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by Bamber Gascoigne

Väinö (Valtteri) Linna (1920-1992)


Novelist, essayist, one of the greatest writers of post-war Finland. Väinö Linna's major works, Tuntematon sotilas (1954, The Unknown Soldier), or the historical family saga Täällä Pohjantähden alla (1959-1963, Here Beneath the North Star), can be found nearly in every Finnish home.

"It's just that we've got to fight or well'll have to run all the way to the sea. Those bastards'll keep after you, make no mistake about that. But if you stick where you are even though all hell breaks loose, what can they do? That's the strategy of defensive war. It's all there is to it and all there'll ever be." (from The Unknown Soldier)

Väinö Linna was born into a working class family in Urjala in central Finland. He was the seventh child of a local slaughterman, Vihtori Linna, who died when Väinö was eight years old. The widowed Maija Linna supported her family by working at Honkola manor. Due to the debts Vihtori had left behind, the family lost their home. Linna attended public school for six years and left his studies in the mid-1930s. After working in odd jobs, including a farm-hand for the Honkola manor and lumberjack, he moved in 1938 to Tampere, where he was employed as a factory mechanic by the Finlayson textile mills. His spare time Linna spent in libraries. As a boy he had read Topelius's Maamme kirja (Book of Our Land), which he later described as the most influential book in his life.

From 1940 to 1944 Linna served in the Finnish army at the eastern front, fighting as the squad leader of a machine-gun unit. During the Continuation War (1941-44) between Finland and the Soviet Union Linna wrote a story telling the regiments advance from the Russian border to the east, to Syväri. In the spring of 1943 he was posted back to Finland as an instructor. After the peace of 1944, he married Kerttu Seuri, the daughter of a farmer. Linna had first met her at a soldier's canteen, where she had volunteered. In the wedding ceremony she wore her sister's wedding dress and Linna used a borrowed suit.

Although Linna returned to his job at the factory, he had long since decided to become a writer and even revealed his ambitious intention to his fellow workers. From the library he carried home books by such authors as Schopenhauer, Dostoyevsky, Strindberg, Goethe, Carlyle, and Nietzsche. On Sundays he often finished two books.

Linna's first collection of poems did not interest the publisher and he gave up this line of writing. Trying his had as a novelist, Linna produced a thinly disguised autobiography entitled Päämäärä (1947, The Goal); it sold poorly. During this period he joined a literary circle, run by the director of the Tampere City Library, Mikko Mäkelä, and Alex Matson, whose Romaanitaide (1947, Art of the Novel) became essential guide for aspiring writers. Linna's next novel, Musta rakkaus (Black Love), was a triangular drama, set in Tampere. It received the Kalevi Jäntti award and was made into a movie by Edvin Laine. With the help of a small grant, Linna then started a new book, variously called "The Messiah" or "The Lonely One" about a tubercular factory clerk. The project was interrupted by an emotional crisis, from which he recovered with the help of his psychiatrist friend. Linna never finished the manuscript; he paid back the money he had received.

While still working at the Finlayson cotton mill, Linna devoted his evenings to writing The Unknown Soldier (1954), which would turn out to be a national classic, although immediately after its publication, the book created a fierce debate. "Linna is the writer of aggression," declared Timo Tiusanen in Helsingin Sanomat. Some readers felt uncomfortable of the novels subject matter; in public mind, the Continuation war, when Finland was in alliance with Nazi Germany, did not have the nation building glory of the Winter war.  Through the words of  Lahtinen, the novel takes up the concern that  from the moment the Finnish troops cross the Finnish-Soviet borderline of 1939 they have got no right to be there: "We're no better than a bunch of bandits." (The Unknown Soldier by Väinö Linna, 1957, translated by Alex Matson, p. 88)

