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from the November 2016 issue

“The Midwife” by Katja Kettu

Reviewed by Gordon Slater

A juxtaposition of brutal and tender moments evoking the stark and rapidly shifting paradoxes of a world at war.

The Midwife by Katja Kettu, published by Amazon Crossing and translated deftly from the Finnish by David Hackston, is Kettu’s English debut. The novel received widespread acclaim in Finland and was turned into a feature film of the same name in 2015. Born in 1978, Kettu is an award-winning author, filmmaker, and columnist, and she has published several novels and a collection of short stories. Hackston is a graduate of University College London and a frequent translator of Swedish and Finnish literature.

Set during the final years of the Second World War in Northern Finland, The Midwife follows a torrid and tragic affair between a Finnish nurse, Helena, and her lover, an SS officer and photographer named Johannes Angelhurst. With a complex plot, shifting narrators, and a nonlinear timeline, Kettu builds a careful world to explore a personal story amid the political drama of international conflict, balancing delicate and powerful eroticism with brutal and casual human suffering.  

Helena is an orphan and was raised as an outsider––a product of the despised politics of a communist father and the sins of a prostitute mother––and lacks a complete sense of her own beauty and power in comparison with her peers. Referred to as “Weird-Eye” by her adoptive family and other Finns because of a lazy eye that marks her as imperfect, it is widely assumed that she is barren. Johannes is the son of a German WWI veteran, Fritz Angelhurst. The war turned Fritz into a pacifist and in the feverish years of the 1930s, a young Johannes saw his father’s resistance to Nazi war rhetoric as weak. Fritz’s pacifism and his skeptical view of the promises of nationalism only fuel Johannes’s war hunger, leading the young man to join the SS in pursuit of the glory of Nazi ideals. He becomes an officer and, lacking the technical skill to become a pilot, is recruited as a photographer to document the German advance into Eastern Europe. Helena, in turn, is trained as a midwife, with a combination of modern medicine and ancient, near-magical folkloric tradition. Her art allows Helena a unique social role, affording freedom and access that few could enjoy during a time of war. At one point, Helena observes:

I had knowledge, and with that came the freedom to come and go as I pleased.

In Helena’s and Johannes’s world, where thousands of German, Finnish, and Russian soldiers spread along the front, extramarital affairs flourished and pregnancy became a symbol of both the social problems of the war and the mundane, intimate realities of human interaction. The offspring of affairs between German soldiers and Finnish women embodied the complexity of the two nations’ relationship––from 1939 to 1944 Finland was at war with Soviet Russia and allied with Nazi Germany; in 1944, Finland signed a truce with Allied powers and turned to fight against Germany over territory in northern Finland, in what was to become known as the Lapland War.

At the outset of the novel, Helena meets and falls in love with Johannes when he photographs a birth she is assisting, and determines to follow him to the Russian POW Camp, Titovka, where he has been assigned. On the northern edge of Finland, where the land meets ice, Helena and Johannes connect, though their love is defined in part by what they do not know of each other. Describing the far north, Helena explains:

Out here at the edge of the world, it sometimes seems that nobody is who they claim to be, that everyone is lying and folks believe their lies.

Johannes, in particular, struggles to know even himself. As an SS officer in Ukraine, he participates in the infamous massacre at Babi Yar, one of the early atrocities in what would become systemized extermination of European Jews and other “undesirables.” As a photographer, Johannes bears witness to the killing, documenting it for posterity. During the murder at Babi Yar, Johannes is hit in the head by a stray bullet and, though he survives, he cannot remember anything specific about his involvement in the genocide. Further, Johannes is increasingly dependent on amphetamines through the novel, “medicine” he takes to quell nightmares, depression, and to give his work at the camp a sense of the purpose he sought when joining the Nazi cause.

Kettu positions Johannes as a photographer partly to address the horror of bearing witness to cruelty, as distinct from directly experiencing or inflicting suffering. Taking photographs separates Johannes from the materiality of the death he witnesses, allowing him to retreat behind a medium with rules and order. Helena’s father, a spy working for both sides, writes in a letter explaining his duplicity that “war has its own laws.” For Johannes, the reality of genocide cannot mirror the majesty of his hope in the Nazi identity, so he denies it, accepting his amnesia and ignoring the nightmares that plague him. When he is assigned to dig a pit at the POW camp, Johannes seems to believe that it is truly to be a swimming pool and not a mass grave. In his relationship with and desire for Helena, though, Johannes is stripped of some of the protection amnesia and photographic distance offered. His identity split between the need to maintain a careful order so as to not lose his faint grasp on sanity and the disorder of the raw, deep draw of his love for Helena, he says: 

The lens was my protective wall, my peephole into the outside world. I don’t want to build such walls between us. I have no desire to photograph you. I want to enter your state, your spirit, for the wind to creep beneath our skin and for us to be one.

The traumatized SS officer and the outcast Finnish nurse find their love at the very edge of civilization, in a cabin in a remote Fjord they discover after crashing their car. The place is desolate and gives them room to discover each other and to unearth both powerful desire and love. Johannes is surprised at both Helena and his own feelings for her: “Wild-Eye is a fierce woman. She’s frightening because she’s not afraid of me . . .” In the midst of the larger machinations of the conflict, Helena and Johannes’s love is deeply personal, defying the morality of peace or the rigid, brutal order of war. In their tiny cabin by the ocean, they find each other––fragile and rejected––and the connection endures.

In a letter to his daughter, Helena’s father writes:

More often than not that’s precisely what folks want, to glide through the following day and beyond, far across the horizon, far into the distance where the sky creaks on its hinges.

The safety and isolation of this fantasy speaks to Johannes and Helena’s brief, imperfect affair. Kettu jumps back and forth in time, shuffling the narrative into fragments the reader collects piece by piece, slowly revealing a complexly woven plot. The result is a juxtaposition of brutal and tender moments, sometimes without the stability of context, evoking the rapidly shifting, stark paradoxes of a world at war, of people living among death. The love affair is an escape from the brutality of rape, murder, and genocide that the novel depicts, and Kettu uses this dichotomy to question the possibilities of narrative resolution, of hope and satisfaction, amidst rupture and violence. The novel is honest in its display of both pain and love, though, and Kettu seems most fascinated by the personal gaps that emerge in the large, canonized history of World War II. 

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