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The Unknown Soldier (1954)

por Väinö Linna

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7101224,076 (4.16)56
Published for the first time in a faithful English translation, Unknown Soldiers is the story of a platoon of ordinary Finnish soldiers fighting their Soviet Union counterparts during the Second World War. Drawing on Linna's own wartime experiences, this gritty and realistic account shatters the myth of the noble, obedient Finnish soldier.… (mais)
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Originally published in 1954, The Unknown Soldier is a dark and gritty story set in 1941 about a Finnish machine-gun company fighting along the border of their country trying to push the Russians back and regain land that was taken a year or so ago during the Winter War. The viewpoint of the book is that of the Finnish soldiers, an assorted group of young men, who are exposed to warfare for the first time in all it’s messy, bloody, horrifying pointlessness.

The secret to reading a book with an ensemble cast is for each character to have a clear identity and have names that are easily remembered. Unfortunately, I struggled with the Finnish names of the characters and it took me a long time to be able to immediately identify which character was which. Of course, with a book that features soldiers during war, characters often finally became recognizable to me only to have them immediately killed off.

As the story goes on, we learn more about these soldiers and their lives. Their bonds to each other grow and other than some of the officers who are more concerned with medals and careers than the lives of their men, they learn to watch out for each other and help each other during times of difficulty.
Translator Liesl Yamaguchi does an excellent job with the story and, in particular, the dialogue, helping the reader to know each character by their individual tone.

Unknown Soldiers is a war story that showcases the horror, chaos and futility of war. I was fascinated by the history as I knew next to nothing about Finland during World War II. At first, Russia had an alliance with Germany, allowing them to attack Finland. Then the Germans attacked Russia, and Finland entered into a non-aggression pact with Germany. Unfortunately, at the end of World War II, even though Russia had been the first to attack, and Finland only tried to gain back what they had lost, Finland was considered part of the Axis and had to pay reparations to Russia. ( )
  DeltaQueen50 | Nov 21, 2020 |
Considered a classic of Finnish literature, The Unknown Soldier tells the story of Finnish Soldiers fighting in the Continuation War (as it's known in Finland) between Finland and Russia from 1941 through 1944. The novel presents a gritty depiction of the experiences of soldiers of one Finnish company.

Linna creates a memorable group of soldiers and follows them from the initial invasion and success, to the stalemate that develops at the point of the invasion's furthest advance, and then through the interminable retreat. Death stalks the company throughout, of course. Men die throughout the narrative in ways foolish, cowardly and brave, in attempts to accomplish specific objectives or randomly. But also, these men are portrayed as individuals, with a wide spectrum of personalities, bravery or cowardice, with a wide range of ideas about the war and what they're doing there, and a very specific attitude about the advantages or (mostly) disadvantages of the officers above them, whose success as leaders is generally tied to their willingness to forego the trappings of their rank and insistence on military discipline.

The novel, published 10 years after the war's end, became an instant success in Finland and propelled Linna to literary hero status within the country. It was, according to what I've been able to read, the first novel in Finland that portrayed the war and its soldiers in anything close to realistic, rather than idealized, fashion, and veterans of the war were evidently vocal in their praise. The novel is harrowing, to be sure, full of bitterness and, especially at the end, despair, but also full of life and humor, frailty and honor. What are human beings willing to do, and how do we stand up, principles intact (or not) in the face of deprivation and almost certain death? Linna doesn't really ask these questions, but he does provide his own answer to them.

The narrative remains quite focused on the "here and now." Linna dispels almost entirely with digressions about the backgrounds of individual soldiers. We don't travel back to childhoods or to marriages and children or businesses left behind. We are, almost wholly, with these men in this place with shells falling all around. Also, Linna, who himself fought in this war, provides gripping, horrific and seemingly very realistic combat scenes.

There is certainly, from our contemporary view, a limited world view among these soldiers. Their perspective is almost entirely bordered by the quarrels between Russia and Finland, and Germany's early successes and eventual defeats are seen only through their filters of what it all means for Finland and for their own situation.

