By Enrique Tessieri
Visiting Finland in the summer from Southern California was like diving directly into Frans Emil Silanpää’s People in the Summer Night (Ihmiset suviyössä). While Silanpää’s words carry us gently to those magic summer landscapes of Finland, which have a low-hum sonance to them, there is as well a lachrymose tune in the background that gets louder as summer begins to shut itself off.
Summer is still as brief and magical as when Silanpää published his famous book in 1934 despite global warming, mobile phones and the age of the Internet.
“Nature’s own colors were harmoniously varied even at this time of the year and in this part of the country,” he writes. “And wherever there was a dissonant blemish from some recent deed or happening, nature, using the different means the particular season, at once blended it with the harmony of the whole. At first sight the colors were gray, red, white – it is natural for the eye always to be caught by human dwellings – then green in all shades; it was the beginning of July.”
These were the landscapes of the people of Teliranta and nearby described by Silanpää living in their dwellings that were well-adapted to the sub-arctic landscapes.
Matters begin to change in these parts once fall gets the upper hand over summer. Both seasons wrestle it out until one of them is the absolute victor. The summer, which always loses to fall but beats spring, uses the sun as its secret weapon while fall uses darkness and frost.
Anything can happen in the magic sub-arctic summer: Sparrows can fly busily over the lake and the heart can give birth to new hope as well as a friendly quacking duck, which learns how to remain an image before you. Rainbows can paint the skies in summer and raindrops can play music on your roof depending on where they splash.
In a book on Finland given to my late uncle when he moved with his sister to the United States in 1935, there is a description of Finland that still lives on today: “Suomi is a beautiful land. Anyone who has been there leaves a little of his heart…In summer, the sun shines day and night on glittering lakes, roaring rapids, and vast peaceful forests. It is the land of flame and snow…”
When Silanpää published People in the Summer Night, Finland was an agrarian country. In the 1960s, when I started visiting my grandparents every summer from Southern California, over forty percent of the people lived in cities and towns.
Finland’s countryside was teeming at that time with villages and farms. Each hamlet usually had a small market, school, post office, even bank, as well as lots of friendly and curious people. Today, however, those picturesque villages have turned into ghost buildings inhabited by our collective nostalgia and memory.
There was one group of people that I remember especially from those days and from Silanpää’s landscapes. They were the quiet and bashful ones who were so meager with their words and emotions that it was almost a superhuman task to get them to utter a word.
Their frugality with words, which appeared sometimes like terrified benji jumpers on their lip, were always plastered behind their silent gazes. But if I am honest with you, I never really saw these types of people in real life since they appeared to me like a semi-spirit that inhabited part of Finland’s soul.
On one occasion I was, however, pretty sure I had spotted one of them on television. He was a chubby officer looking over some maps of the frontline of the Continuation War (1941-44). He had just received news that the Russians had broken through the frontlines and, just like when Dr. Jekyll changes to Mr. Hyde, he became enraged yelling at the top of his voice perkele saatanas (damn the devil!) over and over again while banging his fist on the table so hard that you felt sorry for that piece of furniture.
If we look behind our shoulder deep into the depths of history, we’ll see too many wars and suffering still attracting our attention and forging who we are today as a people. Even though we must be thankful to all those who sacrificed their lives for Finland, the question we must ask today is how to leave behind that hatred and suspicion that ignited so much destruction and death.
Since Finland was never able to go through a historical psychoanalysis period during the cold war to understand our present fears and the prejudices, today is a good time as ever to do so.
It could begin by telling the person next to you, who may still be fighting in those imaginary trenches, that the Continuation War ended over sixty-five years ago.
It would be a good way to put to rest for good those demons of the past.