I was walking my dog the other day and ran into an older distinguished gentleman. We started the usual chit-chat and, upon hearing that I was a writer, he launched into a spirited panegyric about Kurt Vonnegut. This wasn’t the first time this has happened. Finns seem to have a special affinity for him.
Even though Finland is only the 113th most populous country in the world, it is ranked number five in internet searches for Kurt Vonnegut. His books still sell well, even though he has been dead for eight years. It is common to see his novels on display alongside books which have just been released. So what is it about Finns and Vonnegut?
Vonnegut only visited Finland twice to my knowledge. On both occasions he wasn’t particularly interested in Finland, but instead in the fact that it was easier to pass the Iron Curtain here than anywhere else. During his research trip for Slaughterhouse-Five he and his friend Bernie O’Hare stayed one night in Helsinki. They were, of course, kept awake by drunk Finns partying outside his window.
So as far as I can tell there were no direct connections between Kurt Vonnegut and Finland. Instead, I think Finns are interested in Vonnegut for three reasons. First, Vonnegut was a master at dark humour. Finns love dark humour. Toss in a bit of sarcasm and satire and cynicism spices and you have a tasty dish Finns love.
‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’
Finns also like Vonnegut because he was a global humanist who wasn’t afraid to moralise. Vonnegut famously said ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’ He didn’t say this from some supposed religious authority – perhaps because organised religion doesn’t seem to stress kindness much nowadays – but instead from his simple humanity. Finns distrust organised religions but appreciate ethical humanity.
Finally, and most importantly, Vonnegut wrote for lonely people. Most of his protagonists – Billy Pilgrim, Malachi Constant, Kilgore Trout – are solitary figures, even if they are married and have families. Many of his plots are about lonely people dealing with the world in which they live.
In Slaughterhouse-Five we have the hero struggling to communicate with other people as he tries to come to terms with the horror of the Dresden firebombing. When Billy’s mother visits him in the hospital he can’t talk to her and instead hides under the blankets. If you think this sounds like the lonely social awkwardness of Karoliina Korhonen’s comic strip Finnish Nightmares, you’re right. Finns identify with these characters.
Timequake is full of direct addresses to the lonely. He reassures them in some places: ‘Many people need desperately to receive this message: “I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.”‘ In others he gives them a call to action: ‘We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.’
In Slapstick a key plot point is about the creation of artificial extended families because modern families tend to be ephemeral and much smaller. Nowadays individuals are more isolated and we don’t have that huge emotional safety net of relatives living with us or at least nearby.
‘We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.’
This is particularly true in Finland. One in five Finns live alone, compared to one in ten Americans. The Nordic welfare state has been justly praised for its compassion for the individual, but it also has the unintended side effect of supporting the disintegration of the family. There are not many places in the world where an unemployed teenager can move out of the house into her own place, but it is standard procedure in Finland.
Vonnegut had a deep empathy for the lonely. He tried to speak to them, for them, in a world which is cold and dark and doesn’t make a lot of sense. Finns are lonely people. It is a popular joke about how Finns shun human interaction – so popular that comic strips like Finnish Nightmares can thrive. It’s funny, but it is also true. Just because they choose to be alone doesn’t mean they aren’t lonely.