Love and war

Issue 4/2000 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Väinö Linna ‘s famous war novel, Tuntematon sotilas (The Unknown Soldier), was editorially censored, with the author’s agreement, on its first publication in 1954. But, as Pekka Tarkka discovers, the English translation that appeared three years later was outrageously falsified

Tuntematon sotilas (The Unknown Soldier) is a story about Finnish soldiers fighting Soviet forces in Second World War. When it came out in 1954, it immediately gained an almost incredibly important place in the hearts of Finnish readers: it sold 160,000 copies in the first year, it has been made into a movie twice, and over the years, it has been one of the steadiest sellers of Finnish literature, reaching a record figure of more than 600,000 copies.

In honor of the 80th anniversary of novelist Väinö Linna’s birth in the fall of 4000 (he died in 1994) his publisher, WSOy, has brought out a six-volume collected works (both in a popular edition and a leather-bound special version). After claims were made on a television program that Linna’s most important novel, The Unknown Soldier, has only been available in a censored version, WSOY rushed one more title into the bookstores  – the original manuscript of the book, under the title Sotaromaani (‘A war novel’), which includes the parts removed by the publisher’s editor in 1954, now printed in italics for easy reference.

Thus, Linna’s collected works were quite overshadowed by the appearance of Sotaromaani, as Linna’s faithful readers rushed to the bookstores to buy it in order to see what had been kept from them for 45 years. Not that this was the first time they had heard about it: in the early 1960s, Linna’s biographer Nils-Börje Stormbom told his readers what had happened to Linna’s manuscript when it reached WSOY. Linna himself reproached his publisher for the removal of comments critical of the armed forces command, made by the novel’s narrator, but Stormbom felt that these cuts improved the novel as a work of art. Later on, Linna himself came around to that view.

The present editor of Sotaromaani, Professor Yrjö Varpio, shares that opinion, saying that the process to which Linna’s novel was originally subjected by his publisher was by no means extraordinary: manuscripts are mostly shaped into their final form in a collaborative effort between author and editor, and disagreements between the two are always resolved by compromise. Varpio admits that there are a few editorial interventions in this case which could be seen as violations of the author’s freedom of expression: these relate to passages in which Linna’ s narrator criticizes the high command for its attitudes and particularly strongly condemns executions of Finnish soldiers.

The most enthusiastic fan of Linna’s unedited version has been the writer Veijo Meri, whose satirical view of that same war in his novel Manillaköysi (The Manila Rope, 1957) has been the most significant counterblast to Linna’s Unknown Soldier with its aspirations to realism. Meri is delighted by some anecdotes in Sotaromaani in which one of the soldiers relates his escapades with women, and he welcomes this erotic dimension that was lacking in The Unknown Soldier. Meri also regards the above-mentioned narrator’s interventions as integral- even though they may be clumsy from a literary perspective, they provide many of the events in the novel ‘with their moral significance. ‘

The cuts made in 1954 are related to former taboos concerning sexuality, religion, and class conflict in Finnish literature and public opinion. There are moments in Sotaromaani in which a soldier’s confrontation with death calls forth rage and blasphemy. In the 1950s, these scenes might well have raised charges of blasphemy against Linna and his publisher. In the 1960s, similar passages in Hannu Salama’s novel Juhannustanssit (‘The midsummer dance’) led to a notorious court case.

In regard to these restored cuts, Sotaromaani is faithful to Linna’s intentions, and their restitution shows that even though the original editing was largely beneficial, it also deprived the work of some things. Perhaps some future editor may be able to rework the present ur-Unknown into an ideal Unknown Soldier that is unafraid of archaic taboos but does without the narrator’s irrelevant psychological (Lombroso!) and historio-philosophical (Tolstoy!) musings.

As a description of Finland as an ‘outpost of the West’ in a war against the Soviet Union, The Unknown Soldier piqued the interest of foreign publishers.

