Little-known fact: Director and actress Leni Riefenstahl, widely (and justifiably) condemned for her films glorifying Hitler and the Third Reich, began her film career starring in mountain-climbing movies, a genre from the 1920s where a hero or heroine scales a mountain, beset by all of nature’s challenges, and returns triumphant and wiser.
I couldn’t help thinking of this as I read Finnish author’s Rosa Liksom’s newest novel, “The Colonel’s Wife,” translated by Lola Rogers. The eponymous narrator is keenly engaged with nature yet also drawn to Nazism, as Riefenstahl was. In an early scene, she’s a child with some free time at a Finnish summer camp. She goes looking for cloudberries at the edge of a bog, falls in, and for the next several hours enjoys swimming, crawling and simply resting in that strange combination of water and land that characterizes a swamp.
Call it a swamp, bog, or marsh — in the Finnish imagination, it’s a spiritual in-between place where forces normally separated communicate with each other, a murky region where one doesn’t quite understand the nature of things. In the Kalevala, it’s the place where iron is born.
The novel portrays Finland at a particularly murky time. After centuries of Swedish rule, Finland was ceded to Russia, then declared independence in 1917. This led to a civil war between Finland’s own White and Red Guard. The White Guard prevailed, brutally incarcerating and executing many Communist sympathizers on the losing side. The unnamed narrator grows up in a White Guard family, her childhood and teen years filled with nationalism and fascist rallies.
The Colonel is an army friend of her father’s with a reputation for cruelty, as well as a man her father’s age, but that doesn’t stop the narrator from finding him attractive. The Colonel’s career moves upward as a liaison to the German troops stationed in Finland, and they socialize with people readers will recognize as Nazi elite. Finland joined forces with Germany in World War II to fight their common enemy, Russia, but the country was already on a trajectory to embrace fascism.
A chilling yet necessary book, at times it’s painful to read as the narrator blithely dismisses greater and greater atrocities in the name of being a good wife and Finnish nationalist. Yet the cracks begin to show, and finally the narrator can see what those of us on the other side of history have learned.
As with Liksom’s previous novel, nature is a significant presence. Most of the story takes place in Finnish towns above the Arctic Circle, like Rovaniemi and Inari, and the trees, water and night skies resonate with life, becoming the ultimate touchstone in the narrator’s journey to understand what has happened to her.
Lynette Reini-Grandell is the author of two poetry collections and studies Finnish folk culture.
The Colonel's Wife
By: Rosa Liksom, translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 152 pages, $16.