Dialogues with death

Issue 3/1992 | Archives online, Authors

Pekka Tarkka reassesses the work of Väinö Linna (1920–1992) and introduces an extract from Täällä Pohjantähden alla (‘Here beneath the North Star’, 1959–62)

Relations between Finland and Russia – and, analogically, the poor tenanted farm and the rich rectory – and their descent into violence are the subjects of Linna’s great novels: Tuntematon sotilas (The Unknown Soldier, 1954) describes ordinary soldiers in the Finno-Soviet war of 1941-44; Täällä Pohjantähden alla is at its most powerful in its depiction of the civil war fought in 1918 between Reds and Whites.

The slice of Finnish local history that Linna recounts reflects 50 years of world history,’ said the Swedish professor Victor Svanberg in 1963 as he presented Linna with the Nordic Council’s literary prize. But is Linna’s work tied to its time to the extent that it will die now that he is dead, and that the epoch, in which he played so strong a part, is passing?

Linna’s world has, in many respects, suddenly become history, so that he can no longer be considered an oracle. For this reason the first signs have been seen of a re-evaluation of his work – there have been, for instance, attempts to find refinements of novelistic technique in his novel Tuntematon sotilas. The theatre director Jouko Turkka – who has made a handsome staging of Tuntematon sotilas – has said bluntly that Linna’s role as a chronicler of social history and Tolstoyan realist has been over-emphasised. According to Turkka, Linna is, rather, a portrayer of Dostoyevskian angst; here is is no doubt referring to Linna’s immature early works, Päämäärä (‘The goal’, 1947) and Musta rakkaus (‘Black love’, 1948). If one thinks of Linna’s oeuvre as a whole, it is clear that Turkka exaggerates, for in his master-works Linna clearly distanced himself from anything with a tinge of the existentialist tradition begun by Dostoyevsky.

But there is something in Turkka’s reaction. Linna is, indeed, not merely a chronicler of society; the object of his interest was greater than the local history, or even world history, of half a century. ‘Human history is, at base, a continuous dialogue with death’, he wrote in an essay. Looking at his great novels from this point of view, one realises that they are, in fact, a great triumph of death, a terrible danse macabre, that swallows up his most beloved characters one after another, first the Reds in their search for human value, then the wily Finnish soldiers in their struggle against the Communist state.

The extract from Täällä Pohjantähden alla that follows depicts a meeting between a Finnish country vicar’s wife and her tenant farmer, Koskela, during the period of Russian oppression at the turn of the present century. It is very characteristic of its author: a little crudely didactic, but nevertheless the product of a good sociological imagination. Behind it is a historical event that reflects the entire epoch: a heroic campaign in which half a million subjects of the grand duchy of Finland put their names to a ‘great address’ which was to be presented to the tsar in protest at his attempts to Russify Finland. Typically, Linna sets his version of the events at the most prosaic level possible, among ordinary people, and outlines his conception of the antagonism between the interests of the gentry and the poor – like many great realists, he sides with the insulted and the injured, and against the rich and the proud.

The comically miserly Jussi Koskela, who appears in this extract, is a typically Finnish son of the soil who fears his powerful neighbour and tries to avoid all contacts in order to remain m peace. Matters of state, politics and morality are foreign to him; most important is his patch of land and the modest prosperity he can derive from it. His sons – ‘those forest-boys’ whom the vicar’s wife wants to turn into unwavering champions of the rights of the fatherland – have different ideas. They do not, however, become nationalists, but Reds who fight in the name of their own political morality, taking up weapons against the Whites, represented by the vicars wife.

As this happens, Finland has already gained its independence from Russia; and, although the civil war provided an inauspicous start for the new nation state, development subsequently turned in a more favourable direction, and tenant smallholdings such as Koskela’s were able to become independent and his heirs to secure their right to their own land. Thus the final volume of Linna’s trilogy ends in social harmony – but then Finland is attacked by the Soviet Union. The monument to the Finnish soldier of 1941–44 is Tuntematon sotilas, whose most important character is Jussi Koskela’s grandson Vilho Koskela, an officer who commands his men honestly and democratically.

The scene between Jussi Koskela and the vicar’s wife is followed, in the novel, by a number of similar encounters which Linna uses to chart the changing attitudes of the Finnish agrarian proletariat. His hobby, ethnography, often results in caricatured episodes and flat characters – I remember writing, in 1960, that Linna is, technically, somehow an unpolished writer, and as an artist rather more uneven than the Finnish classic writers Joel Lehtonen and F.E. Sillanpää. I added, however, that Linna has an astonishing gift for creating characters that personify general traits and have a permanent place in the national memory.

Linna knew what he had achieved – and, having created the basic characters of his national gallery, he declined to write any more fiction. But he was east in the role of a kind of national oracle, and he played it well. He supported the policies of president [1956–1981] Urho Kekkonen, according to whom it was necessary to relate to Russia ‘very respectfully, always obedient to higher authority, but also keeping a hold on one’s own rights’– or, at least, privileges. Regarding political affairs, Linna was not tied to any particular political party, but he supported social rights and equality, whose practice in Finland his works have aided.

In Jussi Koskela’s family, in particular, death gathers a premature harvest: the Whites execute his two sons after the civil war of 1918; the excellent Akseli Koskela remains alive, but two of his sons die in the Winter war against the Soviet Union, and the third, too, the image of the wise Finnish soldier, Vilho Koskela, is finally killed. Linna is kin to the old masters in that he always remembers death, and in an essay he cites Shakespeare and Tolstoy as examples of the fact that great literature always draws its strength from death, from the absurdity of human goals and meanings when seen against the annihilation of the individual.

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