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Volter Kilpi: Gulliverin matka Fantomimian mantereelle (Gulliver’s Voyage to Phantomimia)

When Volter Kilpi died in 1939, he left behind an unfinished novel – this one – purportedly an account of Lemuel Gulliver’s fifth voyage. Many of us read Gulliver’s Travels as children, often in an edition made suitable for children or even as a comic. I suspect relatively few, English majors excepted, have read it as an adult.

This story is a found manuscript story. Kilpi was a professional librarian and, in this story, a librarian receives an old manuscript which turns out to be this fifth voyage. He translated it into Finnish. It is this text, now translated back into English by Doug Robinson, which forms the bulk of this book.

I say forms the bulk of this book but it certainly is not the entire book. It is normally the role of the translator to faithfully translate the original text into the target language and, perhaps, add some background or explanatory notes to help the reader understand more about the author and the book. Robinson certainly does that but he does much more. The term he uses is transcreate.

Firstly, he goes full post-modern. He invents a decidedly post-modern story explaining the genesis of the manuscript. Basically, he, Robinson, is a keen student of the Vorticist Manifesto. It is generally accepted that the manifesto, though signed by various writers and artists, was written by Wyndham Lewis. Robinson is having none of it and suspects Ezra Pound may be the real author. He visits various libraries around the world to examine papers of the various participants but to no avail till he ends up in the Beineke Library at Yale.

Robinson has suspected that someone might be trying o sabotage him – he has various pieces of evidence to this effect – but at the Beineke, it seems his guardian angel, who appears to be called James and may or many not be Ezra Pound reborn or even his ghost, helps him. James gives him a box which seems to be irrelevant, marked Ethel Cartwright (Venus?). He cannot find out who Ethel Cartwright is but he does find a connection between the Vorticist Manifesto and Gulliver’s fifth voyage and the manuscript of said voyage. In short, it turns out that the manuscript Robinson has found is the original English of Kilpi’s work, which now seems not to be a story made up by Kilpi but an actual text written presumably, by Swift.

Robinson pursues the story, with things getting more complicated, even with possible extraterrestrial implications. We are told at the end about a Finnish reader who damns Robinson but he, too, may be fictitious. How you feel on Robinson’s interjection and story may depend on your view of the role of the translator but, I must say, I found it quite fun and clever and did enjoy it.

Robinson has not finished. Swift published the work in 1726. Robinson therefore writes his translation in what purports to be eighteenth century English. I am no expert on eighteenth century English so I cannot judge how accurate his rendition is but I can say that it certainly gives the tale an archaic feel. Again, how you react will depend on your view of the role of the translator. You will find words you do not know(selcouth, a word I was not familiar with, appears twenty-five times), unusual orthography and odd punctuation. It works for me because it does make it feel old but others may disagree.

Finally, Kilpi left the story unfinished but did give his son a rough idea of how he thought it might continue and Robinson has finished the novel based on this. I will discuss it further when I come to that section.

So, onto the actual translation of Kilpi’s novel…

The story is narrated by Gulliver who has a neighbour called Cartwright, a whaler. The two are talking and complain about how it is getting warmer – Kilpi was clearly well ahead of everyone else on the global warming issue. They feel that the Arctic may be melting and, in short, the two decide to sail to the North Pole to investigate. They get together a crew, including Cartwright’s eldest son, called Ethel. (Was Kilpi unaware that Ethel is a female name in English?) Cartwright plans to do some whaling and prepares accordingly.

The journey is uneventful. Indeed, it is perhaps too uneventful. They see no other ships, no ice and no whales. However, one thing that does eventually happen is that the ship goes faster, seemingly because of faster currents. They also attract a lot of birds, presumably using the ship as a convenient resting pace. However, to cut a long story short, they get caught in a whirlpool, which gradually drags them down into a vortex. En route, which takes a very long time, they lose most of the crew who are thrown off, as the ship is at a seventy degree angle.

Eventually, Cartwright works out a clever way of reversing their direction of travel down the vortex and the four remaining crew, Cartwright father and son, Gulliver and a man called Higgins, escape. However, when they surface, they find a lot of ice, which blocks their southward progression. They travel West, looking for a southward passage which they eventually find.