It was translated into 15 languages, with poor results. Yrjö Varpio’s examination of its international history shows that it really only survived undamaged in its Swedish and Norwegian versions, ­perhaps mainly because Scandinavians are familiar with one of its subtexts, J.L. Runeberg’s idealised epic war poem Vänrikki Stoolin tarinat (‘Tales of Ensign Stal’, 1848–60), to which Linna refers ironically throughout the book. The German and English translations were total losses. Initially, The Unknown Soldier was Englished by Alex Matson, known as an excellent interpreter of the works of Aino Kallas and the Nobelist F.E. Sillanpää. Collins of London and Putnam of New York, however, did not find his translation satisfactory: they decided to have it revised by an editor, unidentified to this day, who then proceeded to falsify and rewrite – one can say, forge – the text in an outrageous manner.

As books move from one cultural sphere into another, strange things do happen, but the following example surely deserves a place in the Chamber of Translation Horrors. In Linna’ s novel, Lieutenant Kariluoto deals with recalcitrant men under his command as follows:

‘ “Number Three is under my command. It will hold its position. Who has the gall to leave his post now?”

A rifleman nearby did have the gall. He started crawling away as soon as Kariluoto’s shout had caused the enemy to intensify their fire and to direct it at them.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

The man did not answer, kept his eyes fixed on the ground, and Kariluoto’s high-minded mood evaporated. By cursing and mocking the man, he managed to get him back into position, but it left a bad taste in his mouth. No, there really was no room here for any expressions of the soul’s Sunday side. This was cruel, crude, and, come to think of it, really vile. It had. indeed, occurred to Kariluoto to ask himself what gave him the moral right to drive others into the jaws of death. To mock and sneer at them, deprive them of their manhood and honor, if they did not obey his orders.’

In the 1957 English translation, the cor­responding passage reads as follows:

‘ “God damn you, I’ll put a bullet through the first one of you who takes a step back­ward!”

An infantryman near him was, however, more frightened of the Russians than of the usually mild-mannered Kariluoto. Scuttling like a crab, he set off on all fours toward the rear.

“Halt, damn you, halt!” Kariluoto was livid.

The man kept going without even a backward glance. Once again Kariluoto cursed and screamed at the man to come back. Then, abruptly, he turned, snatched the rifle from the hands of the soldier next to him, aimed and fired. The bullet took the fugitive in the small of the back. He screamed, pitched forward, tried to rise once and then slumped to the ground dead. Without another glance Kariluoto handed the rifle back to its owner and turned his attention again to the front.’

The English passage resembles the script of a B-war movie and is diametrically opposed to Linna’s novel, one of whose most complex characters is precisely this Lieutenant Kariluoto who struggles with his ethical problems. The Tolstoyan ruminations of Linna’s narrator on the ‘shooting and killing of … one’s own sol­diers’ was among the passages WSOY cut in 1954. By coincidence, the English translation introduces one of Linna’s ‘lowbrowed thugs à la Lombroso’ whose inventor describes the killing of ‘one’s own’ in a spirit totally opposed to Linna’s.

Linna’ s collected works were not entirely overshadowed by Sotaromaani, this past fall, because it relates to both the present and the future by means of excellent introductions written by authors of a new generation, Hannu Raittila and Juha Seppälä, who interpret Linna’s works courageously from a present-day perspective.

Seppälä writes that The Unknown Soldier’s ‘cleverly cut comic strips’ still work for a young readership that has internalised the visual character of the media industry. In Raittila’s opinion, Linna’s big novels, including the trilogy Täällä Pohjantähden alla (‘Here under the North Star’), are ‘multimedial’ in that voice figures prominently in them: Linna’s language is not only written, but operates with a great deal of the spoken and heard in its abundant dialogue.

While Linna’ s novels are part of our agrarian past, their Finland is making an energetic advance into the present. Raittila commends Linna for the realisation that the army was a machine, it used industrial methods, and that the war was ‘an enormous city scattered throughout the forests.’ The Unknown Soldier has retained its readability because Linna’s soldiers are streetwise verbal virtuosi and their dialogue is as snappy as that of any US cop show. Raittila’s observations lead him to believe that a young urban reader is still able to identify with Linna’s soldiers.

During the Second World War, Finnish society experienced a tremendous transition into modern and urban existence. In view of that, it is quite logical that Linna detached himself from superficial mimetic realism and created a new national identity that was able to reach into the future. According to Raittila, this conjunction of the past and the futurewas Linna’s ‘magic trick-alchemy, which is what art always is.’

Translated by Anselm Hollo

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