The Haunting of Mannerheim

Partway through the first act of Tuomas Kantelinen’s Mannerheim opera, our hero’s ex-girlfriends gate-crash his St Petersburg wedding like the three little maids from the school of hard knocks. Kitty, Maria and Betsy scandalise the family and taunt the bride with verses about how much he adores them, and how he will never love her more than he loved Annicka, the little sister who died as a child. Mannerheim (Waltteri Torikka) dismisses them with a cheeky shrug – left in penury by his faithless father, he is determined to marry the Russian heiress Anastasia (Johanna Isokoski), whose wealth will solve all his financial worries.

This opera moves fast. Within seconds, Anastasia is pushing a pram through a park, still dodging the taunting exes, before, in the space of a single aria, a decade has whizzed by and she has had enough of Mannerheim’s nonsense. She packs herself and her two daughters onto the train for Paris, and hisses at her estranged husband that everybody is afraid of him, except dogs and horses.

The sequence encapsulates the playfulness, humour and incisive understanding of Mannerheim’s life to be found in Laila Hirvisaari and Eve Hietamies’s libretto, as well as the many outrageous liberties they and director Tuomas Parkkinen take with historical characters. For starters, Kitty Linder (Johanna Rusanen-Kartano), one of Mannerheim’s most well-documented lovers, was only five years old at the time of his wedding to Anastasia Arapova, so I’m afraid it is rather unlikely that she would turn up at the party to sing about all the champagne they used to quaff. Nor was there much of a bunch of in-laws to scandalise – only Mannerheim’s father and brother showed up on the actual day, since everybody else thought that Anastasia was a “pop-eyed” bimbo.

But such howlers are so blatant that they may even be deliberate – the libretto lifts moments of undeniable provenance from Mannerheim’s life (such as a famous incident where a Bolshevik challenges him about the suspiciously high-ranking boots he is wearing), but also mixes in complete fabulations, such as an encounter with Puyi, the Last Emperor of China. This last incident is the prelude to revolution, signalled by the sudden display of a flag of the People’s Republic, forty years before it was actually hoisted. Such toying with history turns the opera into no less spirited a retelling than the controversial animated film Butterfly of the Urals or the schmuck-baity Kenyan “Black Mannerheim” remake Marshal of Finland, and despite a tone that is respectful and commemorative, it still manages to land some hard-hitting punches on its titular hero.

Mannerheim is a glorious celebration of the life of the most famous of Finns, but also smuggles in a remarkably subversive message about its subject. Far from being lauded as the father of his nation, Mannerheim here is a Faustian figure, wounded by his father’s infidelity, tormented by the death of his sister, and repeatedly bumping into a sinister coachman (Kristjan Möisnik) who makes him offers that come “at a high price.” In a neat below-stairs touch, his fate is interwoven with that of his housekeeper Ida (Johanna Rusanen-Kartano again), the deaths of whose son and grandson he inadvertently causes.

Despite much light-hearted humour – including a feud with a Russian officer played for laughs and a dance sequence in a clinic full of pregnant women – Mannerheim’s life is littered with corpses, at one point literally, as soldiers returning to the train station are outnumbered by a growing stack of coffins. He is haunted by the ghost of his sister Annicka (Annami Hylkilä), whose death we have witnessed in a melancholy aria about the boy she will never marry, and the daughter she will never carry. The polar opposite of the centenarian Aino from Kalevalanmaa, Annicka becomes the ghost of Finnish futures, forever frozen in time, unaware of the coming struggles of the Revolution or the Winter War, a symbol of Mannerheim’s carefree childhood in a simpler world. The first act finale finds Mannerheim literally with blood on his hands, lamenting the death of Ida’s son Toivo in the Civil War.

The second act makes a series of bold and unexpected dramatic decisions, starting with the striking recognition that the gallant young man of the first half was already a pensioner by the 1930s. It seems like only a moment ago we were snickering about his roister-doistering youth, but now he is a stuffy old man who needs his reading glasses, grumpily cutting ribbons for the opening of charitable institutions. Torikka’s Mannerheim is already infirm and slightly doddering, encouraging Ida’s grandson Kalle (Aarne Pelkonen) to join up, despite the dangers, presiding with increasing apprehension over a war that allows him to return to his glory days, at the expense of countless young lives.

