Paavo Rintala: Sissiluutnantti (The Long-Distance Patrol)
Rintala’s father died in the Continuation War so a novel set in this war is not a surprise. As with other countries – e.g. Spanish writers and the Spanish Civil War – this war and its predecessor have been a major theme of Finnish writers. It is a fairly short novel that tells the story of a patrol fighting in the war and the only one of Rintala’s novel to be translated into English. The main story is divided into two, with two specific actions by the patrol, preceded by a return from a previous exercise and ending with the end of the war. The main character is Lieutenant (later Captain) Erkki Takala. Takala is training to be a priest, though he does not always behave in a very priestly manner. The novel starts off with his group returning from a patrol and he and his men want a sauna and alcohol. They have German military advising them (and providing the alcohol and other luxuries). They also want to mix with the girls, who they name generically as Lottas. Takala finds a girl call Rita and they go off and have sex. The next day, when he sees a captain from the Signal Corps, with his arm around Rita, he and his men threaten the captain who gives up Rita, apologetically, not wanting to argue with the men from the patrol. We will see Takala later bully a major, by pointing a gun at the major’s belly, to persuade him to hand over coffee beans and chocolate for his men. However, at the same time, he has a discussion with the padre about his concerns. He later says that he only feels sorry for the horses he has killed (the secret of destroying a supply column is to shoot the horses in the belly.)
The men are based near a hill which had been in Finnish hands but had been captured by the Dear neighbours, as the Finns facetiously call the Russians. The command wants the hill retaken by the Finns. Takala and his men are quite cynical about the whole idea. What is the value of one hill amongst so many? They are also quite cynical about dying, Takala mockingly saying that he will be promoted to captain, as a corpse. But he surprises his commanding officers by suggesting that they attack in the daylight. The commanding officers think that he is mad but he reasons that the Russians expect a night attack and have far more men defending at night than during the day. The secret, according to Takala, is for the men to get into a position while it is still dark and then wait till the mid-morning and then attack. Takala’s position is by a Finnish corpse, which has been there for some time. The second exercise is to capture a Russian officer from behind Russian lines which involves not only getting behind the lines and finding a Russian officer not too well protected but also getting back to their lines, which is not necessarily straightforward.
The matter-of-fact and fairly cynical approach of Takala and his men towards the war and the individual operations is fairly low-key and less intense than in war novels from other countries. However, the courage, consistently downplayed, and contempt for higher command are very similar to those of other novels. We cannot help but feel sympathy for Takala and his men and when they go off drinking, fishing, to saunas or chasing women, we can only fully support them, knowing that some of them will be killed all too soon and for what? A war which we now know and they know by the end of the book is lost.
First published in 1963 by Otava
First published in English in 1967 by Allen & Unwin
Translated by Maurice Michael