Lola Rogers on “The Colonel’s Wife” by Rosa Liksom [The Book That Never Was, Pt. 2]
You can find part one here.
LR: As you know, Finnish literature is just like the language. It’s different. It’s more different from English literature than, say, German literature is.
CWP: What kind of things mark Finnish literature as “different”?
LR: Well, I think The Colonel’s Wife is a great example. It defies expectation, right? As you read it and you’re like, what is happening in this book? You know, it’s something different, which is a good thing in my opinion. This isn’t always true. Sometimes there’s issues because of the different editing culture in Finland where books aren’t edited as thoroughly as they are in America. This is actually true of most non-English literatures. But there’s also just a different way of thinking and different way of telling stories.
Rosa is fantastic. She’s a real character. And she’s had a really interesting life. She grew up in a tiny, tiny village of reindeer herders in Lapland—the setting of this book is where she’s from. And she was, um, sort of a wandering hippie for a long time. “Rosa Liksom” is actually a pseudonym, and to be honest, I can’t remember what her real name is right now. She chose a pseudonym partially as a sort of playful stunt, but also because she wanted to write about people she knew and didn’t want them to know who was writing about them, you know, so she would appear incognito in funny ways, like with great big over-sized glasses, you know, and a scarf over her head.
She’s goofy and fun and I highly recommend meeting her if you ever get the chance. And this book is interesting too because it’s about a real person—not somebody Rosa knew personally—but that’s one of the reasons the plot is so unexpected. Because it’s very closely based on the life of a real person. Rosa isn’t passing judgment, she’s just explaining what her life was actually like.
CWP: That’s really interesting. I didn’t realize that at all. Is that something Finnish readers would automatically know?
LR: Yeah, I think so. If not by reading the book itself, then through all the publicity surrounding the book. Recently I got a message from Rosa saying that when we do another printing we really should mention somewhere that the novel is based on a real-life person because there’s nothing, nothing at all about that on the English edition. Nor in the publicity materials around it. Even though the publisher and my editor were aware that it’s about a real person.
CWP: That’s wild! “Positioning” is always a hot term in publishing. Figuring out the right way to present a book to reviewers, readers, and booksellers can make all the difference in if a title is ignored or beloved. And without the knowledge that The Colonel’s Wife is based on real person, it comes off as if Liksom just created this out of whole cloth, as if she were simply imagining what might have happened to someone involved in the Nazi Party in such a horrific way. And the, you know, the pedophilia stuff. And although I think you can write great fiction about anything and everyone, it raises the question of why. What’s her point, her rationale for wanting to write about this sort of life? But knowing that this is based in reality really mitigates that and makes it more understandable and, I think, gives touchy, sensitive American reviewers something to latch onto.
Paratext—all the elements that surround the text such as cover image, jacket copy, blurbs, bios, where the translator’s name appears (or doesn’t) that subtly influence the text’s reception among reader—comes up regularly in discussions of international literature. Of all literature, I suppose, but for whatever reasons, it’s a bit more heightened when talking about translations.
Which is why it’s so bizarre that Graywolf would leave this off. It’s possible that, given that we have Nazis again, they wanted to make the point that anyone can get caught up in nationalism and align themselves with horrible groups that perform atrocious acts.
But for reviewers and booksellers looking to handsell this . . . having a historical hook to rely on would be incredibly helpful. The justification for the book’s existence could be encapsulated in one simple phrase. Based on a true story, Rosa Liksom’s latest novel is an attempt to understand the mindset of a woman caught between communism and fascism at one of the critical junctures of twentieth-century history.
This may well be the reason that it only received five reviews. As sad or suspect as that might seem.
Sympathizing with Evil
LR: It was very interesting the thing you mentioned over e-mail about how the Colonel does some evil stuff—it’s really true. I remember when I was working on it there’s a place in the book where she’s says: “My father made me a daughter of the White Guard. The Colonel made me a Nazi. I’m not ashamed of either one.” When my editor got to that point in the book he asked me, how can she not be ashamed? You know, what can we do about this? What does this mean?