We can all see what’s coming, as Ida sings her way through a letter from Kalle at the front, laughing at the recurring lyric “SENSUROITU” (censored), while Mannerheim tries to pluck up the courage to sign the telegram that will inform her that her son has died in action. But the opera’s greatest coup comes after the war, in a moment not of achievement but of denial, in which (SPOILERS SENSUROITU, highlight to read): Mannerheim is exhorted  to ascend a ladder to take his place atop the bronze horse statue on the street that bears his name – symbolically, he is being invited to become the icon that he is today, but he stops at the base of the ladder. Instead, he runs away, which leads to another iconic moment from the photo gallery of his life – the lonely park bench in Lausanne, where he literally waits for Death, and finds a final duet with Annicka instead.

I was at the opening night of this season’s run at the Ilmajoki Music Festival, where Mannerheim received a well-deserved standing ovation, not merely for the leads, but for star turns from the supporting cast. As Mannerheim’s mother Helena, Essi Luttinen has a few minutes to belt out an incredible swansong, before conveniently dying so she can sneak back onstage to play his paramour Betsy Shuvalova. As Ida, Johanna Rusanen-Kartano ably juggles her dual roles as comic relief and grieving grandmother, but it is difficult to single out anyone in the cast who doesn’t shine in their moment.

The Mannerheim opera is a fascinating set of decisions taken in adapting the life of its subject, intriguing not only for what it includes, but for what it leaves out. There is no press-baiting scene to be had with Adolf Hitler; no walk-on for the Dalai Lama; no treatment of the stillborn boy whose death spelled the beginning of the end for an already shaky marriage. The Far East alone in this opera is a single scene, about a place where Mannerheim fought a war against the Japanese, led a posse of dandy bandits, banged a mysterious lady in Vladivostok, and spent three years undercover pretending to be a Swedish anthropologist. Mannerheim sings of his loneliness in his later life, although this rather ignores the fact that he spent much of his retirement with his lady friend Countess Gertrud Arco-Valley. And there was the hunting trip to India, and the coffee shop by the sea, and… I’ll stop. Mannerheim remains such a complex figure, and his life so packed with incident, that it really is possible to go back and write a whole other opera. I expect the Finns will, sooner rather than later. In the meantime, treat yourself to this one.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy. The opera Mannerheim is playing at the Ilmajoki Music Festival until Sunday 9th June.

Madahan: A Horse Reaches China

madahanAs if Finland did not already have enough alcoholic beverages themed around its most famous son, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, the Kallio Brewery forges ahead with a “Tropical Milk IPA” named Madahan. That’s 馬達漢 to you, the Chinese name conferred upon Finland’s future president during his two-year trek across Asia on horseback from 1906-08, in which he pretended to be a Swedish explorer, but was actually a spy for the Russians.

Mannerheim’s Chinese name continues to confuse many Finns. It does not, as he once believed, and as the Madahan label continues to assert, mean “the horse that leaps through the clouds.” It means “the horse reaches China,” a sweetly literal description of Mannerheim’s ride across Asia.

But the Madahan name carries with a bunch of other baggage, much of which eluded Mannerheim during his explorations. The word “ma” literally means “horse”, although it was, and is, also a common Muslim surname in Western China, deriving from the first syllable of the name Mohammed. As a result, several interfering officials tried to get Mannerheim to change it as he travelled, although they didn’t tell him why. Some said that his Chinese surname was “wrong”. In places, it may well have been, since his sneering nemesis, the French explorer Paul Pelliot, may have pranked him by substituting a word meaning “drunk” or “stupid”.

Kallio’s Madahan IPA has a colourful picture of Mannerheim, his moustache grown back after his clean-shaven early months on the road, sitting atop the faithful Philip, who carried him all the way to Beijing.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy.

Red Women and Red Beards

Girls with Guns and Chinese Mercenaries… in Finland

ForRedPetrograd,ForRedFinland-LIn May 2008, at the 90th anniversary celebration of the end of Finland’s Civil War, organisers were surprised that the Finnish President Tarja Halonen didn’t show up. Instead, the social democrat stateswoman was at a different ceremony at Tammisaari, commemorating the losing side. Her point, subtly and quietly made, was that she was not skipping the commemoration at all, but merely a commemoration, of a history that had many perspectives and narratives, victors and victims.

