A life at the front

Issue 3/2001 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Marsipansoldaten (‘The marzipan soldier’, Söderström & Co., 2001). Introduction by Maria Antas

[Autumn 1939]

Göran goes off to the war as a volunteer and gives the Russians one on the jaw. Well, then. First there is training, of course.

Riihimäki town. Recruit Göran Kummel billeted with 145 others in Southern elementary school. 29 men in his dormitory. A good tiled stove, tolerably warm. Tea with bread and butter for breakfast, substantial lunch with potatoes and pork gravy or porridge and milk, soup with crispbread for dinner. After three days Göran still has more or less all his things in his possession. And it is nice to be able to strut up and down in the Civil Guard tunic and warm cloak and military boots while many others are still trudging about in the things they marched in wearing. The truly privileged ones are probably attired in military fur-lined overcoats and fur caps from home, but the majority go about in civilian shirts and jackets and trousers, the most unfortunate in the same blue fine-cut suits in which they arrived, trusting that they would soon be changing into uniform.

Göran, who is comfortably off, has no reason to grumble. He arrived at Riihimäki in a positive frame of mind, red cheeks, cheerful eyes, fully-packed kitbag on his back and his skis over his shoulder. The right routine has stayed with him from the Civil Guard, giving him a considerable advantage over the untrained and the green.

It would be unfair to say that Göran Kummel is a conscious timeserver. He just happens to be one of those whom officers notice: quick on his toes, background in the Civil Guard. It does no harm, for in other ways Göran is at a disadvantage. Even though there are all-Swedish formations in the Finnish army, both Frej and Göran have chosen Finnish units. It is Father’s idea, for he doesn’t want them to be like him, hopelessly Swedish-speaking in the Helsinki region where Finnish is advancing on a broad front. The argument, not to be like Father, has an effect on Frej, and Göran also sees the advantages of coming out of the war completely bilingual. In any case, he already knows more Finnish than Frej because of his summer practice in the coastguards. ‘It’s all going to go just fine,’ he thinks without a care in the world, and it does, in a way. There is only the problem of his Swedish name.

It feels so strange, it sounds so peculiar that sometimes he doesn’t recognise it. The hard ‘G’, the spiky ‘ö’, the truncated ‘l’ that requires an ‘i’ at the end. And although the language war has been put to rest, there are some gibes and taunts, which Göran takes in good spirit. What is worse is that he still has some way to go before he is completely bilingual. Though the Finns are supposed to be slow and taciturn, they can talk away something terrible , and sometimes the quick-thinking Göran Kummel loses the thread and has to bluff his way, not always with quite successful results. He manages his own talking better. Swiftly he picks up everyday idioms and expressions that would have made his Finnish teacher in Grani turn pale, but are perfectly acceptable at the elementary school in Riihimäki.

The milieu in which he is living is familiar. The school is home from home for him, the timetable and food are as they were in the Civil Guard. He has always been surrounded by boys. The smells are familiar, nothing repellent, but not enticing either, like the female smells of the haybarns.

More acrid where men gather. The smell of sweaty feet, that is really something, familiar from gym halls and changing rooms. Underarm sweat, too. The smell of dirt that becomes distinct before the Saturday sauna. The smell of urine from the latrine, old tobacco in one’s clothes. The smell of rot-gut from the mouths of those who have had a night out and dared to get drunk.

And then the fresh smell of snow in the school yard, the pines, the horse-dung, the fumes from passing lorries, the smell of firewood wherever one turns, smoke from all of Riihimäki’s chimneys. Finland at war.

Mealtimes are irregular right from the outset, for Riihimäki receives assiduous attention from the Russian airforce. There are no air-raid shelters under the school, so the recruits are ordered out to the forest when there is an alarm. There they watch the brickworks receive a direct hit, a stack of firewood start to burn and the glassworks sounds like a gigantic breaking of the ice when it is hit. It’s like being at the cinema, but in reality. The lads stand and gape as at a giant-sized screen, only throwing themselves to the ground when a flying bomb explodes nearby: ouch, my ears!

