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by Bamber Gascoigne

Maiju Lassila (1868-1918) - pseudonym for Algot or Algoth Tietäväinen Untola until 1901, later Algot Untola - wrote also as Irmari Rantamala, Väinö Stenberg, and J.I. Vatanen, essays under the pen name Liisan-Antti, Jussi Porilainen


Author, journalist, and revolutionary, one of the most enigmatic figures in Finnish literature, who he hid himself under pseudonyms. As Maiju (Mary or Molly) Lassila, Algoth Untola wrote his best-known novel, Tulitikkuja lainaamassa (1910, Out to  Borrow Matches), which has been filmed twice. Untola's way from a farm-hand to a celebrated writer was adventurous. Periods of his life, Untola lived in the backwoods of Finland as a teacher, he then went to St. Petersburg as a businessman, and eventually became a Socialist agitator, dying during the Civil War in 1918. Untola's last days are still open to much speculation.

'"Niinhän se meni senkin Malisen naiminen ihan itsestään ennen kuin puhemies oli ennättänyt luontoansakaan karaista. Se Malinen oli vain istunut sen Tiinan viereen ja pannut kätensä Tiinan kaulaan tällä tavalla kuin minä tässä tämän Kaisan kaulaan, ja puhemies oli siihen ennättänyt vai sanoa: 'Ka johan se on valmis koko naimishökötys'..."'  (in Tulitikkuja lainaamassa, 1910)

Maiju Lassila was born Algoth (Algot) Tietäväinen in Tohmajärvi, North Carelia. His father, Jaakko Wilmelm Tietäväinen, was a farmer. Maria Simontytär Hakulinen, Lassila's mother, came from an influential and socially active farmer family. Algot's father died in 1881; his mother married next year a farm-hand, whose drinking brought poverty and misery to the family. However, at school Algot had showed exceptional talents. With the support of his relatives, Algot entered in 1887 a teacher's school in Sortavala, graduating in 1891. He then worked in Raahe and Kälviä, and from 1893 to 1900 he was employed as a teacher in Vyborg, where he started to use the name Untola. Three poems ('Karjala,' 'Langennut,' and 'Vangittu äiti'), signed by "A.T.", were published in a 4 page lottery publication entitled Karjala.

Little is known what Untola made between the years 1900 and 1904. He moved to St. Petersburg, where he run trade in timber. It has been claimed, that Untola  possibly made speeches under the pseudonym A. Aleksev, participated in the activities of revolutionaries, and was involved in the assassination of the Russian minister of the interior, Vyacheslav K. Plehve, who was killed by a bomb in 1904.  These claims are mostly based on the autobiographical interpretation of his novel Harhama.

During his St. Petersburg stay Untola was ideologically  close to conservative nationalist thinking and the Old Finns (vanhasuomalainen party) but he was also interested in Russian revolutionaries, with whom Finnish activists had formed contacts. The Karelian-Russian literary historian Eino Karhu, who identified Harhama as an autobiographical novel, saw traces of Gorky's influence in the character of Nikolai Petrof, a young socialist worker. (Dostojevski ja Suomen kirjallisuus by Eino Karhu, 1977, p. 40) Consumed by his hatred of bourgeois society, Nikolai declares in a speech: "Vannokaa, että luovutte kaikesta ja elätte ainoastaan kostolle! Luvatkaa, että jätätte lapsillenne perinnöksi vihan kaikkia sortajia ja verenimijöitä vastaan, olkoot Jumalia, tai ihmisiä!" 

In 1903 Untola married Therese Marie Johanna Küstring, a Russian woman, but separated soon, officially in 1913. According to some sources, Therese Marie was a hermaphrodite, and another source claims that Untola left his wife immediately after the weddings. The divorce was connected to Untola's bankruptcy and the steepness of his social fall.

It has been assumed, that Untola studied at the University of Moscow, but between the years 1904 and 1906 he was back in Finland, teaching in Lohja (1904-05) and Kaustinen (1905-07). It was generally believed, Untola had an affair in Lohja with a widow, Olga Jasisnki, who had two children. When their relationship was revealed, Untola was dismissed from his post.