The most consistent hero of The Unknown Soldier is Vilho Koskela, the calm, veteran lieutenant, survivor of the Winter War, caring and inspirational leader of his men. In fact, after the success of The Unknown Soldier, Linna went back and wrote his Under the North Star trilogy which begins with Koskela's grandfather breaking ground on a wilderness farm and takes the family up through Vilho's service and beyond. While on vacation in Finland with my wife several years back, I was told in a Helsinki bookstore that I should read this trilogy if I wanted to understand Finnish history and the character of the Finnish people. That trilogy provided me one of the most memorable reading experiences I've ever had. It's been a couple of years since I finished Under the North Star. I've been saving this book, but finally decided it was time to read it. When Koskela makes his appearance on page 4, I actually said to myself, "Ah, there he is!"

By the end, more than one of the characters is of course asking, as the reader will, "What was the point of all that horror?" Linna mostly leaves those questions to history, and to the reader the task of understanding the ultimately tragedy and futility of the endeavor. ( )
1 vote rocketjk | Jul 23, 2020 |
Where to start? How about with a simple I LOVED THIS BOOK! Beause I did. I'm always looking for good war lit, and Vaino Linna's UNKNOWN SOLDIERS is better that good. It is classic. Looking it up, I find that it is still one of Finland's most popular books, and it's been in print there since 1954. My copy is a Penguin Modern Classics edition, English translation (2015) by Liesl Yamaguchi, who did a bang-up job of presenting Linna's story in an accessible, eminently readable style, certainly not an easy task, with all of its slang and various Finnish dialects.

The story covers three years in a Finnish Army machine gun company, from its haphazard training cycle, following the three-month "Winter War," through its long slog in a full-fledged war with Russia, on the eastern front in the early years of WWII. (Yes, the Finns were on the side of Germany, something I re-learned several years ago when I read Henrik Tikkanen's memoir, A WINTER'S DAY.) There are more than a dozen well-defined central character's in Linna's story. If there is a 'hero,' it would probably be Lt Koskela, a pragmatic platoon leader of few words who leads by example, and earns the respect of his men. ("But above all, the men felt he was one of their own because he was just like any one of them.") And there is Rokka, an older (30), clownish private who has no patience for officers, military regs or discipline, but is an efficient and cool-headed killer in combat. Rokka reminded me somewhat of CATCH-22's Yossarian. Indeed there are numerous points of comparison between the two books. Linna's martinet-like Lt Lammio, for example, comes off almost as ridiculous as Heller's Lt Sheiskopf. And yes, there is plenty of military-style humor here, although as the war drags on and the Finns, starving and ill-equipped, are finally forced into full-scale retreat mode, the story gets darker and darker and descends into horror-filled, hellish scenes. Linna himself, I discovered, was profoundly moved by Remarque's ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, and that influence too is obvious here, although UNKNOWN SOLDIERS is, nevertheless, an animal all its own.

The names here, with so many major characters, are sometimes a problem - Koskela, Rokka, Heitanen, Rahikeinen, Kariluoto, Karjula, Maata, Honkajoki and more, most of them with mysterious diacritical marks. It was difficult keeping them all straight, but then Finns might have problems with American names too.

Once again, I did love reading this book, was completely caught up in the lives of these men. I understand perfectly why UNKNOWN SOLDIERS is still, more that sixty years later, one of Finland's most read, and most popular, books. This is war literature at its finest. My very highest recommendation.

- Tim Bazzett, author of the Cold War memoir, SOLDIER BOY: AT PLAY IN THE ASA ( )
  TimBazzett | Feb 2, 2020 |
Omg! I did it! Only took me 16 years, but I finally finished this book! ( )
  mayusteapot | Jan 4, 2016 |
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Nome do autorPapelTipo de autorObra?Estado
Linna, Väinöautor principaltodas as ediçõesconfirmado
Bang-Hansen, OddTradutorautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
Bolay, Karl-HeinzTradutorautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
Stormbom, Nils-BörjeTradutorautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado

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Published for the first time in a faithful English translation, Unknown Soldiers is the story of a platoon of ordinary Finnish soldiers fighting their Soviet Union counterparts during the Second World War. Drawing on Linna's own wartime experiences, this gritty and realistic account shatters the myth of the noble, obedient Finnish soldier.

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