Moreover, modernist writers saw nothing good in the Linna's "antiquated" realism. Pentti Saarikoski claimed that the success of the book was not based on literary merits but the author had a sense of what people thought about the war. (Pentti Saarikoski: vuodet 1964-1983 by Pekka Tarkka, 2003, p. 189) Ironically, by allowing his characters to speak different dialects, Linna paved the way for Saarikoski's 1961 translation of Salinger's Sieppari ruispellossa (Catcher in the Rye) in urban Helsinki slang and – to the horror of critics – the use of colloquial language in Finnish prose. Veijo Meri's absurdist novel Manillaköysi (1957, The Manila Rope) perfectly suited the modernist literary agenda. Born  in 1928, Meri had not served in the war. He had read Linna's novel, naturally. Despite their differences as writers, Meri admired Linna's work, saying decades later in an interview, that he was a magician at creating a character with just a few words. Together The Unknown Soldier and Manila Rope form a complimentary pair of war novels, that have never gone out of print.

The famous negative review in Helsingin Sanomat ('Purnaajan sota,'  December 19, 1954) by the influential literary critic Toini Havu did not stop the commercial success of The Unknown Soldier. Published at the end of November, in time for Christmas, it sold 50,000 copies in its first three months. Among the notable figures who sided with Linna were Martti Haavio, a folklorist and poet, and Arvi Korhonen, a military historian. Linna's image of officers and the political leadership was far from flattering and prompted an expected reaction. Although literary criticism had never been a strength of the Finnish Defence Forces, the soon-to-be General Adolf Ehrnrooth, a knight of the Mannerheim Cross, decided to condemn the novel as lampoon against the Finnish army in his speech addressed to the staff of the Armoured Brigade in Parola. (Henkilöhahmon sisäinen konflikti Väinö Linnan romaanissa Tuntematon sotilas by Juhani Laine, 2015, p. 47)

It was also claimed that the novel disgraced the members of the women's paramilitary organization, the Lotta Svärd organization, which was disbanded in 1944. This still continuing polemic has revolved around the character of lotta Raili Kotilainen, who "had not found a husband on the campaign, but she had made up this by taking an extraordinary number of lovers. . . . Bedraggled and dirty she had slid down the social ladder, ending up at last with an anti-tank private, and causing Sarastie to draw on his meager store of Latin to comment: Sic transit gloria mundi." (Väinö Linna, p. 282)

Toini Havu criticized Linna's work especially for its naturalism and the worm's eye view of history. "Notwithstanding all of The Unknown Soldier's literary merits, which it no doubt has, the half-finished way in which it is written, and its clear lack of ethical clairvoyance and professional standards, place this novel below the level of quality one has come to expect from a dignified documentary-style novel." (Translated by Martin Berka, in Finland. What a Country! by Roman Schatz, 2014) According to Havu, Linna did not present his characters in a grand historical context, like Jussi Talvi did in his war novel Ystäviä ja vihollisia (1954). 

Abandoning the perspective of standing above the events he narrated, Linna looked at the war from down-to-earth view of the enlisted man, and portrayed soldiers without unostentatious heroism. Linna's friend, the writer Veikko Pihlajamäki, who also was a member of the Mäkelä circle, suggested the title  of the book. Its now iconic cover, a white silhouette of a soldier set against red background, was designed by Matti Mykkänen. Linna's Tolstoyan philosophy of history went mostly unnoticed, exemplified in the opening paragraph in which Linna established his ironical stand in relation to historical determinism: "As everyone knows, God is all-powerful, all-knowing and farseeing. So it was that He once let a forest fire devour several hundred acres of state forest on a sandy heath near the town of Joensuu." The original – uncensored – edition of Tuntematon sotilas, entitled Sotaromaani (War Novel), came out in 2000. It revealed that especially Linna's bitter views of officers and commanders at headquarters, and some provocative comments on religion, had been cut here and there. Moreover, the coarse language of the soldiers was occasionally straightened. The title of the book is somewhat misleading: it is not a novel about the war but a novel about people thrown into war.

