Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Marching

They marched. A second, a third, a fourth day. These were beautiful, cloudless days of midsummer. They passed Karelian villages where the wild grass flowered in the yards. A blue heat-haze shimmered in the air, which faintly carried from somewhere in the south the occasional sound of artillery fire or the drone of aeroplane engines. High up there in the fathomless blue aerial battles were taking place, and the faint sound of machine-guns seemed to them like the croaking of frogs.

‘They’re ours,’ an officer was heard to say as they watched fighter planes darting along the horizon. ‘They’re shielding our offensive… The neighbour’s not getting it all his own way like he did in the Winter War.’

The men did not care much more about the Winter War than they did about this one. With blistered feet, exhausted and irritable, they dragged themselves forward without even caring much about what was happening around them at all. The first day had passed in a kind of euphoria inspired by the knowledge that they were advancing. But after that the strain had blunted their mood.

This army was individual in an inimitable way. The other armies of the world may sometimes have resembled it as it retreated and fled, but not at any other time. It made the onward journey as a scattered herd. In the morning, when the march began, the companies were assembled in ranks, but by the end of the first hour they had broken up into little gangs which made their own progress, asking no one for advice. They swung their rifles this way and that. One man tripped along in the grass beside the road in his bare feet, his boots slung over his shoulder and the legs of his long johns trailing along the ground. Another took the sun as he walked, the upper part of his body bare and his kit tucked under his arm. On the first day someone had lugged a mouldy suitcase strung on a stick over his shoulder. The suitcase contained a few glass jars that had been found in a house, and a pair of women’s shoes. You never knew when they might come in handy.

By the second day, it was true, the suitcase had flown into the ditch by the side of the road, where more useful items were also beginning to end up. The gas-masks were gathered in, as otherwise the percentage of loss would have been too great. For food they searched everywhere, wherever there was the slightest sniff of its presence. In one village there had been a collective pig farm, and its inmates were running free on the hills. An automatic rifle proved to be a good weapon for pig-hunting, but this abundance of meat was only enjoyed by the first companies to arrive. For the pigs were quickly rounded up into safety.

Some of the villages had recently been inhabited. There were garlands in the streets, and here and there ornaments made of moss and stones.

‘What are those decorations for?’

‘They’ve been holding some sort of harvest festival. They’re mad about dancing, I’ve heard.’

‘They’re a damn lot of flibbertigibbets in this neck of the woods.’

They were embittered about everyone and everything. Cars drove past, carrying laughing Lottas and officers. This was the comet’s tail: the staff officers, the canteens, the laundries, the hospitals and so on, which always followed the troops. They mocked at the cars, and Finland’s brave Lotta became the object of such fearful obscenities that the elderly Lotta ladies living a life of communal piety in the church villages would have had heart failure if they had heard them. A general passing in his car caused such an immense wave of anger and swearing that an uninformed observer would have been convinced that the army was on the verge of mutiny.

‘That’s right, blow dust in our eyes, you bastards! There’s no petrol shortage when the master drives out with his field-whore. Who the hell is that whistling? Shut up, it’s bad enough without that shrieking going on.’

Parish after parish was left behind. Columns of men were flowing through Ladoga-Karelia along every road. Above them floated clouds of dust, mixed with the blue smoke from countless forest fires, and through it all the sun blazed hot and red. In those places where the soles of feet had no blisters and no straps chafed collarbones, the jubilation was at its height: Finland was on the march.

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