Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Simo Häyhä

“To summon back the ghosts of the north…”

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"To summon back the ghosts of the north..."

Note: This post is the eighth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 7. You can read the earlier installments here.)

I’m half Chinese and half Finnish, with a touch of Estonian, but for the most part, I’ve studiously avoided engaging my own ethnic background in my work. This isn’t because being multiracial isn’t an important part of my identity—as I’ve noted elsewhere, it may be the most important part of all—and it doesn’t mean it hasn’t influenced my writing in subtle ways. The Icon Thief and its sequels are secretly concerned with the collision between East and West, with Russia as its central crucible, and by focusing my energies on another country with its own legacy of cultural tensions, I’ve managed to deal indirectly with issues that mean a lot to me. (Ilya, who is temperamentally half Scythian and half Khazar, is probably the closest parallel in my fiction of a character confronting the two contrasting pieces of his personality.) But the last thing I want is to be categorized as a particular kind of writer. Authors who write about characters of their own ethnicities have a tendency to be pigeonholed by readers and editors, and not without reason: from a publishing perspective, it allows a writer to stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace, and this applies as much to literary as to genre fiction. At the same time, it limits the kinds of stories you can tell, and as someone who wants to write about everything, I made the choice long ago to approach these subjects as obliquely as I could.

The big exception is the character of Lasse Karvonen in City of Exiles. I knew from almost the start that the villain in my second novel would be Finnish, and that his background would become as crucial a part of the story as Ilya’s Russian heritage. This was partially for the sake of convenience, since I had a limited amount of time to plan and research this novel: I already knew something about Finland, and sketching in his history and personality would be fairly straightforward. It also made sense from a narrative perspective. I was getting tired of the endless parade of Russians in these books, and Finland’s history, as a tough little nation pressed up against its much larger neighbor, added an extra level of thematic and personal resonance. A Finn working as an assassin for Russian intelligence would inevitably have a complex web of motivations that I could use. And I can’t deny that part of me wanted to talk about the Finns for their own sake. We know Finland mostly for its saunas, its cell phones, and its excellent healthcare system, but really, this is a badass country with more of the East in its blood than any other nation in northern Europe. There’s an otherness to the Finns that hasn’t been fully explored in fiction, and I was looking forward to giving the world the terrifying Finnish bad guy that it deserved.

"After his grandfather died..."

In Chapter 7, we learn more about Karvonen’s history for the first time, and one of the small surprises of writing the novel was how easily this strand of the narrative came together. Normally, I avoid giving backstory, both because I’m philosophically opposed to the practice and because I’m not especially good at it, but here, it just seemed to flow, and Karvonen ended up having a more fully developed background than any other character in the series. This wouldn’t have been true if he had been, say, Swedish. And making him Finnish gave me access to a huge body of underexplored material. The story of Karvonen’s grandfather, for instance, is transparently based on the real figure of Simo Häyhä, nicknamed “White Death” by the Russian army, who racked up more than five hundred confirmed sniper kills during the Winter War—the highest in recorded history. His description of the Battle of Suomussalmi, in which the Finns set up fake triangles of flares to divert Russian supply drops as the snow covered dead and wounded alike, is based on a similar account in David Kahn’s The Codebreakers. And interwoven with it all is Karvonen’s own dark personal history: the multiple suicides in his family and his fascination with fire and torturing animals, both of which are classic signs of psychopathy.

And if you were to ask if I felt conflicted about making my only major Finnish character such an unsympathetic figure, I’d say that I saw it as a compliment. A thriller is only as good as its villain, and Finland gave me the necessary richness of material to turn Karvonen into one of the four or five most memorable players in any of these books. Making him Finnish also freed me to imbue him with what I can only call a certain elegance, an economy of action and gesture, that his culture exemplifies: he’s something of a Merimekko assassin, all clean lines and icy tones. You can see it here, as he plans and carries out a murder in Finsbury Park, where I spent many hours pacing the street, following him in my imagination as he crept across the rooftops, all of which are real houses in London. And the puukko knife that Karvonen carries is identical to one I’ve had for years, a gift from my Finnish relatives, which lives on my desk even as I type these words. I’ve never used it for anything more than opening the mail, but every now and then, I’ll take it out and look at it. It’s an emblem of a culture that remains a part of me, even as much of it feels unknowable, and one of the great satisfactions of writing City of Exiles was a chance to give some of these feelings and traditions a home. And there’s more to Karvonen than meets the eye…

Written by nevalalee

November 22, 2013 at 9:11 am

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