The Unknown Soldier

The Unknown Soldier by Väinö Linna is a classic of Finnish literature. I bought both the English translation and the Finnish original when I lived in Helsinki during the summer of 2000. Typical of my reading habits is that I buy a book but procrastinate years until I actually read it. To commemorate this year of the Finnish centennial of independence, I decided to read all of my books about Finland that are heretofore unread. While the original was published in 1954 as Tuntematon sotilas, the first English translation appeared in 1957. I read the novel in translation with the Finnish original by my side. The dialogue was too regional and the military terminology too advanced for my Finnish language skills. However, in spite of the war lingo I was not overwhelmed or felt as if Linna was writing only for military aficionados. I credit the impressive translation for making military strategy palpable for readers like myself who normally do not read war stories.

Before I even opened the book, I was prepared for the stilted awkwardness of a sixty-year-old translation. Yet the unnamed translator made the novel flow at a rapid clip and the dialogue was as contemporary as if it was spoken today. It all seemed so real, as if I was eavesdropping while embedded with a platoon. I looked forward to my time with this novel and sat reading chunks at a time. Linna wrote about a regiment during the Continuation War, which took place between Finland and the USSR in the early forties. Since Linna was a veteran of this war I can suppose that much of what he wrote were his own personal experiences.

It is my habit that when I embark on reading a new book to refrain from reading anything about it. I won’t say that I don’t read any book reviews in advance, for that is how I acquire knowledge about what I might want to read in the future. However, if I have immediate plans to read a book, and definitely when I have already started reading it, whether fiction or nonfiction, I hold off reading any reviews to avoid tainting my overall impression. Thus with The Unknown Soldier I was struck by how often the unnamed translator omitted entire sections. I did not know this in advance. I would be reading along in English and as I am a language nerd I was always curious about the original text. I flipped to the appropriate page and compared it to the Finnish original. Yet when I turned to the original Finnish language text I discovered lengthy passages and even poems that were totally left out. And some lines of text were inexplicably altered. For example, when the regiment receives a new band of young soldiers, they are asked their age. In the original text, they are twenty-five years old, yet in the English translation, they’re seventeen! Why change this? When I was in Finland last year I saw the English translation for sale under a new title Unknown Soldiers, but paid no attention to it. Now I realize that this version reflects a new translation from 2015. Further research informs me that the new translation is more faithful to the original text. I am inclined to buy it this time–as I will be in Finland in a matter of days after posting this review–and with the 1957 translation still fresh in my memory, read the new version. It will be the first time I have ever read the same novel in two different translations.

I bought The Unknown Soldier with the prejudice that it, while a classic of Finnish literature, would be a boring read. I wanted to read it nonetheless because I had heard of its reputation as a classic. How surprised I was to discover so much humour, soldier irreverence and blatant disregard for authority. I would never have thought those would be characteristics within the classic Finnish war novel. I expected valiant heroism in the eyes of defeat, soldiers striving against the odds to save the fatherland from the Soviet empire and tales of superhuman heroism. I would not be exaggerating when I say that I expected to read about an entire battalion of Finnish James Bonds. Yet Linna, no doubt drawing on his own wartime experience, made the soldiers and their superiors far more human than these stereotypical supermen. Linna’s regiment comprised all sorts of personalities: young men who had no idea what they were doing; resentful soldiers who talked back to their superiors; jokers who took nothing seriously; obsessive-compulsives who dragged everything along with them in spite of the encumbrance; daisy-eyed optimists who saw only victory regardless of the destruction and retreat of their own regiment and low-ranked soldiers like my favourite character, Rokka, who heeded no one’s advice as all too often his strategizing was better than the sergeants’. He always one-upped his superiors and even in the face of punishment had the lines ready to counter the charges against him. He was the Teflon soldier of his regiment, always leading the way and defying death.

The translator captured Linna’s sense of humour in wartime, as in the following passage about food:

“The field kitchen doled out oatmeal porridge specked with chunks of meat which had a most unsavory look.
“‘What is it?’
“‘Horse meat.’
“‘Horse meat?’
“‘Yes. An old horse.’ Hietanen took the gristle he had been chewing out of his mouth. ‘And the signs all point to it being a gypsy’s nag. I can see the whip marks.'”

and women, who were often on the soldiers’ minds:

“Hietanen was so immersed in his own feelings that he hardly heard Vanhala. But even without hearing he made an effort to indicate that he admired Vera only because of her dancing, lest the others should taunt him about the way he was attracted to the girl.
“‘I don’t know how a human being can spin like that. At home the girls I used to dance with made me feel like I was pushing a plough around.'”

Linna certainly turned stoic military authority on its ear when he wrote about the attitude of one regimental commander. Instead of regarding the act of inspection with emotionless stiffness, the commander expressed his intestinal fortitude in another context:

“Later in the evening the battalion turned out on parade; the regimental commander himself having arrived to distribute the decorations in person. He began by inspecting the battalion, looking at each man as though he were trying to divine the inmost thoughts of his mind. It is one of the greatest of military achievements to be able to walk down ranks of men staring at each one with knitted brows and encountering vacant stares in return without laughing.”

I am very interested in comparing the new English translation to the original text in the above passages, for the translator of the 1957 version took leaping liberties in the English.

Without giving away any spoilers, the novel documents Finnish history during the Continuation War. Any history book will tell you that Finland was repelled and lost its regained territory to the Soviet Union. The regiment advances then pulls back, losing ever more men in the process. Linna wrote about the horrors of bodily injuries and it was sad to see some beloved characters succumb to their injuries. War is unpredictable and in some cases I would be happily following a character through the novel, only to be shocked by reading, at the turn of a page, about that character’s sudden death by sniper fire or grenade attack. The reader was not allowed any time to mourn as Linna kept the rapid clip of the novel moving–as in wartime–where bodies were loaded upon stretchers and shipped out. You will be surprised at the number of men who end up dying.

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