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le fils du dieu de l'orage

7 august 2011

Le fils du dieu de l'orage was the third of Arto Paasilinna's novels to be translated into French; it hasn't reached English yet. Not knowing a word of Finnish, I can't comment on the technical merit of Anne Colin du Terrail's French version. But something about Paasilinna's matter-of-fact bizarrerie seems to mesh well with the French language's capacity for drollness.

Early on in Le fils du dieu de l'orage, the title character Rutja (the "Son of the Storm God") decides to descend to Earth and swap bodies with a mild-mannered antique salesman, Sampsa Ronkainen. The process of identity exchange is a bloody ordeal that involves each being somehow eating the other one whole. They effect the trade and lie back, spent with effort. Then, some practicalities assert themselves:

Sampsa parlait du président de la Républic finlandaise, de la politique extérieure, de la vie éonomique, des relations entre hommes et femmes, du chiffre de la population et d'autres choses que Rutja ignorait ou sur lesquelles ses renseignements étaient totalement dépassés. On convint aussi que Sampsa laisserait sa comptabilité à Rutja, lui remettrait les clés de sa voiture, de son magasin d'antiquités et de sa maison et l'aiderait au début autant qu'il le pourrait.

[Sampsa discussed the Finnish President, foreign policy, the economy, gender relations, population figures, and other things that Rutja didn't know about, or was possessed of very out-of-date information on. And of course Sampsa also had to give him his ledger sheets, his car keys and the keys to his antique shop and house, and help him get started as much as possible.] (72)
Yes, on convint: if a God takes over your human form, the first thing he will need is your car keys. Not that Rutja knows how to drive or anything; in fact it becomes a running joke in the novel that the Son of the Storm God drives like a holy fool.

Le fils du dieu de l'orage is too whimsically satirical to qualify as true "magical realism." Magic is utterly a part of Rutja's world and utterly absent from Sampsa's; the humor of the book lies in its contrasts. As in magical realism, everybody, human or divine, takes everything that happens with great aplomb. The more deadpan the situation, the better Paasilinna likes it. It's sometimes a flaw in a mythographic work that the author seems to be making up the rules of his mythical universe as he goes along. Aesthetically, we prefer the fantasy to have internally consistent guidelines. But Le fils du dieu de l'orage is the kind of book where the wackier and more ad hoc the mutual adjustments between Heaven and Earth, the funnier they become.

In their new bodies, Rutja has to get used to defecation, food, drink, sex, and running an antique store. Sampsa has to get used to not doing any of those things, but being able to lift an armchair with a village parson in it high in the air with one hand. This all happens so naturally that you take the adjustments for granted.

The Son of the Storm God has come to Earth to convert the Finnish people to their ancestral religion. He considers briefly being born of woman, like his competitor Jesus, but feels the obligatory thirty-year wait before proceeding about his Father's business would be tiresome. Hence the antique-salesman route. For his part, Sampsa Ronkainen is delighted to have the free time to read some books and work on his collection of antique distaffs.

There's satire here, some of which assuredly escapes me because I'm not Finnish. There's slapstick, and there's good humanist humor. There's perhaps a dash of misogyny: the women characters here are mostly harpies or fools. It's hard to generalize from the three Paasilinna novels I've read, but the misogyny is less evident in The Year of the Hare and The Howling Miller, and one hopes it hasn't become habitual for Paasilinna.

There's so much to like in Le fils du dieu de l'orage that I'm unhappy to say that the author didn't quite know how to end the story. It winds up a bit facetiously. But comically. Rutja is such a likeable headstrong pagan god that you'd hate to see him routed and sent packing back to Heaven in defeat. Finland, in Le fils du dieu de l'orage, is saved for its ancient gods. The moral seems to be that all modern nations should be so lucky.

For that very reason, even if there's an English translation of Son of the Storm God soon, the novel is unlikely to make many public-school reading lists. It's relentlessly satiric of Christianity, putting Finnish Lutheranism and the whole of the Christian mythos onto a plane with Paasilinna's wacky cobbled-together Finnish ancestral religion. Not that Americans lack irreverence, but this novel is a lot closer to The Life of Brian than to The Passion.

Since no English translation exists, I'm happy to be able to read some French. I'd never really thought of this before, but my tentative French reading ability hasn't really opened up French literature to me, except in the dubious sense that I may have learned enough of the native idiom to appreciate the originals more. Nearly every one of the hundreds of French books I've read has appeared in a pretty good English translation. But where the language does serve me well is in getting at third languages that as yet have only a narrow conduit directly into English literature. Vive la traduction!

Paasilinna, Arto. Le fils du dieu de l'orage. [Ukkosenjumalan poika. 1984.] Translated by Anne Colin du Terrail. n.p.: Denoël, 2009.