We used to go to dinner at the Pohjanhovi Hotel in Rovaniemi and sit so long into the evening that we didn’t get home until the wee hours, when ashy gray light lay over the river. All sorts of people used to go there—during the Continuation War Generaloberst Dietl, our closest German friend, was there especially often, with his long, slender fingers so graceful as he smoked his gold-tipped German cigarettes.
Dietl once raised his glass and said that if it weren’t for Sweden’s mines and Finland’s nickel the Third Reich’s arms industry would be spinning its wheels. He talked about how ever since the First World War international fishing negotiations had been a cover for a nickel deal and we closed the deal later with the Third Reich. The one who used to talk the most about it was former commander in the czar’s secret service—and Lapland chief of fisheries—Kaarlo Hillilä. As early as the summer of 1938 he was already saying that we were going to get an army together, and build a nickel mine at Kolosjoki and then go fight the Russkies. He used to talk about things that had happened 20 years before, when the Colonel and Wallenius’d had their own private war out in the woods in Karelia and Petsamo, fighting against Finnish Reds who’d fled across the border to escape the War of Liberation terror. The Colonel was already a big man back then and so was Wallenius, but Hillilä was just a pipsqueak who’d run away from home and wanted to be a soldier. He whined about how the Colonel and Wallenius had lured him and his little brother, Eino—just a couple of crazy, innocent kids—into this military outing of theirs. Eino never came back from that outing, and Hillilä resented the Colonel for it till the day he died. Naturally the Colonel thought going to Karelia had been the right decision, because he never made mistakes. After the war, in a moment of weakness, Hillilä once told me about a time they were in a little village in Viena Karelia. It was the middle of July, and him and the Colonel had been hiding near the edge of the village. Then an old man came walking down the road with a young woman following behind him, a strong young thing with sturdy legs and thick, heavy braids. The Colonel decided to stop them. He shouted “Halt” in Finnish, but the two of them just kept walking. So they ran after them. The girl had a broad face and sweet, dark-blue eyes. While Hillilä was talking to the man, the Colonel took the girl behind a woodpile, and a short time later he came back alone. So Hillilä asked where the girl was. She’s over behind the woodpile, but there’s not much left of her, the Colonel said. Hillilä was shocked, and he went to look. The girl was lying there raped and dead, with flies swarming around her.
When the time came for the Lapp provincial elections these two traumatized comrades were both running for governor—Kaarlo Hillilä, whose biggest idea was to make Greater Lapland a world fishing power, and the Colonel, who wanted to build up a Greater Finland, and Greater Germany. Even the Communists voted for Hillilä, because they thought the Colonel was unpredictable, a pig-headed man who always had to be right.
The Colonel was bitter about losing, of course, and wanted to get out of Lapland. And it just so happened that he got an invitation to a party Maila Talvio was throwing in Helsinki, so we popped down to the train station and bought tickets. The Colonel said, When we get to Helsinki, let’s not go straight to the party. First I want to show you to my mother. I was thrilled to think my status had gotten high enough that he would take me to meet her.
The Colonel’s mother, Desiree, was past ninety. She was a bent old burnt-out matchstick of a woman with a bald, bony head. She lived in a big stone house with gigantic pillars on either side of the entrance. Välkomna, she said as we came in. She’d had to learn Swedish as a girl when she worked as a housemaid for a wealthy family, so the Colonel was used to hearing it. It was sort of hard to imagine that this old bone-head going on about how rich and sophisticated she was had given birth to the Colonel.After a few years I went from maid to merchant. I was the hat and my late husband was the bonnet, so to speak.
We sat on a sofa in the parlor and a servant even older and sourer than Desiree came in carrying a tray of coffee and pastries with shaking hands. Please do have one of each, Desiree said. There were seven kinds, Swedish-style. The Colonel swigged down his coffee and disappeared into the library to browse the books.
So it was just me and Desiree. I was quiet. She looked me up and down and wrinkled her nose. She asked in a sarcastic tone who my people were. I told her my late father had been a comrade of the Colonel’s in the Jaegers. She nodded her head a little and said wearily, Vilken liten satan. Such a little devil. I didn’t know what to say to that. My father and the Colonel had actually known each other before they were in the Jaegers. They met at the turn of the century, at the Helsinki soccer club. That was back when Mom and Dad and my older sisters lived in Helsinki. I wasn’t born yet. Dad and the Colonel were in the first group to go to northern Germany for Jaeger training in 1915, at a battle camp disguised as a scout camp. Dad was there for six weeks, but the Colonel stayed in Germany for four years. He volunteered for the Royal Jaeger Battalion’s Twenty-Seventh Pioneer Company, along with Heikki Repo, who was later one of the Red Jaegers. When they weren’t riding around Swabia in horse-drawn wagons they were fighting against their old schoolmate Marshal Mannerheim, who was in the czar’s army back then. I was just three at the time, living with my mother and sisters in Rovaniemi in a cute little red cottage.
