The civil war that followed hot on the heels of independence is both very present and very absent from Finnish consciousness. It tore families and communities apart and is still difficult to talk about. Earlier this year, someone had the ‘bright’ idea of putting an image of White soldiers executing Red political prisoners during the civil war on one of the Finland’s 100th anniversary commemorative coins. There was a huge fuss and the coins were quickly withdrawn. The minister responsible said “I hadn’t paid enough attention to the visual design of the coins.” They certainly told a one-sided story of the beginnings of Finnish independence.
This novel does a better job. Asko Sahlberg’s Tammilehto/The Oak Grove gives the civil war human dimensions by reducing the story to a handful of characters and following them closely over decades. Most of the action takes place outside the main field of conflict. On an apparently peaceful rural estate, as power relationships are turned upside down, a landlord is forced to encounter some of his workers on an equal footing: he both needs and fears them. A brother and sister both have reasons to seek revenge on the landlord, and it has been a very long time coming. When reconciliation finally seems to be in sight, a surprising accident of violence threatens to bring the fragile peace tumbling down.
Reading this close together with the stories of the Red women in the civil war, my favourite minor character was Martta, the brother’s wife who encouraged him to join the Red guard. She is one of the few who has a strong and clear motivation to fight. For the others, things might be less black – or red – and white than they first seem.
The Swedish translation of Tammilehto/The Oak Grove won the first Swedish-Finnish literature award. It has not been translated into English, yet, but two of Sahlberg’s other novels have, both published by Peirene Press. Set in another war 100 years earlier, the 1809 one which ended with Finland being transferred from Swedish to Russian rule, He/The Brothers was translated by mother-and-daughter team Emily and Fleur Jeremiah, who also translated the brilliant Nälkävuosi/White Hunger. Could they translate The Oak Grove in time for the 100th anniversary of the Finnish civil war next year?