The huge popularity of Linna's novel in Finland seems to confirm this, and many men that fought in that war have been praising it for it's realism. The novel seems to be the type of fiction which can communicate a kind of truth that historians can rarely achieve, and there seems to be good reason to use Linna's novel as way to really penetrate into the Finnish army at the time and get a deeper understanding of what went on.
The novel has been seen as a critique aimed at the ruling classes of Finland at the time. However, you only have to look at the first few pages of the novel to see that it is really much broader in its criticism - so broad, in fact, it makes you wonder how it has managed to gain such huge popularity in Finland. (This is all the more surprising to me when I read most Finnish postings on this forum, where any kind of criticism is normally swept aside completely.)
The two very first paragraphs of the novel clearly deals with the Finnish church and higher officer classes and is a highly ironic description of how God is supposed to start a minor forest fire in order to create a subsequent training ground for the Finnish army. Then Linna goes on to completely puncture the myths about the Winter War:
In the next paragraph, Linna goes on to insinuate that the veterans of the Winter War are a somewhat emotionally inhibited, or perhaps even retarded. He says:Finland's Winter War had been fought, the best of all wars so far because both sides were victorious. Still, in a way the Finnish victory was smaller since the country had to hand over landscapes to its opponent and retreat behind new borders.
On page two of the novel Linna goes on to insult the young recruits as well. First were hear some bragging stupidly about drunkenness, then a country boy named Mäkinen is introduced as a kind of representative of the average Finnish soldier (he doesn't appear in the novel otherwise). He is a bit of a sad fool trying to live up to the ideal of the Finnish soldier, and his view of the world situation is extremely narrow minded.Why should a return to civilian life present any psychological difficulties? They couldn't afford such things. And the human soul - it may be interesting for old people who have reached the age of regret, but a soldier has no need for it.
Linna then goes on to insult the educated classes for the way they have tried to indoctrinate the Finnish people with heroic and nationalistic poetry and myths. Is has, however, had no effect on the general population.Adolf is making trouble. That was his opinion. Mäkinen knew full well what it meant to make trouble. It happened frequently at barn dances that some rowdy fellow grabbed a chair and knocked out the light bulbs and shouted: Let's empty the hall, dammit! We Finns are tough guys and we didn't start this. We have the right on our side. And if someone wants to have another go we shall pay him back in his own coin, perkele.
I think anyone must agree this is quite a mouthful. Behind the dense irony there seems to be a deep disgust of the author's own people, from top to bottom. And we're still only on page 3!They felt a higher elevation when listening to stories about chaps who jumped up on tanks and knocked the machine gun barrels out of shape with iron rods. It was more reminiscent of the heroic tales of daily life. By such they were strengthened in their patriotism. In that way they loved their motherland. In a sense they were as well equipped emotionally as could be considering the task they had been gathered to fulfill.
Then the final salute rounding off this introduction to the main story:
Of course, this isn't just about Finland and WWII. This is about human existence in a much broader sense, showing us exactly where and why things keep going wrong on this planet. It is pure, undiluted literary genius, which probably works even stronger in it's original language. What I have quoted here are just my own translations from Swedish.Of course, Mäkinen was a kind of soldier too. Perhaps not quite like his drill sergeant wanted him to be, but good enough as he were to be hurled into the hungry mouth of world history.
It is, in my opinion, one typical project of literature in general to look at one's own people and point out its flaws for observation. A warning against inherited psychological pitfalls. Still, you have to wonder how a novel that is so harshly critical of its own potential readers has managed to gain such enormous popularity. Of course the story, as it goes on, has its heroes as well as its villains, and everything in between, but still what strikes me most is how entirely the spirit of it contradicts the atmosphere on this Forum, where nevertheless most Finnish contributors seem to have read, understood and even liked his novel.
While I realise that we humans are contradictory and composite creature, the negative factors in this introduction are so pronounced that the popularity of the novel becomes a puzzle to an outside observer, so perhaps someone with more of an insight than I can throw a bit over light over this Finnish phenomenon.