Desiree’s chatter skipped around to different times and places. She was born in the backwoods of Häme and improved herself through hard work, a head for business, a sharp mind, and luck.
She started out as a maid for a Finland-Swedish family with a patriarch—an underbart man who gave her a little extra every month. And I had the good sense to hide those coins well away, she said. After a few years I went from maid to merchant. I was the hat and my late husband was the bonnet, so to speak. When Governor-General Bobrikov was assassinated I threw a big party, and the creme de la creme was there.
She ran a bustling butcher shop in the Eira neighborhood. The shop did well, and she used the money to expand her business. In her heyday she owned meat, milk, and import shops all over Helsinki, and a coffee shop too. She’d sold it all off except for the coffee shop, which she kept as security for her old age, and for the fun of it. She had used her profits to gradually buy up half the apartments in the handsomest building on Tehtaankatu. One flat for each of her kids. The Colonel had a five-room flat on the top floor that he’d been renting out ever since he left for Jaeger training. He’d never actually lived there himself.
We looked at photographs, although Desiree couldn’t remember most of the posed, slightly faded people in them. But she remembered Einar. Här är Einar, she said, pointing to a little boy with her crooked, quivering finger. There was a black cross drawn on the picture. He died when he was three years old. Här är Jakob. There was a black cross on that one too. He died when he was five. She said that Einar had fallen down and hit his head on the edge of the table and died. Jakob, she told me, had been running after the cat with a knife in his hand and cut his own jugular vein open. He bled to death. The Colonel and his sister Maria had carried his little white coffin. I imagined the procession down the shadowed path to the family grave, followed by plodding, weeping mourners in black.
This is Johan, Rudolph’s father, Desiree said, scratching at a bearded, bespectacled old face with her fingernail. And here’s Impi, and Rauha. Then there were lots of pictures of the Colonel and his daughter, a little girl with a turned-up nose, and then pictures of the Colonel with the girl as a young woman. I pretended I didn’t know who she was. Desiree looked around furtively. Then she leaned closer and whispered, That’s Tea, the love child of my eldest, Maria, who lives in Sweden. I raised Tea like she was my own daughter.I thought my unconditional love could wash away the bad in the Colonel and fill him with good.
Of course I had immediately recognized Tea, the Colonel’s pet. She’d been a regular summer visitor at the border station ever since she was little. She and I were the same age. We used to play together. We even used to go to dances together. She came to visit later on, too, when we lived at the Villa, and spent the summers lazing about the house, but her visits were always poison to me. Whenever the Colonel came back from a trip to Germany he always had the best gifts for Tea and the second-best for me, even after we were secretly engaged.
The Colonel poked his head into the parlor. He had an executioner’s gleam in his eye, and was holding a copy of Van de Velde’s Ideal Marriage. Desiree’s mumbling stopped like it was cut with a knife. I showed the Colonel his father’s portrait and said they were like two berries. He didn’t even glance at the photo album, just muttered, These lazybones nowadays expect the government to take care of them when they get old and helpless, but Father was cut from a different cloth. Got up at five every morning till he was 89 to go birdwatching on the beach at Lauttasaari.
He sat down in an armchair and gave us a weary look. Desiree was pointing at a picture of the Colonel as a baby, lying naked on a lambskin. He was a greedy fetus, she whispered. So hungry for milk that he came out a month early and latched onto my teat like he was starving. She looked over at him and hissed into my ear that he could be sweet when he wanted to but all the family’s flaws were concentrated in him. Then she rang a little bell that was on the table and the servant appeared in the doorway. Desiree ordered her to bring the sherry. We sat in silence. The servant returned with a bottle of sherry and two glasses. Desiree poured some into her coffee cup and immediately drank it down. She filled it again, and drank it. The third time she filled it half full. Then she cleared her throat, straightened up, and started talking again. She said she used to wrap the Colonel up tight in a swaddling blanket when he cried at night, and hang him from a hook on the side of the tiled stove while she was working during the day. It was a practical thing, you know, because the stove kept him warm, and it let his excretions run down. He would squall until he got tired and then fall into such a deep sleep that she’d have to splash cold water on his face like a christening to wake him up. She said he learned to talk when he was just nine months old, but he didn’t walk until he was three. And he hadn’t spent a single second in one place since. Every morning before going to work his father would tie his ankle to the foot of the sofa so he couldn’t burn himself on the hot stove. Desiree got advice from a book that said to spank him with a switch every day when he’d done something wrong, or in case he did.
