Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

 
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Plain talk

By Mursi Saad El-Din

Mursi Saad El-Din

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting the cultural attachés and councellors of the countries of the European Union, at the invitation of the Finish Embassy, Finland being the current chairman of the union. After over an hour's exchange of ideas, I emerged from the meeting convinced there was an important side of European culture to which we were strangers. When we talk or write about European art or literature, we seem always to have in mind England, France, Italy and Germany. We forget, as a result of ignorance, other demonstrations of art and literature in other European countries.

Within a couple of days I received a number of publications from the countries that had attended the meeting and, I must say, was very impressed. I pored over what I got and discovered real jewels of literature and fine arts. From Finland I received a collection of stories and poems, translated into English. What I liked about the anthology was the way the editors collected their material. The stories and poems followed a chronological order, with sections given over to childhood, home, war etc. By the time the end is reached the writer has imbibed a detailed picture of Finnish life from Finland's secession from Sweden up until today.

Among the prose pieces was a chapter from Senuhe, The Egyptian by Valtari. We know the novel very well: it has been translated into Arabic and a dozen other languages. Few, though, realise the author is Finnish. This column is no place to question the authenticity of the historical facts included in the novel and I must confess I particularly enjoyed the episode in which the pharaoh undergoes a little brain surgery.

The anthology contains several stories about the war, including The Unetched Heart by the wonderful Finnish writer Eeava Yonpento. I had the pleasure of meeting Yonpento, a Finn of Swedish origin, on many occasions, both at conferences of the International PEN and in Helsinki, which I used to visit regularly as the representative of the Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee at the World Peace Council. The council is head-quartered in the Finnish capital.

The Unetched Heart is the story of a mother who lost her twenty five-year old son in the war. The duration of the story covers a walk the mother is taking with her widowed daughter-in-law to the graveyard where those soldiers killed are interred. The mother seems to begrudge the fact that her son had married this woman, comparing her lifetime of devotion to the two months in which they were married. It is a heart-rending tale of loss, and of desperation.

One discovery I made was the importance of Finnish folklore. The Finns have what they call a Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, a kind of hybrid of the Illiad, Beowulf and several Indian folk-religious epics.

The Kalevala has been translated into 46 languages including Arabic.

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