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Kirsti Paltto: Guržo luottat

If you are wondering why I have not put the English translation for this book, that is because all sources say Guržo luottat is difficult to translate without attempting to do so. The Finnish translation of the book was Run Now, Son of Njalla while the German translation means Signs of Destruction. This link proposes Run, White Fox as the title, without indicating where this may have come from, though it seems to accord with the Finnish translation, as njálla means arctic fox in Sámi.

The novel, apparently the first novel in Sámi by a woman, tells of a group of Sámi, starting at the end of World War II. While Paltto gives us a broad picture of an entire community, with all their comings and goings, romantic involvements, financial concerns, legal problems, disagreements and arguments and health problems. However the main focus is on Antaras and his family. Unlike most of the other Sámi we meet, Antaras is a Norwegian. (Most of the others are Finnish or, in one or two cases, from Karelia, which used to be Finnish till it was seized by the Soviet Union.) The novel starts in World War II. The Soviet Union and Finland are at war. As a result, the Finns are technically allies of the Germans. However, the Germans have taken advantage of the situation to essentially invade Finland and are hated by the Finns and the Sámi. Because of the German incursion into their territory, the Sámi are obliged to evacuate their territory. We see the Sámi leaving but some, Antaras in particular, do not go. Antaras hides in the rushes when the boats leave, with his wife, Sofe, and children going off without him.

The initial part of the book is about how Antaras and the few others that have remained survive. We follow them as they herd their reindeer, hide their goods, fight off wolves and manage to steal food from the Germans where they can. They are joined by another Sámi, Aimo, who had been in the Finnish army but was separated from his unit. They do survive and they also hear about the end of the war. However, all is still not well, not least because the region has mines throughout and the authorities will not let people back till they have been cleared. When they are finally allowed to go back, Sofe sets off with her children and they get back home. Everything is in a state of chaos. Much has been destroyed or stolen, More importantly, there is no sign of Antaras. The people gradually start clearing up and trying to salvage what they can. Some have not returned. Several children, including a son of Sofe and Antaras, died while away. Some men did not return from the war. One man has been reported missing and his family spend a lot of time wondering whether he will return or not. Some of the men have been wounded and can no longer carry out the tasks that they used to.

Meanwhile, Sofe and Johanas, her eldest son, are very much wondering what happened to Antaras. Is he on the other side of the mountains, herding their reindeer? Some men say that he has disappeared after stealing their reindeer. Others say he is worried about being arrested for desertion, despite the fact that he is Norwegian and not Finnish. Sofe and Johanas have to get on with their lives, which they do. They find Antaras’ boat, which he had hidden, so they can fish. Johanas is interested in a young woman but her parents do not consider him suitable and want her to marry an older man. Meanwhile, Johanas flirts with shamanism, the traditional religion of the Sámi. Antaras does eventually turn up with his reindeer but then faces the problems that others had anticipated. In particular, he is accused of stealing the reindeer of other people and there is a detailed police investigation.

Paltto tells an excellent story of a group of Sámi people in Finland at the end of and just after World War II. She does not sentimentalise it. These are people trying to live their ordinary lives but faced with various problems, including the war and its aftermath but also examining their place in the world. They wonder if there could ever be a Sámi country, uniting all the Sámi from the different nation-states. They feel out of place in Finland, often unable to speak Finnish (Antaras) or only with difficulty (Sofe) and mocked for their accent and use of dialect. They also face what other minority peoples face, namely the problems of religion. Some are Christian, while others prefer the traditional shamanistic culture. They also have their everyday problems. There is, for example, a long story about an inheritance and the legal aspects of that. Several of the key characters die during the book, one in particular because of lack of access to proper medical care. While Antaras comes across as something of a noble man, some of the others are definitely not noble. As the story of a people little known outside Northern Europe, it is well worth reading. Sadly, of course, it is not available in English.

Publishing history

First published by Gielas in 1991
No English translation
Published in German as Zeichen der Zerstörung in 1997 by Persona Verlag
Translated by Regine Pirschel
Also translated into Finnish