Long wait for double- distilled Finnish madness
RADIATING oddness and trailing question marks, Gunnar Huttunen turns up in a northern Finnish village with plans to repair its dilapidated mill and cut timber. The villagers are wary — Huttunen isn ’t entirely right in the head and parts of his past don ’ t seem to stack up — but their pragmatism initially wins the day. They need someone to split roof shingles for them and Huttunen does it cheaply.
It is the early 1950s and Finland is still recovering from World War II and its local prequel, the winter war against the Soviet Union. War hovers in the background of the story, from Huttunen ’ s jibes against villagers growing rich
‘‘ on Korean blood ’’ as the Korean War keeps timber prices inflated, to a barb against Soviet plans to field a team in the looming Helsinki Olympics: Why not . . . They ’ d probably have
‘‘ some good hammer throwers, judging by how far they could throw grenades on the Svir. ’’
It’ s not one of the saner periods of world history — Huttunen, for all his afflictions, is
The Howling Miller By Arto Paasalinna Translated by Will Hobson from the French of Anne Colin du Terrail Canongate, 284pp, $ 22.95
merely reckoned to be a bit madder than most people — and salvation clearly doesn ’t lie in the man- made world. Huttunen is bipolar, swinging wildly from bleakness to a wild elation that leaves him howling in ecstasy at night.
He is a brilliant mimic of the forest wildlife ( which enthrals the village children) and a cruelly accurate parodist of the villagers ( which outrages said villagers), but it ’ s the howling that starts turning them against him.
Huttunen is eventually dispatched to an asylum and the care of a psychiatrically flimsy doctor, before fleeing into the sanctuary of the forest. With its animals, fish- filled rivers and cornucopia of wild berries, the forest is sanity, free from oppression, corruption, vindictiveness and hypocrisy.
But even here the villagers ultimately deny him peace and Huttunen responds to the hounding by waging an ever escalating war.
His only allies are the village constable, the drunken postman ( who finds his own form of liberation in the woods with the help of a wellhidden still) and a pretty young state agricultural adviser, with whom he finds love and empathy.
His hunger for vengeance even drives him to try burning down the village ’s pretentiously ugly church, only for a painting of Jesus to start counselling him: Your problems aren ’ t that
‘‘ great compared to how I was made to suffer. ’’ Fortunately, the Messiah averts shame on Huttunen ’s part by offering sound arson tips.
Arto Paasilinna has a solid following at home and this belatedly translated tale, which is at once touching, indignant yet dignified, wonderfully understated and terribly funny, gives a good idea, even with the distance of translation.
Translation is, at best, a tricky proposition, so it’ s surprising that Paasilinna ’ s words come to us not at one remove from the original, but filtered through the French translation of Anne Colin du Terrail. Finnish is an idiosyncratic and distinctively beautiful linguistic labyrinth with more grammatical cases than a carton has eggs. Even so, surely someone could have been found to cut out the Gallic middleman. Still, given that we ’ve had to wait 16 years for
The Howling Miller to appear in English ( the French only had to wait 10), does this constitute a major quibble? As the Finns might say: Ei kei sentaan . Surely not. James Jeffrey is a journalist with The Australian and the author of Paprika Paradise— Travels in the Land of My Almost Birth ( Hachette Australia).