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Kjell Westö: "Finns wouldn’t have survived 20th century without pragmatism"

Author Kjell Westö says Finns have long found it difficult to discuss the traumatic events around Finnish independence.

Kjell Westö.
Kjell Westö. Image: Marica Rosengård / Otava

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This Finnish Independence Day All Points North met author Kjell Westö, who said that pragmatism helped Finns navigate the first hundred years of independence.

Finns have long found it difficult to discuss the traumatic events around the country’s independence, but author Kjell Westö has swum against that tide.

In books including Where We Once Walked and Mirage 38, Westö’s stories are set in the interwar period when Finland struggled to heal the wounds of a bloody civil war.

The traditional narrative of Finnish independence is that the country came together to fend off the attack of the Soviet Union in the Winter War that broke out in 1939.

Westö told the All Points North podcast that he agreed with the premise but that Finns’ inner pragmatism would eventually have prevailed.

"My interpretation of us Finns is that, even if we are silent and restrained, there is a certain hot-bloodedness behind this peaceful or restrained surface, but there’s also a lot of pragmatism," Westö said. "We wouldn’t have survived the 20th century without this pragmatism."

Difficult to write about

Westö told APN that the war and the post-war camps claimed the lives of some 35,000 people. There was real cruelty on both sides, and the wounds ran deep.

While Westö says it was ‘difficult’ to write about the period, the growing discussion and gradual opening up about the events of 1918 did help his creative process. He cites the main character in Mirage 38 — a young survivor from the camps — as a key example.

"She was totally crucial to this novel. I would not have written it without reading some new research that brought to attention for the first time that in the aftermath of the civil war in 1918, young girls had been put into the camps for having done at times basically almost nothing."

Painful sporting moments

Westö vividly evokes the society of the time, and his work does touch on painful moments in the run-up to the Second World War. In Mirage 38, Westö sets a scene at an athletics meet at the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki where Jewish runner Abraham Tokazier won the 100m race but was officially placed fourth.

The Helsinki-born author said it is revealing that norms can easily break down.

"It’s an example of how insecure we are, in the end. If maybe tens of thousands of people can see someone win a 100m race, and he is brutally placed fourth, and nobody says anything or does anything... I know that at that point in time in 1938 there were people who tried to contact high-ranking people in Helsinki to correct it but it didn’t happen."

That changed in 2013 when the Finnish Sports Federation announced it would retroactively change the result of the race, awarding Tokazier the victory.

Sport has not been a stranger to politics in Finland, as Westö notes.

"If you go as far back as the 1920s, immediately after the civil war, we had working-class football and athletic clubs and 'white or bourgeoisie’ football and athletic clubs," said Westö. "They even competed in different series — things were too tense and people were too ravaged by the war."

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The All Points North podcast is a weekly look at what's going on in Finland. Subscribe via iTunes (and leave a review!), listen on Spotify and Yle Areena or find it on your favourite podcatching app or via our RSS feed.

This week's show was presented by Egan Richardson, produced by Priya Ramachandran D'souza and the sound engineer was Laura Koso.

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