The Colonel gave Desiree a downright greasy look, then got up, clicked his heels, and walked out.
Desiree leaned closer and whispered, Poor child, you’re just a silly kid. You don’t know a thing about life. You may love the Colonel, but if you love yourself, if you love life and ain’t interested in killing yourself, then don’t ever marry him. Better to be engaged for the rest of your life.
I wondered about that and asked her what exactly she meant.
She let out a deep sigh and said that once a woman’s married all she has to look forward to are days filled with endless sacrifice, and nights of painful, vulgar shenanigans.
I thought she just wanted to hold on to her son till the last. I told myself that his other women had been old or ugly or otherwise deficient, that they didn’t know how to love him right. They didn’t know how to make him happy, and that was why they all went early to their graves. I thought my unconditional love could wash away the bad in the Colonel and fill him with good. He and I were one. We were in it together—our steps, our breath, in time with each other. We had the same ways, the same values, the same rhythm of life. My love was so strong, so powerful, that I could cure him of his character defects, whatever they were. With the invincibility of youth I convinced myself that I could turn the Colonel’s heart toward good. Desiree waved a hand toward the door and said, War’s made a devil out of him. And you are not a pretty girl.
I curtsied and went out to the foyer, where the Colonel was waiting, and I looked at him with new eyes. I didn’t see evil or ugliness. I saw a handsome officer. He had on his parade uniform and his shiny Prussian Army boots. I adored a man in uniform, loved the smell of leather, always asked him to put on his best outfit when he came over. And he almost always did, right up until we got married. Once we said the Amens he started showing up in filthy rags with the tops of his rubber boots all stretched out and hanging and would only put on his parade uniform when he was on important official business in Helsinki or, later on, when he was going to screw some other woman. Once during the Winter War when he was on his way to a secret meeting with General Siilasvuo—a man just as volatile as he was—he sent for General Wallenius’s personal orderly to polish his boots. That boy stuck his arm in those boots up to his elbow and spread the polish so precisely, took his time with every little bit of those boots, used about ten different kinds of brushes and bits of cloth. I would’ve liked to have him there to shine the boots all the time.
We took a cab from Desiree’s to Maila Talvio’s place. She was Finland’s most beautiful author, and had an international reputation because she had traveled all up and down Italy with the fascists. Maila was a personal friend of Mussolini. She was well known in cultural circles as a woman of many talents. She wrote books and was a gifted speaker. She was a political activist and a journalist for the Patriotic People’s movement newspaper. She ran a finishing school and was a Friend of the Fatherland, and later, during the war, she and her artist friends founded a fascist party. Maila had such a wonderful husband, a professor. He once said that ordinary people are all stupid and any decisions about the country should be made by wise men amongst themselves. Maila, like all of us wise people, equated Germany with culture and philosophy and romanticism, and even Lutheranism.
She was one of those charming hostesses who had a lovely apartment decorated in the patriotic Karelian style where she threw lots of parties. There was always a program of cultural offerings at her parties, from Schubert to Bach, violin solos to folk dances, culminating in some inspiring speech followed by appreciative discussion. All through the 1930s the discussions were about the great countries planning to bring peace to the world, and about the riches of nature, and how to divide them up. Germany wanted to be a world power again, with interest, and us Finns wanted to be their sidekick and become the great power of the North.
Maila ran to the door to greet us. The Colonel kissed her hand and I curtsied. We all spoke German, in the Continental style. Maila introduced all the guests personally. There were ten of us. After the introductions there was a musical performance and then a speech from a representative of the Prussian Academy of Sciences. He said that the Third Reich, led by the Führer, would bring about a new birth of the German people, the creation of a new, shared culture, and that Germany had made a one-hundred-year leap forward in human development.
In point of fact, the Führer had banned everything European culture was best known for: democracy, liberal ideas, scientific thought, intelligence. He replaced it with metaphysics and mysticism, the myth of racial science and the worship of the Aryan race. The man from the Academy of Sciences said Germany was a happy, well-run country now. The Germans did their work, took care of their homes, ate well, had a little free time to unwind, went to marches on Sundays, and were looking forward to having considerably more living space. He finished by unveiling the Führer’s new animal protection law, the most strictly enforced in the world, and his measures to neutralize antisocial elements, namely, Reds and other filth. He said the conservatives of the world were too careful, they didn’t want to do anything new or uncertain, but the titans of industry in Germany and America had given the Führer trainloads of money, and the entire German middle class sup- ported the ideology of National Socialism.
