by Thella Johnson
introduced and translated by Nichola Smalley
The year is 2015, and we’re about to eavesdrop on the telling of a rather convoluted, but none the less enthralling, family history. This tale of three generations is told by the granddaughter Elina Kansa to her Iraqi-Finnish stepfather Bodi and her new-found love Lahtela, over a few fraught days as they take refuge in the family grocery store from the social unrest outside.
Stretching from a romantic encounter between a war photographer seeking to capture the essence of Nordic beauty and his uncommonly graceful subject (Elina’s grandfather Tapani), through the prosperity and upheaval of the post-war years and beyond, crossing borders and fighting off American charmers with a woman in every port, to bring us to a bakery in Finnish Lapland where a certain pastry confection has won the hearts of the nation, Thella Johnson’s Peace is a rollercoaster ride through the recent history of this constantly changing corner of Northern Europe.
In this excerpt, taken from the beginning of the novel, we look on as Tapani Kansa first encounters the woman who will, some years later, become his wife.
Little red boots
Suddenly a storm wind blew,
Out of the east an angry blast
Blew the water to a foam
Heaving the rollers up high.
Kalevala, Runo 1
(tr. Eino Friberg)
In the space of a few seconds, that morning at the mouth of the Kokemäki river on the northern side of Pori – which until that point had been a vaguely optimistic late summer’s day at the end of July 1945: indolent, mild, free from drama – developed into what would always be known as the day my maternal grandfather Tapani Kansa stepped on a dead roach in his walking shoe.
He’d just climbed out of his rowing boat by the jetty in Forsviikinkari, and then out of a pair of metre-long waders, in order to change into his town clothes – hence the waiting shoes: a new pair of brown derbies, paid for with his demob money, and tucked into the grass under the quay. This happenstance, rather improbable human-fish encounter took place with no witness but the trees and the creepy crawlies in the ditches, and convinced the twenty-two-year-old Tapani Kansa that he would be forced, for the rest of his life, to tolerate any kind of company that touched his skin – big fish or small, lovely or ugly.
However, his unexpected landing onto this little critter was mostly just an accelerating factor. Tapani Kansa’s transformation had begun the previous year, when he’d been involved in significantly larger landings than this one. He’d departed a ship and a cargo hold in Röyttä harbour along with several thousand others, to cycle southwards towards a likely death. But his friendship with Yrjö Aaltonen, the photographer, had saved him.
Aaltonen belonged to the army’s information division. He was involved in the production of books about Finland for the German public. They’d got to know each other during the invasion of Ladoga Karelia during the Continuation War. And now, landing in Tornio three years later, up on the bike saddle en route from Röyttä harbour towards the bridge over the Kirkkopudas, with hunger flu exhaustion fear doomsday feelings in his body, Private Tapani Kansa still managed to cycle fast, if only because of the cheerful mantra – Aaltonen’s mantra – that he was reciting to himself: toe, heel, toe, heel, toe, heel, toe, heel...
Yrjö Aaltonen, constantly on the hunt for subjects suited to the image of Finland, had developed a liking for Kansa’s profile and poise. And for the way he walked in his boots: he set down his feet toes first. Even when marching he did this, more or less unnoticed, presumably because he wasn’t the slightest bit aware of it himself. Toe, heel, toe, heel, toe, heel. Not until a fascinated Aaltonen pointed it out did he become aware that this was something not everybody did.
Aaltonen was spellbound, and began, when he wasn’t taking photos, to write poetry about his subject: ‘He creeps, so delicate; / toe, heel, toe, heel. / Like the lynx after his prey on the fell.’ The war photographer saw in young Kansa the beautiful, gracious progress of a unified, proud nation, which he wanted to capture in a single body. He wanted to capture that body in every sense. But it started with photographs. Tapani Kansa as ‘Ein finnischer Soldat’ – on skis, on a bicycle, with a rifle, with one foot on a log, on his haunches in front of a dugout. Over the springs, summers, autumns, and winters of 1941, 1942, and 1943, pamphlets and advertising leaflets were distributed to households in both large and small towns in Hitler’s Germany, all illustrated with the same, manly, man: Tapani Kansa was undeniably ein gut aussehender Mann. But he wasn’t blonde, not the platonic Nordic archetype the makers of propaganda books would have gone for, had they been the ones holding the camera. He wasn’t even that fair: his skin was olive-coloured, his cheekbones high and his lips a dark shade of purple in the summer, those heart-shaped lips...
The photographer Yrjö Aaltonen was in love. He was also an artist. (He would later offer an apology for all his war images – or at least, nearly all of them – which had been a good hand for a conscript to be dealt, and a meal ticket, but still anything but art.)
The springs, summers, autumns, and winters that provided the setting for Aaltonen and Private Kansa’s successful collaboration featured a number of stolen moments of tenderness; amongst all the cruelty, all the high treason and machinations, and all the human slaughter, there were moments when the army information division camera was left hanging from a hook on the wall while two sets of toes (and other things too) slotted into one another under a blanket.
