Friday, January 05, 2007

Idi syuda

The rain clouds dispersed in rags that gleamed ever lighter. As the sun shone between the rags, the grey morning began to sparkle. Wet, the forest glittered, and although the grass still soaked the legs of their trousers up to the knees, it felt pleasant to walk through it. The damp began to evaporate from their clothes in the warmth of the sun, and this fresh and beautiful summer morning lifted away from their minds the gloomy mood that the rainy, oppressive night had inspired.

Sometimes a shot rang out, and there was the hum of a motor up ahead.

‘The road’s not far away, lads.’

Ruki vverkh, idi syuda, idi syuda!‘

A man emerged from the bushes holding a white scrap of cloth. He was followed by others, a couple of dozen men in all. These prisoners belonged to the same lost and wandering detachments to which the prisoner Lehto shot had also belonged, as well as the men Määttä had seen. Although the general situation was unknown to them all, the men realized from this surrender that something decisive had happened. The enemy was scattered, and during the night the artillery fire had changed to a direction that seemed to be far ahead of them.

Then they saw the road. Cautiously, they ventured out on it, but were soon satisfied there was no danger there. The morning sun had already dried the road’s surface, which the caterpillar tracks had torn up late in the fighting. They had scarcely got onto the road when a leading patrol riding on cycles approached from the direction of the frontier.

‘What’s this bunch, then?’

‘Jaeger Battalion. Is the neighbour far off?’

‘There’s a couple of dozen of them in that clump of spruces over there.’

‘Don’t try to be funny with me. Where’s your company commander?’

The helmeted Jaeger lieutenant dismounted from his cycle. With his helmet, his rolled-up sweater sleeves and the submachine gun dangling from a cord round his neck, he had a thoroughly military look. His men looked the same. They were clearly in a different class from the ragged infantry, and it was obvious that they also saw themselves as some kind of elite force.

Kariluoto came hurrying to the spot. He greeted the new officer enthusiastically:

‘How’s it going? What’s your objective?’

‘Äänisjärvi. Loimola’s certainly a bit closer. Are you the company commander? I was told that I’d run into troops from your regiment here and was ordered to make contact.’

Kariluoto was in high spirits. He felt a kind of unprovoked friendship, even for this lieutenant who was a complete stranger to him. This morning he was experiencing one of the greatest moments in his life. He knew that the breakthrough had taken place, and that now preparations were being made for the advance towards Karelia. He plied the lieutenant with questions about everything under the sun, so eagerly that he did not notice the gravity of the other man’s expression. The lieutenant was taciturn because of the task that lay before him, but in spite of this Kariluoto tried to donate some of his enthusiasm to him.

The Jaegers leaned on their cycles and looked at the infantrymen, who were lying by the side of the road. Rahikainen approached with an air of tentative exploration.

‘Got a field kitchen with you, have you?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, each man seems to have a pot on his head.’

‘Didn’t they give you helmets, then?’

‘Not us. All we have is empty bellies. I suppose you’ve got bread, too?’

‘A bit. We got dry rations last night before we set off.’

Rahikainen dug about his pocketbook.

‘How many slices will you give for a cockade?’

The Jaeger put his hand in his pocket. A fistful of red stars came into view:

‘You must think we’re new recruits.’

‘Look at that. I haven’t managed to collect as many as that. I’ve had to do some fighting now and then. How about an officer’s tabs? What will you give for them?’

‘I’ve got them, too. Triangles.’

‘That’s just a noncom’s badge.’

‘I’ll swap you! You can have two triangles for one rectangle.’

‘No way. What’s a noncom beside an officer? But give me three slices of that veneer panelling.’

‘You can have two.’

‘Let’s see how thick they are.’

The Jaeger dug a piece of crispbread from his haversack.

‘What a thin brand it is,’ said Rahikainen disparagingly and with a look that suggested he had lost all interest in the transaction: ‘Three slices. Or forget it.’

‘All right, then, done.’

The barter was confirmed. Rahikainen looked at the pieces of bread as though he had had second thoughts, and said:

‘That’s a fine badge going at a cheap price. But never mind. I can get others.’

In spite of their tiredness they were eager to ask each other about their experience of fighting.

‘Where have you been?’

‘Over yonder. We stuck holes in a line of pillboxes.’

‘There were the same kind of pillboxes all along the road here, too.’

‘Yes, why not. He’s a handy man with the shovel, the Russian. Ten peats in the air and the eleventh on the shovel.’

