Right between the eyes

Issue 3/2004 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Something that most Finnish men have in common is the one year’s service in the army they experience at the age of around twenty. Military service affects all males, but nowadays many opt to discharge their obligation in the form of community service working in daycare centres or hospitals.

The army also brings together a considerable number of Finnish writers. Compulsorily united, men from different backgrounds who are doing their national service form a kind of laboratory, and by studying them the writers have managed to tackle many different themes, from the exercise of power, violence and oppression on the one hand, to comradeship and solidarity on the other.

The army is in itself an extreme situation: the limits of the young men’s freedom are closely regulated, and the purpose of training is to learn how to wage war. In books that depict the army, conditions are often presented in an even more exacerbated form. In his novel Lahti (WSOY, 2004) Arto Salminen (born 1959) makes an unusual emphasis: the officers in the novel treat war as though they were consultants to the management of a business concern; they talk of dead soldiers as ‘products’, of the war as ‘the market area’, of civilian casualties as ‘waste material’. The most important things are economic efficiency and functional logistics – these officers do not recognise any other values.

The concise novel describes a secret operation, seen through the eyes of an assigned conscript. With their assault rifles, the officers shoot live pigs in the stomach, the spine, the eyes and the extremities. The aim is to find out what traces the bullets leave in living tissue, At the same time training in the use of a field hospital is carried out: the wounded pigs are taken to beds connected to drip feeds.

Alongside the story of the shooting of the pigs through the novel runs a second narrative, in which the father of one of the conscripts, an impoverished importer, tries to cope with the pressures of a large central firm, The analogy is clear: while modern war is compared to business, business is like a war, in which the large players join forces to become even larger and roll their smaller competitors flat.

The novel’s narrative style is intentionally grotesque, and its images are meant to shock. The same is true of Salminen’s earlier novels Turvapaikka (‘Asylum’, Otava, 1995), Varasto (‘Storage’, WSOY, 1998) , Paskateoria (‘Shit theory’, WSOY, 200l) and Ei-kuori (‘The No-envelope’, WSOY, 2003). They depict social evils in dark satirical fashion and how cruelly marginalised human beings treat one another in distress.

The view of the world presented in Arto Salminen’s novels is an extremely pessimistic one, but black comedy and the author’s skill with language make the experience of reading them remarkably entertaining. According to the author’s subheading, Lahti is a ‘farce’.


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