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Linna, Väinö (1920 - 1992)

writer, academician

Väinö Linna
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The writer Väinö Linna caused heated debate with his novels Tuntematon sotilas (English title: The Unknown Soldier) and Täällä Pohjantähden alla ('Here Beneath the North Star'). Linna portrayed the reactions of ordinary soldiers to war and also depicted the conflicts between the parties in the Civil War of 1918 in a way that departed from the usual line. The initial opposition to Linna soon crumbled, and in the 1970s he was one of the most important shapers of public opinion in Finland. In his works Linna adapted the themes, human types and structures of Finnish national literature.

Väinö Linna won himself a place in our literature with his two novels depicting Finnish society: Tuntematon sotilas (English title: The Unknown Soldier) and Täällä Pohjantähden alla ('Here Beneath the North Star'). The novels were critical commentaries standing within the Finnish tradition of 'national literature' and were perhaps the last products of this tradition. They influenced all spheres of postwar Finnish society and provided material for a new interpretation of the recent past. Their exuberant humour and earthy dialogue renewed the language of Finnish literature; many of their witticisms and sayings have found their way into collections of set phrases.

Born in Urjala, Väinö Linna was the seventh of ten children in the family of Maija and Vihtori Linna. Vihtori Linna had inherited the tenancy of a farm on the Honkola estate and also worked as the local slaughterman. The family coped fairly well financially, at least until Vihtori's health began to fail. He died a debtor in 1927 at the age of only 53, leaving his wife to look after the family. Maija Linna took work on the estate, her wages consisting partly of food and lodgings, and responsibility for the family's upkeep also fell to the children at an early stage.

Although he did well at school, Väinö Linna was not a particularly keen pupil. But at an early age he developed a passion for books. After six years at primary school, the young Linna resolved to go to work. Since only casual agricultural labour was available in Urjala, he moved to Tampere in 1938. Relatives helped him to obtain a job at the Finlayson textile mill, to which he returned after the war years.

Linna's age group became liable for military service as the Winter War of 1939 - 40 was ending. When the Continuation War broke out in 1941, Linna served as the leader of a machine-gun company in the First Battalion of the Eighth Infantry Regiment, participating in the advance phase and the positional warfare at Syväri. In spring 1943 he was transferred to Miehikkälä for training, and he was discharged there at the end of the war. During the quiet time of the positional war, Linna tried out his literary skills for the first time. He wrote a hasty, reportage-style story telling of the regiment's advance and battles from the Russian border to Syväri, which he sent off, full of hope, to the Helsinki publisher Werner Söderström Ltd. The publisher's response was negative; but far from depressing the aspiring young writer, this simply added fuel to his ambitions. The manuscript later disappeared, a loss that the author never regretted.

After the war Linna began a systematic programme of self-instruction. His reading included both literature and philosophy and psychology. Alongside his reading, Linna practised writing; his ambitious goal was a novel. In addition to all this, he wrote a number of poems. In his financial need, the budding author arranged these into a collection, which he sent to a publisher. The poems were sent back, and Linna decided once and for all that he was not cut out to be a poet.

Success the objective

Linna's first published work, Päämäärä ('The Objective'), had already been finished in 1946. However, the author rewrote it before sending the manuscript to the publisher in 1947; in a grand gesture, he dispatched it on Runeberg Day - the day on which Finland's 'national poet' is commemorated. The work adheres to the patterns of the Bildungsroman. The background of its ambitious hero, Valte Mäkinen, is one of straitened circumstances, and the novel is based largely on autobiographical material, on life in working-class Tampere. Scant in external events and characters, the work describes the Weltschmerz and dreams of a young protagonist in search of himself. Its major theme is the identification of the main character - who dreams of a literary career and writes novels - with Aleksis Kivi, the originator of the Finnish novel. Päämäärä was considered promising, but it was not a sales success.