Tuntematon sotilas was adapted to screen first time in 1955 by Edvin Laine. This nearly three-hour long version, produced by Suomen Filmiteollisuus, begins with Jean Sibelius' Finlandia, and continues with a scene where a group of soldier's bury one of their comrades. A naked, dead branch of a tree is left on the grave as a cross. Laine's patriotic version became an instant classic, and has been screened on television every year on Indepencence Day (6 December). Due to its realistic nature, the military used the film as a teaching material for a long period. ('"The Unknown Soldier." Film as a Founding Trauma and National Monument' by John Sundholm, in Collective Traumas: Memories of War and Conflict in 20th-century Europe, edited by Conny Mithander, John Sundholm & Maria Holmgren Troy, 2007, p. 127)

Originally the military had refused to make equipment available for the filmmakers and the Ministry of Defence even tried to stop the production. Moreover, General K. A. Heiskanen, the head of the Defense Forces, had been offended by a military farce produced by Suomen Filmiteollisuus. Eventually Laine was helped by the Frontier Guard and Prime Minister Kekkonen pulled strings so that he could borrow a tank from the brigade in Parola. Laine himself had no first-hand experience of war, but he had toured the front lines as a member of the entertainment unit. At the Cannes film festival in 1956, The Unknown Soldier was a favorite of many critics. When the Soviet delegation objected to its screening, the movie was excluded from the competition.

Rauli Mollberg's pacifist interpretation of the novel, which added new scenes to the story and was shot in a "documentary" style with hand-held cameras, premiered in 1985. All reviews were favorable; the film was hailed as a new national epic and it was commercially successful, but it never won the heart of the audience: Mollberg never gave the impression that he was really fond of Linna's work. Aku Louhimies's Unknown Soldier (2017), technically perfect and visually impressive work, was based on Sotaromaani. The film was produced as part of the celebrations of the centenary of Finland's independence.

An open-air theater production in Tampere, where real trucks and tanks were used, was perfomed for several years, until the play was closed down in 1969 – partly because the audience had reached its saturation point, and partly as a result of too much drinking by the actors. The Unknown Soldier was also made into an opera by Tauno Pylkkänen in 1967, directed by Edvin Laine. Before Kristian Smeds' stage production of the novel, theatrical adaptations had been  fairly conventional. In his innovative and provocative version, old washing machines, which represented Soviet forces, were attacked with sledge hammers, a Lada was destroyed as a tank, and actors crawled among the audience. Much of the heated public debate revolved around the climax: shots are fired at portraits of well-known figures from President Tarja Halonen and General Ehrnrooth to the Moomin trolls. The scene was based on lines from the final page of  the novel. Ensign Jalovaara sobs: "We heard . . . they told us . . . Finland is dead . . . and snow . . . hides her grave . . ." (Väinö Linna,  p. 310) Jalovaara quotes freely from Eino Leino's translation of Heinrich Heine's poem 'Sotaveikot' (Die Grenadiere): "Kuollut on Ranska, sen / jo hautoja kattaa hanki". 

The novel follows the war of a machine gun platoon, from the summer offensive of 1941 to the bloody retreat from the eastern Finland, Carelia, in 1944. Much of its events were based on Linna's own experiences at the front, and the characters had their more or less real-life representatives. Using the conversations and experiences of a collective of men, Linna creates colorful portraits of different human types and demonstrates the ability of the Finnish soldier without glorifying the war itself. At the end Vanhala ("Priha")  laughs that "The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics won but the small and gutsy Finland finished a good second." (Väinö Linna,  p. 309)

Many of the characters from the book (and from the film), Rokka, Hietanen, Lahtinen and Koskela, has been incorporated into the national identity, like heroes from J.L. Runeberg's (1804-1877) patriotic poem cycle The Songs of Ensign Stål (1848) about the Russo-Swedish war of 1808-09. Some of the first reviewers defined Linna's novel as "the seven brothers at war," relating it to Aleksis Kivi's classic Seitsemän veljestä (1870, The Seven Brothers). In public debate Second lieutenant Koskela has been a synonym for an exemplary leader. Perhaps the most loved character is Rokka,  an insubordinate besserwisser but a brilliant soldier in the heat of battle.  Self-consciously, Rokka declares that whenever a good man is needed, here you've one. Like archetypal heroes in popular culture, he has a sidekick, private Wolf, who follows him silentely.

