Sunday, 2 August 2009

Ulla-Lena Lundberg: The Marzipan Soldier

Marsipansoldaten (The Marzipan Soldier, Söderström/Bonnier, 2001) by Ulla-Lena Lundberg is the most recent of her novels. It tells the story of Finland’s Winter War of 1939-40 and the Continuation War that followed it – not in the traditional manner of war novels, with descriptions of battles and fighting, but largely in terms of the experience of ordinary people as they deal with the problems of recruiting, volunteering and military training, combat food shortages and get on with their lives as best they can in a highly abnormal situation.

The short excerpts I’ll post are from Chapter 6.


Göran goes off to the war as a volunteer and gives the Russians one on the jaw. Well, then. First there is training, of course.

Riihimäki. Recruit Göran Kummel is billeted with 125 others in Södra elementary school. There are 29 men in his dormitory. A good tiled stove, tolerably warm. Tea with bread and butter for breakfast, substantial lunch with potatoes and pork gravy or porridge and milk, soup with crispbread for dinner. After three days Göran still has more or less all his things in his possession. And it is nice to be able to strut up and down in the artillery corps tunic and warm cloak and military boots while many others are still trudging about in the things they marched in wearing. The truly privileged ones are probably attired in military fur-lined overcoats and fur caps from home, but the majority go about in civilian blouses and jackets and trousers, the most unfortunate in the same blue fine-cut suits in which they arrived, trusting that they would soon be changing into uniform.

Göran, who is comfortably off, has no reason to grumble. He arrived at Riihimäki in a positive frame of mind, red cheeks, cheerful eyes, fully-packed kitbag on his back and his skis over his shoulder. The right routine has stayed with him from the artillery corps, giving him a considerable advantage over the untrained and the green.

It would be unfair to say that Göran Kummel is a conscious timeserver. He just happens to be one of those whom officers notice: quick on his toes, background in the artillery corps. It does no harm, for in other ways Göran is at a disadvantage. Even though there are all-Swedish formations in the Finnish army, both Frej and Göran have chosen Finnish units. It is Father's idea, for he doesn't want them to be like him, hopelessly Swedish-speaking in the Helsinki region where Finnish is advancing on a broad front. The argument, not to be like Father, has an effect on Frej, and Göran also sees the advantages of coming out of the war completely bilingual. In any case, he already knows more Finnish than Frej because of his summer practice in the coastguards. 'It's all going to go just fine,' he thinks without a care in the world, and it does, all by itself. There is only problem of his Swedish name.

It feels so strange, it sounds so peculiar that sometimes he doesn't recognize it. The hard 'G', the spiky 'ö', the truncated 'l' that requires an 'i' at the end. And although the language war has been put to rest, there are some gibes and taunts,. which Göran takes in good spirit. What is worse is that he still has some way to go before he is completely bilingual. Though the Finns are supposed to be slow and taciturn, they can talk away something terrible, and sometimes the quick-thinking Göran Kummel loses the thread and has to bluff his way, not always with quite successful results. He manages his own talking better. Swiftly he picks up everyday idioms and expressions that would have made his Finnish teacher in Grani turn pale, but are perfectly acceptable at the elementary school in Riihimäki.

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

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