Popular Music from Vittula – Mikael Niemi

popularmusicI didn’t get this book – at all. Everyone from the New York Times to Entertainment Weekly waxed poetic about its beauty and prose that “buzzes with wonder, fearlessness and ecstatic ignorance.” Um. I didn’t get it.

Translated from the Swedish, Popular Music from Vittula is a “novel” that actually seems more like a memoir  – or a series of loosely connected short stories –  because if there was a narrative thread here, I wasn’t seeing it.

The main character and narrator is Matti and we meet him as an adult “in a fix in the Thorong La Pass” (which is on Mount Annapurna, Nepal) where  he finds himself 17, 765 feet above sea level, with his lips stuck to  a Tibetan prayer plaque. I am sure what happens next is meant to be comical but, sadly, I didn’t laugh. And I didn’t laugh at any of the other crazy escapades Matti finds himself embroiled in from the age of five straight through to his teenage years.

Matti and his friend, Niila, meet at the neighbourhood playground and their friendship is cemented during a nose-picking session. The rest of this story traces their frienship, particularly their love for music, for the next decade or so.  Their otherwise straightforward lives are touched by elements of magical realism. (Did these two five year olds really manage to get on a plane and fly all the way to Frankfurt?)

Matti’s story dips in and out of his life, giving the reader a chance to experience the first time he ever heard Elvis Presley sing (in his sister’s bedroom), the first time he goes to school, his first kiss. I wish I could say that the book was more than the sum of its parts, but for me I just didn’t get it.

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