Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw
The Battle of Suomussalmi is regarded as a major conflict in the Winter War of 1939-40. A force of 50,000 Russians, in an attempt to cut Finland in half, was decisively defeated by only 11,000 Finns. They had burnt the village before the conflict started, retreated into the surrounding winter countryside and then effectively fought a guerrilla war to defeat the Russian forces and save Finland.
What happened in Suomussalmi is at the centre of Roy Jacobsen’s IMPAC Award finalist, The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles. The central character, Timo Vatanen, is the village logger, with a farm near the town, making his way by delivering firewood to the villagers and working parttime in the grocery store where he also has a room.
A key reason that the Finns won the battle was that they burned virtually all of Suomussalmi in anticipation of the Russian invasion. That’s where Jacobsen begins his story — and also introduces Timo as “the village idiot”. He refuses to leave — the Finnish commander decides not to force him and sympathetic soldiers leave his residence, and a few others, untouched.
The Russians arrive and, thankfully for Timo, need firewood in the brutally cold winter. His opaque personality and general silence become a survival tool. Eventually he heads up a group of a press-ganged loggers — a couple of brothers from the Ukraine, a short-sighted teacher, “a wretch called Rodion” (who is obsessively guarding a pair of his wife’s red shoes that he was picking up when he was press-ganged), an enigmatic youth and, fortunately, Antonov, who speaks both languages and serves as a translator.
The strength of Jacobsen’s book is the way he develops this hapless group of six into a community, led by Timo. Early on, the Finns are randomly sending shells into the area — a working party out in the forests is an obvious target. Timo, who does have some smarts along with his idiocy, develops a plan to dynamite the trees out of the ground, then pull them back, roots first to the village. As the attacks on Suomussalmi increase, he develops a plan for the six to escape to his farm — which is of no interest to either side and where there are provisions.
In one sense, the plan is disastrous. Too many members of the group just don’t have the strength to make their way through the harsh conditions — but by then they are enough of a community that they stick together, taking refuge in an abandoned boathouse. That ends up proving the plan, unintentionally, was brilliant — they are huddled safely in the boathouse when the Finns retake the village.
As the villagers return, there is still much work for the loggers — everyone needs firewood. Jacobsen’s point, however, is that while individuals may come together as a group in times of stress, they break apart and pursue their own conflicting interests when life is less threatening. The brothers want to go back to the Ukraine, two others want to return to Russia and another pair decide to seek safety by heading east into Norway.
The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles starts to fall apart at that point. While the book is strong when Jacobsen explores the relationships between these six characters, the need to tidy up relatively complex action in a book that is only 200 pages long produces a not very satisfactory rush to the finish.
This is not a bad book, but neither is it a good one. Its strengths (the portrayal of the six characters and how they develop as a group) tend to get overwhelmed by the need for action. And, unlike the other short book on the IMPAC shortlist, Ravel, the author does not provide the reader with much to think about once the book is finished. Some of the language is awkward — I can’t tell whether that is Jacobsen’s style or a translation issue.
The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles is the bookies’ IMPAC longshot at 30-1. While I am glad that I read the book, I would have to say the bookies seem to have got it right. It is an interesting story, but just does not have enough substance to take the Prize.