Then came the Lapland War, which was the definitive nail in the coffin for adventure and adventurousness. And a final writing-off of everything that could previously have been mistaken for absolute truths and loyalties. There was a reversal. A reassessment. Finland’s peace treaty with the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom meant war with all the German troops still in the country. My grandfather and his fellow soldiers had already marched over many corpses in the four years during which the state of war had prevailed: in Karelia, in Petsamo, in the north and the south. The last corpses would be Germans, and after that no more photo books would be required. (And that wasn’t something that was seen as a significant loss, given the context).
In the aftermath it was hard to determine how the roach had died. Perhaps its throat had been cut when the shoe horn Tapani Kansa carried plunged like an axe into the back part of his shoe. Or maybe it was the setting-down of his left heel that finally put it to death. When he first felt the cold wetness crunch and squelch in his shoe, he let out a shrill Hooooeeeuuuuh! And started flailing his leg about wildly. But his battle reflexes were such that when the shoe didn’t immediately release his foot, he simply gathered the essentials as quick as he could – shoe horn in boot, boots in his left hand, bag of civvies in his right – and set off at pace towards the dense arch of alder that formed a portal between the little peninsula with its moorings and fishing facilities on one side, and the agricultural world with its ditches and dirt tracks marked by inland-leading horse and wheel tracks on the other. He leapt up onto the bike and pedalled for his life: toe, heel, toe, heel, toe, heel. It wasn’t until he’d gone a hundred metres or so that he was able to process the absurdity of the situation: there was no front, no weapons (at least none that killed human beings), no bellowing commanding officers. He braked suddenly, threw the bike down and tore off the shoe, out of which slipped the fish, which lay in the grass, motionless. It was small in size and shiny of scale, with pale red eyes that had not yet begun to glow with the angry red of the older roaches. In the unluckiest leap of its life, it had split the water’s surface right by the shore, swinging up over the edge of the jetty with the force of the universe behind it, in the very place where a rotten board had been removed for repair. At the moment when the laws of gravity had taken hold of the little fish, it had fallen through the gap where the board had been and there been captured by a derby shoe, rather than the bare earth. And before it had had a chance to flop its way out, a foot and a shoe horn had put a stop to all onward journeys.
The first few flies were already gathering around the roach. Soon several of them would be certain to accompany the fish into the red gullet of some sea bird.
All in all, the experience of the shoe invasion, the ludicrous scene that had been performed to no one but beasts and trees, and now the sight of flies on the shining silver flank of what had until recently been a living creature, shook my grandfather to the core. He was struck for a few short moments by a series of key insights into the short distance between life and death, the fragility of the flesh, the brevity of life. Full of thoughts about leaps of fate and last chances, he mounted the bicycle and pedalled off at the same brisk pace. One left sock the poorer, his foot sticking to a blood-soaked leather insole, he rode into town and the decision that would shape his destiny.
A decision that was spelled Helmi Hildén.
A few words about my grandmother:
She was a woman who never kept a truth to herself. They were dispensed to all and sundry, an ever-whirling maelstrom of whispered and mumbled words no one else understood: Ta-ta-ta-ta-ny-ny-ny-ny-ta-ta-ta-ta-nu-nu-nu-nu. Only her tone of voice affirmed that these were truths and that they showed no mercy. (Who knows, maybe that was why they stayed together, she and my grandfather – two individuals from closely related species who expressed themselves in spontaneous utterances: Hooooeeeuuuuh! Ta-ta-ta-ta-ny-ny-ny! Hooooeeeuuuuh!! Nu-nu-nu! Each at their own frequency.) But that was much later, of course.
My maternal grandparents’ first encounter can be dated to three years before F Day. Fish-in-shoe Day. More specifically to Tapani Kansa’s high-school graduation day, the thirtieth of May 1942. A day that itself carries many connotations. Later on he would remember it as R Day:
The day the shine from a pair of little red boots . . .
At that time, 1942, Helmi Hildén was what we would call a young adult, the only daughter of Urho Emil ‘Porin Pappa’ Hildén, a non-commissioned officer and a buyer and retailer of both army and fashion shoes in Pori and Rauma. Her father had been exempted from armed service the previous year, but spent his days in the shop, eagerly awaiting a new call-up (he was irritatingly in love with war), all while trying to incorporate a sergeant major’s cultural geography into his daily life as a shopkeeper. And vice versa. To the soldiers in the field, he would shout: ‘Cleaning a gun is like polishing shoes!’ And to the girls in the shop: ‘Polishing shoes is like cleaning a gun!’ To his daughter Helmi he said, before she got on her bike for the fifteen-kilometre trip from the shop to her evening job at Yyteri seaside restaurant: ‘Ride like the wind, girl. Ride where the shotgun and your toes take you!’
In the pub by the sea, where her toes (but no shotgun) had taken her, she stood with upturned sleeves and her hair set in waves under a rolled-up silk scarf.
On her feet were a pair of red, high-heeled booties. She was wearing them that evening, her calves tensed, looking out across the water, as a group of students in graduation caps and uniforms tumbled in.