The Finnish Civil War of 1918 caused 38,000 deaths in a few short months, only a third of whom fell on the battlefield. Another third were executed or murdered by kangaroo courts; the rest died in prison camps after the war was over – of disease, hunger or violence. Halonen’s attendance at a ceremony for dead POWs restated the case for the Civil War as a national tragedy, the narrative of which has been dominated for decades by the victorious Whites.

History, after all, is written by the winning side, and those Reds that did not die in the conflict often exiled themselves thereafter from the telling of the tale. Some emigrated to the United States and forgot they were Finns at all. Some flocked to the Soviet Union, where they mostly saw their socialist dreams savagely crushed – not for nothing, the spiteful Finnish joke that Stalin was a great man because he killed a lot of Commies. Others faded into the general population, while the anti-Soviet Whites dominated the government, the army and the history books.

55969In their book, The Finnish Civil War 1918: History, Memory, Legacy, editors Tuomas Tepora and Aapo Roselius chronicle the many faces of Finland’s bloody national birth trauma, in which the new republic briefly became the high tidemark of Soviet revolution in Europe, before Mannerheim and his White Guards (with the oft-redacted assistance of German allies) retook the south. This collection of academic authors regards the war as a terrible national hysteria that divided families, set neighbours at each other’s throats, and offered handy excuses for outlaws and murderers to settle petty scores. There was also, of course, the heartfelt political beliefs of the two sides – the German-supported Whites swelled with a desire for liberation from Russia, and the Reds with their faith in the Soviet dream.

It has always baffled me that modern Finland, which continues to have military conscription for able-bodied youths, does not similarly insist on women soldiers as some sort of feminist statement. I have heard multiple explanations for this from Finns, including simple logistics (lack of toilets, which I find hard to believe), demographics (there aren’t enough places even for the boys), and pedagogy (Finnish national service being seen as a last-ditch effort to smack some sense into modern milksops, and hence not necessary for supposedly no-nonsense Finnish women). But this book offers a new line of explanation, citing the arch-conservative Mannerheim on his distaste for women fighting on the front line:

“I expect help from the Finnish women for the various dreadful needs of the army like nursing, making clothes, taking care of the home and comforting those who have lost their loved ones. Whereas armed fighting at the front I regard as an exclusive privilege and duty of a man.”

Girls with guns, it transpired, were largely a Red Thing, most memorably the 15-year-old amazon Laura Alanen who favoured men’s clothes and long, flowing locks, and who was apparently a sight to behold at the head of a column of armed cavalry. In the trials and putsches that followed the White victory, Red women in trousers were treated as combatants; Red women in skirts were regarded merely as collaborators.

The book also features a fascinating chapter on the irredentist battles of the late 1910s and early 1920s, in which Finnish nationals participated in wars elsewhere. Most notable among these is the Estonian War of Independence, in which Finns fought on both sides, including a detachment of Red Finns fighting alongside Chinese soldiers at the Battle of Paju – some Chinese labourers in Tsarist Russia, shipped into Finland to fortify Helsinki at the outbreak of WW1, became mercenaries after the Russian Revolution. There are reports of some Chinese fighting in the ranks of both the Whites and the Reds in the Finnish Civil War, apparently chiefly honghuzi (“red beard”) bandits from Manchuria, that same breed of irregulars who formerly rode alongside a young Mannerheim during the Russo-Japanese War.

FinnishCivilWarMapMiddle.svgAs Tarja Halonen’s controversial no-show attests, the story of the Finnish Civil War continues to echo and ripple today. Tepora and Roselius’s book is particularly good on the historiography of the conflict, and the fluctuating fortunes of the combatants in national memory. I have already written much about the White story of Finland’s formation. Writing the Red version is substantially harder, not for lack of sources, but because the likely readership is supposedly dead or underground, or now carries a foreign passport and has largely forgotten its Finnish roots. Essays in this collection explain why, noting the way that the White story has not only slapped down many alternate views, but also reached into the past to retcon it. It was the post-war White Guards, for example, who changed the name of their society magazine to Hakkapeliitta, associating themselves with warriors of the 17th century and thereby implying that they were not only inheritors of Finnish tradition, but its founders. It is not until after WW2, which itself augmented the Civil War story by proclaiming both sides to be reconciled against a common enemy, that the Reds start to get their due in fiction, with works such as The Unknown Soldier and Under the North Star presenting them as humans, and more importantly, as Finns.