Lahtinen pulled himself up to sit on the edge of the ditch and said, giving the Jaegers a sidelong glance as he did so, as if to study the effect of his words:

‘It’s true that there’s a lot of talk about the wretchedness of the Russians. But we’ve had to kill almost every one of them in his hole. So they’re a touch bunch, I’d say… at least, the ones we’ve run into have been,’ he continued, as if to pre-empt the Jaegers’ possible objections. The Jaegers, meanwhile, had no counter to this, but Rahikainen availed himself of the chance to combine his two favourite activities - bragging to the Jaegers and making fun of Lahtinen’s earnest idealism:

‘It’s all right if it’s all over at once. But there’ve been cases where we’ve had to kill them a couple of times. That’s how tough they are. They say the cat has nine lives. Though I can’t vouch for it, of course.’

The Jaegers joined in the fun. They chatted and laughed, and some of them even gave away bread for nothing. They could afford it, as they had just received several days’ worth of rations. The sunny morning refreshed their mood. The past few days had already taught them to take pleasure in a few minutes of rest on a fine, cool summer morning. When every hour might be one’s last, one learned to be thankful for the minutes.

When their lieutenant arrived and ordered them back to their cycles, they went with serious faces. The joking stopped, and as they adjusted their equipment they waited for the order to move on. But when they were given another rest of this kind, they spent it laughing in the same way.

‘All right. Let’s be off, then!’

‘Off you go. And remember not to sit and wait for us round the next bend in the road.’

They went, and they were followed by more and more. Cycle platoons, tanks, motorized artillery.

Kariluoto watched with eagerness. Almost like German storm troopers. Why hadn’t we been given helmets. How firm and manly they make one’s face… On the other hand, Kariluoto was well aware that if they had had helmets, they would all have gone flying into the forest last night, if not before. Yes. It was a proud thing to be a Finnish officer, an officer in the best army in the world, but it also had its darker side. This army lacked all military spirit. Those Jaegers were a slight exception, but even his own platoon were a slacker lot. And especially the reserve recruits. Here was a sunny road, leading invitingly to East Karelia. But where were the iron, upright Storm Troops? That was what Kariluoto longed for in his exalted mood that morning. He would have liked to lend wings to the initial successes of his beloved fatherland with armies that sped forward in thunder, firmly, as if cast from steel, driving past as they sang: ‘Now the last signal has sounded to us, and ready we are to fight.’

But no. There were no Storm Troops. There was just a band of ragged jokers who roamed around looking for food, like tramps. Swearing and grumbling and defaming all that was sacred. They even had the effrontery to make fun of the Marshal’s magnificent orders of the day, charged with their lofty style. Almost like the Communists. Gobbled their iron rations at the first pang of hunger, and instead of Die Fahne Hoch bawled The Girls of Korhola when they were in the mood for singing. And they had also given themselves nicknames which though hardly elevating were nonetheless descriptive, such as The Rumpus, The Crowd, The Gang, All the Strap, The Whole Shit, The Longed For, or The Guard.

Then infantry began to stream along the road. More and more troops pushed through the broken lines. There some reserve recruits were marching, showing by their presence that Finland was giving all it had got. There were stooping men, worn out by physical labour, who with difficulty and agonized expressions were trying to keep up with the rest. Kariluoto noted this, but it did not depress him. On the contrary - Now every man had taken up arms. ‘All shall use the sword as best they are able.’

Kariluoto had stopped writing letters to the relatives of men from his platoon who fell in action. The battles of these recent days had in many ways deepened his mind, so that empty gestures had to take second place. But this morning he still felt his old idealism intact. He straightened his lean and rascally body, adjusted his sweater and strolled off towards his platoon. His step was brisk, in spite of his tiredness.

Labourer Jalmari Lahti’s bearded face was furrowed with worry and fatigue as he tramped along the road. He could not feel bitter, but his mind remained in the grip of a hopeless dejection. The ditch-digging job was unfinished. Old Kantala had, it was true, promised to sort out the money with his wife, but it would be a miracle if he calculated the rotten sum correctly. And how were they to get the hay along the ditches cleared? Who would do the mowing? What would she pay a man with, even if she could get hold of one? What’s more, I took eighty marks with me, though I had no need of them. And had to borrow half a kilo of butter from the neighbour for sandwiches along the way. Well, we can pay him back when the cow calves. If only the boys could help, but they’re just kids as yet. The eldest son was already in the army. He was a Jaeger, and was right at this moment riding his cycle towards Ladoga. As far as his Dad Jallu knew. In fact, however, the son had already ceased to be Jaeger for the past two hours, and his cycle lay smashed to a tangle. A tank had hit it at a bend in the road. Yet right now Jallu still believed he had a son, his first born, who belonged to the youngest class of recruits, while Jallu himself belonged to the oldest. He tried to walk a bit faster, for he noticed that he had fallen behind and was now surrounded by men from the next platoon. He had no will to keep pace with the others. Jallu felt his old back trouble start to play up again.

The Storm Troops were advancing.

(from Tuntematon sotilas [The Unknown Soldier] by Väinö Linna, Helsinki, 1954 [my translation]).
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