Thanks to Päämäärä, Linna became a member of a literary circle run by Mikko Mäkelä, the director of the Tampere City Library. Mäkelä's group was mainly interested in works of amateur writers from the Tampere working class, and it discussed topical literary issues, inviting experts from Helsinki. Linna was initially shy about participating in discussions, but in time he became a skilled debater. Of particular importance for Linna was the core group that gathered at Mäkelä's home for further discussions; it provided literary friends and a group to which he could present writing in progress. This group of aspiring young authors was rounded out by the older translator and critic Alex Matson, whose fairly extensive essay Romaanitaide ('The Art of the Novel'; 1947) was at the time practically the only relatively comprehensive work on the theory of the novel available in Finnish. Matson's Romaanitaide, his collection of essays entitled Kaksi mestaria ('Two Masters'; 1955) on Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy and his analyses of Miguel Cervantes' Don Quixote, James Joyce's Ulysses, Aleksis Kivi's Seven Brothers (Seitsemän veljestä) and F. E. Sillanpää's The Maid Silja (Nuorena nukkunut) had an important influence on Linna's artistic views and literary taste.

Like Päämäärä, Linna's second novel Musta rakkaus ('Black Love'; 1948) has a working-class Tampere setting. Pauli, who is studying engineering, falls wildly in love with the beautiful Marjatta, who has had a relationship with Unto, the seducer in the triangular drama. Pauli kills Unto and himself; broken by the events, Marjatta dies of pneumonia. With its Shakespearian and Dostoevskyan tones, Musta rakkaus represents a shift by Linna from pathetic self-reflection towards a more controlled literary form. Right from the start Linna demonstrated his great skill as a writer of dialogue; his mastery of narrative and the novel form matured more slowly. Linna's fine feel for social relationships and nuances is already evident in his first novels.

Leap into the Unknown

After receiving a grant, Linna left paid employment and worked for a long time on a manuscript dealing with the problem of the Übermensch. His writing made no progress, however, and in 1952 the author found himself in a literary and intellectual cul-de-sac. Linna returned to his former job at Finlayson's, but at the same time the long-brooded idea of writing about the war began to take clearer shape in his mind. At this critical point in his literary career, Linna shifted from the portrayal of individuals to social and historical themes and to a more expansive novelistic form.

This change has been described as a shift from a Dostoevskyan to a Tolstoyan period. Linna became increasingly interested in dramatic events of Finnish history. Into these events he built a small, spatially and temporally delimited target group, which he used to describe the many-layered transformation of an entire society. The author may also be said to have returned to a sphere where he felt most at home and with which he was intimately acquainted: the life of the lower strata of Finnish society, a way of life that was undergoing profound changes in a Finland in the process of rapid modernisation. Linna later described his choice as a fundamental one: "I recognised closeness to ordinary people as my basic condition, as my starting point." Up to the 1980s, the importance of Linna's great novels was assessed in terms of their contribution to the easing of historical tensions. In the process, the 'softer' themes went unnoticed. These were his speciality: the everyday way of life of ordinary people and minds in which views of the world were slowly changing. Such themes have also been largely responsible for the popularity of the books: they depict the sort of life that had a place of its own in a world familiar to readers.

Tuntematon sotilas has been exceptionally popular ever since it first appeared. There are many reasons, and they are by no means all literary ones. In the early 1950s the novel's setting, the Continuation War, still constituted a politically and ideologically delicate, unexplored area of Finnish society. The book appeared on the pre-Christmas market in 1954, and the review published by the influential daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat sparked off a debate on the interpretation of the Continuation War and the identity of the Finnish soldier. The 'book war' in the press did ensure that the novel sold well; and later, too, the row was of considerable importance for Linna's status as a public figure - both as a writer and as a citizen. As early as the following year a film based on the novel was made, and it attracted a large audience. The film and a stage adaptation produced later for the Pyynikki open-air theatre in Tampere surpassed the success of the book. The 1955 film in particular has led a long joint life with the book: the novel's characters were made flesh and became familiar through the actors who played them.

Building on the tradition of the picaresque and adventure novel, Tuntematon sotilas tells the story of a group of young men from all over Finland who go through the Continuation War, from the attack and advance stage to the armistice, as a machine-gun platoon. The story progresses in a rhythmic alternation of combat and reserve episodes. The combat scenes bring out the ability of individuals to act in extreme situations; the events of the rest periods are dominated by comic interludes involving obtaining food, chasing women and above all colourful and tumultuous language: quarrels within the platoon and squabbles with the officers.

