In the Congo

Issue 4/2006 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

During the 1930s the Finnish government planned to establish a number of work camps with the intention of turning young men into model servants of the fatherland through a regime of hard work and discipline. Jari Järvelä’s novel Kansallismaisema (‘National landscape’, Tammi, 2006) is set in the forests near the Russian border on a work camp for young offenders called the Congo. The principal aim of the camp is to socialise these boys through hard work and education, though there seems to be a somewhat military aspect to the project too; the year is 1938, and the rise of fascism and the threat of war are not far from anyone’s mind.

The central character Yrjö Pihlava, an antihero who in the past has worked as a logger and tried his hand at numerous other professions, is hired at the camp as a guard. He doesn’t appear to understand quite what is going on, and in this respect the reader is much wiser than he is.

Järvelä (born 1966) began his writing career in the mid 1990s. His trilogy of novels – of which Kansallismaisema is the concluding part – deals with the adventures of Yrjö Pihlava. The trilogy examines national history at a ‘grassroots’ level and illustrates the ways in which people in the past experienced the times in which they lived.

Linguistically the novel is very rich: the sensory nature of the prose is infused with the strong vernacular elements common to the first-person narrative. Its serious subject matter notwithstanding, Kansallismaisema is also a highly comical novel. There is a constant ironic conflict between Pihlava’s confidence in himself and his true abilities, and towards the end of the novel events take a number of farcical turns.

The first part of the trilogy, Veden paino (‘The weight of water’, 2001), is set in 1919 and explores the chaotic situation along the border between newly independent Finland (the country gained its independence in 1917) and Bolshevik-controlled Russia. All three novels in the trilogy are set in the areas Finland lost to the Soviet Union during the Second World War. Despite this, the tone of the novels is not nostalgic, rather it is ironic: much like the Wild West, these ‘paradises lost’ are presented as the backdrops for terrible violence and misery.

Together the three novels examine Finland’s first tentative decades of independence, a time when the nation was seeking its own identity. Yrjö Pihlava is an allegorical character, whose struggles and failures symbolise the aspirations and choices of Finland as a whole. The prose employs the traditional conventions of adventure-writing while at the same time parodying them, and in Kansallismaisema we can discern elements typical of much boys’ literature; for the most part Yrjö Pihlava is accompanied on his adventures by adolescent boys.

The Congo is ruled with an iron grip by Tikka, a man whose ideals are healthy physical condition, military behaviour and a patriotic sense of self-sacrifice, The working day is inhumanely long for the boys and their guards, and mistakes and disobedience are severely punished. The Congo is a small-scale totalitarian society and, as such, brings out the worst in everybody. Despotism, scheming and informing are part of everyday life at the camp.

Eventually Pihlava refuses to become part of the mechanism of oppression and decides to set the boys free. Again his decisions seem questionable. He will never be the unconditional hero; more important are his good will and his high moral standards. The relationship between Tikka and Pihlava is an allegory of Finland’s relationship to fascism as it fought alongside the Axis Powers during the Second World War. As such the novel pardons the Finnish politics of this era. In a difficult period in history we too undermined human rights, though we never gave in to the extremities of Nazism.

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