In 1906 Untola went into politics and began to write columns under the pseudonym 'Liisan Antti' for the Old Finn newspaper Kokkola. His writings, in which he criticized the Finnish Party (Suomalainen Puolue), attracted much attention. After leaving his career as a teacher, he was a district secretary and travelled as a speaker in election campaigns in Ostrobothnia. From 1907 to 1909 he edited the newspaper Satakunta and ended his relationship with Olga, who according to some sources poured sulfuric acid on the author's genitals. Untola's first novels, Harhama and Martva (1909), were decadent, symbolistic works, which denounced the contemporary society. Olga appeared in Harhama as Helga Riuttula. This book had 1801 pages and Martva the respectable 1056 - for a debutant writer a gigantic enterprise. Both were published as works of "Irmari Rantamala". 

Harhama was reviewed widely, both in national and provincial newspapers and periodicals,  whereas Martva was received  with silence. One of the leading journalists and authors of the time, Eino Leino, said that the only thing that was monumental in Harhama was its size. Untola himself saw Leino as a prototype of  “high culture” writer.

Untola's Tulitikkuja lainaamassa was not aimed as a critique of the poor quality of Russian matches; it was a version of the proverb "much ado about nothing." Set it the countryside, it tells of two farmers, Antti Ihalainen, married to a vigorous woman named Anna Liisa, and Jussi Vatanen, a widow. Anna Liisa sends her somewhat lazy husband to borrow matches from a neighbor. On his way he meets Jussi and the friends are drawn into a comic adventure after taking too much liquor. A large amount of the narrative is carried on in dialogue or monologue. At the end of his escape from the everyday life, Ihalainen returns to home with one burned match. 

For the book, Untola  created a new pseudonym, "Maiju Lassila"; the first name is female. Noteworthy, at that time women authors preferred to publish their work under male pseudonyms. Unlike Harhama and Martva, this relatively conventional novel was even appreciated by such highly-estemeed writers and intellectuals as V.A. Koskenniemi, Volter Kilpi, and Kyösti Wilkuna, who invented the name for Untola book, Out to Borrow Matches. Its working title had been The Oddity of Life. All these novels were published by the progressive Kustannus Oy Kansa. Later there were rumors that lost parts of Harhama had been written in Chinese.

Thanks to the elements that guarantee popular success in Finnish theatre ‒ farcical situations, rural types, and drinking ‒ Tulitikkuja lainaamassa has been adapted numerous times for stage, especially for summer theatre. Hella Wuolijoki, whose most popular plays rivalled those of Untola, collaborated with Bertold Brecht on the comedy Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti (1940/41; subtitled 'A comic tale of Tavastland drunkenness in nine scenes'), which was cut from the same humorous cloth.

Both movie adaptation of the book, the first from 1938, directed by Yrjö Norta and Toivo Särkkä, and the Soviet-Finnish co-production from 1980 by Leonid Gaidai and Risto Orko, were faithful to the original story. "Here Gaidai remains true to himself, focusing on people's animalistic drives, for example, connecting marriage with discussion of cattle and reveling in a favorite Russian pastime of drinking and steam bathing." ('The Man Who Made Them Laugh: Leonid Gaidai, the King of Soviet Comedy' by Elena Prokhorova, in A Companion to Russian Cinema, edited by Birgit Beumers, 2016, p. 537) Starring the much-loved characted actor Yevgeny Leonov, Gaidai's satire on provincial life - at that time Finland was an autonomous part of the Russian Empire - was seen by tens of millions people in the Soviet Union, but it has not enjoyed the critical acclaim of his 1971 version of The Twelve Chairs, based on novel by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov.

Likely not by accident, the surname of Arto Paasilinna's protagonist in the picaresque novel Jäniksen vuosi (1975, The Year of the Hare) was Vatanen. In Kerjäläinen ja jänis (2011, The Beggar & the Hare), Tuomas Kyrö's retelling of Paasilinna's modern classic, the hero is a Romanian beggar, named Vatanescu.

While living in Kouvola in the early 1910s, Untola wrote several plays, including Kun lesket lempivät (1911), Kun ruusut kukkivat  (1912), Luonnon lapsia (1912), and Nuori mylläri (1912), a sentimental comedy, which gained success in Tampere: 20 performances. In 1912 he published nine books under the pseudonyms J.I. Vatanen, Maiju Lassila, and Irmari Rantamala. The last years of his life Untola lived in Helsinki in a 10 m2 basement room on Runeberg Street 6.

