Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Under the North Star

I’ve just finished reading this classic Finnish trilogy by Väinö Linna.  It’s many things at once, a well-told story of three generations in a small village, a panorama of twentieth century Finnish history, and a Tolstoyan meditation on the themes of individual character, political principles and the gap between what we strive for and what our lives ultimately mean.

Volume II, The Uprising, is the most powerful of the three.  Its account of the socialist revolution of 1918 and the massacre that followed its suppression will be difficult to forget.  Much of its force, however, comes from the careful development of its human context in volume I; each individual sent before the firing squad is vivid, someone the reader knows and cares about.

The final volume, Reconciliation, is less effective, perhaps because, covering more decades in the same number of pages, it sacrifices depth.  None of the victims of the wars against Russia are really developed personalities (except for the first to die, whose portrait is an elaborate exercise in irony).  Even so, the account of the rise of fascism in Finland is detailed enough to permit comparisons to fascist movements in other times and places.

Under the North Star is gripping reading, but it is also a work of ideas.  It belongs on the shelf devoted to sagas of development, where the transformation from traditional to modern society—economic, political and cultural revolution—is lived by people whose frame of reference is the past, and who cannot begin to imagine where the future will take them.

(Exception to the final generalization: the author permits one character to speak for him, so there is a consistent voice for reason and humanitarianism amid the turmoil.  An interesting question is whether this is an effective rhetorical strategy.)

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