Almost every European country has its own iconic story about either the First or the Second World War. For the Finns it’s Väinö Linna’s Tuntematon sotilas (translated as Unknown Soldiers or The Unknown Soldier). Since it depicts the hardships of the Finnish soldiers in the Continuation War against their Russian neighbours who had previously occupied Karelia, a subject that seems to be very sensitive in Finnish history, there is no wonder the novel ended up achieving such a high status in the Finnish literature and being adapted for the big screen three times. The last time this happened was in 2017 when Aku Louhimies directed what was to be the highest-budget Finnish movie ever made, a film that was also intensely advertised because it was part of the Centenary celebrations in Finland and which also probably deserves a post of its own.
The title of Väinö Linna’s book somehow predicts the status the characters in his story will have. Despite numerous male appearances throughout the fierce scenes of battle in the deep woods of Finland and USSR, one cannot easily tell which one is the protagonist. They usually go just by their surname and only a couple of them have their first names mentioned once or twice throughout the novel. Different ranks are named and one can certainly say that this soldier is braver than the other, that this one sympathizes with communism or that another one has a very humorous manner of seeing everything happening around him, but it’s rather difficult to find some character with a full personality described in the book. This must be because all these characters’ traits and features can combine in a representation of a collective character – the unknown soldier who fought to get back Karelia to the motherland.
Many of the characters don’t even make it to the end of the book in an illustration of how devoid of any meaning war actually is. Some of them die heroically, some of them die in the most stupid manner. Some die gruesome painful deaths, while others don’t even have the time to realize how near their end is. But for most of them death is actually deliverance. It is the physical hardships such as the lack of food, the lice, the dirt and the cold, the wounds, the weaponry that they must carry on their backs, as well as the psychological torture – seeing their fellow soldiers being killed, the horror of the mutilated corpses, the never-ending fear and being sent in front of the enemy at any moment, irrespective of their physical condition – all this seems many times worse than actual death. And to think that this happened to young men in their early twenties…
If there is one thing that Väinö Linna manages to do with his book, it’s to shock his readers and to stir their compassion. He has the ability to take you into the woods with his deep forest warriors and also to make you feel that fuzzy warm feeling inside for these young men (some could arguably call them “boys”) who have left their youth behind and are now trying to make the best of a moment’s peace, to find a bit of life in this no-man’s-land suspended outside of time. And he also manages to keep you glued to the book just to see what else is next, despite the violence, the deaths and the hardship – something which I consider to be essential in a good piece of literature.