Monday, April 27, 2009

The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles - Roy Jacobson

Like 'The Archivist's Story' this IMPAC nominated novel takes place in 1939, in a town in Finland - Suomussalmi. During the winter of 1939/40 the town was the scene of a battle between Finnish and Russian forces following the Russian invasion of Finland. The Finns initially retreated before the Russian advance practicing a scorched earth policy of burning the town so that when the Russians arrived they would have no shelter. The battle that followed the Russian arrival in the town, the tactics used by the Finnish army and the resultant Finnish victory against overwhelming odds, is taught at Sandhurst and Westpoint today.
Timo, regarded as the village idiot, refuses to leave town when ordered to do so by the Authorities. He was born in the town and has lived there all his life, it is the only place he knows. His decision confirms his place in the eyes of the villagers as an idiot as both winter and the Russians are nigh. When the Russians arrive they also regard Timo as a simpleton, after all who would stay in a village that had been burned and captured? Timo is put to work cutting timber for the Russians with a group of Russian misfits who are unable to function as soldiers. It is Timo's relationship with this group and their fortunes during the Russian occupation of Suomussalmi that form the core of this novel.

Doubts as to Timo's idiocy surface early as it is clear that he regards his personal circumstances as his own business
'it's strange it has to be repeated so often'
clearly therefore he is more an outsider than an idiot, unwilling to explain his personal choices to others and not seeing why he should. Being an outsider means that Timo can not be expected to conform either to what Finnish authorities want of him nor the stereotypical image the Russians have of a captured civilian during wartime. Timo sees the Russians around him first and foremost as men, then Russians. This leads him to do otherwise inexplicable things, telling the Russians about the surrounding countryside and positively helping them by chopping wood. Living the novel through an outsiders eyes gives us the opportunity to look at society from the outside, what we see is the outsider acting as a human being.
Timo also views his fellow loggers as men first. They are clearly unfit for the role assigned to them by the Russian authorities and Timo takes it on himself to teach them how to survive in the harsh Finnish winter. The cold is a major element of the novel - what it is like and how to survive it. There is a lot of going to bed, sleeping, eating and cleaning in the story. When the Russians began their offensive many of the troops came from the Crimea and were unused to such harsh conditions. The Soviet army was ill equip both in terms of heavy mechanisation which confined them to roads and with regard to winter camouflage clothing for the troops. Timo teaches the loggers the importance of taking care of yourself in the cold, in such cold humans become careless and when they are careless it is easy to freeze to death. But the Russian loggers also save Timo from being an outsider, he becomes part of a group and finds strength in himself
'I could never have managed it alone, and in a way ... it was they who saved me, just as much as I had saved them'

One of the elements of the novel that is of interest is the inability of Timo to speak Russian and the Russians to speak Finnish. How therefore do the various characters communicate? In an interview with Ramona Koval of ABC National in Australia Roy Jacobson explained his intention

'it's actually a non verbal novel...It's about the most basic kind of human communication that you can imagine and I wanted to keep that because it's actually a book about a man who, under circumstances where most of us would act like animals, he finds an opportunity to act like a human being. That's the miracle I'm writing about...He actually finds out in himself that he actually becomes a bigger human being for doing these so called good things for his enemy'

There is therefore a moral ambiguity about the book which is intriguing, is Timo right or wrong, is he a hero or a coward? Timo himself believes he is neither all he wanted to do is survive and faced for the first time with others who had none of the skills of survival he had, who looked up to him and admired him, he drew strength from the Russian's weakness and became more than he had ever been before.

No comments:

Post a Comment