Monday, 3 August 2009

Ulla-Lena Lundberg: The Marzipan Soldier - 2


The milieu in which he is living is familiar. The school is home from home for him, the timetable and food are as they were in the artillery corps. He has always been surrounded by boys. The smells are familiar, nothing repellent, but not enticing either, like the female smells of the cowsheds.

More acrid where men gather. The smell of sweaty feet that is really something, familiar from gym halls and changing rooms. Underarm sweat, too. The smell of dirt that becomes distinct before the Saturday sauna. The smell of urine from the latrine, old tobacco in one's clothes. The smell of rot-gut from the mouths of those who have had a night out and dared to get drunk.

And then the fresh smell of snow in the school yard, the pines, the horse-dung, the fumes from passing lorries, the smell of firewood wherever one turns, smoke from all of Riihimäki's chimneys. Finland at war.

Mealtimes are irregular right from the outset, for Riihimäki receives assiduous attention from the Russian airforce. There are no air-raid shelters under the school, so the recruits are ordered out to the forest when there is an alarm. There they watch the brickwork receive a direct hit, a stack of firewood start to burn and the glassworks sounds like a gigantic breaking of the ice when it is hit. It's like being at the cinema, but in reality. The lads stand and gape as at a giant-sized screen, only throwing themselves to the ground when a flying bomb explodes nearby: Ouch, my ears!

It is undeniably war, but healthy lads with matriculation certificates and artillery corps experience can't be squandered away like cannon fodder. They need to be trained as officers, and so Göran Kummel and those like him selected for NCO training school. School is not something one can escape in this life, even though one thought one was joining the war in order to get the school dust out of one's lungs.

Göran also attracts attention in another way. His handsome artillery corps uniform is the reason why Sunday after Sunday he is detailed to the guard of honour that stands stiffly to attention at the heroes' funerals. One can't help being just a tiny bit flattered at being considered worthy of being displayed on solemn occasions. Washed as he has been taught by Mother, shaven and brushed, dressed in his finery and touchingly young, Göran raises the tone in the church. Still as glass, or almost, he stands with his gaze directed forward, but his features are soft and the lad in uniform as sweet as if he were made of marzipan. He by no means unaware of the fact that Riihimäki's women and girls like to look at him. Furtively or more or less directly, and one doesn't need to be ashamed about that. The guard of honour stands like an emblem of those one is mourning: young, young men with soft features and living blue eyes, fallen for the Fatherland in their first bloom.

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

The Marzipan Soldier

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