Getting by

18 May 2012 | Non-fiction, Reviews

To school: children on the march – no buses or taxis in the Finnish countryside after the war. Photo: the cover of Kauaksi kotoa

Kauaksi kotoa. Muutoksen sukupolvi kertoo
[Far from home. Stories of the change generation]
Toim. [Ed. by] Anja Salokannel & Kaija Valkonen
Helsinki: Kirjapaja, 2012. 320 p.
ISBN 978-952-247-291-5
€32.90, hardback

The post-war period in Finland was a time of hope and reconstruction, of procreation and tough, grey heroism. Finland picked itself up by the bootstraps, as fathers who had been ‘driven mad in the war’, who took to drink or spat blood because they had shrapnel in their lungs, built veterans’ houses around the small towns and cleared fields in the backwoods. More than 83,000 men were killed in the wars (Winter War 1939–1940, Continuation War 1941–1944).

Mothers worked like men. The baby boomers – the demographic peak which consists of those born between the war years and 1950 (in 1946–1949 more than 100,000 babies were born each year, compared to some 60,000 in 2011) – had to be fed and clothed and educated for a better and more prosperous future.

Now the baby boomers have started to retire. Editors Anja Salokannel and Kaija Valkonen (baby boomers themselves) have compiled the book Kauaksi kotoa. Muutoksen sukupolvi kertoo (‘A long way from home. Stories of the change generation’), in which 21 men and women talk about their lives during the decades of change.

It makes moving and gloomy reading, with a remarkably frequent occurrence of those two hard-to-translate Finnish words for ‘to get by’ – pärjätä and selviytyä.  They mean biting the bullet, rolling up one’s sleeves and struggling on against hellish odds. They are words that imply nothing as simple and ingratiating as ‘success’ or ‘prosperity’.

Tuula Karjalainen (born 1942), is one of the book’s oldest contributors, and describes in bleak terms her girlhood among the children of the large families of Kallio in Helsinki: ‘We moved around in herds without an adult guardian. Our parents went out to work and tried to provide us with bread. We had to learn to get by on our own and be on our guard against men who had been disabled in the war and were  often violent.’  Someone hits her in the face in the courtyard, she goes home to be comforted and her father says, ‘Why do you come here whining? Go out to the yard and hit them back.’ Karjalainen later became a senior official on an art museum board – perhaps she learned something from such harsh lessons.

‘… had to learn to get by’, ‘would we cope?’, ‘had to manage on our own’, ‘coping with everything on our own from an early age’, ‘how would we manage?’, ‘we made do’, ‘mother had taught us to get by’ – there is almost a vein of parody in the joylessness with which several of the book’s texts describe both family life and human emotions.

When faced with an almost impossible task, like clearing a field on a meagre, barren patch of forest where the government has slapped up a wooden shed as a first home for one’s family, one may respond stoically: ‘It’s damn well no good crying about it!’ Words that a son may later carry with him well into his career in a future welfare Finland.

As a counterbalance to the parents’ strenuous but emotionally silent toil aimed at giving their children a better future, here and there in the texts there are also glimpses of grandparents with soft hands and gentle eyes, and a lot more patience.

And for the country children there was the long walk to school in the cold, dark winters. ‘If there was a lot of snow, a small thin boy would be exhausted even after the first few hundred yards to the village road. And there was certainly no guarantee that the road would be ploughed. It was also dark. You could only stay on the road if you stopped and looked up at the sky so you could see the lighter part of the forest. That was where the road went,’  writes Veikko Sonninen (born 1949), lawyer and retired president of the Finnish Publishers’ Association, remembering his first year at school.

Some of the contributors also testify to the joy and exuberance of being able to go to school, learning to read, obtaining one’s own first library card, beginning to study. These are no clichés – here we meet the first generation of graduates, ‘class travellers’ who have come a long way.

In addition, there was a community spirit of optimism and of taking part in a shared, meaningful project, and this certainly outweighed some of the bleakness of home:

‘I was lucky to be born into a lucky generation. Our childhood was a time of hope and reconstruction. There were too many of us everywhere, but both in the city and in the country and from working class homes we got into the schools, we entered the  colleges and conservatoires. Material affluence and human capital grew at a dizzying speed. There was work for nearly all of us,’ writes Marja Nick, a medical doctor (born 1947).

One should of course be cautious in using this sample of stories to draw general conclusions about what people really felt and knew at the time. The memories themselves are not the only important element here –  there is also the question of  narrative convention, of culturally stereotyped ways of reproducing one’s memories.

On the other hand, the book contains many examples of an attitude towards life that fits very well into a cherished notion of what is ‘typically Finnish’ – the pages are filled with hard-working people accustomed to belittling their own feelings of disappointment and neglect, or their desire for emotional warmth. They want it to sound like this, with a click of the heels: ‘… even though I was an only child, my parents didn’t have much energy left over for me. I was left to my own devices.’  The neglect becomes ‘the most valuable lesson of my childhood,’ something to be proud of.

I put the book down with mixed feelings. Finns may not be the happiest people in Europe, the most extroverted or the most easily amused. But there is something irresistible about this grand understatement about the last six decades: ‘We got by.’ With no exclamation mark.

Translated by David McDuff

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