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Matti Aikio

Kristian Nissen

The Lapps, or "Samer" as they call themselves, are not a numerous people. There are not more than 35,000 of them, nor does their number ever seem to have been greater. Some 20,000 Lapps are settled in Norway, and of these about ten thousand belong to Finnmark, the northernmost district of the country.

The Lapps are not, as is often said, Mongols, even if they are more closely related to the Mongols than to Indo-European peoples. Their language is not a Mongol tongue, but belongs to the Finno-Ugric stock of languages and is related to Finnish and Estonian and also remotely to Hungarian.

It has been said that the Lapps are an intellectually inferior race, but that is not the case. It is indeed true that in times past they have only rarely asserted themselves in the so-called higher cultures. But of late there are many evidences that the Lapps are quite able not only to participate actively in the church and school life of the nation but can also contribute to art and literature. As yet, however, but one Lapp in Norway has distinguished himself as an author, fully accepted by the critics and the press. That man is Matti Aikio (1872-1929), a native of Karasjok in Finnmark.

The writer of this article met Aikio once and had only a short talk with him. But in Karasjok, where I was a pastor from 1904 to 1913, I did know his parents and other relatives as well as the place where he had grown up. At the time of my residence there, Aikio was living in the south of Norway. But since my departure from Karasjok I have felt very attached to the place and have returned to visit it many times.

My pleasure in becoming acquainted with Aikio's authorship has not been unmitigated. I had hoped that when a Lapp chose the profession of author and had been accepted by a publisher of high standing, he would be able to give us excellent descriptions of the customs of a folk and a natural environment that are so alien to other races. But despite some excellent descriptions in his books, there were many things which marred the effectiveness and lowered the value of his work. Sometimes he made linguistic mistakes in his Norwegian; for example, his use of wholly Danish words, borrowed from Danish literature, or expressions with which he had obviously fallen in love and repeated too often. Again, it was the use of profane language and erotic scenes that had no real connection with the situation.

My criticism also applies to the mistakes he commits by intermixture in an otherwise successful description of Lappish manners of so exaggerated and improbable, even quite impossible, details, that a reader who is acquainted with the background becomes wearied.. He also has the fault of introducing characters completely unrelated to his tales and novels which ought to belong, in separate short stories or novelettes.

Matti Aikio
A painting by Henrik Lund

Matti Aikio was born in Karasjok on June 18, 1872. His father, Mathis Isaksen, was a teacher, farmer, and parish clerk; he lived near the old village church and had been born in Karasjok himself. Aikio's grandfather, however, had come from Inari in Finland, and it was later presumed by Aikio that his grandfather belonged to the well-known Lapp family of that name in Finland. He therefore later on adopted this euphonic name and at the same time altered his Christian name from Mathis to Matti, which is closer to the Lappish form of that name. His mother, Ragnhild, or as they prefer to say in Karasjok, Ravona, was also of Lapp or at least of mainly Lapp parentage. And as Lappish was the language of the Lapp population on the whole, it was used as the language of instruction in the school and for divine service in the church. Only at the pastor's, the sheriff's, and the merchant's was Norwegian the language of the home at that time. But Lappish was understood in their homes also.

In the short autobiography which Matti Aikio sent in 1921 to the 25th anniversary year-book of his class of university students, he relates as follows:

"Both my parents were Lapps. During my childhood there were no Norwegians in the parish except the pastor, the sheriff, and the merchant. The two teachers in the parish were both Lapps, and the lessons in school were given in Lappish." In the main, it may therefore be correct when he reports the next stage of his education as follows: "When at the age of sixteen I went to a country school at Vadsø my knowledge of Norwegian was confined to my knowing that when I heard words like 'house' and the like, it meant 'house' and the like." And he continues: "When I was given a test for admission to Tromsø Seminary (1890) I had to recite the Second Article of Faith in Lappish, but then I recited it so beautifully that it became a devotion."

At that time, however, his knowledge of Norwegian ought to have been great enough to enable him to recite the Second Article of Faith in Norwegian, if the examiner had wished it. No doubt it sounded beautiful when recited in Lappish, because the Lapp language, as spoken in many places in Finnmark, is very melodious.

In 1892 Matti Aikio passed his final examinations at the seminary, and afterwards he was a teacher at the public school in Tana in Finnmark for about a year. Here he obtained a wider knowledge of the life and conditions of the Lapps living along the coast, and he would later draw upon this knowledge in his literary efforts. But he was yearning for a higher education than that which the seminary had been able to offer him. Therefore he traveled south to Trondheim, passed an examination there in 1894, and then went on to Oslo; living in very straitened circumstances, he was able to pass his examen artium, or student's examination, in 1896.

