The Unknown Soldier (novel)
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First UK edition
|Original title||Tuntematon sotilas|
|3 December 1954|
Published in English
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
The Unknown Soldier (Tuntematon sotilas) is author Väinö Linna's first major novel and his other major work besides Under the North Star. Published in 1954, it is a story about the Continuation War between Finland and the Soviet Union as told from the viewpoint of ordinary Finnish soldiers. Gritty and realistic, it was partly intended to shatter the myth of the noble, obedient Finnish soldier. In Linna's own words, he wished to give the Finnish soldier a brain, an organ lacking in earlier depictions — this was a barb directed at Johan Runeberg's The Tales of Ensign Stål, which admiringly portrays Finnish soldiers with big hearts and little independent intellect. The novel is based on Linna's own experiences, but is more or less fictional. In its structure and style, it may be compared to the war novels of James Jones.
The novel has no single central character (it both begins and ends with an ironic play on the narrator's omniscience), and its focus is on different responses to the experience of war. It tells the story of a machine gun company in the war from mobilisation to armistice. A picture of the whole nation in microcosm, the men come from all over the country (a result of Linna's unusual patchwork regiment - units were normally made up of men from the same region.) The men have widely varying social backgrounds and political attitudes, and they all have their own ways of coping, but the general picture is one of a quite relaxedly businesslike attitude, and the men's disrespect for formalities and discipline is a source of frustration for some of the officers. They are all there just to get the job done, and official propaganda, both their own and that of the enemy, is to them a source of amusement or outright offensive. Linna's own description of the men in the novel's final sentence is "aika velikultia" — something like "good old boys". The main officer characters are three lieutenants who embody different attitudes: one strict and aloof, one relaxed and fraternal, one idealistic and later disillusioned but brave and loyal to his men.
Linna excels in describing the psychology of his characters. He paints realistic yet deeply sympathetic portraits of a score of very different men: cowards and heroes, the initially naive, eventually brave upper-class idealist Kariluoto, the down-to-earth Koskela, the hardened and cynical working-class grunt Lehto, the platoon comedian Vanhala and the preternaturally strong-nerved Rokka, the politically indifferent Hietanen and the communist Lahtinen. It is only for the sternest officers of the Prussian school for whom he has little love. Many of his characters have come to be seen as archetypes of Finnish men, household names to whom reference can be made without explanation.
The novel initially received mixed reviews. Conservative critics, most notably Toini Havu in Helsingin Sanomat, condemned it for adopting a purposely low vantage-point and ignoring the bigger picture. Linna was accused of making an unnecessary spectacle of dragging the country's patriotic ideals through the mud, and indeed his purpose had been to take such idealism down a peg. Other critics recognised Linna's achievement, however, and the public immediately took The Unknown Soldier as their own. It remains one of the best-selling books of all time in Finland. It is claimed[who?] that the book is a tribute to the Finnish men in World War II: anti-war without being defeatist.
An "uncensored" version of the book was published with much fanfare in 2000 under the name Sotaromaani (A War Novel, Linna's working title), revealing that some of Linna's critique of the officer corps and the often quite coarse language of the common soldiers had been removed in the original, though much of the so-called censorship seems to have been standard editorial changes and removal of tautology. The most significant difference between the two editions is the character of Lehto; in Sotaromaani he is a psychopath, in The Unknown Soldier he is a battle-hardened grunt.
Unfortunately, the only English translation of The Unknown Soldier is faulty, with scenes removed and added for unspecified reasons, and is stylistically misleading as well.
Connections to Under the North Star
The book shares a few scenes and one main character, Vilho Koskela, with Linna's other major work, the trilogy Under the North Star (Täällä Pohjantähden alla).
- Unknown Soldiers Penguin Classics.
- Tuntematon Sotilas, 1977 special edition, appendix "Väinö Linna ja Tuntematon Sotilas" by Matti Kurjensaari
- Finnish classic war film The Unknown Soldier opens old wounds in Russia (an article by Helsingin Sanomat from Jan 21, 2003)