It is undeniably war, but healthy lads with matriculation certificates and Civil Guard experience can’t be squandered away like cannon fodder. They need to be trained as officers, and so Göran Kummel and those like him are selected for NCO training school. School is not something one can escape in this life, even though one thought one was joining the war in order to get the school dust out of one’s lungs.

Göran also attracts attention in another way. His neat Civil Guard uniform is the reason why Sunday after Sunday he is detailed to the guard of honour that stands stiffly to attention at the heroes’ funerals. One can’t help being just a tiny bit flattered at being considered worthy of being displayed on solemn occasions. Washed as he has been taught by Mother, shaven and brushed, dressed in his finery and touchingly young, Göran raises the tone in the church. Still as glass, or almost, he stands with his gaze directed forward, but his features are soft and the lad in uniform as sweet as if he were made of marzipan. He is by no means unaware of the fact that Riihimäki’s women and girls like to look at him. Furtively or more or less directly, and one doesn’t need to be ashamed about that. The guard of honour stands like an emblem of those one is mourning: young, young men with soft features and living blue eyes, fallen for the Fatherland in their first bloom.

When one sees these serious young lads in the guard of honour one involuntarily finds oneself thinking that next time it may be them, and one wishes them every fortune and success in their own soldiers’ career.

It is always cold, especially for those who must stand motionless at the hero’s grave or in the cold chancel and look serious. Fortunately Göran’s youth functions like an inbuilt steam-boiler that emits thick white steam from his mouth when he breathes, regularly, a message that the fire inside is kept at constant pressure. If one had the courage to put one’s ear to his breast one would be able to hear the blaze rumbling in there, the heart like a horse on the race track, the speed steaming out of the pores.

One has such a desire to kiss such a young unknown man as he stands still, forbidden to move. One would so much like to put one’s head against his shoulder, which he must not stir. It would be a comfort to feel if he is really as warm as he looks, if one could open his cloak and press oneself against him as he stands there and is not allowed to move away. It would mean a moment’s serenity to stand there in the steam of his body among all the mourners in the church.

It is a fine custom, the guard of honour at the heroes’ funerals. Often Göran himself is put in a solemn mood by the music from the organ and the words before the altar, and also by the sorrow at the graves where he can see himself inconsolably mourned. In addition, he learns a Finnish that is more grammatically correct and more standard in expression than the language spoken in the barracks. Göran’s ear for language hears and registers, for he is accustomed to moving in many different circles and needs more than one vocabulary. After a short time in Riihimäki he can extend his condolences in Finnish, he can talk about heavy sacrifices and about the greatness and loftiness of being able to sacrifice one’s life for the Fatherland. This sacrificial death shall never be forgotten by a grateful people that stands in sorrow by the coffin. In respect, and in the certain knowledge that the sacrifice was not in vain.

If by nothing else, one knows that there is a war on from the fact that the lads at Riihimäki are going to meet their deaths at the front. Alone among warring nations, Finland makes colossal efforts to ferry its dead home. Lads die during their attempts to rescue dead comrades from the fire-fights, but no sacrifice is too great, and the importance to the home front is enormous. He comes home, he receives an individual funeral, there is a place, a mound over his actual remains, where one can mourn and remember.

The guard of honour never say a bad word about the custom itself, though they groan when they are selected and grumble about the cold and the extreme boredom. When they themselves are dead heroes they won’t object to others being ordered to be a guard of honour over them, they know that, and so they stand where they have been put. A rehearsal for what it will be like when it is oneself lying there, they never say that, but it crosses their minds. At any rate, it crosses the mind of Göran Kummel, who will be happy to be sent home and properly buried and mourned according to all the rules of the art.