When Matti Aikio had become a university student, at an age when several of his contemporaries already had completed their university education, it was necessary for him to secure some income in order to continue his studies. Having a teacher's education he became a substitute teacher for a year in a school near Oslo; he was thus enabled to study for and pass the examen philosophicum, which at that time was obligatory before a student's being allowed to take up his specialty. But what was to be his career? It has been said that he thought of theology, but somehow he did not feel inclined to become a minister. He chose the study of law. What prompted him may have been a hope to become a judge in the district of Finnmark, to which Karasjok belonged. As a boy Matti Aikio had looked upon the judge as the most splendid of all the public functionaries who visited Karasjok once or twice a year on their official tours.

He began the study of law but dropped it before long. In his biographical sketch for the jubilee yearbook he states rather ironically: "I think I studied law off and on while I was a teacher here and there." For regular studies Matti Aikio does not seem to have had the requisite will to stick it out. To be gay and merry among people who valued his good points and were indulgent of the weak points in his character, was more to his liking. He was, moreover, very much disturbed by having to work in order to go on with his university studies. He worked a little in lawyers' offices, a little in journalism, but mostly as a teacher. For a whole year (1903-04) he was a teacher in a private school in Lyngør in the south of Norway. There he got along very well, and he became engaged to one of the town's young ladies. The engagement, however, soon came to an end. But both this engagement and his impressions and memories of southern Norway made imprints on his later literary works.

Up to now his literary production had been limited to newspaper articles. His articles in Aftenposten: "At Lake Enare" in 1900, and "At the Arctic Sea" in 1901, were on the whole very well written. There was also a drama which he wrote during these early years, but it was never printed and the National Theater in Oslo rejected it.

His first book appeared in the autumn following his stay in Lyngør. It had the queer title Kong Akab ("King Akab") and was called a novel. One might suppose that the subject and the story had been taken from the Old Testament, but there is actually no connection at all between the Israelite King Ahab and the persons in this book; they are all Norwegians living in southern Norway or in Oslo. One of the characters is a law student, Fløiberg, for whom the author himself must certainly have been the model. And the book thus tells us much about Matti Aikio, as to both the strong and the weak points of his personality.

Kong Akab remained nearly unknown, and the author himself seems to have wanted it to be forgotten, since he later on indicated that his next book was his very first. This was a novel from Finnmark, published in 1906; it was entitled I Dyreskind ("In Deer Skin"), and with this book Matti Aikio did attract attention and appreciation. It was issued by Aschehoug, one of Norway's foremost publishing houses and this fact alone made him one of the recognized Norwegian authors of the day. And from then on his associates were mostly authors and artists.

Well-known critics like Carl Naerup and Theodor Caspari praised his work and characterized as excellent his descriptions of nature and of the customs of the people. I Dyreskind is the only one of Aikio's books that has been reissued; it was reprinted in 1922 and was again mentioned with a great deal of appreciation by the press. It is also the only one of his books that has been translated into a foreign language, being published in Finland, in Finnish, in 1912 and favorably reviewed there as well.

Matti Aikio's next book, Ginungagap, was published in 1907, one year after I Dyreskind, but it gives the impression that his initial success had made him a little haughty and that he had not taken notice of the several critical remarks which the reviews had also contained. I Dyreskind deals with the inhabitants of Karasjok, the farmers, the river-Lapps, and the nomadic Lapps both there and in the interior of Finnmark, and these the author knew well from his youth. Ginungagap on the other hand, describes the sea-Lapps and the Norwegian fishermen in the fjords and along the coast, and the author was not at all as familiar with the life and habits of these people as with life in his home district. This book, therefore, did not fulfill the great expectations people had of Aikio. A few critics did praise this novel, but both Naerup and Caspari were very much disappointed.

