Joel Elstelä
Publication date
September 2021
Format info
582 pp

Zircco Fantastico

Sirkusleijonan mieli

Nominated for the Finlandia Prize for Fiction 2021

Do old circus lions dream of hunting? A vivid novel about a circus in the Third Reich which garnered critical acclaim in Finland and brings to mind Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin with its colourful cast of characters from a bygone era.

A circus caravan travels through the Third Reich with the smile of a clown on its face. Ringmaster Egon Heuchler has spent his life running the Zircco Fantastico, a circus whose performers – the catwoman, the world’s fattest man, the bearded lady, the Siamese twins and the deathjumper  – have grown up together like a family.
It’s spring 1940 in Berlin, and the circus is captured by the Nazis. Thus begins a tour that must be brought to completion, even though Egon has lost all hope, like an old circus lion whose coat has lost its sheen. But even on the brink of despair, the beautiful catwoman awakens the ringmaster’s woeful heart, and the circus troupe still have a few magic tricks up their sleeves…

Zircco Fantastico is a ringmaster’s melodramatic journey of suffering by a surprising new voice in Finnish fiction.

Prizes, nominations

2021, nominated for the Finlandia Prize


Reading this novel is a strong bodily experience. The language used to describe emotions is apt, precise. The narrative is compelling, the phrases are flowing, the circus world is sensuous and the circus wagon metaphor is potent. Questions of responsibility, self-deceit and turning a blind eye are dealt with in a way that is touching and relatable. – Statement of the Finlandia Prize Jury

Zircco Fantastico is that mixes history with a touch of magical realism set in 1940s Nazi Germany. The circus master runs a theatrical miniature world, which is disrupted by external realities as the Nazis attempt to dictate the direction and purpose of the touring circus with a show that makes no reference to the war, and Himmler threatens the old lion with a rifle. Instead of a history lesson, the novel offers up a mild farce and romance between the freaks reminiscent of Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum. Aamulehti newspaper

Elstelä’s Nazi circus is a portrayal of the National Socialists’ insane policies.’Kaleva newspaper

Elstelä’s language is so sensuous and evocative that it genuinely transports you to Germany in the 1940s. (…) All of the details, from the objects in the circus wagons to the smoke-filled atmosphere of a Berlin speakeasy, are carefully refined. Perhaps due to Elstelä’s background as a playwright, the events of the novel completely come to life in the reader’s mind. (…) Zircco Fantastico is one of those novels that will stay with you forever. Keskipohjanmaa newspaper


Finnish edition
English translation sample