Earlier this year I wrote a short piece to my Finnish readers. The story about how a hero from the Winter War became an inspiration for Those Who
Follows might be of interest for others as well, so here it is.
In 2002 I had just started out as a political reporter for the Norwegian newspaper Verdens Gang. That autumn I was sent to the Nordic Council meeting in Helsinki, where politicians from all the Nordic countries meet, drink cheap wine and eat finger food, while they discuss what a union between the Nordic countries should have been like. It was one of my first trips abroad as a journalist.
I do not remember much from the meetings themselves. Believe me, it was not that kind of meetings. But one memory is still vivid.
I was in a bookstore. I’ve always enjoyed the company of books. It does not really matter whether I understand the language or not. For then I have to look at the stories outside novels. Their covers. The posters in the windows, the newspaper at the sales counter and listen to the the low-key conversation between shelves. Such can say a lot about the country you are visiting. Its culture, its people, its political debates and their latest diet trends.
I think it was a book cover, but it might have been a newspaper. It was a picture of an elderly man wearing a black suit and with medals on his chest. His chin was crooked and his round eyes small as pennies, but with a sight clear as glass. Then I read his name. Simo Häyhä.
Back in Norway I read more about this Finish hero from the Winter War, that raged between Finland and the Soviet Union in 1939 – 1940. His story fascinated me. A sober farm boy, who turned into an elite marksman, facing the massive Soviet army. The numbers vary, but most sources claim that Häyhä killed more than 500 Soviet soldiers. That makes him the deadliest sniper in history. The Soviets nicknamed him The White Death. He was injured in the final days of the war, fell into a coma and woke up when it was all over. The bullet that hit him crushed his jaw and destroyed his cheek.
Many years later someone asked him how he became so good at shooting. «Practice» was his short, to the point, reply.
I decided that if I one day was going to write a novel, Simo Häyhä would find his way into it.
Staffan Häyhä, the antagonist from Those Who Follow, has a personality completely different from real life Simo Häyhä. Staffan is no hero. But he carries some of the same physical features. He has the same extreme determination which I believe is required when confronted by a superior enemy. Both are snipers. And the name, obviously. A badly disguised easter egg for those interested in military history.