It is the winter’s indescribable cold that makes it feasible to bring home the corpses in those long transports the length and breadth of Finland. If one wants to open the coffin one will find a well-preserved, deep-frozen corpse that still looks like a soldier lying there. It is a miracle how they all come home, finding their way the last mile on to country roads and forest roads to the churches that lie hidden in the impenetrable pine forest that is Finland’s camouflage uniform, dark-green during the summer half of the year and white during the winter, not a glimpse of a living creature. Yet there is a network of roads and paths like field-mouse burrows under the snow. Transports get through, coffins are carried in, mourners travel along these subterranean paths to their church. Its spire is invisible among the pines of the plot; the great spruce trees also give themselves a shake and hide the picture from us in a cloud of snow. You can hear them singing in there, as in a field-mouse’s nest under the protective rind. Protected for a while by grass and roots they sing and mourn, listen and blow their noses, knowing each single person in the church, but being totally alone. Outside the lines of graves are growing. Especially in a small congregation one can see how many they are.

Under Finland’s pines and snow the mourners also think about the living. They have the Russians on top of them, and the cold. They wonder how they are going to manage in the stiff-frozen forests where one can only dig in with the help of dynamite. Men home on leave have reported that where there are battles the forest has been shot away. Then a soldier feels quite naked, especially where there are no trenches. The forest is the Finn’s soldier’s cape, and if one pulls it off him, he dies.

The trainees in the barracks at Riihimäki also think about the cold, of course. And don’t feel any the more comfortable in their poorly heated school rooms from knowing that the lads at the front are worse off. Each man takes his stand where he is put and grumbles about his own conditions!

Yet it’s warming to hear the stories about how the lads at the front use the darkness, the cold and the snow to their own advantage and make the mighty Russian war machine idle, hiss, cough and die. In places like Summa one does not even need to waste ammunition. The whole world is talking about the Finnish encirclement technique. Ghostlike in their snow-suits, silent, the Finnish soldiers move across heath and fell in their ancient bond with the climate.

The wildernesses are enormous up in the border regions, and the Russians are afraid of the forest. Their motorised troops move along the roads, where it is easy to encircle them. Get them into a motti [encirclement], get them into the bag, tie the string. Even the trainees in Riihimäki can imagine the mercilessness of the action out there, and with part of himself Göran is thankful that he does not have to participate. With another part, the one that is turned outwards, he feels it intolerable to be hiding day after day like a hare in the forest while the Russians dump their bomb-loads. When one could be taking part where the decisive action is happening, among Finnish soldiers in snowsuits, silent and indomitable.

So he stays in his school room, has his bunk not too far from the stove, receives food, such as it is now, exercises without danger to his life and crams and attends lectures. In his free time he practises Morse code, for now he is in the signals corps and is going to train as a telegraphist. Luck is on his side, for even before the war one of his training options was that of telegraphist. Then he planned exciting years on the Queen Elizabeth; now he is getting the train­ing completely free of charge, from the army. He still has fabulous luck, does Göran.

But if truth be told, he is also dying of boredom. Were it not for the bombing raids and the quick excursions to the forest, he would probably have got up to some boyish prank and been kicked out of the training school. Luck again, for Göran really has nothing against becoming an officer, even though he would rather be one right away….

On 26 February the Riihimäki anti-aircraft battery has a stroke of inspiration and shoots down three enemy bombers. One plane comes down not far from that part of the forest where the lads lie hugging the earth: the attack comes early and the shooting down is unexpected: there is the plane whirring upside down and then lower in a spiral and then crash, into the forest.

The lads exult when they see that the plane has been hit and that thick black smoke is gushing out of it. Then they are quiet, for before the plane enters its spiral a parachutist and then an unfolding parachute detach themselves from it. For many it is the first parachute jump they have seen: the man falls quickly, and then there is a jerk, so that when the parachute floats out and stops him they almost think he has been shot.

The parachute is incredibly beautiful and silver-gleaming in the sun, larger than they imagined it. So beautiful that none of them feels like picking off the descending pilot, even if they had the ammunition.

So the man disappears into the forest and the parachute settles flat over the pines and seems to be sucked down, and is no longer visible. It is not so far from the place where the aeroplane carne down. Taking their bearings from the black smoke, the lads ski over there, true soldiers on the way to meet true enemies. But they have no true ammunition for the rifles they are toiling along with, and no authorisation. They ought perhaps to wait until the military police arrive, but where capturing paratroopers is concerned, everyone is both authorised and obliged.

