Schildts förlag, 2011. ISBN: 9789515020055
Reviewed by Željka Černok in SBR 2011:1
The Fly Tamer is an historical novel about Johan Ludvig Runeberg, the Finnish national poet of the nineteenth century, whose famous poem Our Country became the national anthem. With such a topic most readers would expect quite a serious approach. However, the novel was written by Erik Wahlstöm and that makes all the difference. So, what can a reader expect from a writer who in his famous novel The Dancing Priest (2004) tackled such a huge personality as Uno Cygnæus, the ‘Father of the State Primary School’ and, two years later, completed a novel about God? Primarily, not really the sombre respect one ordinarily assumes that the national bard would deserve and demand, but instead immense love and care for his flawed characters and a masterly command of the subject. At the beginning of the novel we meet Runeberg, a grumpy, mean old man in a wheelchair, who tames flies named after his colleagues and treats his wife Frederika horribly. Once his muse, Frederika is now just someone he has to put up with. Although she is almost deaf, he demands that she reads to him, but he makes her leave the room to turn each page as he claims the racket is simply unbearable. Frederika is aware that there were many other muses in Runeberg’s life. She knows all of them and also Runeberg’s little tricks to get close to them. Here the reader can thrill to a description of the esteemed national poet trying his standard approach: he gives a woman a scarf, asks her to put it around her neck, helps her adjust it and gets to touch her breasts. But we also learn that he once respected his wife’s writing and encouraged her, until he finally gave up, exasperated to the point of sadism by her lack of self-esteem. This despite Frederika’s educated and respected family and his own lower class background. We are told of the opinions on his poetry and personality held by important figures in Finnish culture like Snellman and Aleksis Kivi and by his closest friends Stenbäck and Fredrik Cygnæus, who feared and ridiculed him at the same time. And we are also party to comments made by servants, lovers and even animals, which offer us insights into many things that are not known (or maybe should not be known at all) about this great poet. Wahlström’s characters are given to making subversive hints of the ‘nudge, nudge … know what I mean’ type and the results are often hilarious. Erik Wahlström is an exceptionally skilful writer, who manages to combine all these varied voices masterfully and creates a structure that is impressive and demands your attention. The chronology is fragmented and it is only towards the end that it tightens in order to focus on describing Runeberg’s childhood. We arrive at a slightly firmer psychological explanation of his sadistic side and his need to tame everything and everybody around him. Not that it is Wahlström’s intention to demean Runeberg, only to remove the great national writer from his pedestal and show him as a man of flesh and blood. He shows this immensely talented and admired poet struggling with a writer’s block and unleashing terror on everybody around him. He is also not afraid to criticise Runeberg’s poems, uncover their weaknesses and to put them in the context of the author’s personal life. Wahlström is possibly the perfect writer for dealing with the clash between the ideals of high poetry and the small irritations of everyday life. He manages to make the narrative interesting, funny, insightful and smart without ever being pretentious. No indepth knowledge of Finland’s nineteenth century cultural history is required to enjoy this novel thoroughly.