General Buschenhagen was at the party, looking on while the other guests talked. After the Colonel died, our driver Alatalo told me that a few years later, in the spring of ’41, Buschenhagen had come to Rovaniemi and Alatalo had driven him and the Colonel from the airfield to the hotel and on the way Buschenhagen had told the Colonel that the Gestapo, with the approval of the Finnish Ministry of the Interior, had ordered that the Lapp civilian government be replaced by a wartime government, in other words, put under military leadership. And the Colonel said, That would make the Germans an occupying force. And a long silence fell over the car. Then the Colonel said that there were so many Reds in Lapland that he couldn’t take that risk right on the brink of another war. And they went back and forth about it all the way to Ounasjoki Bridge, and they decided that they would let Kaarlo Hillilä, who was a National Socialist, run the civilian government, for the sake of appearances. It was a wise decision. They had Lapp Bolsheviks fighting the Russians side by side with German Nazis, and they kept things going smoothly as long as they could. A week after they made this wise decision, the Rovaniemi airfield was already full of German fighter planes. Finland deployed all its available troops, and Hillilä took on the official German title of Landespräsident. He said it had to be an impressive title so the German officers would show him respect, but nobody could be bothered to use such a fancy word and they all just called him the Emperor.
There were a few Finnish heavyweights among the guests at Maila’s house, the same faces that were at all the parties. Probably the most important guest was Veikko Antero Koskenniemi, a professor from Turku University who had toured Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy with great admiration. He was a Latin scholar, Europe’s leading expert on Catullus, the court poet of the White faction who’d saved Finland from the Reds, beloved author of the words to Finlandia, and later, with Goebbels’s blessing, vice-chairman of the European Writers Union. During the speech by the man from the Prussian Academy of Sciences, Professor Koskenniemi clapped enthusiastically and interjected shouts of Heil Hitler and sometimes even Ave Caesar. Koskenniemi was a great man, greater than his times. It grieved him how the Communists were trying to politicize the arts. He had a lot of power because he sat on the boards of dozens of foundations and publishing houses and generally got his two cents in on all cultural matters. He had a wife and six young mistresses, just like Catullus. The poet Heikki Asunta was there, too, a wreck of a man weighed down by money troubles, who was fond of saying, We Nazis love aesthetics. According to Asunta, we represented real Finnishness, we weren’t like those racially weak Marxists, with their cosmopolitan orientation, taking orders from their Red Pope in Moscow. Later in the evening Asunta gave a speech where he criticized the use of Swedish language in the schools and universities, bad-mouthed Finland-Swedish cultural imperialism and Bolshevism, and said that rich Swedish speakers controlled Finnish industry and commerce, always coughing up money for their own kind instead of sharing it with the Fatherland. He finished by talking about how our identity was in our common language, the one official language, and our task was to unite the whole country to build up Finnishness. We don’t need translated literature, he said. Asphalt literature from the city. We believe in the idyllic life of the folk, country people with common sense and good ideas. The Colonel didn’t clap. He was of a different opinion when it came to Swedish, but he wisely kept his mouth shut.
Maila had seated me next to the author and poet Iris Uurto, who sat in a thick cloud of perfume with her purse clutched tightly under her arm. Iris was keenly interested in the human body and how Nazi ideology had commandeered human instinct, intuition, emotion, and sexuality for its own purposes, when they rightly belonged to the individual. Iris didn’t like the Nazis at all. I have no idea who invited her there. On my other side was the philosopher Alfred Rosenberg, a Jew who was the Nazis’ number one ideologist after Hitler. He loved brave little Finland and its people. He thought they were spiritually wholesome, pure and unspoiled, a perfect example of Nordic cooperation. He told me he’d taken his philosophy from Schopenhauer’s passive spiritual life, Nietzsche’s Übermensch, and Goethe’s noble and practical quest for harmony and rationality. He said that being born is our greatest tragedy.
That made us all stop and think. Then we raised our glasses for another toast. The war was still some way off, but we were already burning to begin. We knew the war was coming, but nobody knew when.
From The Colonel’s Wife by Rosa Liksom, translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Graywolf Press. English copyright © 2019 by Lola Rogers.