Under the North Star

by V+ņin+Ķ Linna
ISBN: 0968588166

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A Review of: Under the North Star
by Ernest Hekkanen

Probably I'm a little biased, being of Finnish ancestry. However, it seems to me that the literature of Finland is now stepping quite firmly onto the world's stage and, furthermore, it is doing so from right here in Canada, where it has been given a considerable shove from the wings by Aspasia Books of Beaverton, Ontario.
Aspasia Books is the brainchild of Brje Vhmki, a professor of Finnish Studies at the University of Toronto. Vhmki's mandate is to make Finnish literature available in English, and there is little doubt in my mind that he is well on his way to achieving his aim, after publishing Under the North Star by Vin Linna, A Day in Ostrobothnia by Antti Tuuri and Red Moon over White Sea by Laila Hietamies, translated, respectively, by Richard Impola, Anselm Hollo (the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poet) and Vhmki himself.
Of the three novels, Under the North Star is the only one with a reputation that precedes it, having been deemed by Finns "the most significant work of art created during Finland's independence." It comprises three volumes that total 1230 pages, and in scope, it rivals Tolstoy's War and Peace. Indeed, the ending of War and Peace and the beginning of Under the North Star generously overlap.
But while War and Peace deals with the travails of largely upper-class characters caught in the grip of history, Under the North Star concentrates on the lives of tenant farmers who struggle to rise to higher ground so they won't be swept away by the savage waves of history. Encoded in the first, short sentence of the novel is the theme and, in deed, the design of Linna's epic: "In the beginning there were the swamp, the hoe-and Jussi."
Not only will this novel be biblical in proportions, it will be a history of the common folk of Finland, who endeavor to drain a swamp that will eventually become an independent country governed by the principles of egalitarianism. Of course this won't happen without a struggle. In the early 20th century, Finland was a Russian Duchy poised to become a battleground as two opposed ideologies, communism and capitalism, began to assert themselves geopolitically. At the novel's opening, Finland is a society firmly under the yoke of feudalism. The feudal state is represented by Lutheran clerics and by Swedish landowners, vestiges of a 600-year reign by Sweden.
Jussi is the patriarch of the Koskela family. When we first meet him he is a land-less, but land-hungry man. He is a subject of the parsonage. He dreams of draining a bit of the parsonage land that has been "sunk in its silence of thousands of years," a venture that would allow him a modicum of control over his life.
With hat in hand, he seeks out the pastor of the local Lutheran Church and dares to voice his desire to drain the swamp and build a house for himself and his wife. As Jussi explains to the pastor, "You can't exactly get anywhere as a hired hand . . . You can't really get started," which is also the case with Finland.
The pastor, convinced Jussi is bound to fail in his endeavor, gives him permission to drain the swamp and build a house there. When Jussi inquires about sealing the agreement with a rental contract to make the deal official, the pastor, who can only think of lying down to take a nap, says, "Later, later. I won't gouge youHeh, heh"
Thus, Jussi's right to reside on the land is perpetually in doubt. Though he rises in stature from hired hand to tenant farmer, who must do rent-work for the parsonage, his future, as well as his family's, is in constant jeopardy. Indeed, when the old pastor dies and a new pastor takes over the parsonage, Jussi's worst nightmare comes true. The new pastor covets the land that Jussi has made profitable and soon takes back a large part of it. The moral of the story is obvious: without landed status, one is at the whim of forces beyond one's control.
The winds of history are now blowing rather fiercely and they bring to Pentti's Corner news of socialism. By now, Jussi's eldest son, Akseli, is a young man who has come to resent his landless status even more than his father. When he has to do rent-work for the parsonage, his quiet but fierce resentment is often directed at the parson. He joins the Workers' Association and later becomes a member of the board. Without being fully aware, Akseli has entered what will become the mainstream of history.
A strike by workers and tenant farmers takes place in 1917, and is followed by the 1918 rebellion which results in Civil War. The Reds take possession of Southern Finland and Mannerheim's Whites amass in Upper Ostrobothnia. The better organized, better equipped Whites win. As a consequence, Akseli's brothers die by firing squad, and Akseli himself does hard time in a labour camp. Here, the scenes of malnutrition and gradual wasting away of the political as well as other prisoners is sometimes difficult to bear.
Upon being released from prison, Akseli and his family experience a period of relative calm, under the watchful eye of the Whites. Proportional representation in the capital of Helsinki manages to overcome many of the ensuing polarities, though this occurs just ahead of the Winter War, which is followed by the Continuation War (WWII) against the USSR that aims to reclaim Finland as a satellite country.
It is difficult, in a short review, to relate the grand sweep of Under the North Star. The number of characters is sometimes overwhelming. However, what binds Linna's massive tome together is the concern he sustains in us for the Koskela family clan. In the end, there is far more loss than gain for the Koskelas, which is usually the case when the world is gripped by cataclysmic events. Although the family does eventually come to own the farm created out of a swamp, it comes at great cost. Three of Akseli's four sons are lost in the wars with Soviet Russia, and in the end, we, the readers, are left with a sense of lingering unfulfillment, due to all the striving which comes to naught.
In the great, savage flow of history, those who survive the catastrophe of competing and incompatible political ideologies are left to wonder at the impermanence of everything, as Akseli's wife does in the final scene, when the reddish sunlight gleams on the wallpaper and on all the awards and memorial crosses testifying to the losses she has sustained in life. But, like the land itself, she will endure.
Unlike many countries, Finland seems to have learned from the lessons of history and is determined to avoid further catastrophic upheavals. Perhaps that is why the Finnish people voted Under the North Star the most significant work of art to be created since its independence.

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