Although a main character or main characters cannot be identified in the novel, it contains a wealth of colourful individuals who in the course of the years have become cultural icons: quick-witted talkers, genuine leader-types, crafty peasants - and also cold-blooded killers, childlike enthusiasts and repulsive bullies. The most clearly recognisable individuals - Koskela, Hietanen, Lahtinen, Rokka, Honkajoki - also have many literary roots. Some are identifiable as refurbished versions of the tribal types in J. L. Runeberg's Fänrik Stål ('Ensign Stål') stories and Z. Topelius' Boken om vårt land ('A Book about our Country'); others as archetypes and finnicised figures of world literature.

As a social institution, the army expresses itself above all through its linguistic repertoire: the world of the novel is filled with the entire spectrum of the Finnish language, from pathos-charged oratory to the coarsest registers of low style. The linguistic variation reveals the social and cultural tensions within Finnish society and local differences. Into this close-up picture of the reality of war Linna audaciously builds objectives transcending literary themes: the demolition and reconstruction of the notion of 'Finnishness', the release of concealed social tensions.

The action-packed nature of the novel and its use of adventure-story conventions as far as both human types and narrative patterns are concerned prompted Tuomas Anhava, an influential critic of the period, to refer to Tuntematon sotilas rather condescendingly as a "boys' book". Runeberg's Ensign Stål stories in particular provide a ready-made framework (a lost but glorious war) and people to fit into the frame (a Finnish heroes' gallery). Although in places the provincial types are word-for-word borrowings from Topelius, in Linna's world that author's one-mind-one-language Finnishness is transformed into disagreement, conflict and diversity. Aleksis Kivi's Seven Brothers is reflected throughout the campaign in the group dynamics of the highly vocal platoon.

The novel looks mainly from below at the world which it describes. The "frog's-eye view" criticised by reviewers is the work's central artistic choice. It enables the novelist to deal with otherwise hidden structures in Finnish society and to present in a dramatic fashion the cultural activeness and need for self-determination of the lower cultural strata and the common man's view of life so typical of the novel. The book's mythical hero Antero Rokka continually stresses his wholly personal objectives as a soldier: to stay alive, to pay due respect to one's values in life even in the most wretched of circumstances, and finally to return home. In the end Rokka's attitude triumphs. His common man's values are united with the broader thematic pattern of the novel. When he comes home wounded to his children and his wife Lyyti, Rokka reiterates an ancient myth: the hero returns from destruction and death, from the hell of war to the world of Man, to everyday life. Like many other postwar works, Tuntematon sotilas shows bitter defeat finally turning into victory: death gives birth to new life.

Literary camps in the 1950s

With his book, Linna made his appearance at a time when the traditional unity of public life was disintegrating. Apart from a couple of brief intervals, public life had been subject to censorship - in part official, in part unofficial - until the end of the 1940s. The demand for national unity was at its strongest in the period between the Winter and Continuation Wars. If anyone defied this united front, attempts were made to remove him from the limelight. The drubbing received by Aleksis Kivi in the 19th century and the publishing embargo imposed on Pentti Haanpää in the 1930s are the best-known examples of a tradition which Linna succeeded in breaking.

The conservative wing of the literary world initially adopted a qualified attitude towards Tuntematon sotilas, but opinions quickly changed. The central figure of the conservative camp, the academician V. A. Koskenniemi, took a fairly positive view of Linna's novel - and as a work of art, not as a piece of reportage or polemical writing. And a new aspect emerged from the literary situation of the period. In the late 1940s a literary opposition consisting of young modernists and presenting itself as the avant-garde of the times was rebelling against the prewar literary generation. With the emergence of new poets, modernism in poetry achieved a significant breakthrough, and there were similar expectations concerning prose.