So although they ski a little hesitantly, they ski on, and those who are in the rear press those who are in front, depriving them of the chance to stop.

It is not hard to reach the place where the plane has come down. Now they ought to do what they have learnt, that is, spread out in the terrain and then, with the greatest vigilance, approach the enemy target with weapons at the ready. But they ski in a body, those behind hard on the heels of those in front, and only spread out when they are so close that they have to avoid pieces of wreckage and remember that the plane that is belching smoke may explode. They also see blood, and when the ones at the rear press forward, the ones at the front get so close that they can see their first defeated enemies.

There are two of them, and they are dead as doornails. When the plane crashed they were thrown out into the snow. It is unclear whether they died when the plane was hit or only when it crashed, but in any case they make an ugly sight and look scarcely human in their brown flying helmets and brown leather jackets, with blood trickling along their trousers and over their boots.

‘Ugh!’ they all say. To death, that this is what you look like when you die. Most of them have seen a corpse laid out in a coffin, but this is their first sight of men who have just been killed. That you become so different, at the very moment you die: grey, at once rigid and relaxed, with the red as a knife-sharp contrast.

‘Ugly Russian devils!’ they say. ‘Got what they were asking for. Bloody hell! A direct hit, and that’s their lot!’

They are so unlike living human beings that one can only stare. To think that they fell straight into their arms! You look up at the sky and fried Russians tumble into your mouth!

There is guffawing, but no one touches them. Though they know that one of the things you do at the front is loot Russians you’ve killed. Take souvenirs and identity discs, sometimes boots that can be better than Finnish army issue. Weapons, of course. But now they can’t get organised enough, and anyway when the enemy tumbles down in such a peaceful way they have no option but to leave the looting to the military police.

‘We’ll have to go and report this,’ says Hämäläinen, who is a stickler for order. But he has to ski alone while the others stand and watch. He has not gone far when he stops, and shouts:

‘This way, lads!’ A breathless pause, and then half-choked, as though it were too much for their vocal chords: ‘Here’s the parachute chappie!’

They set off, and there is Hämäläinen, pointing upwards. In a tall pine tree there is a mass of tangled parachute cloth, and snared in cords and pressed into the fork of a branch, like a large young bird of prey not yet able to fly, a Russian paratrooper.

Alive. A plucked capercaillie waiting to be browned and popped into the pot. A fantastic capture, a prisoner with masses of information, caught by this little group of trainee NCOs crowding under the tree and moving to and fro on their clumsy skis. They behave like true civilians, so sure of their advantage that it never occurs to them that he, in this shackled position of his, may yet be armed.

Which he turns out to be. In a flash he has a pistol in his hand, raises it to chest height in spite of the ensnaring cord, takes aim and pulls the trigger.

Dead under their very eyes. Still in the same position, well-anchored, but dead as a doornail. His head was thrown to one side when the shot went off, that is the only difference. Like true civilians they stand and gape, saying nothing in their first amazement. Then a mass of swearwords in which they dress the first suicide they have witnessed.

And why? a voice says inside Göran Kummel’s head, though he swears like the rest. So the little troop on skis, red-cheeked lads who are the apples of their mothers’ eyes, can seem to someone seeing them from another angle so terrifying that he would rather shoot himself on the spot than surrender.

Perhaps this kind of thing is good for fighting morale, perhaps not. Not at least for Göran Kummel, who is used to being feted, courted and admired. That anyone should want to shoot himself before the sight of his open, friendly mug is really a bit thick. ‘Ugh!’ trainee Kummel says too, but does not hide the fact that he is shaken, for various reasons.

There is already a full mobilisation of effort in the forest. People arrive on skis, shouting, home guardsmen and police, firemen and finally also regular staff from the barracks. The lads point, describing what happened and growing cocky over their role of eyewitnesses. Like true civilians they jabber about how it might have gone: where he was sitting he could have picked off as many of them as he liked!