They travel down this passage but, suddenly, the ice closes in and traps them in both direction. They have to flee the ship, making a sledge out of the boards and taking what they can. While resting they are suddenly approached by flying machines (Swift used flying islands in his original tale). The occupants are human, speak English and claim to be on expedition arranged by the London Geodetickall Club. The flyers are clearly English and, as we soon learn are from the future or, rather, from Kilpi’s time. They seem far more interested in our heroes’ possessions – their clothes, the sextant, their coins – than in the men themselves. At Gulliver’s instigation, our heroes pretend that they are fishermen who went astray and who found the items in a cave. (Interestingly, while this seems to work, later on in the story, in Robinson’s completion of it, it seems to be accepted that they are from the past.)

The men are flown back to England and stay in a big city, presumably London. (It should be noted that Kilpi only once left Finland and that was to visit Estonia. He had never been to England, as is shown by the fact that the currency they have is dollars and not pounds.) The men struggle with the modern world – cars, the hotel, lifts, paper currency but are just about to explore the city when Kilpi’s part ends.

We know that Kilpi had discussed a possible ending with his eldest son, involving Ethel inventing a plane which would travel back in time to their own time, at which point the plane would completely self-destruct so the 19th century villagers could not use it.

Robinson takes this outline and elaborates it considerably. Firstly, our heroes meet the Trumpian King Dick the Stiff who seems to be in battle with the Venusians and has evil plans to control them. They seem to be, more or less, the good guys (the Democrats?) Our heroes do escape, despite King Dick’s attempts to stop them, but inadvertently end up in biblical times, specifically the Battle of Jericho, the conquest of Ai and subsequent (probably fictitious) conquests and slaughters. As in Kilpi’s original idea they do finally get home.

In his seminal The Guide to Modern World Literature, Martin Seymour-Smith describes the work as a failure, a poor attempt made too late to find a popular audience by combining social criticism with science fiction adventures. Seymour-Smith is often too harsh. Moreover, did he really read the original Finnish or was this judgement in fact made by someone else? Whatever the case, I cannot agree with him.

The two key issues for modern English-speaking readers are does Kilpi’s part work and do Robinson’s additions work and are they appropriate? Edgar Allan Poe, of course, tried something similar as regards the warming of the Poles, in his The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Certainly, I thought Kilpi’s tale was well-done and it is a pity that we do not have his ending to it. Given that, to date, we have no other novels of Kilpi in English, we must be grateful to have this.

Purists would argue that Robinson’s transcreation goes way beyond his remit as a translator, to which I would reply that if you do not want to read his additions then do not. The Kilpi translation can be read on its own. Some may find Robinson’s 18th century English jarring. I did not though obviously I cannot tell how much it reflects the original Finnish.

I thought his initial, post-modern telling of the story of the manuscript quite fun, particularly linking it up with the Vorticist Manifesto. His completion of the work does, to a certain degree follow Kilpi’s outline, though clearly the Trumpian King Dick the Stiff and the biblical episodes are Robinson rather than Kilpi. With the Israelis slaughtering the Canaanites (called Denizens of Palestine) there is presumably a political point being made, one I can agree with but not one Kilpi would necessarily have made. Trump, for real or satirised, is obnoxious and again obviously not something Kilpi would have recognised. Indeed, he was fairly right-wing and may well have supported Trump. However, as Kilpi would have written, our heroes do get home.

I imagine that this book will have only limited distribution. As far as I can see you have to get it from the Romanian publisher (it is available in ebook and hard copy format). However, within that limited distribution it will attract a certain amount of controversy, because of Robinson’s liberties. Overall, I think that we should be very glad that Doug Robinson and Zeta Books have made this work available in English.

Incidentally, Kilpi is not the only Finnish author to have a go at Gulliver’s Travels. Eira Steinberg has written a book called Gulliverin tytär = Gulliver’s Daughter), described as a critique of civilisation and a continuation of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Sadly, to date it has not been translated into any other language. Perhaps Doug Robinson could make that his next project.

Publishing history

First published in 1944 by Otava
First published in English in 2020 by Zeta Books
Translated by Doug Robinson