In the original, those sentences are so straightforward. “My father made me a daughter of the White Guard. The Colonel made me a Nazi. I’m not ashamed.” So what we did was add the word “and” to ease you into that final statement. “And I’m not ashamed of either one.” I don’t know how much difference that makes, but Rosa ended up sending a really interesting message to the editor about how the Colonel’s Wife is all the things that she is. She’s like a real person. She’s a nature lover. She loves children. She’s a teacher and an author, and she was deeply in love. She was also a fascist and a pedophile. She’s all of those things and yeah, that’s just who she is.
One of the most challenging aspects of this book is the fact that you want to sympathize with the narrator, and she rebuffs you at almost every turn. For example, the moment in which the reader is most empathetic toward the narrator—after the Colonel has beat her unborn baby out of her, and after years of physical and mental abuse she finally escapes—she seduces/rapes a fourteen-year-old boy from the school where she’s moved to become a schoolteacher. Not cool!
There are three things about the construction of The Colonel’s Wife that keep it from sliding off into the great darkness of pure nihilistic evil.
First off, there’s the frame story. Although it’s a bit of an easy trick—the novel opens with a bucolic description of a quiet village where the Colonel’s Wife is awakening and about to tell her story, and ends with her passing, presumably on the same day—it puts a bit of distance between the events recounted in the meat of the novel and the final moments of a life. We can all repent at the end, right? Or at least, as observers, we can take a moment to bear witness to a person’s final breath and withhold judgement for at least a moment. Plus, she seems so old and frail in these two sections, whereas she’s an active, vibrant, enthused Nazi in the rest of the book.
Then there’s the distance built around her “unspeakable” acts. Here’s the full description of her involvement with the prison camps in Finland during World War II. Pay attention to “Russki” and the Finnish locations you’ve never heard of. (Note: Approximately 19,000 Soviet soldiers died in these camps, including 15,000 in 1942 alone.)
At the peak there were twenty-nine prison camps in Inari where they locked up Russians who’d surrendered or been captured. Most of the camps were run by the Waffen-SS, and my job, since I knew German, was to keep an account of the number who died, were shot, or escaped. The Germans paid the Finnish and the Sami a bounty in liquor and tobacco for every escaped Russki they caught. One Russian was hung from a pine tree and left dangling there, another one was shot and left lying in a snowdrift, one was chased to a hole in the ice and drowned, and another one was tied naked to a tree with barbed wire for the mosquitoes to eat alive. Bolsheviks, commissars, politrouks, and partisans got off easier. They were shot on the spot. The enemy soldiers suffered more in the war than their officers did.
I was responsible for keeping track of the camps run by the Finns too—one in Ivalo, one in Palkisoja, plus prisoner-of-war camp number 9 at Ajos Harbor in Kemi, the regional camps in Rovaniemi, Kemijävi, and Sodankylä, camp 19 in Oulu, camp 21 in Liminka, number 4 in Pelso, and the one on Jäämerenttie. Jäämerenttie is the road from Rovaniemi to Liinahaamari. There were eight more camps on that road. I also kept the records of the bodies for Stalag 309, a combination work camp, prisoner-of-war camp, and concentration camp that had branches at Alakurtti, Vuolajärvi, Rovajärvi, Korijärvi, Kairala, Nurmi, Lampela, Seipäjärvi, and Rovaniemi.
By my count—if you include the “eight more camps on that road”—she was involved with twenty-seven different prisoner-of-war/concentration/work camps. But the juxtaposition of the vivid descriptions of the escaped prisoners who were killed by others and the simple accounting of the locations of her job give the reader an opening to diminish her actual involvement in what was going on in Finland at this time. (Which is undercut, in part, by a statement made earlier in the book that “If you knew how to read, you knew what the Nazis were doing.”)
The third element that makes her character somewhat sympathetic is the fact that she’s caught up in an abusive, patriarchal system practically from the jump. The Colonel is involved in shaping her life from the time that she’s four years old. If this were a book about a man who got caught up in the sound and the fury of Finnish-Germanic nationalism in the mid-twentieth century . . . it wouldn’t work at all. Even before the final reveal that the Colonel molested her as a child—a memory she had repressed, thinking it had actually happened to an imaginary neighbor girl—readers are already attuned to the ways in which a larger, oppressive system limited her agency, leaving her with only a couple of bad options for being able to survive this period of history.
