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Väinö (Valtteri) Linna (1920-1992)


Novelist, essayist, one of the greatest writers of post-war Finland. 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), are nearly at every home in Finland.

"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. His mother, Maija Linna, supported the family by working at Honkola manor. 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.

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 war 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.

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

Linna's first collection of poems did not interest the publisher and Linna abandoned this line of writing. In 1947 appeared Linna's first novel, a thinly disguised autobiography entitled Päämäärä (the goal). The book sold poorly. However, during this period Linna became a member of a literary ciorcle, run by the director of the Tampere City Library, Mikko Mäkelä. Among its other members was Alex Matson, whose work Romaanitaide (1947) became essantial guide for aspiring writers. Linna's next novel, Musta rakkaus, was a triangular drama, a tale of love, jealousy, and murder set in Tampere. Linna then started a new novel, 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 continued working on the novel, but he never finished it.

Linna's breakthrough work, The Unknown Soldier (1954), created a fierce debate. "Linna is the writer of aggression," declared Timo Tiusanen in Helsingin Sanomat. In spite of the reviews, the novel sold 50,000 copies in its first three months. Linna's image of officers and the political leadership was far from flattering to the educated elite. Toini Havu, in her famous review (Helsingin Sanomat, December 19, 1954), criticized the novel especially for its naturalism and perspective from below. Linna did not present his characters in a grand historical and ethical context, Havu argued, like Jussi Talvi did in his war novel Ystäviä ja vihollisia (1954).

Also modernist writers were not happy with the "antiquated" realism of the novel, its interest in the characters and situations. Linna tried to see the war from the viewpoint of the enlisted man, using dialect, humour, and portraying soldiers without unostentatious heroism, or standing above the events he narrated. The well-known figures who sided with Linna included Martti Haavio, a folklorist and poet, and Arvi Korhonen, a military historian. Linna's Tolstoyan philosophy of history went mostly unnoticed, beginning from the opening of the novel which established Linna's 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 Unknown Soldier gained a great success and was translated into several languages. Up to 1990 it had sold more than half million copies. Linna's novel was adapted to screen first time in 1955. This version, directed by Edvin Laine, is among the most popular movies in Finland. The second version, directed by Rauli Mollberg, was made in 1985. An open-air theater production in Tampere, where real trucks and tanks were used, was perfomed for several years. The Unknown Soldier was also made into an opera by Tauno Pylkkänen in 1967, directed by Edvin Laine. The original – uncensored – edition of Tuntematon sotilas, entitled Sotaromaani, was published in 2000, and revealed that especially Linna's critical views of officers and commanders at headquarters were removed, and the coarse language of the soldiers was occasionally straightened.

The Unknown Soldier follows the war of a group of men, a single 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 in 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 one of the characters, Priha, laughs that "The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics won but the small and gutsy Finland finished a good second."

The characters from the book (and from the film), Rokka, Hietanen, Lahtinen and Koskela, became known as models of national heroes, loved like characters from J.L. Runeberg's (1804-1877) patriotic poem cycle The Songs of Ensign Stål about the Russo-Swedish war of 1808-09. In public debate often the names of the soldiers are used as slogans – an insubordinate but brilliant soldier is referred to as "Rokka."

During 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 novel depicted the development Finnish society from the end of the 19th century to the period after the World War II. 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 after World War II. 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. The story focused on three generations of tenant farmers in a small village in Häme Province, from 1884 to the 1950s. 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 Finland's civil war of 1917-18. 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 by critics. Later Linna confessed, that the work on the trilogy "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.

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); 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); Idiootti ja samurai: Tuntematon sotilas elokuvana by Jukka Sihvonen (2009)  - 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)
    - films: 1955, dir. by Edvin Laine, 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, 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
  • 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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