When Linna stepped onto the stage with his novel, a new front suddenly formed: there was applause for a work which drew its material from tradition but which at the same time constituted a critical renewal of this tradition. The conservatives quickly chose their position - on the side of Linna and against the modernists. The choice was easy, since Linna fulfilled fundamental conditions inherent in the older generation's notion of literature. His novel was a splendid example of the vitality of traditional literary forms, and it was easier to relate to an author who had risen from a humble background and who met the criteria for the traditional 'people's writer' than to Helsinki intellectuals. Thus all but the champions of modernist literature quite quickly joined Linna's side.

My country, 'tis of thee...

The success of Tuntematon sotilas gave Linna the opportunity to continue working as a freelance writer. An idea that had long intrigued him - that of writing about his childhood environment - expanded into a plan to write a historical epic depicting the whole of Finnish society. The project required background work, his familiarising himself with popular culture, local history and archival material. It was an arduous undertaking, and it took its toll physically as well as mentally.

The Täällä Pohjantähden alla trilogy covers 70 years of recent Finnish history. It is also a description of the birth and development of a nation from the 1880s to the years after the Second World War. Its events involve everyday life in a small village in Häme Province and squabbles between families extending over a period of three generations. The main story line traces the destinies of the Koskela family, originally tenant farmers on the local pastor's land.

The first volume of the trilogy appeared in 1959. The historical dimension and the viewpoint of the novel came as a surprise. In particular, the interpretation of the events leading to the Civil War and those of 1918 set off a debate in the Helsinki daily Hufvudstadsbladet over the extent to which the novel corresponded to reality and over the degree to which it could be generalised. It can reasonably be assumed that Linna was actually waiting for this opportunity: he answered the criticism of historians founded on event-based history by emphasising the faulty nature of the prevailing conception of history. The dispute demonstrated that the novel filled a social and sociopolitical gap in historical research. It brought out into the open things that had been experienced in the memory. In the Finland of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Civil War still lived on in people's minds, but it had not been possible to raise it to the level of public discussion. Linna responded to the challenge by creating the imaginary community of Pentinkulma, using it to reveal a painful and problematic past.

Since the dispute over the trilogy's conception of history concentrated mostly on interpretations of historical facts, its metahistorical dimension was neglected. Its "outlook on life projected onto history", as Linna described his novel, is based on Tolstoy's philosophy of history: the tide of history is made up of innumerable details, and the individual can neither predict nor steer its effects or direction. This outlook is a central theme in Linna's depiction of events and in the destinies of the novel's main characters.

As in Tuntematon sotilas, the trilogy's main character is a community representing a historical force, 'the people'. The dominant perspective from which the world of Pentinkulma is examined is a local one: it is a narrow world, defined by various interests and by social status. The wealth of dialogue that fills the novel's pages focuses attention on the central theme of the work: the life of the human being amidst other humans; the individual's actions stand in a relationship with the actions and expectations of others. Embedded as they are in minor chores, in the rhythms of everyday life and in family and other personal relationships, the events that occur in this miniature world differ from the great surges of history in that they can be controlled to some extent by Man.

In his novel, Linna also adapted the past to a consciously cultivated literary genre - the historical novel. In its classical Scottian form, the historical novel depicts an era in which two cultures come into conflict; one is in its death throes, the other is being born. Into the story is placed a group of imaginary characters; they take part in historical events, moving in the wake of historical personages. The characters at the core of the novel participate in historical events and give expression to the effect of these events on their individual lives. In this way the past is portrayed as the direct and personal experience of the individuals involved and not as changes in large historical structures.

As far as actual history is concerned, Täällä Pohjantähden alla can be described as the depiction of a great crisis, as the story of how Finland changed, to the accompaniment of quarrels and conflicts, from a traditional class society into a democratic nation. Although the work mainly adheres to a chronological method of presentation, Linna uses its episodes to weave a complex counterpoint with mythological and literary overtones. The source of the profound myths shimmering behind the historical pattern of the story is the Bible; from it the trilogy draws elements for its structure, themes and characters. From a biographical viewpoint, the central biblical theme is Jussi Koskela's land-clearing project. The very beginning of the trilogy - "In the beginning was the marsh, the hoe and Jussi..." - contains biblical references. The fate of the marsh that Jussi finds can be thought of in terms of the frame of reference of the Old Testament: Finnish clearing work is part of the Chosen People's toil in the conquest of the Promised Land. Jussi Koskela's biography recapitulates an age-old story: Man is allowed to live for a while in Paradise, but his sons are afflicted by God's curse. Although the whole of Koskela's life is devoted to ensuring that one day the land will go to his children, they are forced to defend it gun in hand and to pay a high price for their inheritance. Jussi's clearing project covers 70 years, becoming a symbolic pilgrimage to a promised land, the fatherland - whose symbol is the field taken from the Koskelas by the parsonage.

