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Väinö Linna: Täällä Pohjantähden alla (Under the North Star)

Amazingly, this trilogy has only been published in English by a small Canadian publisher, called Aspasia Books and all power to them for doing so. This is a classic Finnish novel, telling not only a fascinating story but also giving a vivid portrait of Finnish history from the end of the nineteenth to well into the twentieth century.

The first part of the trilogy sees Finland still under Russian control, in the late nineteenth century. The story is set in a small village called Pentti’s Corners. While the novel follows much of what happens in the village, it focuses more on Jussi Koskela and, later, his son Akseli. The village has clear class demarcations. There is the Swedish land-owning baron, who can barely speak Finnish – Linna mocks his attempts to do so. There is the parsonage, with its aging pastor, who has lost interest in all except an easy life. There are other landowners and then there are the workers, many of whom are tenant farmers, subject to the land-owners. This is a key theme of the novel. Jussi works for the parson and, at the beginning of the novel, proposes to the parson that if he, Jussi, clears the swamp land, he should be able to rent it. The parson reluctantly agrees but can only make an agreement for his own lifetime as the land technically belongs to the congregation. Jussi clears the land, marries and has children, including the surly but tough Akseli.

Of course, the parson dies and the new parson, with his greedy wife from a well-to-do Helsinki family, is relatively sympathetic but then takes some of the cleared land when he is having financial difficulties. All of the action takes place against a background of resurgent Finnish nationalism – which means both anti-Russian and, to a lesser degree, anti-Swedish feeling. It also takes place against a background of the rise in socialism and the rights of workers, particularly tenant farmers. In Pentti’s Corners, Halme, the tailor, is the one to lead the charge but he is supported by others, including Akseli Koskela, Jussi’s eldest son, when he grows up. The story is full of action and detail about the life and tensions in the village, including both personal and political issues, all against an important historical background.

The second part deals with the Finnish Civil War. This followed on from the Russian Revolution and started as a social democrat rather than communist revolution. Landless farmers had been fighting for their rights for some time and, inspired in part by the Russians, but also frustrated by the failure of Parliament to help their cause, they turned to war. The war was short, lasting three months. The strong bourgeoisie in Ostrobothnia, aided by the Germans and Swedes, as well as Finns who had served in the German army, and by better organisation, soon won and reprisals were bloody and brutal.

In this second part of the novel, the focus is now on Akseli and, to a lesser extent, his two brothers. Jussi is still there but semi-retired. Akseli is a hard worker but very resentful of his subjugated status and helps organise resistance to the landowners. Halme, the tailor, and Janne are both leaders but favour non-violent action. Initially their view prevails. A strike is soon settled in the favour of the workers. But, as happens in real life, when things start getting better, more is asked for. Meanwhile, as in the first part, Linna has painted a detailed and complex portrait of the village and its inhabitants, with its stark class divisions and the increasing antagonisms between the two sides. While the Swedish baron is still mocked, the well-to-do bourgeois vicar and his wife are shown to be hypocrites, showing a distinct lack of Christian spirit. Things get worse when the bourgeois or the Whites as they are now called (later they will be called the butchers) set up an armed civil guard to protect themselves. The workers, or Reds as they are now called, respond and set up their own guard. This will eventually lead to the formal creation of a military organisation that runs the village, once revolution breaks out. Akseli is not too keen on being leader but is persuaded to do so.

Once war breaks out, the Reds take control of the village, requisitioning supplies and controlling movements. Some elements get out of hand and there are some bloody murders. Most of the sons of the bourgeoisie manage to leave and hide out for the duration. Meanwhile, the Reds are called up to fight and we follow their fighting against the Whites. They are less organised and do not have the equipment the enemy has and they are soon beaten. Despite Akseli’s efforts, the Reds retreat in disorder. Some of them – including Akseli – leave to escape to Russia. Many of those that stay behind, including Akseli’s brothers, are summarily tried by kangaroo courts and shot. Akseli and his fellow leaders do escape but are eventually captured by the Germans. They are sent to prison camp where they are very badly treated. Akseli is about to be executed several times but manages to survive, particularly when the British and Americans call for the end of the summary justice. The novel ends with his return to the village, after serving his prison sentence.

The third part of the novel takes us up to the late Fifties, i.e. approximately when the novel was published. Once again, this is a key period in Finnish history, particularly with their two wars against the Soviet Union. We had left off with Akseli’s return to Pentti’s Corners after his imprisonment and he quietly settles down to work, avoiding political confrontation. But political confrontation there is. Firstly the rise of the Lapua Movement, an equivalent of the Nazis, finds root in Pentti’s Corners. The Lapuans practice Nazi-type brutality, beating up opponents. Moreover, like Germany, they are also interested in gaining land, in this case at the expense of the Soviet Union, with emphasis on Karelia. However, unlike in Germany, their attempted coup d’état fails. Gradually, they lose their influence, both nationally and locally, as many of the bourgeoisie realize that they have gone too far. Like other countries, Finland is affected by the worldwide depression and poverty comes to Pentti’s Corners and the Koskelas struggle like everyone, particularly when two extra children are born.

But the main events are the Winter War and the subsequent Continuation War also covered in Linna’s Unknown Soldier. The Koskelas lose two sons in the former and one in the second and, though Finland survives and remains independent, the effects are devastating. Pretty well everyone in the village loses a son, brother, father or husband. However, Linna wishes to finish on a positive note and, though Akseli dies and his daughter makes a bad marriage, by the end of the novel, things are starting to look much better. It is a long read but Linna keeps our interest to the end, mixing in Finnish history with a very sympathetic story of people struggling to survive.

Publishing history

First published 1959 by WSOY
First published in English 2001 by Aspasia Books, Beaverton, Ontario