There are many legends about Untola's productivity as a writer - according to some sources the short story 'Manasse Jäppinen' (1912) was written in a few days.  During his highly creative period Untola also finished the novel Portto: syntinen nainen, which dealt with prostitution, but this book did not come out until 2002. Mimmi Paavaliina (1916) portrayed a woman, who has six illegitimate children, whom she names after a police chief, the substitute minister, a sexton, and so forth. Kuolleista herännyt (1916) contains the farcical elements of mistaken identity, misunderstanding, and drunkenness.

Examining Untola's work from a Bakhtian perspective, Irma Tapaninen has argued that the author took a carnivalesque attitude toward the mainstream culture. (Karnevalistinen henki Algot Untolan varhaistuotanto ja virallisen kulttuurin muutos 1900-luvun alussa by Irma Tapaninen,  2014) When writing as Maiju Lassila, he assumed the role of a folk humorist, littering his work with dialectical words he had heard or had invented himself. Like the peasants in the paintings of Bruegel, his characters are led by their whims, dresires, and fantasies. Basically, the laughter was not aimed at the common people, but at human follies and foibles, and the literary taste of the day.

The novel Liika viisas (Too Wise) was produced in the spirit of  Rabelais and Cervantes, whom Untola named as one of his major influences, along with Dostoevsky. Sakari Kolistaja, the protagonist, believes that worldly wisdom is evil, and he begins to preach against wisdom. At the end Sakari, the "too wise" of the title who has become the director of an insane asylum, leads a group of patients off in a wild procession of fools. Sakari's sermons are parodies but Untola's attitude toward religion was ambivalent - his unpublished manuscripts reveal that he was concerned with faith and spiritual things.

"Sillä ei tarvitse suomenkansa viiautta eikä turkkia se joka löylyssä kylpee. Ei, vaan usko ja sana, pelkkä sana on meidän voimamme aina ollut. Leivällä ja sanalla, eikä viisaudella on suomenkansa ennenkin elänyt... Aamen! Herran nimeen ja selkiän sanan voimalla aamen." (in Liika viisas, 1915)

From 1917 to 1918 Untola worked for the leftist newspaper Työmies, and became its last journalist during the Civil War. From that time one contemporary remembered his Chaplinsque appearance, resigned look, unkempt trouser legs and shoes. When Helsinki was captured by the German troops, Untola published his final column. In his vision he saw in the morning a proletarian woman, a rifle on her shoulder, as the greatest gift the Finnish working class has given and will ever give for its cause. This belief was not shared by the White Army, who considered the female Red guards the worst kind of enemy. Untola was arrested with a bag which contained some clothes, photographs, books, and some four or five thousand pages of writing.

As the most prominent agitator in Helsinki, Untola's fate was sealed. Probably he  did not believe that he would be condemned to death. (After the victory of the Whites, over 20,000 Reds were executed or died in prison camps.) On hearing of Untola's arrest, Juhani Aho wrote in Hajamietteitä kapinaviikoilta (1918-1919): "I would let him live, if he himself wants it . . . "

Despite V.A. Koskenniemi's claim in Vuosisadan alun ylioppilas (1947),  Aho did not make any effort to help Untola. (Raukoilla rajoilla. Suomenkielisen proosakirjallisuuden historia by Markku Eskelinen,  2016, pp. 233-234) Untola, prisoner number 158/1918, was killed on May 5, 1918, on his transport by a towboat to the execution place in Sveaborg, a sea-fortress located off the shore of Helsinki. The circumstances of his death are unclear – whether he was pushed overboard or tried to escape by jumping over the railing. Several shots were fired after him. The boat was stopped and Untola's body was lifted from the water. He was buried in a mass grave with other Reds.

A collection of Untola's last writings came out in 1977, but much of his work has remained unpublished; many manuscripts are in the Helsinki University Library. His adventurous life was the subject of Pirjo Honkasalo and Pekka Lehto's film Flame Top (Tulipää) from 1980.  The title refers both to Untola's read hair and his radical flaming socialist views.

