Long wait for dou­ble- dis­tilled Fin­nish mad­ness

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James Jef­frey

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).

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