An officer and a gentleman
A photograph from 1906 prompted Markus Nummi to write a 500-page novel about the people of the caravan route in China. One of his characters, the Finnish photographer and spy-explorer Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, in reality later became Finland’s sixth president. Where does fiction end and history begin? Anna-Leena Nissilä investigates
The city of Kashgar in Chinese Turkestan in the year 1906: a group of French explorers and a crowd of Swedish missionaries from the local province, along with other members of the European community and their children, have gathered together in an orchard to take a picture. Midilimanglar, keep still, says the photographer, Baron Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, and presses the shutter release. The admonition is without effect; the picture turns out restless. Little Eric can’t hold still; a baby girl is grabbing at a man’s hat; the adults are looking past the camera. For some reason the host of the event, an Englishman named Macartney, is standing a pace away from the rest of the group.
Almost a century later, the author Markus Nummi (born 1959) runs across Mannerheim’s snapshot and becomes inspired. He tells how the expansive and thematically wide-ranging historical novel Kiinalainen puutarha (‘The Chinese garden’, Otava, 2004) began to form around the photograph:
‘The photograph is the starting point for everything, the intersection and blink of an eye in which all of my story’s central characters are close to another. I was fascinated by the picture’s bustle: people looking every which way, all the fumbling about. And when you look at the picture more closely, you start to see different kinds of connections; when you look at where these people were coming from and where they went in their lives, you can start to imagine what is hidden behind the picture. I started to contemplate what the photographer saw at the moment the picture was taken, maybe angels?’
Kiinalainen puutarha is Markus Nummi’s second novel; his debut novel, Kadonnut Pariisi (‘Paris lost’), appeared in 1994. Nummi, a native of Helsinki, has also worked as a film director and script writer. He began meticulous preparations for constructing his novel; collecting the material began in the early 1990s. The actual work of writing took more than five years. Kiinalainen puutarha weaves together the lives of Swedish missionaries, Turkestani children and Finland’s Marshal Mannerheim (1867–1951).
This bittersweet story, continuing through various time periods, tells of love, childhood, the conflicts between religions and separation. The book can also be read as a description of parenthood, the struggle between good and evil, hope and hopelessness, and the disconnect between East and West.
The book’s narrator, Kamil, has fled across the mountains to escape a war and now tells his protégé Nora the story of his childhood and adolescence as a foster child at the mission. The narrative begins in the year 1903, when his mother left Kamil to be raised by the Swedish missionaries. Kamil’s foster mother is the gentle Sigrid Högberg, who from time to time takes Kamil into her lap and tells him about her own sons, far away in the North. As he became acquainted with his sources, Nummi became interested in the activities of the Swedish missionary workers:
‘Their task is all but impossible; missionary work in Islamic areas doesn’t work for the simple reason that Muslims already believe in God so strongly. The Christian conception of the God of the Trinity feels inconceivable and outlandish to them. I was interested to see how the missionary workers dealt with their impossible task in the end. Despite the difficulties, they just pressed on and on, and from the perspective of our time, the project turned into a kind of development cooperative; they founded hospitals, schools and orphanages in the area. But the altruistic desire to help also had its downsides.
‘Helping other people is just as difficult as changing other people’s religious ideas. One may ask what happens to the missionaries’ pupils when they return to the Muslim community. My book is a depiction of how all kinds of good intentions actually turn against themselves. Helping is important, but it’s just as important to consider how we are helping,’ Nummi ponders and hurries to add that he nevertheless does not condemn the Swedes’ project as such.
The coexistence that lasted between the missionaries and the native population for over 40 years also caused Markus Nummi to think about the strange consistency of interactions between people:
‘The missionaries were driven away, and most of the people who had been in their sphere of influence were killed. Despite these violent events, the bonds that had formed between those people didn’t break. The emotional bonds that survive through all the destruction and brutality are a counterbalance to the tragic dimension. Terrible things happen, but the human contact also lives on, and the end of my book offers a glimmer of hope.’
The officer and cavalryman Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim is a minor character in the book, but a very important one. Nummi finds his personal history intriguing:
‘Many people’s lives intersect in my book; Mannerheim on the other hand intersects with many things in the chapters of Finland’s history. Mannerheim managed to blaze many trails; he is a contradictory and dramatic figure. During the Civil War in 1918 after Finland’s independence, he was the commander of the ‘White’ side and an object of bitter hatred for the other, ‘Red’ side. Only during the Winter and Continuation Wars (1939–1944) did he emerge in any way as the kind of uniting national symbol he is now considered to be. Mannerheim’s military profession in Tsarist Russia is also interesting in its incongruity. He made a career of it, even though his noble family regarded Russian tsarism negatively; one of the brothers had been deported to Sweden. However, options were limited: Mannerheim lost his mother when he was 13 years old, and his father squandered the family’s wealth and ran off to Paris after his mistress. Mannerheim was forced to fight to acquire any kind of schooling and profession, so he seized the opportunity for officer training offered by the Russian cavalry. When the country collapsed as the revolution broke out, Mannerheim also had the rug pulled out from under him, and so he came to Finland as a military commander and began his role in the nascent history of independent Finland.’
Nummi sheds light on Mannerheim’s less well-known life as an explorer and spy, who in foreign lands can only confide in his horse Philip:
‘Mannerheim’s 14,000 kilometre-long trip on horseback across Asia (19061908) was connected with the power struggle between Russia and Britain in Central Asia (the so-called Great Game): Mannerheim’s mission was to determine the military situation in the Chinese borderlands and how expansion-hungry Russia’s offensive operations would fare in that area. Introducing himself as a Finnish explorer was a cover story, with which Mannerheim acquainted himself thoroughly. When he began his journey, he was a 39 -year-old man contemplating his future direction, having momentarily skipped onto a detour from his military career. At this time a clear enthusiasm for the researcher’s life flickers in Mannerheim, although he recognises that he is an amateur in the field.
‘In my story, Mannerheim leaves Kashgar for Asia on an expedition. The early stages of the trip, when Mannerheim fell gravely ill, became the human point of contact for me, on the basis of which I started building my fictional marshal. As I read his family correspondence, his personal tragedy unfolded before me. The marriage he entered into with a noblewoman for career reasons in St Petersburg had fallen apart, and Mannerheim had been separated from his daughters Stasie and Sophie. The girls were still frequently in his mind. He sent them letters on his trip, and the Mannerheim in the book also sees them as a streak of light in the picture he takes. Mannerheim may not deserve the rank of model father, but he at least tried to stay in contact with his daughters and settle their affairs.’
For Markus Nummi, writing equals exploring one’s own space:
‘Writing is the one part of this limited world where there is space. There, the only limits of the world are the limits of the imagination. In practice, writing is probably my way of building a connection to the world outside myself.’
Translated by Owen Witesman
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About the writer
Anna-Leena Nissilä (née Ekroos, born 1968) is a journalist and literary critic who lives in Vaasa.
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