If he hadn’t lost his nerve, the damned Russian. They themselves would have cold-bloodedly mown down anyone who got near and saved the last bullet for themselves. Ten Russians to one Finn, just like at the front!

They are not allowed to be present when the airman is plucked out of the tree and looted, or when the crashed plane with its dead Ivans is taken in hand, a crying injustice in view of the fact that it was they who saw and found both the plane and its occupants. They are ordered back to barracks, and return there on their skis, with excited squabbling. And are given a warm reception. Exercise as though it were a punishment, and a red-hot instructor in every lecture room. Instead of viewing them as heroes who have endured their ordeal by fire, the opportunity is seized to put them in their place. As though they had no right to be exhilarated at the sight of three fallen enemies, or to re-experience the excitement and the drama!

Through the window Göran manages to see a covered lorry driving into the barracks area and something being loaded off the back and carried down into the cellar. Those may be the bodies from the plane, guesses trainee Kummel, and then stops listening to the instructor, who swiftly notices it. But that humiliation, too, has a transition, and when it is evening Kummel and Sirén and Hämäläinen and Varis sneak down into the cellar.

There is a staff sergeant on watch, but he knows them and says it can do no harm for them to go and take a look. And there they lie. Two rough, badly knocked about countenances, stubble, worn and baggy uniforms. And then the chap with the parachute. Young, not much older than Göran. Nice new uniform, shiny boots. Smart and stylish, handsome features. Hole in the temple with blue round it, otherwise not much disfigured. Eyes half closed, manly clenched jaw, handsome profile. The whole fellow could be used as proof that death is nothing terrible.

‘Did you see?’ says Göran Kummel in admiration. ‘He would pass for Wilhelm von Schwerin!’*

And afterwards he thinks about that a lot. That not all Russians are ugly swine. That it could have been him. There is no difference. That they are completely interchangeable. That everything in the world just happens to be as it is, and could equally well be the other way round. Without it making any difference. Ivan Kummel, Göran Ivanov. Dad a kolkhoz worker, Mum a teacher for the pioneer kids. Mum and Dad Ivanov teachers at the schoolhouse on the south coast.

For a while during the night Göran finds it hard to keep himself in himself. It is hard to keep to the fact that he has become who he is and must live in the situation he has arrived at, for the thought of all the other things he could have been is overwhelming. It is not so easy as where you go, tomorrow I go also. It is rather that one is only one, though one has the possibility of being everyone.

Would he himself, wondered Göran, have had such firm self-control that he would have been able to shoot himself? Would he not rather have experienced the same sense of unreality he was no experiencing on his straw mattress in Riihimäki? So that it would have felt superfluous and irrelevant to shoot the person he happened to be then, as he might equally well have been someone else.

Yes, Göran thinks a lot about the dead soldier, proud and vain like himself in those shiny boots and that new, well-fitting uniform. Nothing to be ashamed about in death, either. But he might have surrendered and gone on living! What have they been taught about the Finns? Bestial torture and no mercy? And so he shot himself, and Mum and Dad in the schoolhouse are mourning.

What with the visits to the farms around Riihimäki, with the bombardment and the firefighting and the shot-down Russian planes, with heroes’ burials where one must fire salutes, with skiing reconnaissance in the area and more of such, trainee Göran Kummel gets enough variety to be able, if needs be, to endure the monotony of barracks life, the discipline and the extremely boring lectures.

But in telegraphy he shines, and also makes an effort, as he has his sights trained on his peacetime Atlantic steamer, luxury class. By March he is up to 60 signals a minute and so already has a second-class passage. His reward comes when the school is divided into two departments, one for telegraphy and one for telephony. Kummel is relieved to find his name in the exclusive company of the telegraphists, while most of the others see themselves demoted to telephone boys. Göran has nothing to look forward to but promotion, probably soon to the radio battalion.

In other words, things are going very well for Mummy’s boy in Riihimäki, who does himself proud on pancakes and jam at generous farms, and on his return to barracks finds parcels from Mum: rusks and candies, pastilles and blueberry pies, on another occasion a jar of pickled herring and a real chocolate bar.

