicine. In 1913, five years after relocating, Sillanpää abandoned his medical studies to move back home in order to dedicate himself to writing – his true passion. Sillanpää’s writing career took off in 1915 with the publication of his first novel Elämä ja aurinko – translated into English in 1916 under the title Life and the Sun. The novel chronicles the homecoming of a young man propelled into a summer of love, and it poignantly describes the intricacies of human relationships.In 1919, Hurskas Kurjuus and its English translation Meek Heritage were published. This stirring fiction explores Finland’s 1918 civil war through the story of a Finnish peasant who inadvertently becomes involved with a military regime known as the ‘Red Guards’.

However, it wasn’t until 1931 that Sillanpää received international acclaim with the publication of his novel Nuorena nukkunut (published in the United States under the title, The Maid Silja, and the same year in the United Kingdom under the title, Fallen Asleep While Young. Nuorena nukkunut tells the epic cross-generational tale of a Finnish family through its last living descendent, Silja. The character’s transformation from young girl to woman is told in a breathtakingly poetic prose, and the bildungsroman is also a moving exploration of Finnish history.

Much like his fellow countryman Väinö Linna, Frans Eemil Sillanpää’s literary works embody with gusto a strong national pride and offer a reverent analysis of the writer’s beloved country as well as its people.