There is a scene in the book, at the beginning of the ninth chapter, where two soldiers are executed because they had refused to return to their sentry posts. Tarmo Manni, who  played in Laine's film the eccentric private Aarne Honkajoki, had been a conscientious objector. He was sentenced to prison after the outbreak of the Continuation War, but following a nervous breakdown, he was exempted from military service, and thus avoided the possibility of being sentenced to death by a military court. Honkajoki, a jester, is nevertheless is appreciated by Rokka: "He sounds like he's crazy, but don't let it bother you." (Väinö Linna, pp. 299-300) 

Between the years 1955 and 1964 Linna lived in Hämeenkyrö as a farmer, but he sold the farm in 1964 and moved back to Tampere. The success of Tuntematon sotilas has enabled Linna to devote himself entirely to writing. In 1959 appeared the first volume of his trilogy Here Beneath the North Star. Its title was taken from a popular song by Johan Freadrik Granlund.

The objective of the book was to explain the background of the Civil War (1917-18), the bitter conflict between Reds and Whites, the following traumatic division of the society, and the national reconciliation. The narrative ends in the early 1950s. As in Leo Tolstoy's novel War and Peace, Linna painted a panoramic view of people who participate in historical events. However, Linna's protagonists were not those who are mentioned in history books but ordinary people, whose life is conditioned by great social changes. Starting from 1884 the story focused on three generations of tenant farmers in a small village in Häme Province. Most of the events are seen through country people, sharecroppers, and landowners.

"A creator works according to a design. And Jussi's mind lingered on his design, measuring the distances between what was and what was to be. Matter was to be altered to suit the spirit's image; fate had led this man to the swamp and said: Ille faciet." (from Here Beneth the North Star, Vol. 1)

"In the beginning there were the swamp, the hoe – and Jussi," opens Linna his trilogy. The biblical words are a part of Finnish national self-consciousness. Jussi Koskela, a farm laborer, drains a bog on a property belonging to the local parsonage. Through his hard work he comes to regard the land as his own. The parson and his family are vocal nationalists, who exploit their tenants, but at the same time try to understand paternalistically the needs of common people. Jussi's son Akseli claims the fields and serves an officer in the Red troops during the years of 1917-1918. The defest of the Reds was sealed in the battle of Tampere in early April. Incarcerated in a White prison camp, he barely survives, and returns home embittered. Eventually Akseli buys the plot and acquires a certain prosperity and independence. Two of his sons are killed in the Winter War, a third – a main figure in Tuntematon sotilas – falls in the retreat of 1944. Akseli's surviving son continues his father's work as a farmer.

The first part of North Star was received with enthusiasm, although some conservative critics attacked its historical accuracy. The book was immediately translated into Swedish. The second part, which dealt with the Civil War, arose much debate, and the final volume received a couple of lukewarm reviews – in Sweden, where Nils-Börje Stormbom's translation was entitled Söner av ett folk (1962), the reception was more positive in general than in Finland. Jörn Donner said in Dagens Nyheter that Linna is unique in the Finnish literature. (Väinö Linna: kirjailijan tie by N.-B. Storbom, 1963, p. 248)

Having left the trilogy behind him, Linna said that the work "almost killed him". Historians did not accept Linna's interpretation of the war, but considered it limited – Linna told only the "Red truth" and nothing else. Among his critics was Pentti Renvall, a professor of history, who announced that the author lacks historical perspective and knowledge. Linna was annoyed of the arrogance of academic critics – he had actually read widely on the subject. He answered in his articles that the prevailing conception of the independence struggle was based on a false view of the defeated side. The motives of the Reds were not considered rational, and his aim was to understand the revolt through their background and motives.

When the North Star trilogy was finished, Linna ceased to write novels, stating that he has delivered his message and has nothing more to say. The trilogy was adapted into screen in two parts by Edvin Laine in 1968-70. Laine's version, at that time the most expensive film produced in Finland, gained a huge success. For Akseli ja Elina, based on the third part of the work, Linna wrote a new ending, which emphasized harmony of the well-fare society.