It is not bad being Göran Kummel during these March days of 1940, while his less fortunate comrades are trying to stop the Russians on the [Karelian] Peninsula. One cannot fault him for lack of foresight or being self-preoccupied, as he and his comrades are so poorly informed. One might think it ought to be a part of their training to follow how the battles are progressing and have the course of the battles interpreted to them, but the idea is clearly that at this early stage they are to learn that a soldier does not need to know the whole picture but only the bit of it he finds himself in. In the trainees’ case that means the barracks and the dormitories, the bunks and accoutrements of which are daily pulled up and hurled about by zealous NCOs who teach the trainees order and obedience and no answering back. For that the whole dormitory is punished, and so one can rarely hear a sound.

It is only by the ever jerkier and unpredictable behaviour of the orderlies that they can conclude that it is not going any further. There is also something about it in the newspapers, but mostly in general phrases about strategic regroupings at the front. When Viborg has fallen, the lads find out about it from a newspaper someone has bought down in the market town. The orderlies are angry, and seem to be of the opinion that this is an irrelevant interruption of the screened-off barracks world, where the routines are followed even if Helsingfors had capitulated.

For this reason, peace comes as a total surprise. But they are not, as they have had reason to fear, the last in the land to find out about it. In the morning it is first-rate bombing weather, sunny and clear, and the trainees are ordered into the forest. Kummel and some of his companions take a good long tour of the forests all the way to Puukonkylä, where they at once find a friendly farm, and are invited in.

Still steaming and flushed from their skiing, they listen to [minister of foreign affairs] Tanner’s speech on the radio. About the honourable struggle and the hard conditions for peace. About Karelia and Hangö. About independence preserved. The people at the farm are relieved, for they have a son in the war and can only hope that he is still alive. But the five lads don’t know what to think, for what they think is so contradictory.

‘Damn it, we’re too late!’ they say loudly and with perfect conviction. Inwardly they feel relief at not having to go to the front, for they have finally learned that people die there.

‘Why did they have to settle on such bad conditions? We were invincible! All we needed to do was put in one last counter-thrust,’ they groan, and think: ‘Thank the good Lord the front held as long as it did. It came in the nick of time, but now at least something is left.’

‘But Hangö!’ shouts Göran Kummel, who has personal knowledge of the spur of land on the south coast, but has never set foot in Karelia. ‘We can’t have the Russians in Hangö!’ while he reflects that it could have been worse, they could have had the Russians in the whole country.

Only one of them, Varis, is completely silent. And now they recall that he is from Viborg. He said nothing after the fall of the town, and he has hardly said a word ever since. Only Hämäläinen in the bunk alongside has kept account of the fact that he is from Karelia. So Hämäläinen says with perfect conviction:

‘We’ll take Karelia back, be sure of that! This isn’t peace, this is a strategic ceasefire. When we’ve had time to arm ourselves, we’ll have another go.’ Though meanwhile he is thinking that if Finland retakes Karelia it will happen over his, Hämäläinen’s, dead body….

When they get to Riihimäki the flags are at half mast, and the radio is playing funeral music. But for the lads returning to their quarters in the school, what peace means is this:

When there is peace, the school is used for its true purpose, and the junior orderlies have not been idle. They have pulled up all the bunks in all the dormitories, raked together all the kitbags and loose tackle, and transported it all to a dormitory in the north barracks, to which they have been moved. There everything lies in a mighty confusion. On the first evening of peace, Göran Kummel stands with his comrades in misfortune, rooting and rummaging in the mountain of kit. No matter how hard he looks and searches, the towel, soap, toothbrush, the bundle of envelopes and the white woollen sweater with its reindeer pattern are nowhere to be seen. Others can record greater losses on this first evening of peace in the Republic of Finland, but Kummel’s individual loss must be added to the sum of the misfortunes.

*) A young patriot hero in Fänrik Ståls sägner (‘Tales of Ensign Stål’, 1848-60) by the Finnish national poet J. L. Runeberg, who wrote in Swedish

Translated by David McDuff

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