Monday, February 21, 2011

Sara Wheeler and Johan Turi

I’ve been reading Sara Wheeler’s new book, The Magnetic North, about her circumpolar travels in the Arctic. I’ve been a fan of Wheeler’s since I read Travels in a Thin Country, about Chile. I thought her narrative about Antarctica¸ Terra Incognita, was a superb piece of travel writing.

I’ll have more to say about The Magnetic North when I finish it. It’s certainly an ambitious project and a rather magical journey around the top of the world.

But today I’d like to look at her chapter on the Sámi, “Four Legs, Good,” and make some specific comments on one section of it, the pages that deal with Johan Turi (1854-1936) and his book, Muittalus sámid birra. Turi is often on my mind because I’ve done so much research on Emilie Demant Hatt, the Danish artist and ethnographer who played a large role in shaping and publishing Turi’s book about his people. I had an essay published last fall in Scandinavian Studies (“How Muittalus Samid Birra was Created”) about their publishing collaboration and will be delivering a paper on that subject at a seminar next month in Tromsø, Norway. The seminar is in honor of the 100th anniversary of the publication of Turi’s book in its first Danish-Sami bilingual edition and the speakers will include Mikael Svonni, a professor at the University of Tromsø who’s preparing a new Sámi version of M.S.B., and Tom DuBois, who is retranslating the book into English.

I was glad at first to see that Sara Wheeler had included material on Johan Turi in her travel book. After all, M.S.B. has played a significant role, both literary and visual, in Sámi culture. It’s a marvelous narrative and the voice, even in the Danish-to-English translation from the 1930s, sings with poetry. But in continuing to read I found myself confused by Wheeler’s choice to introduce us to Turi through the eyes of the writer Axel Munthe. Munthe was a Swedish psychiatrist who lived an exciting life and traveled frequently, particularly in Italy. He eventually married a British aristocrat and settled in England. His memoir, The Story of San Michele, from 1929, was a bestseller in English. Wheeler quotes from this memoir in describing Munthe’s visit to Johan Turi up in Swedish Lapland.

As soon as I read about Munthe sitting down with Turi and his wife Ellekare, I was suspicious. Johan Turi was a bachelor (although he apparently had at least one child out of wedlock). It was said that he couldn’t attract a wife because of his baldness. He complained about his unmarried state to Emilie Demant Hatt, hinting that she was the one for him. Demant Hatt and Turi’s friendship has often been discussed in print, with some people assuming they were lovers. After researching Demant Hatt for the last decade, I think this is unlikely. There was an age difference of almost twenty years and they came from very different backgrounds. Yet their attachment as friends was real—and complex.

I was further confused in continuing to read the section in Wheeler’s book by the mention of Turi’s “granddaughter, Ristin.” Johan Turi’s brother, Aslak Turi, had a daughter named Ristin—she’s mentioned in Demant Hatt’s book, Med lapperne i højfeldet (“With the Lapps in the High Mountains”). I decided to look at Axel Munthe’s memoir to see what he’d said, and found that Munthe had indeed visited the Turi family. However the Turi he describes seems to be Johan Turi’s father, Olaf. I knew when I read that “Old Turi” had five sons, a thousand reindeer, and spoke Swedish very well it couldn’t be Johan Turi. Olaf was wealthy and a well-known man in the district. His son Johan Turi was widely known not to be all that interested in reindeer-herding; he subsisted as a wolf-hunter and guide. Johan and his father have been conflated here in Wheeler’s recounting.

I think the original source of Wheeler’s mistake might have come from the website of an expedition that took place in 2007 in Finnmark, one that was organized by Adam Munthe, the grandson of Axel Munthe. This expedition, by dogsled, was meant to bring awareness to issues of global warming and the Sámi reindeer herders. But the account on the site of the relationship between Axel Munthe and Johan Turi contains a few errors. While it’s quite possible Johan Turi guided Axel Munthe on his travels in Lapland (Turi acted as guide to many tourists and wrote an amusing book about one of them, Frank Hedges Butler), Turi wouldn’t have invited Munthe to his tent and introduced him to his wife and numerous children—he didn’t have them.

Adam Munthe’s account of his 2007 expedition also includes a diary entry of finding his way to Turi’s house near Torneträsk. “April 4th 2007. Today we travelled from beneath Cokcu (the Holy Mountain) to Lahtteluokta, where, at the beginning of the 20th century Johan Turi lived and wrote the first book ever written by a Sami. My grandfather was one of those who helped him get it published, and about one hundred years ago they made a journey together through parts of Sapmi where Turi showed the famous physician, ‘real things that should be known by all people.’”

Not quite right. First of all, after years of talking about wanting to write a book about the Sámi, Johan Turi sat down for six weeks in the fall of 1908 in a mining shack near the railway station at Torneträsk with Demant Hatt, who spurred him on to write his memories and impressions in a number of small notebooks. Demant Hatt then took the notebooks back to Denmark where she spent two years transcribing them with the help of scholars in Finno-Urgric, and translating them into Danish. The bilingual book was published with the financial support of Kiruna’s mining director, Hjalmar Lundbohm, who also helped Turi construct his house in the mountains in 1912.

Although Turi’s book wasn’t the first book to come out in Sámi—there had been bibles and other religious texts—it was the first literary text. It made both Turi and Demant Hatt well-known and it was soon translated to German and Swedish (and eventually other languages). The English-language edition finally appeared in 1931 from Jonathan Cape as Turi’s Book of Lapland.  I don’t think there’s any evidence that Axel Munthe had anything to do with its publication in the U.K.

I know as a travel writer myself that it’s terribly easy to get something half right. However, there’s quite a bit of research on Johan Turi in English, given his fame, and some things might have been better to check. Adam Munthe’s errors are not Wheeler’s. Still, I question the use of Axel Munthe as a reliable source on the Sámi. While I applaud Wheeler’s intent in writing about Johan Turi, I wish that the story had been factually correct and that other sources had been cited.

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