The Dialect Question
CWP: Your editor was Ethan Nosowsky, right? I actually talked to him about this novel at the ABA’s Winter Institute a few weeks ago. We didn’t have much time to talk, but, if I remember correctly, he said that the book is actually written in a Finnish dialect that you both decided to ignore in the English translation. What was your thought process on this?
LR: Ethan was my editor and you’re right—this comes up whenever dialect is used. I discussed it with some of the other translators who worked on translating this book into other languages. And we basically all came to the same sort of solution. Aside from the opening and closing pages, which are omniscient, the book is written in dialect throughout. It’s the voice of the Colonel’s Wife and is written phonetically. We don’t really do this in English anymore. Not really since the nineteenth century and Huckleberry Finn or something. In Finnish, it’s actually not difficult to read at all—it’s actually pretty fun. But reproducing dialect always presents a problem in translation. What am I supposed to write? You know, you don’t want them to sound like they’re from the Ozarks or from Scotland or something. So what I ended up doing is just trying to introduce lots of sort of rural-isms. Which is interesting because there was a little conflict, or, uh, differences of opinion between me and the editor about when I was using “bad” grammar in my translation. There were times when Ethan just couldn’t abide it. For example, I had the character use “me” as a subject throughout the book, or “him,” which is very common in dialect—grammatical “errors” in English among rural and urban and educated people in English. It’s not uncommon at all. And he was okay with that. But I also would use lay and lie “wrong” and this he just couldn’t stand. So the voice gradually became a little more formalized as we worked through the editing process, which often happens when you’re working with editors and copy editors on an unusual style of writing. They just want to fix it because they’re concerned that people will discount the text if it has these obviously “incorrect” things in it.
CWP: Which is one of those like trappings and paradoxes of talking about international literature. There’s a book by Ben Metcalf called Against the Country, that’s written in a rural American dialect. Sure, it might map onto an actual American style of speech, but the opening phrase is “I was worked like a jackass.” It’s a messy book in terms of grammar and syntax, but that’s why it’s fun to read! It’s a feature, not a bug? But in translation editors frequently try and get rid of all of that because they’re afraid that people start reading it and immediately assume it’s a bad translation because the grammar is non-standard. It’s too weird. And that’s . . . that’s so odd. It doesn’t really make sense, but it’s, ugh, the conventional wisdom or something.
I did pick up on the misuse of “he” and “I” and “me” and the subjects throughout, and it wasn’t until page 132 when I finally got it. There’s a line about how she hated reading books and just didn’t, and as I read that the light went on and I scrawled “That’s why her grammar is fucked!” in the margin. It marks her education level, her familiarity with the written word. And that makes sense to me and feels like a really nice payoff for anyone who picked up on the oddness in the first hundred-plus pages.
LR: Yeah. And she says something in the novel also about how when she wrote her first book, she just sent it off to the editor and they fixed all the “wrong language” for her. Something like that. That’s one of the beautiful bits of her character. Unfortunately, a copy editor thought that these inaccuracies didn’t make any sense, since she’s an articulate person. She’s an author, so she would know how to write. And I thought that the message of the book is kind of the opposite of that, right? That you can be an eloquent and gifted author with “bad” grammar. That doesn’t seem that odd to me at all.
CWP: It’s too bad that that particular tension in the character isn’t in the English translation, but you were able to work in a lot of unique word choices—or colloquial sounding phrases—that create the character’s voice. Like the line about “putting the cat on the table and going over it hair by hair.”
LR: I love that, don’t you?
CWP: For sure! And there’s are a number of specific word choices and phrases that create her voice. And I wonder how much thought you gave to that and how it worked in your different versions. Did you look for common English slang, or were you inventing a unique voice for her as you went along?
LR: I bit of both, I guess. That cat expression was just a direct translation. There were lots of sort of novel expressions like that that I could translate directly. But you have to use your own judgment as to whether it’s working or not, whether or not it makes sense.
And since I’m not using the dialect itself, the nonstandard form of the language, how can I indicate the unusual way she has of talking? So I can use, for instance, something like “I reckon” . . . although I don’t think I did that in this book, but you know what I mean? In place of writing in dialect, you can use an expanded vocabulary as a tool. So yeah, you do have to make those kinds of changes to try to express the way that voice sounded in the original.
It occurs to me now that Rosa Liksom isn’t trying to create a sympathetic character, she’s trying to create a noble one.