For further reading: 'Literature in Finnish in the Twentieth Century from 1901 to the Indepencence,' in A History of Finnish Literature by Jaakko Ahokas (1973); Maiju Lassila. Legenda jo eläessään by Leo Lindsten (1977); Maiju Lassila by Elsa Erho (1957); 'Maiju Lassilan Kuolleista herännyt'  by Veijo Meri,  in Kaksitoista artikkelia (1967); 'Ihmeellinen Maiju Lassila' by Veijo Meri, in Goethen tammi (1978); Hiidenkiven arvoitus by Juhani Niemi (1985); 'Descriptions of the People: Jotuni and Lassila' by Kai Laitinen, in A History of Finland's Literature, ed. George C. Schoolfield (1998); 'Liikkuva tekijyys. Maiju Lassilan Rakkautta tekijyyden tekstinä' by Kaisa Kurikka, in Tekijyyden tekstit, edited by Kaisa Kurikka Kaisa and Veli-Matti Pynttäri (2006); Algot Untola ja kirjoittava kone by Kaisa Kurikka (2013); Omin voimin: Algoth Untolan (1868-1918) poliittis-vakaumuksellinen elämäkerta by Marko A. Hautala (2010); Karnevalistinen henki Algot Untolan varhaistuotanto ja virallisen kulttuurin muutos 1900-luvun alussa by Irma Tapaninen (2014); 'Varjeltu salaisuus' by Juha Hurme, in Helsingin Sanomat (30.12.2018); Algoth. Kapinallinen kynämies by Marko A. Hautala (2021) - Other writers killed in Civil Wars: Ambrose Bierce (during the Mexican Civil War in 1914); Federico García Lorca (during the Spanish Civil War in 1936); Juhani Siljo, who fought on the side of the White Guards during the Civil War in Finland, died of wounds after the Battle of Tampere in May 1918.

Selected works:

  • Harhama, 1909 (as Irmari Rantamala)
    - Film: Tulipää, 1980, prod. K-Kino, dir. Pirjo Honkasalo, Pekka Lehto, starring Asko Sarkola, Rea Mauranen, Kari Franck, Esko Salminen
  •  Martva, 1909 (as Irmari Rantamala)
  • Tulitikkuja lainaamassa, 1910 (as Maiju Lassila) [Out to Borrow Matches]
    - Films: 1938, dir. Toivo Särkkä and Yrjö Norta, produced by Suomen Filmiteollisuus SF Oy, starring Aku Korhonen (Antti Ihalainen), Unto Laakso (Jussi Vatanen), Ester Toivonen (Anna-Liisa Ihalainen); 1980, Za spichmani / Tulitikkuja lainaamassa, dir. Risto Orko and Leonid Gaidai, produced by Suomi-Filmi in cooperation with Mosfilm, starring Yevgeny Leonov (Antti Ihalainen), Rita Polster (Anna-Liisa Ihalainen), Vyacheslav Nevinny (Jussi Vatanen), Galina Polskih, Ritva Valkama
  • Pirttipohjalaiset, 1911 (as Maiju Lassila)
  • Kun lesket lempivät: nelinäytöksinen huvinäytelmä, 1911 (as Maiju Lassila) [When the Widows Make Love]
    - Films: TV film 1961, prod. Suomen Televisio, dir. Juhani Kumpulainen, starring Hannes Häyrinen, Uljas Kandolin, Sakari Halonen, Elsa Turakainen; TV film 1974, prod. Yleisradio (YLE), dir. Mauno Hyvönen, starring Oiva Lohtander, Harri Tirkkonen, Anja Pohjola
  • Pojat asialla, 1911 (as Maiju Lassila)
  • Kun ruusut kukkivat: 3-näytöksinen huvinäytelmä, 1912 (as Maiju Lassila)
    - TV film 1962, prod. Suomen Televisio, dir. Juhani Kumpulainen, starring Rauni Luoma, Sointu Angervo, Leevi Kuuranne
  • Elämän vaihteessa, 1912 (as Maiju Lassila)
  • Luonnon lapsia: 4-näytöksinen huvinäytelmä, 1912 (as Maiju Lassila)
  • Nuori mylläri, 1912 (as Maiju Lassila)
    - Film 1958, prod. Suomi-Filmi, dir. Valentin Vaala, screenplay Usko Kemppi, Valentin Vaala, starring Martti Kuningas, Teija Sopanen, Artturi Laakso  
  • Jussi Puranen: jutelma osuustoimintakauden esiajoilta, 1912 (as Maiju Lassila) 
  • Manasse Jäppinen, 1912 (as Maiju Lassila)
    - TV drama 1962, prod. Mainostelevisio (MTV), dir. Matti Poskiparta, Pekka Parikka, adaptation by Ryhmäteatteri, starring Juha Häkkinen, Maija Leino, Tuula Nyman, Esa Suvilehto
  • Pekka Puavalj, 1912 (as Maiju Lassila)
  • Rakkautta: traagillinen lemmen tarina, 1912 (as Maiju Lassila)
  • Tytöt talosilla, 1912 (as Maiju Lassila)
  • Kilpakosijat, 1913 (as Maiju Lassila)
  • Israelitar, 1913 (as Irmari Rantamala)
  • Avuttomia, 1913 (under the pseudonym J.I. Vatanen)
  • Isä ja poika: tekele, 1914 (as Maiju Lassila)
  • Iivana eli suomalainen venäläisten puhemiehenä, 1915 (as Maiju Lassila)
  • Kuoleman rajoilla, 1915 (as Irmari Rantamala)
  • Liika viisas: viisaudenkirja eli kertomus Sakari Kolistajasta, 1915 (as Maiju Lassila) [Too Wise]
  • Mimmi Paavaliina: 4-näytöksinen huvinäytelmä, 1916 (as Maiju Lassila)
    - TV film 1970, prod. Yleisradio (YLE), dir. Matti Tapio, starring Ritva Valkama, Marjukka Halttunen, Jyrki Kovaleff, Juha Tapio
  • Kuolleista herännyt: seikkailukertomus eli etsijän tarina, 1916 (as Maiju Lassila) [Wakened from the Dead]
    - TV film 1975, prod. Yleisradio (YLE), dir. Hannu Kahakorpi, Jukka Sipilä, starring Erkki Pajala, Georg Backlund, Hannu Kahakorpi, Paavo Pentikäinen
  • Mestari Nyke: romaani, merkkiteo, 1917 (as Maiju Lassila)
  • Turman talo, 1917 (as Irmari Rantamala)
  • Viisas neitsyt, 1922 (as Maiju Lassila) [A Wise Virgin]
  • Tulitikkuja lainaamassa, 1923 (illustrated by O. Räsänen)
  • Tulitikkuja lainaamassa, 1933 (illustrated by Eino Salmi)
  • Katkelmia Harhamasta ym., 1933 (edited by V. Salo) 
  • Valitut teokset, 1945-46 (2 vols., edited by Rafael Koskimies) 
  • Totuuden nimessä, 1948 (as Irmari Rantamala)
  • Valitut teokset, 1954 (edited by Rafael Koskimies)
  • Ikiliikkuja: kolminäytöksinen huvinäytelmä, 1962 (as Maiju Lassila)
  • Naistenhurmaaja, 1962-63
  • Tulitikkuja lainaamassa, 1963 (illustrated by Erkki Tanttu)
  • Valitut teokset, 1970 (illustrated by Kosti Antikainen) 
  • Viimeiset kirjoitukset, 1977 (as Irmari Rantamala; edited by Ilpo Tiitinen, Auli Viikari)
  • Algot Untolan kolmet kasvot, 1979 (as Algoth Untola)
  • Pikku mestareita, 1979 (as Maiju Lassila)
  • Tulitikkuja lainaamassa; Pirttipohjalaiset; Jussi Puranen; Isä ja poika; Kuolleista herännyt, 1981
  • Kodin suuret klassikot. Maiju Lassila, 1987 (ed. Liisi Huhtala)
  • Portto: Syntinen nainen, 2002 (as Maiju Lassila, ed.  Arto Pietilä)
  • Liisan Antin aikaan. Algot Untolan Kaustisen-vuosi ja Kokkola-lehden kirjoitukset 1905-1906, 2006 (as Algoth Untola, ed. Marko A. Hautala)
  • Isä ja poika, 2019 (ilmestynyt ensimmäisen kerran: Otava, Helsinki, 1914)
  • Pojat asialla, 2020 (ilmestynyt ensimmäisen kerran: Kustannusosakeyhtiö Kansa, Helsinki, 1911)
  • Elämän vaihteessa & Tytöt talosilla, 2020 (Elämän vaihteessa ilmestynyt ensimmäisen kerran: Arvi A. Karisto, Hämeenlinna, 1912; Tytöt talosilla Helsingissä, Suomalainen Kustannus-O.-Y. Kansa, 1912)
  • Jussi Puranen, 2021 (ilmestynyt ensimmäisen kerran: Arvi A. Karisto, Hämeenlinna, 1912)

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