Väinö Linna holds permanent place in Finnish hearts 50 years after major war novel
The Unknown Soldier appeared 50 years ago
By Irma Stenbäck
"Linna did not get a single line for free. He had a burning desire to become an author - and he achieved his goal", says Risto Lindstedt, describing how Väinö Linna attained the status of Finland’s national author.
Lindstedt, 55 years of age, is a journalist for the weekly news and current affairs magazine Suomen Kuvalehti, and he has delved deep into the author’s mental landscape in his book Väinö Linna. Kansakunnan puhemies ("Väinö Linna. Spokesman of the Nation").
The book compiles and updates much of the latest information about Väinö Linna. Lindstedt’s book has been appealingly constructed. For the younger generation it offers a literary dose of information about recent history through the life and works of Väinö Linna (1920-1992).
Linna wrote much about his own personal history, about the development of his thinking and the birth of his books, in a collection of essays and speeches that appeared in 1967. "For these reasons Linna is personally present in this book."
Lindstedt describes Linna’s growth from being a day labourer on a Finnish manor estate into an author and member of the Academy of Finland. So why does the book’s subtitle define Linna as a spokesman of the nation?
"In The Unknown Soldier Linna gave a voice to the ordinary foot soldier. In the Under the North Star trilogy, the author restored citizenship rights to the Reds of the Finnish Civil War. Both works decisively altered the nation’s image of itself."
Lindstedt himself fell under the spell of Väinö Linna in August 1956, when his father took him to the cinema to see the film version of The Unknown Soldier, directed by Edvin Laine. He was ten years old when he immersed himself in the book, even though "naturally, I didn’t understand the novel at that time".
Edvin Laine’s The Unknown Soldier remains the most popular Finnish movie of all time, and Väinö Linna is still the most popular Finnish writer - more so than Aleksis Kivi or Mika Waltari.
It has been 50 years since The Unknown Soldier was published. So far 602,500 copies have been printed. The uncensored version - Linna’s original Sotaromaani ("War Novel"), was published in 2000.
Lindstedt feels that the original version was clearly a pacifist work, which did not have a single hero.
The Unknown Soldier (1954) continues to raise emotions. "You won’t find a beer bar in Finland where someone would not be quoting Rokka or one of the other familiar characters.
As he immersed himself in the mind of the author, Lindstedt was repeatedly surprised at Linna’s defiant ambition to become a writer at any price. While working at the Finlayson factory in Tampere, Linna set for himself the ambitious goal of expanding his horizons by reading, and learning the technique of writing.
The frail but inquisitive rebel of a crofter family in the Häme region developed into a novelist who sparked an unprecedented literary war with his depiction of Finnish forest warriors.
"Johan Ludvig Runeberg became Finland’s national poet by creating the idea of an intact nation with common values. Linna became the national author by breaking that myth", Lindstedt says.
The two men shared the same fate. J.L. Runeberg was paralysed at the age of 61 and lived on for 14 years, unable to move or speak. Linna was paralysed by a stroke at the age of 64, and he lived on for eight years unable to speak.
According to Linna, the history of the human spirit is, in the final analysis, a constant dialogue with death.
"Linna is present in Finnish everyday life in a different way. His books live in the collective consciousness."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 10.5.2004
Väinö Linna (1920-1992)
IRMA STENBÄCK / Helsingin Sanomat