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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Martti Johannes Larni (1909-1993) - surname until 1942 Laine


Writer and journalist, who became the best-known Finnish writer in the Soviet Union after publishing his satirical novel about the American way of life, Neljäs nikama eli veijari vastoin tahtoaan (1957, The fourth vertebra, or a scamp despite himself). Both Fidel Castro and Mikhail Gorbachev loved the book. Larni works have been translated into some 20 languages. After World War II, Larni lived a few years in Wisconsins, US.

"When a collection of my satirical sketches was published twelve years ago one critic described me as a "venomous mocker" who, armed with a sharp awl, lies in wait for his victims. I categorically reject such an accusation. I am not at all venomous; I am a kind, soft-hearted person and am especially fond of children and dogs – children, because they bark also on my behalf. As for the awl, it is the writer's tool. The first duty of a writer is to fight against social injustice. In the capitalist world there are still exploitation, racial oppression, political corruption, shameless strivings for personal gains, brazen attempts to establish world domination by force, and total callous disregard of the worth of human beings." (from 'Foreword' in Laugh with Larni, 1973)

Martti Johannes Laine (Martti Larni) was born in Helsinki, the son of Johan Viktor Laine, a master painter, and Matilda Puntila, who had strong family roots in Hauho, Häme. They had nine children; Martti was the fourth. In his childhood, Larni spent several summers as a shepherd – later he recalled this experience in Hyvien ihmisten kylä (1942). At the age of fifteen, Larni wrote his first poems and short stories. His early lyrics were published in 1926 in the magazine Juttutupa. Two years later he became a member of the literary association Nuoren Voiman Liitto, founded in 1921.

From 1923 to 1927, Larni worked as a horticultural assistant, then tried his luck as a businessman, and studied at a cooperative movement school. In 1936 he married Gurli Viola Zetterström. From 1937 to 1943, Larni was the editor of Elanto, a magazine published by one of the largest cooperative movements in Finland. In 1943 he was appointed departmental manager of the consumer cooperative Elanto. During World War II, Larni wrote screenplays for the production company Suomi-Filmi Oy, among them Tuomari Martta, based on Ilmari Turja's play. With the director Valentin Vaala he cooperated in several film projects, beginning from Keinumorsian (1943).

In 1948-49, Larni resided in the United States and again in 1951-54, working then as an editor at the publishing company Co-op. Public Association. Its newspaper, Työväen Osuustoimintalehti, was printed weekly. Between the years 1956 and 1959, Larnii was a departmental manager at The Cooperative Union of Finland. After returning to Finland, he worked as a departmental manager at The Cooperative Union of Finland (1956-1959) and editor of the magazine Me kuluttajat (We consumers; 1955-1965). In addition to publishing prolifically, he served as chairman of the Finnish Writers' Association (1964-1967). Larni died on March 7, 1993.

Larni made his debut as a novelist with the young adult's novel Seikkailuja Saamenmaassa (1936), which he published under the Lappish pseudonym Aslak Nuorti. His next novel, Kuilu (1937), dealt with the traumatic civil war of 1917-18. At that time the war was mostly seen from the side of the victorious White army. The most notable exceptions were F.E. Sillanpää's Meek Heritage (1919) and Elmer Diktonius's Janne Kubik (1932).

Kuilu was a story of the journalist and writer Unto Kamara, who has committed suicide. Kamara's autobiography reveals his homosexual affair with a literature scholar, "Doctor H." During the Civil War Kamara joins the Red Army and kills his seducer. He is imprisoned by the Whites and a white officers demands sexual favors from him. After his release Kamara tries to change his life, marries, but eventually kills his wife. Especially right-wing critics attacked Larni's book – it was considered "sick" and "morally harmful."

Partly due to harsh critic, Larni did not publish anything for five years. In 1942 he changed his name officially from Laine to Larni, leaving with this act his earlier identity as a writer completely behind. Under the pseudonym Dan Aster, Larni published three books, Kahden maailma (1944), Malttamaton intohimo (1945), and Musta Venus (1946). Lähellä syntiä (1946) tells the melodramatic story on Juhani Lundahl, the son of a waitress and later prostitute who escapes from home. He finds work at a market garden, owned by a debauched Baron Barring. Juhani joins workers'a association and struggles for his rights. The book was made into a film 1955, directed by Hannu Leminen. The director set the events during World War II instead of the Civil War (1917- 1918). Taivas laskeutui maahan (1948) was a historical novel, in which the protagonist was the friend of the poet François Villon, René Saillant. The work was partly inspired by Lorenz v. Numers' novel Snäckans bröder (1946) – Larni had translated its poems into Finnish. Minnesota palaa (1952) was about Finnish immigrants in the United States and the great fire of 1918 in Minnesota. Larni wrote the book while in the United States. One of the characters, named Jack Hill, searches for his father, Henry Hill, and is employed in a circus as a babysitter for freak children.

