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the howling miller

21 february 2011

I've now read twice as many Finnish novels in my life as I had a week ago. In my business that's called "expertise."

As an expert on modern Finnish fiction with special attention to the work of Arto Paasilinna, I can offer the nuanced opinion that this is some wacky stuff. The Howling Miller is as offbeat and headlong as Paasilinna's Year of the Hare. It's more coherent, with more of a hero agonistes, and fewer gratuitous raunchy slapstick episodes.

But in many ways, The Howling Miller (first published in 1981, six years after The Year of the Hare) is the same story retold. A man goes off the grid in the vast north country of Finland. He's generally seen as crazy, and eventually attracts the attention of the authorities, who try to track him down. But the authorities, and in fact nearly all the upstanding citizens of Finland, are in fact far crazier than he is. Every attempt he makes to behave sanely is interpreted as madness, and every time he tries to do something lawful, people consider it a crime.

Kunnari Huttunen, protagonist of The Howling Miller, is antisocial and impulsive; just psychiatrically speaking, he seems bipolar. But he's harmless: his only really bad behavior is the title howling. It's a bit unnerving, for sure, and keeps people awake at night sometimes. But then again, this is the north of Finland, where if it's not the miller howling at night, it's wolves or worse. But somehow, the exact same noise from the throat of a human being is deeply unsettling to Huttunen's community.

Among our hero's other proclivities are a tendency to imitate animals, to dance all night, and to get people out of bed in the morning before they're fully awake. On the other side of the ledger, he's generous, loyal, and loving. And like Vatanen in The Year of the Hare, Huttunen is a gifted carpenter with a flair for practical design. His talents, though, draw as much ire as his faults. When Huttunen restores his village's dilapidated mill and starts to make some money, the envy of the other characters descends upon him.

Huttunen, also like Vatanen in the earlier novel, makes some provisional allies, including the town's constable, its drunken postman, and the lovely Sanelma Käyrämö, the local 4-H horticultural adviser. Sanelma even falls in love with Huttunen, after selling him on the vitaminic virtues of vegetable gardening. But all is of no avail: Huttunen is committed as a madman, and a tightening spiral of semi-slapstick, semi-serious adventures ensues.

The mark of great comedy is to maintain a straight face, and as much as I can pick up from this twice-removed translation, Paasilinna is very good at deadpan humor. His tone is matter-of-fact and his situations, while absurdly contrived, have a brilliantly edgy, ironic logic to them.

I say "twice-removed," though, because The Howling Miller is translated by Will Hobson from the French translation Le meunier hurlant by Anne Colin du Terrail, not directly from the Finnish. As with Albanian literature, there's not a whole lot of support for literary translation directly from Finnish. But Paasilinna has been a hit in France, and versions of many of his novels have appeared in French.

Until I can find some of them, I may have to suspend my growing Paasilinna expertise. French translations of Finnish literature don't appear much at the local Barnes & Nobles around here; they're pricey on Amazon and nonexistent on InterLibrary Loan. A case like Paasilinna's vividly brings home how asymmetric the balance of world literature can be. I imagine Finland, like most European countries, deluged by translations of American books. In return, we can get a tiny percentage of the books by even a major Finnish writer, and some of them at second hand.

Paasilinna, Arto. The Howling Miller. [Ulvovo mylläri. 1981.] Translated from the Finnish by Anne Colin du Terrail as Le meunier hurlant, 1991; translated from Colin du Terrail's French by Will Hobson. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2007.