"What name did they use in your family, Madam President?"
An innocent question in a discussion between Finnish secondary school students and President Halonen earlier this year on the Finnish civil war led to an unsurprising reaction from the President. She hesitated for a moment, clearly felt uncomfortable to answer and finally said:"red rebellion". Halonen´s reaction to events long before she was born showed how deep the civil war is still especially in the generation of my parents. How it is still, in 2008, more or less leading the list of things people don´t want to talk about.
The small article in Helsingin Sanomat earlier this year describing this moment popped into my mind tonight when listening to Kjell Westö talking about his book Missä kuljimme kerran - one of the most widely read Finnish novels of the last 10 years. The book describing the generation born around 1900 has now been translated into Dutch and Westö was visiting the Finnish Embassy for that occasion. He shared with an audience a comment he heard, which describes to a large extent still the attitude of Finns to the tragic events of 1918 where according to some estimates 37.000 people lost their lives:"We have not discussed that for 100 years and we are definitely not going to start now."
Westö´s book is an important book for me. It helped me understand what my grandparents have gone through, what was the world my parents were born into and why the Finnish identity is the way it is. It also helped me start a discussion with my older relatives on the time before I was born. Westö said tonight beautifully that with his books he attempts to help the audience to remember that there were people on these streets before. He also reminded the audience that even when language played a big issue in the civil war, there were Swedish-speaking and Finnish-speaking people on both sides. The histories of people are more complicated than we often allow ourselves to realise.
I always thought that the tragic incidents of 1918 as well as 1939-1945 are issues that I can talk about with an open and critical mind. I mean I had no part in them. This was until 2004 when in a New York subway an American lady in her 60s asked me and my friends in the middle of a casual conversation:"I just wanted to check. During The War, which side were you on? On our side or the other side?" That uncomfortable feeling of shame, that sudden sweat and the blushing caught us all by surprise. We stuttered and it took us a lot of time to deliver an answer. Maybe Westö was right today when he said that it takes 6 generations before a war turns into another historical event.
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