When the Russians Came
Garden of Death, Hugo Simberg, 1896
From LA Review of Books:
It can’t have been easy for Takolander to write the words “just a tourist really,” but she did it. Using a Finnish word, suo, immediately after this admission is an understandable coping mechanism, a reassertion of expertise that tells the English-speaking reader: “See, I know the language of this place. The people here may not accept me as one of them, but you will accept that I could be, because I have ancestral knowledge.” A bog, of course, is a place that preserves the past while also constantly recycling portions of it into new materials. The bogs of Finland may not be as famous as those of Ireland or Denmark for producing the bodies of kings or treasure, but this does not mean that they are not full of old secrets. In this case, it is hoped that they will yield mushrooms, decomposers masquerading as food.
As the poem continues, Takolander reveals details about her uncle’s character. He is apparently “soft,” ornassuja, and a problem drinker. The third and fourth stanzas suggest that he has psychic or moral objections to violence and thus is at odds with the hard-man world he comes from:
There was midsummer’s night, when he raised the flag
of the country defended by his father, who had killed so many
men resembling his brothers and sons. My mother always said
that my grandfather resurrected his enemies with a bottle,
loosing its sad genies into my grandmother’s kitchen
during winter, when the iconic sun was in hiding
and the lakes in that land of mirrors sheeted with cold.
The flagpole on midsummer’s night was planted (somehow)
on a granite rise, and my uncle could not stand by it for long.
This evening, though, he is sturdy and rational,
like the youth I imagined walking out of Karelia
with his parents and siblings when the Russians came,
their house burned down to the grave snow so that,
no matter what happened, their enemies would not find a home.
The drinking has been passed down the generations — a worrying inheritance. Especially for men: alcohol is actually the leading killer of Finnish men aged 15 to 64. And it’s not just from the grandfather to the uncle. The poem “Missing in Action,” also in this book, lists causes of death for Takolander’s family members. Out of eight entries, two begin “My youngest uncle: alcohol” and “My cousin (and his wife): alcohol.” And the afterthought in “Three other uncles: heart attacks — possibly euphemistic” strongly suggests further booze-related fates. It is not pleasant to admit that alcoholism, too, constitutes Finnishness.