During the last years of his life, Linna was regarded as a national monument, an isolated figure in Finnish literature, and his public image contributed to the paralyzing of his creative power. In 1984 Linna had a brain infarct, which affected his ability to speak. One of the words he still could utter was "toffee"; Linna had always had a weakness for sweets. Linna published two collections of essays, Oheisia (1967) and Murroksia (1990), before his death of cancer on April 21, 1992. Under the North Star has been translated into English by Professor Richard Impola, who first found Linna's work after he retired from Columbia University in the 1980s. Impola has also translated Aleksis Kivi's Seven Brothers and other Finnish writers. A new faithful English translation of Tuntematon sotilas, entitled Unknown Soldiers, was published in Penguin Classics in 2015. The American-born translator Liesl Yamaguchi has also translated Fernand Léger, Blaise Cendrars, and Le Corbusier.

For further reading: Rokka by Wiljam Pylkäs (1955); Väinö Linna by N.-B. Storbom (1963); Pejlingar by N.-B. Storbom (1973); Mäkelän piiri by Yrjö Varpio (1975); 'Väinö Linna: A Classic in His Own Time' by Yrjö Varpio, in Books from Finland (1977); Pentinkulma ja maailma by Yrjö Varpio (1979); Väinä Linna - toisen tasavallan kirjailija, ed. by Yrjö Varpio (1980); Okänd soldat och kända soldater by Tage Boström (1983); Väinö Linnan Tuntematon sotilas konfliktiromaanina by Pekka Lilja (1984); Sanat sanoista by Pekka Tarkka (1984); Tuntemattoman sotilaan rykmentti, ed. by Mauno Jokipii (1991); Jalon kansan parhaat voimat by Jyrki Nummi (1993); Linnasta Saarikoskeen by Juhani Salokannel (1993); Kolmen rintaman konfliktit by Heikki Siltala (1996); Katseita suomalaisuuteen by Jari Heinonen (1997); 'Linna, Väinö,' in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); 100 Faces from Finland, ed. by Ulpu Marjomaa (2000); Väinö Linna - Kansakunnan puhemies by Risto Lindstedt (2004); Muistissa Väinö Linna by Jaakko Syrjä (2004); Väinö Linnan elämä by Yrjö Varpio (2006); Kirjoituksia Väinö Linnasta, ed. by Antti Arnkil, Olli Sinivaara (2006); '"The Unknown Soldier." Film as a Founding Trauma and National Monument' by John Sundholm, in Collective Traumas: Memories of War and Conflict in 20th-century Europe, edited by Conny Mithander, John Sundholm & Maria Holmgren Troy (2007); Idiootti ja samurai: Tuntematon sotilas elokuvana by Jukka Sihvonen (2009); Rokka: Antti Rokan esikuvan Viljam Pylkkään vaiheet talvi- ja jatkosodassa by Petri Sarjanen (2012); Henkilöhahmon sisäinen konflikti Väinö Linnan romaanissa Tuntematon sotilas by Juhani Laine (2015); Kertomus Väinö Linnan Pentinkulmasta by Esko Nummela (2016); Tulkintojen ristitulessa: Kristian Smedsin Tuntematon sotilas teatteri- ja mediaesityksenä by Julia Pajunen (2017); Sinä olet Rokka by Petri Sarjanen (2017); Tuntemattomat: Suomen suosituimman tarinan monet maailmat by Satu Jaatinen (2018); Alussa oli ristiriidat; Väinö Linna sisällissodan käsittelijänä by Jussi Ojajärvi (2018); Väinö Linna - tunnettu ja tuntematon, edited by Jyrki Nummi (2020); Tampereen Linna: kirja kirjailijasta ja hänen kaupungistaan by Karo Hämäläinen (2020); Päivä on tehnyt kierroksensa: Väinö Linna muistelee, edited by Panu Rajala (2020)  - See: Lauri Viita, Niilo Lauttamus, Alex Matson. Literary festival: Linna's birth-county Urjala is celebrating the writer every year during Pentinkulma Days.