As for the facts, there are heartbreaking stories like that of Algot Untola, the dedicated editor of the Red newspaper Työmies (“The Worker”) who stayed in Helsinki to single-handedly edit the last edition for a readership that was already dead or fled. Captured by the Whites, he leapt from the deck of a ferry heading for Suomenlinna prison, and was shot as he tried to swim away. But there are also witty tales of daring, like the massive stone memorial to the Reds which suddenly materialised in a Turku graveyard in the 1920s. It had been dragged there overnight by cheeky stone masons, who sneaked it in by knocking down the wall and then rebuilding it before anyone noticed.

The most telling memorial of all is a lonely statue of Mannerheim, sitting in a forest. Commissioned in Whiter times, it was delivered to a newly Red-leaning council in post-war Tampere, which refused to put it in the centre of the town he had once bombarded. Instead, they dumped it quite literally in the middle of nowhere, where it stares grimly today at an audience of squirrels and sparrows.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.

Mannerheim Kindle

At long last, my biography of Mannerheim is out on the Kindle. Leading a charge on horseback against Japanese cannons in Manchuria? Two years undercover, spying on the Chinese, while disguised as a Swedish anthropologist? Standing up to a gang of Bolsheviks clad in nothing but a pink bathrobe and a pair of cavalry boots? Accidentally becoming the president of Finland? You wouldn’t believe it… but every word is true.

Black Mannerheim

God bless YLE, Finland’s public service broadcaster, for its ever-innovative ways of spending the TV licence fee. A malicious puppet show about national icon Carl Gustaf Mannerheim was apparently not enough. Now YLE is shelling out for an arty Swahili film, The Marshal of Finland, about Mannerheim’s love life, in which all the parts are played by Africans.

The Finnish right wing is having conniptions. I’m rather looking forward to it. How much of Mannerheim’s incredible life and bizarre adventures would translate to Kenyan locations? How might a black actor capture the character and hauteur of one of the whitest men in history? As far as post-modern drama goes, this is surely a world-class bonkers idea. It might even work. And if it doesn’t, it’s going to be the biggest car crash in the history of television.

Someone had a meeting about this. A group of earnest Finns sat around an Ikea table and picked at biscuits from a MariMekko tray, while a crazy-haired producer said: “Also, there’s a bunch of Kenyans who want to shoot a movie in five days about Mannerheim’s life story. In Swahili. Sounds great, right?” Nor is this likely to have been some manifestation of the deluded hyper-inclusionism of the BBC, which recently decided The Hollow Crown needed to have a black Duke of York. No. Someone at YLE thought this would be a really great idea, and they will either be running the channel soon, or looking for a new job.

The Finns are so animated about Mannerheim that nothing really surprises me any more. When I wrote my book about him, concentrating on his relationship with China and Japan, the Finnish translation was actually published a week ahead of the British “original”. Mrs Clements and I often play Mannerheim Bingo in Finnish bookshops, trying to guess what odd spin on his life will be the next to get published. There has been a comic about his tiger hunting days. There has been a (rather good) Mannerheim cookbook. And the aforementioned puppet show, which claimed he had a Kirghiz catamite, and showed him partying with the Grim Reaper during the battle of Tampere. But that’s a problem with being a national icon; you need to be robust.

I will definitely be tuning in for Black Mannerheim, but that’s because I am a Mannerheim fanboy, on the record as saying that he is one of the greatest figures of the 20th century. But one can’t help but wonder what the real agenda is behind this. Is someone at YLE making a post-modern point about icons and heroes, or is this that other recurring element of Mannerheim’s legacy — the substantial number of Finns whose ancestors were defeated Reds, and who can’t resist the chance to carnivalise his memory in ever odder combinations. If so, Mannerheim is sure to survive this latest assault on his dignity. Mannerheim’s enemies had a field day with the animated Butterfly of the Urals, because its vague and unsupported insinuation about his sexuality became a swift-travelling meme among young idiots who never saw the programme, but liked being able to repeat the new “rumour”. But there is no such message here — instead, its artistic heritage is far more likerely to be a restatement of a truth that many Finns already acknowledge, that Mannerheim’s story is so amazing, and so eternal, that even actors in distant Kenya are inspired by it.

 

Jonathan Clements is the author of Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy.