Finland’s Jewish answer to ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’
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Finland’s Jewish answer to ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’

Veteran crime novelist Harri Nykanen tells the Times of Israel why his latest hero, Ariel Kafka, is a Jewish detective who’s equally skeptical of Israelis and Arab Finns

Harri Nykanen, author of "Nights of Awe."  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Harri Nykanen, author of "Nights of Awe." (photo credit: Courtesy)
Harri Nykanen, author of "Nights of Awe." (photo credit: Courtesy)
Harri Nykanen, author of “Nights of Awe.” (photo credit: Courtesy)

If its detective novels are any indication, Scandinavia is full of unlikely crime fighters: hackers with unusual tattoos, and now Jewish policemen living in Helsinki.

In “Nights of Awe,” Finnish writer Harri Nykanen, 58, introduces readers to Ariel Kafka, a hardened Jewish investigator who’s clearly spent some time in religious school. Newly translated into English, the book opens with a mysterious set of murders in Helsinki, then expands into a case involving Arab terrorists, drug traffickers, a beautiful actress and the Mossad. Set during the Jewish calendar’s High Holy Days, the novel is named in reference to the Days of Awe, the period of self-reflection between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, when the Jewish Kafka is as concerned with the crimes of others as on his own sins. (With the exception of an El Al flight scheduled for just before the start of Yom Kippur, the novel gets its Jewish details correct.)

The novel is named in reference to the Days of Awe, the period of self-reflection between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, when the Jewish Kafka is as concerned with the crimes of others as on his own sins

Engaging and unexpected, the book marks the first of four novels Nykanen has written about Kafka, a gruff but likable antihero focused here on a possible terrorist plot against Israel’s foreign minister.

In an e-mail exchange with the Times of Israel, the non-Jewish Nykanen explains where he got the idea for his latest crime fighter, describes the research that made the character credible, and discusses how Finland’s tiny Jewish minority is viewed by its neighbors. He also reflects on similarities between Finland and Israel, proper food-sharing etiquette in saunas, and that famous “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”

Nykanen’s comments have been edited for length and continuity.

Where did the idea for a Jewish detective come from? Are there any in Helsinki?

I have written many stories about Finnish criminals — over 20, in fact. After a time, though, I began to think about creating a new and different main character.

For 20 years, I worked as a crime reporter for the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, the largest daily newspaper in Scandinavia, and that’s how I came to know many policemen. One of the policemen I met was Jewish — his name was Dennis Pasterstein. (There was another Jewish policeman there as well, but I didn’t meet him.)

This is a new phenomenon, for Finland to have Jewish policemen. I find the Jewish population to be so interesting. They have lived here for more than 200 years, but remain largely unknown, and misunderstood even by the culture that surrounds them.

When I started writing the Ariel series, I asked Dennis many simple questions. For example:

– If you are in a sauna with your friends and they offered you barbecue sausage. (perhaps containing pork), would you eat it to be polite?

– Can you go to work during the Sabbath?

– What does your family think of your profession?

– What do you fellow workers think of your background?

I’m interested in the conflicts of everyday life and the traditions of the Jewish religion. I know that many Finnish Jews are assimilated… If there are any Orthodox Jews living in Finland, it is few.

Of course, I went to visit the Jewish community of Helsinki. When I was there, I met Dan Kantor, the executive manager of a synagogue. After this, I read many books about Jewish traditions, culture (Jewish humor, too), the history of the Finnish Jews and Ha-Kehila (a magazine for the local Jewish community.)

‘Due to my career as a crime journalist, I know that anything is possible’

I know one Finnish person who lives in Israel. He is not Jewish. He was a policeman here and a criminal as well;  he smuggled drugs and guns. He sold fake dollars too. He told me many unbelievable stories. I have also met with a Finnish Jewish man who is an officer in the Israeli army.

Due to my career as a crime journalist, I know that anything is possible.

However, please keep in mind that Ariel is a detective/crime story, not a non-fiction book. That´s why there may be many inaccuracies — maybe clichés, too.

How did you come up with his name, Ariel Kafka?

Kafka is a real Finnish-Jewish name. A Mr. Kafka used to own a well-known secondhand shop in Helsinki. In fact, it’s where I bought my first American Lee jeans in 1968. (Remember that this was a time of extreme poverty in Finland.) Later, when I was in the army, I encountered another man named Kafka, and he was Jewish as well.

What inspired the story?  Do you have Jewish background or a personal connection to the Arab-Israeli conflict?

No, I’m not Jewish, but I have spoken with several Jews and Arabs. And of course I have read about the conflict.

I think that Finland’s relationship with Israel is very good. The Jewish population here is very small (1,300), but it is an important part of the culture. There are many Jewish artists, musicians, writers, journalists (Ruben Stiller, I know him. Nice fellow), lawmen and entrepreneurs (a politician, too: parliament member Ben Zyskowicz).

I think that Finland is a good country for Jews to live in, or at least I really hope it is.

Speaking about the Second World War, 350 Jews fought in the Finnish army on the front lines. There were many heroes, too.

The Second World War was a very strange situation for the Finnish Jews. Finland was in a military alliance with Germany against Russia, but many Jews fought in the Finnish army on the front lines. There they had their own tent synagogues, and German soldiers were amazed by that. Finland didn’t extradite any Finnish Jewish people to  Germany, even though the leader of the Gestapo (Himmler) put pressure on them to do so. [By contrast, eight Austrian Jews who had sought refuge in the country were deported. — NB]

How have Finnish readers responded to the book?  How has it sold compared to your others?

Very welI, I think. It isn’t a bestseller, but Finland is a small country.

Will the book be translated into languages other than English?

All four of the Ariel Kafka books have been translated into German, and will be translated into Russian as well.

As a longtime crime novelist from Scandinavia, what do you think of the success of Stieg Larsson’s “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” series?  Have they influenced you in any way?

Larsson’s story is amazing. His books are too perverse, long and lack a sense of humor (at least for me), but the series has opened many doors for Finnish writers.

Finland has generally had a positive relationship with Israel, but the current foreign minister, Erkki Tuomioja, has made some highly controversial statements. Last year he called Israel an “apartheid state,” and in 2001 he said it was treating Palestinians the way Jews were treated in 1930s Europe. Do you think most Finns agree with his views?

I don’t think so. Finnish people understand the situation in Israel because we fought against Russia from 1939 to 1944, and we are a small country as well. Tuomioja is a ’60s radical. He is clever, but I think often [sees the world in] “black and white.” Judging Israel is a simple way to tell others, “I’m an intellectual.”

Myself, I’m not interested in politics. I appreciate Israel and the Jewish people, but I think that Israel makes mistakes, as do Finnish people.

One of your characters refers to Finland as “our little northern paradise,” even though you also make repeated mentions of Finnish neo-Nazis and skinheads. From outside the country, it does seem like Finland has avoided tensions over the Middle East and Middle Eastern immigrants that have resulted in violence in Denmark and Norway. Has Finland been lucky, or is there something different there that has allowed it to avoid the worst of these problems?

‘It’s strange, but neo-Nazis don’t think that Jews are the enemy. They think that Finnish Jews are Finnish citizens. They fight instead against Arab immigrants’

[Bad things have] happened, but we don’t have many neo-Nazis or skinheads, and those who are tend to be young. The Finnish secret police, Supo, doesn’t consider them a dangerous group. It’s strange, but neo-Nazis don’t think that Jews are the enemy. They think that Finnish Jews are Finnish citizens. They fight instead against Arab immigrants, black people and all Muslims, except for the Finnish Tatars. Tatars are a 150-year-old Turkish community (with 900 members) in Finland. They have their own mosque in Helsinki.

But Finland certainly isn’t paradise, and we have many problems. We have had two serious shooting attacks in schools that killed many young people. In fact, Finland is the most violent country in Scandinavia.

Personally, I don’t like people who are too fanatical. I think too many Muslims are. They seem to not understand that Finland, Sweden and Denmark are democracies, and that the people in them want to have the freedom to say what they think.

How many more books do you plan to write about Ariel Kafka? What will the next one be about?

Who knows? I don’t have any plans as of now. Usually, though, I get struck with a good idea, and then this becomes the basis for the storyline of my next book.

“Nights of Awe” is the first part in the Ariel series. There are four books in all. The second one is called “Ariel and the Spiderwoman,” the third one is “Behind God’s Back” and the last one is “Holy Ceremony.” I don’t know yet if they will be published in English.

My other book series are “Raid” and “Johnny & Bantzo” (a comedic crime story). I have also written a nonfiction book about the underworld of Helsinki, and several TV series’ scripts and screenplays.

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