Thursday, March 13, 2014

Väinö Linna: The Unknown Soldier (1954)

Due to a book project I've been working on, I started to read Väinö Linna's classic war novel Tuntematon sotilas/The Unknown Soldier for the first time in my life. I'd earlier avoided the novel, mainly because I've always been a bit irritated at the notion of books one has to read for reasons larger than life (i.e. patriotism or the Fatherland or some such nonsense), but I was very glad to note I liked the book, was even thrilled by it.

The Unknown Soldier tells about the so called Continuation War in which Finland and the Soviet Union fought against each other. The war started in 1941 and ended in 1944. One of the biggest questions in Finnish history is whether Finland fought alongside Nazi Germany or whether it had its own war with the Soviets. The book is one of those realistic war novels, with the eye sight fixed on the everyday of the battling soldiers, their camaraderie, their fears, frustrations, hopes and anger. There are no heroes in this novel. The war is ugly, chaotic and violent. No one knows why they're fighting - only the higher officers have some idea and even that is filled with stupid notions of Greater Finland.

The Unknown Soldier has dated somewhat and we've had more realistic war novels since, but what keeps the book fresh is that it's polyphonic. There's not a single truth in the novel, there are only multiple narrators (or, actually, narratees) that present their variations of the situation. Linna writes warmly and empathetically of each and everyone of them, even the most obnoxious officers. And his battle scenes are quite good. He really captures the chaotic essence of war - well, as well he should, since he was himself at the war.

The book is available in English. The English translation came out from Putnam in the US and Collins in the UK in 1957, and I believe it was the same translation. For some reason or another, the translator's name isn't mentioned anywhere in the book. The translation is abridged (the reports on how heavily differ), and it's also clumsy with the Finnish idioms (which the book is full of). It's a miracle the translation should be so bad, since it's reported to be the work of one Alex Matson, a Finnish literary essayist, who spent many years in the 1920s living abroad and travelling the world seas. (Thanks for this tip to Ossi Kokko!)

However, it's the only English translation, and it's been used repeatedly even by Väinö Linna's Finnish publisher, WSOY (see the photo above for their edition). They've published several editions of the English translation - still with no translator's name attached. Seems like you could manage to buy the book via Amazon.

There's also the Ace edition from 1958, which is seemingly scarce (see above). The cover illustration is made by someone famous, but I forget who. The illustration was used in Finland in some entirely other paperback, but I forget even that one!

Edit: there's a small news item from 2012 saying that Penguin has bought the rights for Linna's novel and they are putting the new translation out in the near future. Liesl Yamaguchi is the translator.


Anders E said...

...and by one of those amazing coincidences, I happened to watch the 1955 movie adaption yesterday. It's part of a project (in the loosest sense of the word) where I rewatch movies I have available at home but haven't seen for a long time.
Anyway, while I understand the movie is iconic in Finland it certainly has some cinematic flaws, e.g. the length and the sometimes hokey acting. I also noted that the musical score sometimes is just terrible. For instance, a grim, tragic scene will have some somber tones of Sibelius (very fitting, btw) which will then be interrupted by the dumb, pompous Porilaisten marssi / Björneborgarnas marsch or something similar. There are other examples. Several scenes are truly great, though.
Also, I noticed Reino Tolvanen as Rokka resembles Eli Wallach in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY - not only physically, but also in their respective character's irrepressive nature. Except Rokka is a decent person, something that Tuco certainly is not.
Do you know how the 1985 movie holds up?

jurinummelin said...

Thanks for comment, Anders! I realized later that I should've mentioned the two films, but it's been years since I saw either of them. Yes, they are iconic, especially the first one (it's shown every Independence Day in Finland, though Finland's independence has nothing to do with the Continuance War), but many people recognize the flaws in the film. There are some good moments throughout, though.

The 1985 film I haven't seen actually in decades, should really rewatch it now. It's over three hours long and much more realistic in tone, closer to Linna's original. It caused lots of controversy when it came out, many people thought it was degrading to war veterans and some such nonsense. But as I said, I haven't seen it in a very long time. Will correct that.

Anders E said...

And while we're on the subject of Finnish war movies from the 1980s, is TALVISOTA worth checking out?

And are there any good movies about the civil war? I know Linna dealt with the subject in his TÄÄLLA POHJANTÄHDEN ALLA trilogy.

And I now realize I really ought to read some Linna.

jurinummelin said...

As I recall, Talvisota (The Winter War) is a borefest, as you might say. But it's been decades since I saw it.

On the Civil War, there are this:

Olli Saarela's Lunastus:

And this pretty new one:

And the oldest one I can think of:

There aren't that many, the issue is pretty sore for Finns even today.

jurinummelin said...

And of course there's a film based on TÄÄLLÄ POHJANTÄHDEN ALLA.

Anders E said...

Thanks for hints. Locating these movies is something else, though. It's not exactly mainstream Hollywood, and DVDs are probably only available on import. Btw, do Finnish DVDs have Swedish subtitles? I mean Finnish movies in Finnish?

I have seen THE BORDER / RAJA 1918, and a very fine movie it is. Really, really good.

Anders E said...

Btw, the Swedish title for the middle part of Linna's TÄÄLLA POHJANTÄHDEN ALLA trilogy - the one that deals with the civil war - is UPP, TRÄLAR! Freely translated: RAISE, SLAVES! Google translate sez: Up, orjia! That's one hell of a great title, I'd say.

jurinummelin said...

I believe most of them do, possibly all of them. One should think there are copies in the libraries in Sweden.

"Raise, slaves" ("Nouskaa, orjat" in Finnish) sounds pretty much like a title for an old working class song.

Anders E said...

Song, indeed. Only now does it occur to me that "Upp, trälar" is the first two words from Swedish lyrics of "The Internationale".

Unknown said...

This review the way you put it as so called and stuff, this was written about real events and a real war, yes Finland got help from the nazi's against the soviets but it was by choice as to avoid war with Germany, Finland had no choice but to ally with Germany but soon had a fight with the Nazi's to get them out of Finland, The Unknown soldier along with The Winter War are written on real account's and stories of the war and is nothing to take likely, my Father fought in the war against the Russians and told many horrifying stories of what happened whilst there's no doubt the 1985 film was probably hollywood style story telling(haven't watched it so I don't know) but the original book and film were real thing's not meant to be exciting and action packed or anything they were meant to tell the story of what happened and what lead to the legend of the unknown soldier.