The admonition by these critics, and probably also by others, apparently had some effect. Aikio now set a new course, but eleven years passed before he again wrote a novel from Finnmark. During this time besides articles in newspapers and magazines, he wrote two entirely different books, each in its way interesting and valuable: Hebræerens Søn ("The Son of the Hebrew", 1911) and Polarlandsbreve ("Letters From the Arctic", 1914). The first is a novel, although the author has not called it so, and it deals with the race problem. He describes a Jewish boy who, on account of the persecutions of the Jews in Poland, 

A sculpture by Matti Aikio of his father, Maths Isaksen

had been born in the north of Finland where his parents had sought refuge. They died when he was still very small; he was then brought up by a local family and had a happy boyhood. But when he grew bigger, trouble began when other children abused him for being a Jew, and this subsequently resulted in his going away with a Jewish tradesman. He came to Oslo, became a sculptor, and associated with bohemians. Later on, he longed to see his Jewish relatives in Poland, and did succeed in meeting them. The novel has many weak points, but several critics were appreciative in their judgment. What makes this book of special interest is not that it deals with the Jewish problem, but that it covertly describes Matti Aikio's own race problem and therefore may be able to tell us much about the author himself.

Polarlandsbreve contains nine essays, of which several are written in the form of letters from a journey to Finnmark in 1912. It is an interesting book and several critics have called it his best book. It might perhaps have been more in his line to have kept on writing shorter articles, a field in which the ability to synthesize is not so essential.

Matti Aikio's next novel from Finnmark, Hyrdernes kapell ("The Shepherds' Chapel") did not appear until 1918. The scene is 

Silhouettes made by Matti Aikio
From left to right: Knut Hamsun, Vilhelm Krag, Sigrid Undset.

again Karasjok, but not the village itself as in I Dyreskind, but Baivasgiedde farther up in the valley. Here a chapel had been built a few years earlier, and the ministers of Karasjok and Kautokeino were to conduct divine service for the nomadic Lapps once or twice a year, at the time when their reindeer were pasturing in the surrounding forests and mountains. The principal character in this book is a Lapp who had settled near the chapel and had been appointed sexton, parish clerk, and interpreter. But Aikio makes him out to be such an improbable person that he is without interest. As in the preceding books, it is the descriptions of the scenery and the customs of the people that are entertaining.

After another eleven years Matti Aikio completed the manuscript of his last book from Finnmark. Most of the events in this novel take place in the village of Karasjok, the home of his childhood. At that time the great majority of the river-Lapps in Karasjok were settled on the headland which the river Karasjokka forms here. And it is this settlement to which the title of the book, Bygden på elvenesset ("The Parish on the Peninsula"), refers. This novel was published in the autumn of 1929. But Aikio had passed away before the book came out. He died on July 25 of that year, and the posthumous publication was arranged by the writer Regine Normann, who also wrote a laudatory preface. Appreciative too were most of the critics. Perhaps the author's recent death while still a young man was a contributing reason for the many eulogies.

One of the critics, Kristian Elster; gave at the same time a warmhearted sketch of Matti Aikio's personality and authorship, of what he had achieved and what had been expected of him. Elster concluded by deploring that Aikio had not lived to see his last book published. The recognition he would have achieved, might have made him see clearly the great task that only he among Norwegian authors could take on, and perhaps he would have understood that it was through books like this one that he would be able to surmount all difficulties which language and his own background had caused him.

Mention should also be made of a little book which he published during his last years - there is no date on the title page - and which deals with the Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland. It appeared as one in the series on "Norwegian Artists" and consists mainly of fifty reproductions of Vigeland's sculptures with accompanying text. But Matti Aikio's introduction about Vigeland is very well written and includes an evaluation of his work. It is perhaps significant that it was a sculptor that he dealt with. For Aikio's art was not confined to writing; he was, for example, fabulously clever at cutting out silhouettes, as is shown by some of the illustrations accompanying this article.

And when he made the principal character in Hebræerens Søn a successful sculptor, it may perhaps be regarded as an expression of the tendencies in the author's mind. We may ask if it was a sculptor he ought to have become. In that case the linguistic difficulties would not have embarrassed him. And perhaps his name would then have become a luminous star in the artistic galaxy of the North.

Aikio's authorship was indeed a radiant Northern Light with glittering, flaming flashes among periods that were dim and dull. Johan Falkberget paid a beautiful tribute to Aikio in a memorial in 1929, and Arnulf Øverland likewise produced a poem in which he highly deplored Aikio's demise before he had published the messages that he might have given us.

These are sad words from friends who know Aikio personally and valued him highly. But, as in all noble aspiring to high aims, it is not always the winning ones who count-most.

Rev. Kristian Nissen lived in northern Norway for many years and is an expert in the field of Lapp Ethnography. He has written extensively about the culture, language, religion and economic conditions of the Lapps. He is at present at work on a book on old Norse cartography.

Published in The American-Scandinavian Review, Nr 45, 1957, p. 61-67.

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