Pleasures of war

Issue 3/2001 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Ulla-Lena Lundberg’s novel Marsipansoldaten (‘The marzipan soldier’, Söderström & Co., 2001) charts the lives of a family of Swedish-speaking Finns thrown into the vortex of Finland’s Second World War struggle against the Soviet Union. Maria Antas talks to the author about the strange normality of war – and her characters’ obsession with food

It comes as something of a surprise when Ulla-Lena Lundberg suddenly says, despite its subject, that her war novel is probably the most light-hearted book she has written.

Lundberg (born 1947) made her literary debut as a teenager as early as 1962, and has since written successfully in many genres: travel and cultural writing about Japan, the USA, the Kalahari Desert and Siberia. A wide-ranging trilogy about seafaring on the Åland islands from the mid-19th century to the 1990s has been her biggest success, and began with the novel Leo. The starting-point for Marsipansoldaten is a collection of letters Lundberg has owned since she was sixteen. The letters of her own father and her uncles from the front to their families at home have lived with her and have, as it were, been waiting to be rewritten as a story.

But how is a daughter to write that story? And when is she ready to do so, from a human and artistic point of view? It is here that the light-hearted tone comes in, says Lundberg: ‘At first I could only see the tragic side of the letters from the front. But gradually I began to hear the soldiers’ own, living voices, as I imagine they sounded while they were still alive. It was as though I heard voices rising up from the heroes’ graves. I realised that they had been young men who were also cheerful, full of zest. It was these living voices that became my narrative voice. Only when I found it was I able to write. Reality began to speak through fiction: the novel’s Kummel family was born.’

While Lundberg was writing the novel, she called it Finlandia i dur, ‘Finlandia in a major key’, an allusion to the Swedish title of the journalist Olavi Paavolainen’s postwar reflections, Finlandia i moll, ‘Finlandia in a minor key’ (Synkkä yksinpuhelu, ‘Sombre monologue’, was the title of the Finnish original). She also had an English working title: Finlandia Light. The reference is to the melancholy music of Sibelius (his Finlandia in particular!), but the picture of the sorrow-afflicted country is conveyed in a lighter tone than might be expected. The war is present as an ostinato, and a crescendo begins when one of the sons of the Kummel family, Göran, dies a sudden death because of a caprice of fate.

What makes Marsipansoldaten unusual in a Finnish context – apart from its light touch and the fact that it is by a female author – is that it is written in Swedish, and portrays Swedish-speaking Finnish soldiers. (Finland-Swedes comprised a minority of less than ten per cent of the Finnish population in the 1940s.) Not many Finland-Swedish writers before Ulla-Lena Lundberg have dealt with the subject of war in literary form. In Ballad (1962) and Krigshistoria (‘War story’, 1971) Leo Ågren described war from a strongly pacifist perspective, while in 30-åriga kriget (‘The thirty years’ war’, 1977), Henrik Tikkanen used the device of satire.

Marsipansoldaten is a novel about the special conditions under which the soldiers of the national minority lived while the war was in progress. The 1930s and their right-wind trends and ultra-nationalist actions were still fresh in memory. ‘It is said that the bitter language conflicts between Swedish and Finnish in Finland were put aside during the war. But the reality was actually more complex. There was, for example, discrimination against Swedish officers at the military academy, a problem that was later publicly commented on by the commander of the Swedish units,’ says Lundberg.

The soldiers in Marsipansoldaten choose different strategies with which to tackle their minority position within the national army. On many occasions they opt for silence in order not to reveal their mother tongue, but some also take an open view of the chance of improving their Finnish while they are at the front.

While the reader follows the changing of the young soldiers’ fortunes, the tragi-comedy in Marsipansoldaten arises partly from the tension between the reader’s constant awareness that a merciless war is in progress and the portrayals of the young soldier’s everyday lives at the front. They gradually accept the war as a normal state of being, and one they even make room for with pleasure and excitement.

And the food – there is a lot of eating in Marsipansoldaten; Ulla-Lena Lundberg points out that letters from the front, and even articles in the wartime magazines and newspapers were indeed to a large degree about food. It was partly a question of constant hunger, and partly the longing for something sweet and fatty. Food was in short supply during these years. Göran in particular, the younger of the Kummel sons, constantly yearns for food, and makes his mother do her utmost to provide him with all the food he dreams of at the front. Perhaps Göran’s longing for food is really an infantile longing for an eternally sweet and good mother, Lundberg reflects.

The light touch in Marsipansoldaten is also connected with the fact that the soldiers whom Ulla-Lena Lundberg portrays are very young and are able to adapt themselves to life at the front and even enjoy it. ‘For many young men the war was also a life of liberation. They escaped from their authoritarian schools and their family backgrounds,’ Lundberg points out. They enjoyed throwing their kitbags on to the back of a lorry, constantly moving on to new hardships. ‘They didn’t spend too much time thinking, in the knowledge that they didn’t need to bear very much responsibility. They were happy to be able to do so much.’

Situations of crisis give rise to limited and concentrated perspectives. That is an experience Lundberg has wanted to be faithful to as a writer. It is the soldiers’ here and now, with all the strict – and, perhaps in the eyes of the readers, comical – limitations it involves, to which the text consistently tries to do justice.

‘The light tone of the text also has its roots in the fact that the time at the front is a time before the birth of their trauma,’ says Lundberg; she portrays soldiers who do not yet have any idea that the war is going to catch up with them, afterwards. They have grown accustomed to the war was a normal state of being. This is why Frej, one of the family’s sons, thinks hesitantly after his home leave: ‘afraid?’ Anew experience has been born. Lundberg says that her novel is not really so much about war as about the ability of human beings to adapt even to extremes, and to live a normal life in the midst of the absurd. For example, descriptions of the actions during the Winter War of 1939-40 and the dramatic final battles in the summer of 1944 are completely absent.

We may reflect it as to whether this ability to adapt is worthy of admiration because it protects us, or whether it prevents us from putting our foot down when a situation begins to take a wrong turning.

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