Selected works:

  • Päämäärä: romaani, 1947
  • Musta rakkaus: romaani, 1948
    - Mörk kärlek (övers. av N.-B. Stormbom, 1956)
    - film 1957, prod. Suomen Filmiteollisuus, dir. by Edvin Laine, starring Eeva-Kaarina Volanen, Jussi Jurkka, Edvin Laine, Veikko Sinisalo, Elsa Turakainen, Eero Roine
  • Messias, 1949-53 (unfinished, unpublished)
  • Tuntematon sotilas, 1954
    - Okänd soldat (övers. av Nils-Börje Stormbom, 1955)
    - The Unknown Soldier (translated by Alex Mattson, 1957; uncredited); Unknown Soldiers (translated by Liesl Yamaguchi, 2015)
    - films: 1955, dir. by Edvin Laine, screenplay Juha Nevelainen, starring Kaarlo Halttunen, Pentti Irjala, Jussi Jurkka, Kosti Klemelä, Åke Lindman, Tauno Palo, Matti Ranin, Leo Riuttu, Heikki Savolainen, Pentti Siimes, Veikko Sinisalo, Reino Tolvanen; 1985, dir. by Rauni Mollberg, screenplay Rauni Mollberg, Väinö Linna and Veikko Aaltonen, starring Risto Tuorila, Pirkka-Pekka Petelius, Paavo Liski, Mika Mäkelä, Pertti Koivula, Tero Niva, Ossi-Ensio Korvuo, Mikko Niskanen, Pauli Poranen, Hannu Kivioja, Juha Riihimäki, Seppo Juusonen, Timo Virkki; TV drama 2009, dir. by Mikko Kuparinen, Kristian Smeds, adaptation by Kristian Smeds, starring Henry Hanikka, Jouko Keskinen, Johannes Korpijaakko, Jaakko Kytömaa, Esa-Matti Long, Antti Luusuaniemi, Markku Maalismaa, Meri Nenonen, Jussi Nikkilä, Antti Pääkönen, Heikki Pitkänen, Esa-Matti Pölhö, Kristo Salminen, Timo Tuominen, Juha Varis; 2017, dir. by Aku Louhimies, starring Eero Aho (Rokka), Johannes Holopainen (Kariluoto), Jussi Vatanen (Koskela), Aku Hirviniemi (Hietanen), Hannes Suominen (Vanhala),  Samuli Vauramo (Lammio), Joonas Saartamo (Lahtinen)
  • Täällä Pohjantähden alla, 1959-62 (3 vols.)
    - Under polstjärnan: 1: Högt bland Saarijävis moar; 2: Upp, trälar!; 3: Söner av ett folk (övers. av Nils-Börje Storbom, 1959-1962)
    - Under the North Star: 1: Under the North Star; 2: The Uprising; 3: Reconciliation (translated into English by Richard Impola, 2001-2003)
    - films: Täällä Pohjantähden alla, 1968, dir. by Edvin Laine, starring Aarno Sulkanen, Titta Karakorpi, Risto Taulo, Arja Pohjola, Kalevi Kahra, Rose-Marie Precht, Matti Ranin, Kauko Helovirta; Akseli ja Elina, 1970, dir. by Edvin Laine, starring Aarno Sulkanen, Ulla Eklund, Risto Taulo, Anja Pohjola, Mirjam Novero, Kauko Helovirta, Esa Saario, Rose-Marie Precht, Matti Ranin, Maija-Leena Soinne, Jussi Jurkka; TV drama Pentinkulman naiset, 2005, prod. by Yleisradio (YLE), dir. by Eija-Elina Bergholm; Täällä Pohjantähden alla I-II, 2009-2010, dir. by Timo Koivusalo, starring Ilkka Koivula, Vera Kiiskinen, Risto Tuorila, Ritva Jalonen, Hannu-Pekka Björkman, Jonna Järnefelt, Sulevi Peltola, Oiva Lohtander, Eija Vilpas
  • Oheisia: Esseitä ja puheenvuoroja, 1967
  • Murroksia: esseitä, puheita ja kirjoituksia, 1990 (as Esseitä, 2007)  
  • Kootut teokset 1-6, 2000
  • Sotaromaani: Tuntemattoman sotilaan käsikirjoitus, 2000

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