Niko said nothing, but the parrot in the cage screamed: "Down with dictators! Hang the colonels!
"So you've taught your parrot to speak for you? And do you know what that could mean?"
"Polly will go to a concentration camp," replied Nico darkly."

(from Sokrates Helsingissä, 1973)

The Russian translation of Neljäs nikama came out in 1959. It was published without the knowledge of the author – the Soviet Union had not undersigned the Bern convention on copyright issues. The first time Larni realized that he had written a bestseller, was when he saw a woman reading his book on an airplane. Copies were distributed for free at Soviet airports. The work was translated into some 20 languages, but not into English, and turned into a stage adaptation.

"They say you need three or four months to get back to normal after an operation like that. Do you remember the book "The Fourth Vertebra," by the Finnish author Martti Larni? It is a wonderful book. In my case it was the fifth (vertebra). I've started walking again, but every beginning is difficult." (Mikhail Gorbachev in Spiegel, August 16, 2011, after a spine operation.)

The protagonist is Jeremias Suomalainen, a teacher and journalist, who is called "the greatest truth-speaker in the word" by one of his readers, but in the trial, he is accused of being the world's biggest liar. The character had already appeared in Arvokkaat köyhät ja heidän kirjava seurakuntansa (1944), a picaresque novel. After spending eight moths in a jail, Jeremies moves to the United States. In his new home country Jeremias becomes the assistant of the chiropractic Isaac Rivers, who was modelled after Hannes Kolehmainen's massage therapist, and later "Professor" Jerry Finn, a citizen of the world. Rivers has a theory: all backaches come from the fourth vertebra. Larni mocks quick marriages and quick divorces, miracle doctors, Hollywood, self-contentedness, ignorance of other cultures, and advertising. In one scene Jerry peddles books; he has an abridged edition – 102 pages – of Anatole France's collected works. At the end, he is catapulted into fame and riches. Noteworthy, Larni himself had hurt his vertebrae during WWII.

The poet Pentti Saarikoski confessed in his review of the book that his sympathy was on the side of the cheerful Americans (Parnasso, no. 3, 1958). In the magazine Valvoja (no. 5, 1957) V.A. Koskenniemi compared Larni's style to that of Jerome K. Jerome, but he saw that in the choice of his subject the author follows in the wake of Eric Linklater. On the other hand, Koskenniemi considered Larni's humor rudely exaggerated, too far from the reality to be effective. In 1973 the Soviet Novosti Press Agency published a collection of the author's satirical sketches, Laugh with Larni.

Mostly Larni laughed at the U.S., with the exception that 'Putting History into the Corner' condemned Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's novel August, 1914, which he had not read at that time. He even hinted that Solzhenitsyn was of Jewish origin by referring to him with the term "rootless intelligentsia". It is possible that Larni was paid by the KGB, which sent his comments in the German Stern magazine to Swedish and Czechoslovakian papers (Solženitsyn: elämä ja eetos by Erkki Vettenniemi, 2015, pp. 160-162). Foreboding Solzhenitsyn's exile from the Soviet Union in 1974, Larni wrote: "Several years ago a Soviet writer who likewise did not love his country and people, set out looking for happiness in foreign lands. He changed his name, declared himself a "citizen of the universe" and ... was lost in a London fog."

For further reading: 'Martti Larni,' in Uuno Kailaasta Aila Meriluotoon: suomalaisten kirjailijain elämäkertoja, ed. by Toivo Pekkanen & Reino Rauanheimo (1947); 'Martti Larni' by Sakari Virkkunen, in Suomen Kuvalehti (14.9.1979); Kapinalliset kynät III by Raoul Palmgren (1984); Suomen kansallisfilmografia 3, ed. by Kari Uusitalo, et al. (1993); Kotimaisia sotakirjailijoita by Martti Sinerma, et al. (2001); 'Larni, Martti' by Lasse Koskela, in Suomen kansallisbiografia 5, ed. by Matti Klinge, et al. (2005); Satiiri Suomessa by Sari Kivistö & H.K. Riikonen (2012)

Selected works:

