Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Non-fiction: Review of The White Sniper: Simo Hayha by Tapio Saarelainen

Like a lot of reviewers, I struggle with objectively reviewing a book vs. injecting strong emotion, and more terribly, expectation. With Tapio Saarelainen's biography of Simo Hayha, The White Sniper (2016), that conflict came front and center. I will start with what I was hoping for, and follow up with what it is.

With The White Sniper, I was hoping for a biography that told stories of the Finnish winters of World War II through the eyes of its most lethal sniper, while digging into the psyche of a man who could calculatedly, coldly kill hundreds of people one by one. What effect did that have later in life when the war was over and “normal life” returned? Was he a soldier doing his duty, did it extend from a place deeper, or something else? And the war stories, of the hundreds of kills, surely some must have happened in unique circumstances, or unraveled in unplanned fashion—the stuff of drama which can make for good historical reading. Most war stories happening on the front lines or back at the base, rarely do we get a look into the quieter sides of war, like sniping.

What readers get in The White Sniper does meet some of those expectations. Some. There are a couple brief war stories, and a quick overview of Hayha's actions in the field, all of which do hold the reader's attention. As far as Hayha's history is concerned, Saarelainen seems to have gleaned as much as is possible given the limited amount available—his roots, his family, his farm, his post-war existence are all there in encyclopedic form. Given Saarelainen spent time with the sniper, there are also personal impressions of what seems a very closed person in Hayha.

But beyond this, there is a minimum of speculation, reading into Hayha's life, or triangulating external factors to estimate the central character. A bare bones biography, it feels as cold and distant as perhaps Hayha's kills were.

But perhaps the most concerning aspects of the biography are style and approach. Saarelainen is not a born writer. It's possible something is lost in translation, but what is available in English is a simplistic, semi-technical rendering that lacks the richness and dimension a better writer would bring, no matter how dry the source material is.  There is a stronger textbook than human feel. Secondly, it seems Saarelainen wanted to write more a paean than biography. While most often modestly worded, superlatives and praise nevertheless flood the pages, like a schoolboy looking with glowing eyes at his idol. Granted, the majority seems warranted. Hayha indeed accomplished some incredible things (if killing is your thing, or if killing hundreds and going on to live a normal life is your thing). But Saarelainen doesn't maintain the distance he outlays in the intro. Too often the exposition feels like an unintentional sales pitch trying to convince the reader Hayha was the GREATEST ever - Saarelainen himself seemingly caught unaware in his own adoration.

In the end, The White Sniper is a weak cocktail of fact and worship. Saarelainen bows at the throne of Simo Hayha, lauding and glorifying the man's accomplishments and character from known facets, while also getting into the technicalities of sniper rifles and field technique to push page length. It's too short to be an effective mix of such things, and not long enough to offer a rich understanding of the man Hayha was and the events he was a significant influencer on. Worst of all, a year or two after Saarelainen's biography Hayha's hidden diaries were found, meaning a better book will likely be coming—or at least an updated version of Saarelainen's.  Buyer beware.

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