The trilogy also re-evaluated the literary past. It appeared at a time of great change in Finnish literature. The period known as that of 'national literature' was coming to an end in the early 1960s; great national themes had been exhausted. The trilogy makes a final assessment of the national landscape described by Lönnrot, Runeberg, Topelius and Kivi - the first literary 'painters' of Finnishness.

The descriptions of poor people contained in such works as F. E. Sillanpää's Hurskas kurjuus (English title: Meek Heritage; 1919) use literary resources to paint a picture of the cultural and social illusions that were destroyed in the Civil War of 1918. Linna bases his work on this tradition, but he creates from his picture something more multifaceted and historically profound. His novels finally shatter the illusion of a Topelian national identity: Finnishness does not consist of harmonious coexistence; it also involves factionalism, class aggression, an incapacity for dialogue. The fact that such traits are characteristic of Finns as well as other peoples was still a very hard idea to digest in postwar Finland.

Amidst the literary modernism of the period, Täällä Pohjantähden alla seemed old-fashioned. Viewed from further away in time, it has proved to be a reforming work and one which points the way to the depiction of the vanishing rural Finland of the 1960s and 1970s. Thus, despite its tragic theme, the trilogy has functioned as an instrument of nostalgia for the ordinary reader in a Finland undergoing modernisation. For readers from an agrarian, pre-modern background who had only recently moved to the city, the novel created a picture of a lost golden age whose cosiness and warm sense of place had been transformed into the cold harshness of the modern world.

Täällä Pohjantähden alla has even been proposed for the unofficial title of 'national novel'. With his trilogy, Linna rendered social development in the direction of the modern world comprehensible and also provided foundations for an understanding of the 1918 war's losing side in particular. The historical research of the 1950s had been incapable of dealing with social conflicts, especially with the Civil War, and it was only with Linna's trilogy that the door to a new interpretation of the events of 1918 opened precisely for the intelligentsia. The book showed the public of the era that a basis existed for incorporating the rebellious party into the nation.

Writer and citizen

Täällä Pohjantähden alla was the final work in Väinö Linna's belletristic oeuvre. As a freelance writer, however, he also participated as a speaker and writer in the literary and social debate and also in politics. Alongside his novels, Linna wrote many essays; in these he speaks on behalf of a modern democratic society, though he also criticises it.

Linna also used his novels to remind his readers that the Finnish identity is to a large extent a written and literary identity - a product of the nation's classic writers. Beside the tradition of high literature Linna also introduced a large amount of the 'literature' of the lower cultural strata - popular culture. An integral part of the common-citizen outlook of his novels is an aversion to all education coming from above and an opposition to the models of 'high' culture. Conversely, this outlook also includes the presentation of the ordinary citizen's everyday life as something valuable.

As a writer Linna was eminently suited to the traditional notion of artists as select representatives of the nation. Rising from humble circumstances to become a successful author and finally an academician, Linna met the traditional criteria for a national author. But his influence went beyond literature: it constituted a critical analysis of the whole of Finnish society.

Jyrki Nummi

Translated by Roderick Fletcher

Appendix

Väinö Valtteri Linna, born 20.12.1920 Urjala, died 21.4.1992 Tampere. Parents: Vihtori Linna, slaughterman, and Maria (Maija) Johanna Nyman. Wife: 1945 - 1992 Kerttu Seuri, Wife's parents: Einar Seuri, farmer, and Helmi Lavi. Children: Sinikka (Palomäki), born 1947; Petteri, born 1959.

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