  • Seikkailuja Saamenmaassa, 1936 (as Aslak Nuorti)
  • Kuilu, 1937 (under the name Martti Laine)
  • Yli rajan, 1938 (screenplay)
    film 1942, directed by Wilho Ilmari, based on the novel by Urho Karhumäki, starring Irma Seikkula, Joel Rinne, Wilho Ilmari
  • Hopeakihlajaiset, 1942 (screenplay)
    - film dir. by Wilho Ilmari, based on the play by Klaus U. Suomela; novel in 1942, starring Lea Joutseno, Paavo Jännes, Eine Laine
  • Hyvien ihmisten kylä, 1942
  • Keinumorsian, 1943 (screenplay)
    film dir. by Valentin Vaala, prod. by Risto Orko, based on the play by Lauri Haarla, starring Irma Seikkula, Olavi Reimas, Kirsti Hurme
  • Neiti Tuittupää, 1943 (screenplay)
    - film dir. by Valentin Vaala, based on the novel by Hilja Valtonen, starring Lea Joutseno, Tapio Nurkka, Tauno Majuri
  • Tuomari Martta, 1943 (screenplay)
    film dir. by Hannu Leminen, prod. by T.J. Särkkä, based on the play by Ilmari Turja, starring Helena Kara, Uuno Laakso, Elsa Rantalainen
  • Arvokkaat köyhät ja heidän kirjava seurakuntansa, 1944
    - Horovod nisih (perevod s finskogo B. Zlobin, V. Bogačeva, 1999)
  • Kahden maailma, 1944 (as Dan Aster)
  • Laulun miekka, 1944 (with others)
  • Malttamaton intohimo, 1945 (as Dan Aster)
  • Äidin kädet, 1945
  • Aura ja huilu, by Lucian Blaga, 1945 (translator)
  • Lähellä syntiä, 1946
  • Musta Venus, 1946 (as Dan Aster)
  • Juokseva lähde, 1947
  • Tiirikan kilta / Lorenz von Numers, 1948 (translator, with Olli Nuorto)
  • Taivas laskeutui maahan, 1948
  • Palo, eskimopoika / Knud Hermandsen, 1948 (translator)
  • Kamera kiertää Amerikan suomalaisen parissa / A camera tour among the Finns of America, 1949
  • Kulkurin tyttö, 1951 (screenplay)
    - film dir. by Valentin Vaala, starring Ansa Ikonen, Heikki Heino, Tea Ista
  • Minnesota palaa, 1952 (rev. ed. 1964)
  • Lähellä syntiä, 1955 (screenplay, with Hannu Leminen)
    film dir. by Hannu Leminen, prod. by Risto Orko, based on Martti Larni's novel, starring Tuija Halonen, Erkki Viljos, Felix Teraste "Käsikirjoitus on Martti Larnin, ja jos ummistaa silmänsä kaikilta epäjohdonmukaisuuksilta ja merkillisiltä 'sattumilta', niin sittenkin story tuntuu jotenkin vanhentuneelta ja sotainen johdanto tendenssimäisesti käsitellyltä. Parasta tarinassa on äidin ja pojan yhteinen elämä ja siihen liityvät episodit." (Maija Savutie in Vapaa Sana)
  • Neljäs nikama eli Veijari vastoin tahtoaan, 1957
    - Cetvertyj pozvonok, ili, mošennik ponevole (perevod s finskogo V. Bogačeva; hudožnik: V. Gorjaev, 1960)
    - Neljäs selgroolüli ehk Kelm vastu tahtmist (tõlkinud J. Seilenthal, 1961)
    - Gauner wider Willen (übers. von Heinz Goldberg, 1962)
    - Ceturtais skriemelis (no somu valodas tulkojusi Ingrīda Peldekse, 2007) 
  • Kaunis sikopaimen eli Talousneuvos Minna Karlsson-Kanasen muistelmia, 1959
    - Prekrasnaja svinarka, ili, Nepoddel’nye i neliceprijatnye vospominanija èkonomiceskoj sovetnicy Minny Karlsson-Kananen, eju samoj napisannye perevod s finskogo V. Bogaceva, 1961) / Prekrasnaja svinarka; Ob ètom pomalkivajut: romany (perevod s finskogo V. Bogačeva, 1987)
    - Die schöne Schweinehirtin oder Die Erinnerungen der Kommerzienrätin Minna Karlsson-Kananen (übers. von Heinz Goldberg, 1965)
  • Suomalainen mollikissa, 1962
  • Neljäs nikama, 1962-63 (play, with Rauli Lehtonen)
  • Tästä ei puhuta julkisesti: erään vilpittömän ihmissielun paljastavia tunnustuksia, 1964
  • Uskomatonta onnea, 1966
  • Esikoispoika, 1968
  • Sokrates Helsingissä ja muita tarinoita, 1972
    - Sokrat i Helsinki (pereklala a finskoi Emma Lisetska, 1975)
  • Pamflety, fel’etony, rasskazy, 1973 (published by Novosti, Moscow)
  • Laugh With Larni, 1973 (published by Novosti, Moscow)
  • Isät äitiyslomalle ja muita tarinoita, 1978
  • Rasskazy, 1991 (perevod s finskogo V. Bogačeva)
  • Kuilu: kertomus eräästä ihmiskohtalosta, 2016 (E-kirja)

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