No country for young men

Issue 1/2008 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

When men go off to war, women must do their best to take their place at home. Lauri Sihvonen examines two fictional accounts – written in 1950 and 2007 – of women in the Second World War and its aftermath

When the Continuation War broke out in June 1941, Finland was in dire need of strength to fight the Soviet Union. Field Marshal and commanderin-chief of the armed forces Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim wrote to the Finns in an order of the day as follows:

‘I call upon you to embark with me upon a holy war against the enemy of our nation. The fallen heroes [of the Winter War, 1939–1940] will rise again from beneath the summer hillocks to stand beside us this day, as we set out on this crusade against our enemies, firm in our purpose to ensure the future of Finland, with the glorious military might of Germany at our side and as our brothers in arms.’

Sirpa Kähkönen (born in Kuopio in 1964) has taken this wild bit of zombie fiction as the basis for her new novel; Mannerheim gets exactly what he ordered.

Lakanasiivet (‘Linen wings’, Otava), the fourth independent instalment in Kähkönen’s novel series, tells of Kuopio on 1 July 1941. This was the only day on which this largest city in northern Savo, 400 kilometres northeast of Helsinki, was bombed during the Continuation War (1941–1944).

Lakanasiivet is a polyphonic one-day novel. Even one of the characters, a reporter by the name of Lehtivaara, becomes enthralled with the idea of a symphony as a stylistic approach to a text. The historian and novelist Kähkönen does what she knows best: she tells with empathy how different people, especially women, react to the attack. The previous works in the series have been Bildungsromane, but now the same characters are faced with a single, sudden event.

At the beginning of the novel, a German-born cabaret dancer Mizzi arrives in Kuopio with her daughter Charlotta. Dawn breaks; Mizzi has many matters to attend to, so her daughter is left in the care of a certain musician.

At the same time, the war orphan in Mrs Lehtivaara’s charge, 10-year-old Juho Tiihonen, runs away and wants to get to know the new girl who has arrived in the city. When the roar of the bombers begins around midday, Juho takes the girl to a hideout he had built.

The main character of the series’ previous instalments, Anna Tuomi, has sent her children to safety in the countryside. Anna’s friend is also there, the daughter of Karelian evacuee Helvi Martiskainen.

There are hardly any men in the town to speak of; in fact, only the reporter, Lehtivaara, and the owner of the timber yard take on major roles. The men’s absence triggers a feeling that they now only exist in a dream reality, as zombies.

Lehtivaara’s young son who died in the Winter War, Jaakko, lurks as a spectre in the fatherless Juho’s life. The main story in the novel is wound up in Charlotta’s search for a father.

For Juho, in the Savo dialect, the girl is Saaralotta. Kähkönen’s use of dialect is affective – it brings the characters closer, making them more real.

Lakanasiivet’s harsh story also contains an ample amount of subtle humour. In one delicious scene, Juho’s grandfather, a postman named Korhonen, entreats Juho to bring Charlotta, who has fallen ill, out of their hideout and into the house by playing Indians with him.

The women’s talk about sex reminds us that people did in fact talk about it back then too; the author calls into question the concept of the ideal of the nuclear family. Although the number of divorces in modern-day Finland has grown exponentially, families were not unchanging units before either. Many men died in the war, lost their sanity or just left. Lakanasiivet is also a critique of the monolithic view of history.

In the final episode, Marshal Mannerheim is forced to see in his moonlit dream what he had really invoked by calling a zombie army to war.

Helvi Hämäläinen’s Raakileet (‘Unripe’, WSOY), published posthumously in 2007, describes postwar Helsinki. It also offers a perspective on the period following the Continuation War unique in Finnish fiction.

Hämäläinen (1907–1998) offered her highly original novel to publishers in 1950, but it was rejected; the frigidly arrogant, terse rejection letter is now reproduced in the published novel. The publisher assumes that the author knows the grounds for rejection herself. And perhaps she did, as radical a novel as it was: at a time when swearing and ‘profanities’ were not really favoured in fiction, Hämäläinen’s street-credible realism, describing matters such as the erotic hunger of women, must have shocked the conventional, respectable publisher. Hämäläinen had already previously succeeded in causing a stir amongst the gentlefolk with the mercilessly accurate descriptions of her contemporaries in her roman à clef, Säädyllinen murhenäytelmä (‘A respectable tragedy’, 1941; see Books from Finland 4/1993) – which became not only a cultural scandal, but also a best-seller.

Raakileet, published 57 years after it was written, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of its author’s birth, tells of the coming of age of four boys from Helsinki. Erkki, Kauko, Ilmari and Pekka grow into young men at the end of the Second World War. Their fathers have either died in the war or lost their grip on life. This gives rise to a sense of deep disdain in the boys; the young Kauko even beats his alcoholic father regularly.

Hämäläinen savagely portrays the growth into adulthood of these boys who looked for their ideals to Nazi Germany. The boys sing the Horst Wessel song, repeat Nazi slogans and torture small animals. They laugh an ‘armed laugh’. They fantasise about impregnating with their sperm all the women of the planet, whom they both despise and secretly fear.

Raakileet depicts Helsinki’s post-war days of destitution in a grotesque manner. People do whatever they have to do to stay alive. Hämäläinen’s merciless depictions include the trade in women at the docks, and the reader is made to marvel at the boldness with which she has taken on a subject like fascism immediately after the war.

Of the novel’s quartet of main figures, Kauko is the most humane. When he has his first experience with a woman, he chooses not to tell anyone about it. Erkki on the other hand, worships his own body and believes in Nietzsche’s superman ideal. Ilmari is expelled from school and attempts to live as a vagabond. Pekka counts how many seeds there are in a rosehip with his cousin Maija; this moment is the novel’s most tender. The raging misogynist ends up gently kissing his cousin.

The absence of strong men makes the boys’ maturation traumatic and painful. Hämäläinen describes her characters with a discerning eye. The topic is also personal, because her own son was left without a father. The couple had separated after the boy’s birth, and Hämäläinen’s ex-husband died in the Continuation War from a sniper’s bullet.

42 years after the end of the war, Hämäläinen published a war-themed poetry collection, Sukupolveni unta (‘Dreams of my generation’) – for which she was, at the age of 80, awarded the 1987 Finlandia Prize for literature.

In the final section of Raakileet, the mythical Orpheus becomes a central figure, bringing the wisdom of Hades to the earth. Nevertheless, no zombie can take on the role of a father. Mannerheim also comes to see this in Lakanasiivet

Both novels depict how women propped up Finnish society during the war and for a long time afterwards. When the men are away at the front, women are left to carry the entire burden of day-to-day life. Home and children must be cared for, jobs must be held down, and life must be lived, all under constant threat of attack. All the while, women’s minds are weighed down by the fear that life won’t get better after the war after all. In this light, Raakileet feels especially tragic. Even if the boys grow up to be savages, their mothers cannot but love them.

Translated by Owen Witesman

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