In a revelation that will surprise absolutely no one reading this, I spent a sizeable time of my early teenage years cruising the narrow spaces between the shelves of class 84.31 “Narrative literature in Swedish” at our local library here in Kokkola. On one of the last shelves there was a note declaring that shelf to hold books with the form tags “War, hunting”, and you would be excused for thinking I spent much of my time there. However, that wasn’t the case, as all the techno-thrillers were usually found interspersed among the general books of 84.31.
This was something that came to mind after I put down Helena Immonen’s debut novel “Operaatio Punainen kettu” (Operation Red fox, Docendo 2020, ISBN 9789522918581). The librarians of Kokkola once felt that Red storm rising was a thriller and not a book about war, but somewhere along the line the techno-thriller format associated with Tom Clancy has become the standard template used by writers throughout the western cultural sphere when wanting to portray a fictional modern conflict. But while Immonen does employ some of the identifying features of the genre, e.g. the use of multiple narrative threads that are more or less interwoven, this isn’t a techno thriller. This is a book about war.
A few short words on the author. Helena Immonen might be a new name as an author, but she is no stranger to either writing or the Finnish Defence Forces, having spent years in both fields in different positions, often combining the two by working as an editor for FDF’s different communications channels. She’s also an officer in the reserve.
The last decade has seen something of a renaissance for the techno thriller, as the ever more authoritarian Russian and Chinese regimes have provided ample opportunities for realistic background scenarios. The trend has also been picked up in Sweden, where local techno thrillers have hammered out a small niche market of dedicated readers. So far the Finnish offerings have however been few and far between (with the marked exception of Ilkka Remes who has released a stream of books for the last 20+ years). Part of the explanation is probably that Finnish appetite for war books usually is filled with novels set during WWII. However, modern novels of war fill another important role: they provide templates from which to reflect upon what a conflict today could like, and can form a common frame of discussion for the national security debate. This has been a key feature of many of the recent US/UK and Swedish novels – Lars Wilderäng’s debut “Midvintermörker” has without doubt influenced the Swedish national security discussion and the prominent (perhaps even exaggerated) role Gotland has in it to give an example – but so far this has been sorely missing in the Finnish discussions. When the common frame of reference is Väinö Linna’s “The Unknown Soldier”, picturing tomorrow’s war becomes hard.
But this was supposed to be a review and not an essay on the importance of the genre, so is it a good book?
Yes, I am happy to say. It is.
The scenario described is realistic and include a good portion of unexpected twists and turns to keep the readers on their toes. But where it really shines is in its portrayal of the human face of war. As I earlier noted, this isn’t a techno-thriller, but a story about humans that find themselves in a war, and what it means for them. Yes, it does sound like a cliche to look at people in different positions and how different their personal war is, but it is a cliche exactly because if it is done well it works. And Immonen does it well. She has captured a very interesting group of persons and brings to light several questions – some given, some which at least I hadn’t thought about earlier – that without doubt would surface if Finland really would mobilise and send her sons and daughters to war. This is perhaps the greatest benefit of the book from a societal point of view: we can read foreign novels and non-fiction works to get a picture of how a modern war would look, but it needs a Finnish setting to shine a light on how Finnish society would be impacted. Because one thing is certain – it wouldn’t be the same as it was last time around.
Luckily, Immonen not only nails the portrayal of the persons, but she also nails the portrayal of Finland. A Finn travelling in Sweden will see many familiar sights, but somehow still recognise that this isn’t their home country. It isn’t necessarily obvious exactly why, but there’s the small tells that just means you know. I hadn’t realised how much I missed feeling at home while reading Swedish novels, until I picked up “Operaatio Punainen kettu”. The everyday scenes from the homefront were decidedly Finnish, and the small cultural cues present do their job in filling out the blanks between the lines and painting a vivid picture of common people in an uncommon situation.
Side note, if you ever get invited to coffee in a Finnish home and they don’t bring out their Moomin mugs, you’re probably not quite as welcome as you think.
On the flip side, there are a few issues, though arguably these are minor. Personally, while I found the depiction of Finnish high-level politics to be very believable, the brief portrayal of Swedish political decision making felt a bit off. This is more about tone than anything being actually wrong, and is of minor importance to both the scenarios and the narrative. In further nitpicking of details and without spoiling the scenarios, readers of the blog knows that I have voiced some opinions with regards to Russian behaviours and systems that means parts of the scenario wouldn’t be my first guess for Russian escalatory behaviour. However, there’s obviously no “right” answer when it comes to hypothetical scenarios, and as said the overarching story is well thought through and very much within the realm of possibility. And as I mentioned in the beginning of the review, if you are on the look out for a traditional techno-thriller filled with details of switches and calibres, this isn’t it. I won’t hold that as a negative, but be aware of the fact if that is what you were expecting. Overall, the book is a joy to read, and an extremely strong debut.
I was recently part of a Twitter-thread discussing the outlook for an English-translation of the book. While unfortunately the chances are slim based on the complexity of translating a work so deeply entrenched in Finnish society and politics, I do believe the book would find a niche market in Sweden, where not only is there a proven market for the genre, but where there (especially among the likely readers) also is an understanding of the local politics at play. The fact that part of the book is set in Sweden and happening against the backdrop of ever increasing Finnish-Swedish defence cooperation certainly also helps. I am in fact somewhat surprised that none of the more niched publishers haven’t picked up it already, especially with the impact the book has had on the Finnish political discussion and with a sequel in the works. Here’s hoping that is about to change!