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Väinö Linna: Tuntematon sotilas (The Unknown Soldier)

This is by far and way the best-selling novel in Finland. Not only is it a best-selling novel, it has been made into a film, a stage play and an opera. The reasons are, at least in part, the importance of the war in Finland’s history. It started with the so-called Winter War in 1939, when the Soviet Union invaded Finland, with the aim of establishing a puppet government in Helsinki. To everyone’s surprise, Finland was able to resist and, while they lost 10% of their territory, they retained their independence. However, when Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, Finland sided with Germany, in order to regain its lost territory and to help crush its old enemy. This war – known as the Continuation War – is the setting for this novel.

For those who are ignorant of Finnish history and are not emotionally involved in the fate of Finland, this novel is a good – but not great – war novel. We follow a machine gun unit, as they move through Finland, regain the lost territory from the Winter War and then move into Soviet territory before being repulsed and retreating back into Finland. Linna, of course, fought in this war so he is writing from the point of view of the combatants. He is relatively unsentimental about the war. Most of the unit is killed (including a couple shot by their own men for desertion). He does not shirk the difficult issues – cowardice, brutality towards the enemy, looting. But what makes this a thoroughly enjoyable and worthwhile novel is that he is clearly part of the soldiers and their concerns. The only good officer is one who is part of the unit. Those that give orders are mocked, criticised and, ultimately, killed (by the Russians and by the author).

But it is the men that he is most attached to. Many of them (though not all) show exemplary courage, though often showing exemplary insubordination at the same time. As far as Linna is concerned, the courage justifies the insubordination. The Finnish soldier is, in his eyes, the bravest soldier in the world. Illegal stills, illegal absences, downright refusal to obey officers – all are not only part of the daily life of the Finnish soldier, they are, in Linna’s eyes, essential to survival and for being what makes a Finnish soldier. It is probably not the great work of literature – at least to the rest of the world – that the Finns may thing it is but it is still a pretty good war novel.

Publishing history

First published 1954 by Söderström, Porvoo