Between good and evil

Issue 2/2004 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

There are some wounds which take far longer than three generations to heal. In 1918 the great grandfathers of today’s Finns fought a bloody war, and touching the scars that conflict left behind still hurts.

The Finnish Civil War erupted in the aftermath of the Russian revolution. The reasons for the war were nonetheless deeply embedded in Finland’s internal problems, issues of land ownership and the weak position of the working classes. The workers formed the Red Guard and their opponents the White Guard, resulting ultimately in 30,000 deaths, mostly on the side of the Reds, who lost the war.

Amongst the Whites there served a group of officers called Jägers, who had been trained in Germany. They had been smuggled out of the country in order that they would one day return to lead Finnish troops in the struggle for independence against the tsar’s army. When they returned, however, the tsar had been overthrown and Finland had gained independence. Thus the Jägers ended up fighting their own compatriots, the insurgents of the workers’ uprising. The heroic Jägers have become one of the many myths surrounding the Civil War, but so have the Red Guard women who fought like beasts, Leena Lander (born 1955) explores these myths in her novel Käsky (‘Command’).

Lander puts a Jäger officer and a Red woman prisoner quite literally in the same boat and uses them to examine the psychology of the war. She makes her characters flesh and blood, individuals. Ultimately the colour of their armbands means very little, as the intense narration delves into layers hidden at the back of the mind. Good and bad, right and wrong appear in the most unexpected places, in people and events.

One could argue that, with this book Lander has joined a literary tradition which began with F.E. Sillanpää’s novel Hurskas kurjuus (Meek heritage, 1919), highlighting the smallness and the humanity of people caught up in war. It is not ideology or slogans which move people, but individual experiences and primitive instincts.

Power relationships, violence and sexuality blur with each other in a fascinating way, a feature common to Lander’s novels. She has previously dealt extensively with traumas left by childhood experiences, which haunt people in their adult lives. The novel Tummien perhosten koti (‘The home of dark butterflies’, 1991), Tulkoon myrsky (‘May the storm come’, 1994) and Iloisen kotiinpaluun asuinsijat (‘Dwellings of a happy homecoming’, 1997) loosely form a trilogy, in which family members battle with the ghosts of their past. The novel Lankeaa pitkä varjo (1986) has been published in English under the title Cast a Long Shadow (translated by Seija Paddon; Second Story Press, Canada, 1995).

In Käsky Lander also deals with the case of a humanist turned killer. The character Judge Hallenberg was once an idealistic writer, but with the powers appointed him during the war he thinks nothing of sending people away to be executed. One of the inspirations for Lander’s character is a celebrity of the day, the novelist Ilmari Kianto, who in 1918 lent his support to the White Guard and who believed that women on the Red side were particularly dangerous. ‘The female wolf bears evil cubs, which will be an eternal burden,’ he wrote, urging the White guardsmen to show women no mercy.

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