March 20, 2012 — Before a sold-out crowd at the Korjaamo Culture Factory, Literary Death Match Helsinki's debut was a night never to be forgotten, ending as novelist Riikka Pulkkinen outlasted co-finalist Teemu Manninen in a Play Your Cards Right finale that went all the way to sudden death. But in the end, it was Pulkkinen who was crowned Helsinki, Ep. 1 champ.
But before the literary playing cards were on display, the night began with two-time Atorox Awards-winner Johanna Sinisalo (author of Linnunaivot and ) going up against Pulkkinen (author of Raja and Totta). Sinisalo read from her Finlandia Prize-winning book Ennen päivänlaskua ei voi, a love story about an injured Troll called Pessi and gay photographer Michael, followed by a beautifully-spoken English excerpt that thrilled the English-only host and intangibles judge alike. Then up stepped Pulkkinen who read a macabre and funny story from the anthology Pimppini on valloillaan about an author feeling she was being judged by critics and the audience for other merits than literary ones (looks and personal interests). It described how the character's body is literarily cut to pieces and judged one by one in a very gruesome way, and ended with her dancing to Common People on stage.
The mic was then handed to the trio of all-star judges: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jeffrey Eugenides (author of Middlesex, Virgin Suicides and The Marriage Plot), Helsinki Poetry Connection founder/host Harri Hertell, and musician wunderkind Anni Mattila. Hertell set the perfect mood, joking in Finnish that host Todd Zuniga had no idea what was going on, eliciting big laughs from the buoyant crowd. Eugenides, limited by his weak Finnish but wearing a Finnish "judging hat," loved Sinisalo's strict presence on stage, her power. And Mattila gushed about Pulkkinen. After a huddle, they made the impossible decision of choosing a winner, with Pulkkinen narrowly taking Round 1.
After a booze-fueled intermission, Round 2 began, pitting Teemu Manninen (author of Futurama and Säkeitä) against artist/writer and 2011 Finlandia Prize award-winner Rosa Liksom (author of Hytti nro 6 and Reitari). Manninen reeled off a series of magical poems, stating what everything what the modern world is about, what it consists of (Big Brother, Big Mac, Harry Potter) in a critical light, but repeated it at a hilarious and hasty pace. Then it was Liksom who took center stage, wearing a black sequined mustache. She read an excerpt about a train journey from her new book, Hytti nro 6, pausing at times to adjust the mustache, and facing the judges, at times, while performing. She ended by thanking the audience for the ride in several languages.
Again the mic went back to the judges, with Mattila brilliantly interpreting Manninen's performance rhythm, Hertell drawing laughs for his comments, and Eugenides appreciating how Liksom turned to the judges while performing, and how he was proud to have picked out the words "Harry" and "Potter" from his rapid-fire reading. Again, the judges huddled, and after a long chat, delivered what was deemed the closest vote in LDM history, with Manninen snaring the second round's victory.
With the finalists set, LDM creator Todd Zuniga hopped up on stage to explain the LDM finale: Play Your Cards Right. Five volunteers were handed, at random, cards from a deck featuring Helsinki literary stars past and present (Eino Leino, Bo Carpelan, Sofi Oksanen). After seeing a card, the finalists had the chance to choose higher, lower, or stop — with each getting one point for each correct guess. Pulkkinen steered her way towards an unbeatable three-point lead, going into the final round, before Zuniga stepped in to give Manninen a chance to tie it up. He did! And with the game going to sudden death, Eugenides stepped to the stage to hand each finalist one card, with the higher deciding the winner. Pulkkinen turned over a 10 of Hearts: Sofi Oksanen. But Manning had been dealt a dud, a promo image that had snuck it's way into the deck, winning Pulkkinen the Literary Death Match Helsinki crown, and literary immortality to go with it.