Unknown Soldiers by Vaino Linna; trans. Liesl Yamaguchi, book review

A Finnish 'War and Peace' - without the interesting bits

Max Liu
Wednesday 06 May 2015 23:15
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First published in 1954, this Second World War epic is a classic in its author's native Finland. Vaino Linna, who fought the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front, tells the story of a Finnish battalion who speak in such a cacophony of voices that his title is almost ironic. Many of them end up buried in the mud of foreign land but by then we know them for the wit and camaraderie they display amid the brutality and drudgery of combat.

The novel's subject and length evokes Tolstoy but it's no surprise to learn that Linna admired the baggier fictions of Dostoevsky. The large cast means it would have been helpful to have a list of characters at the front of this edition and, initially, I struggled to distinguish gunners from medics, officers from generals, wondering: Who's Haitenan? Is calm Koskela in charge or abrasive Lehto? Like Finland's doomed invasion of Russia, Linna's novel is a slog.

Passages overflow with imagery: "Their wet clothes collected debris from the decades of pine needles carpeting the base of the fir trees." Deployed sparingly, such detail can set the scene but Linna's narration is often mired in descriptions. His prose is clichéd ("shots rang out") and vague ("Images rose up from somewhere in the dark recesses of his soul"). From War and Peace to Redeployment, literary fiction is rich with memorable battle scenes so this kind of sloppiness isn't good enough.

It feels uncharitable to criticise a translator who undertakes a gargantuan task but Liesl Yamaguchi's decision to make some soldiers speak American slang is a mistake. Hearing Finns of the 1940s saying "atta boy" and "goddamn giraffe" is bizarre. The novel's middle is absorbing as the battalion advances and the arrival of the brave, rebellious Rokka injects energy. Linna examines nationhood, the fate of small nations in particular, but his wisest characters come to regard nationality as a matter of chance. When the tide of war turns, they beat a bloody retreat and their patriotic songs are replaced by "the bitterness of three years' useless fighting".

Reading dense, drawn-out fiction can be highly rewarding. However, where Dostoevsky, Melville and Karl Ove Knausgaard make details which add up to immense cumulative power, Linna's novel becomes less affecting the longer it drags on. The late introduction of a buffoonish, lisping commander is so unfunny and annoying that I couldn't wait for it to end. A Finnish classic this may be but, as in war, you're better off with the Russians.

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