The student cap-military uniform combination wasn’t an uncommon sight in pubs and restaurants during these early summer days of 1942. The government had made the unusual and historic decision to allow the conscripts to get their caps and graduate without having completed their exams. That fact troubled my grandfather more than it did some of his comrades. He had a highly developed sense of order and fairness. But they all shared a slight anxiety about an academic future built on shaky foundations. And they suppressed it in the same way, with beer by the bottle.
Yyteri seaside restaurant had been the cap-bearers’ first destination that evening, which had resulted in Tapani Kansa, after glancing behind the maître d’s station, catching a very first glimpse of red leather and heels and everything that shot up from them.
He didn’t yet know her name. But a few hours later, he made a declaration – informed by alcohol, beating a course for Ho-t-hell Ta-ha-ll-hol-men – to his friends as they tried to stay upright in old man Ranssi’s boat taxi, which served the islets around Yyteri:
‘Only upon a Woman of Great Civilisation could such a way of walking in shoes be conferred! You hear me? She was wearing leather boots in the summer, just because she wanted to.’
Helmi Hildén was a daddy’s girl. Her brothers’ little sister, but with a big mouth, and so dominant you would think she was the eldest.
Since they’d been at war again only women worked at the restaurant, and Helmi Hildén’s new placement was central: the little platform behind the maître d’s station was hers to hold court from. She’d be happy for everything else to go back to normal, but she had no intention of stepping aside.
‘Evenin’, good sirs. What can I do for you?’ Helmi said in her clipped Pori accent. ‘Graduated, have we? You’re the heroes of the town, I reckon. You must be tired.’ After pausing briefly and fixing the new guests with a look that was at once challenging and encouraging, she added triumphantly: ‘And lucky you are too. Because tonight you won’t be necking no Koff or Mabou.’ (The ersatz coffees the pub usually offered, which it must be said were of the better kind, with a high coffee ratio.)
‘And that’s because this evening we’ve the honour of being able to serve you real coffee.’
My grandfather had never forgotten her in the three years that had passed since that day. His feet had tramped pedals and snow-covered fields, and had encountered other pairs of feet in the darkness, but he had never forgotten R Day.
Towards the end of his time serving along the river Kemi, something had become obvious to Tapani Kansa, something that he realised must already have been obvious to many others: people higher up, those who planned and directed the war, and could therefore see beyond it, see that now there would soon be a future, too. That some kind of life plan would be needed.
The war was over. And he had a student’s cap. An exception had been made. This too was a masterstroke by the planners of war: reward the brave, give grades instead of cancelling everything, postponing everything. No one can say they gave up on a generation. No, here come educated youngsters, complete with the oh-so-tough schooling that only life can offer. Let’s get this illustrious band out there, rebuilding the country!
Despite the fact they’d been on leave that day, they’d been advised to keep their uniforms on – in case of any photo opportunities. The pictures were printed in the newspaper. He wondered whether Aaltonen had seen it, but didn’t get in touch to ask. He wasn’t sure he wanted him to have seen it. The cream of graduation came with a strange aftertaste. An aftertaste that reminded him of the advice sometimes included in recipes in weekly magazines: ‘Use cream, or if there’s none to be had, good milk.’ This was the milk. Perhaps it was good. But above all it was something to make up for the lack of something else, something real. A reality. Quite in keeping with wartime pragmatism: accept anything that contributes to the goal, with or without gratitude.
He wasn’t without gratitude. He knew he had to use his qualifications to make something of himself. He even looked forward to making something of himself. But the aftertaste, the feeling of being the sole bearer of the knowledge that you’re not for real, the same feeling that had, three years later, found its final metaphor in the form of a dead fish in a shoe and a scene without an audience, never left him: only he, no one else would ever know if he was really good enough. There were no witnesses.
In his battle with himself he began, once the war ended, to create mottos for himself as a way of building some kind of internal structure. The first three went like this:
ONE OPTION IS NOT ALWAYS BETTER THAN THE OTHER.
IT’S BEST TO KEEP YOURSELF INFORMED.
IT’S IMPORTANT TO STAY IN PEOPLE’S GOOD BOOKS AND KEEP THE TRUTH ABOUT THEM TO YOURSELF.
Accordingly, my grandfather proceeded through life mostly in silence. Even decades later, on the day of his death, he was silent, aside from a final exclamation at the very moment of death: Oeyeeh!, which made all the traffic at a pedestrian crossing in the capital stop, if only for a few minutes.
Norstedts, 2023, 432 pages
Foreign rights: Norstedts Agency
We are grateful to Norstedts Agency for permission to publish this translated extract.
Thella Johnson is a journalist and was previously Swedish Radio’s correspondent in Helsinki. She has been praised for her radio documentaries about the Troubles, the civil war in Sierra Leone and the conditions for workers in China’s quarries and jewellery factories. Fred is her first novel.
Nichola Smalley is a prizewinning translator from Swedish and Norwegian.