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la forêt des renards pendus

21 march 2012

The title of Arto Paasilinna's novel La forêt des renards pendus translates into English as "The forest of the hanged foxes," but I am happy to reveal that no foxes are hanged in the course of the novel, not even imaginary ones.

The title of La forêt des renards pendus doesn't make much sense till over halfway through, though a fox appears relatively early on. Paasilinna's novel is about two men, Rafael Juntunen (a gangster) and Major Remes (a drunken army officer), who drop out of Finnish society and take up residence in deepest Lapland. La forêt des renards pendus is the fourth Paasilinna novel that I've read, and I'm beginning to detect a Major Theme in his work: dropping out of Finnish society and taking up residence in deepest Lapland. It happens here and in The Year of the Hare and The Howling Miller; the main differences are in exactly what segment of Finnish society the protagonists drop out of. (In Le fils du dieu de l'Orage, the dropping-out is in the other direction, from deepest Lapland, or at least its mythic imagination, into Finnish society.)

Juntunen and the Major are not really people you'd like to meet, but they are people you instinctively root for as fictional protagonists. They are impulsive, dishonest, hedonistic, and (at least the Major) pretty violent. But you like them because they are resourceful, and show a deep desire to be left alone. The Major in particular is having the mother of all midlife crises. He can't stand paperwork (which is all the army will let him do, because he's an awful drunk). Even after he displays hilarious brilliance in a series of top-level Finnish wargames, he's no closer to meaningful duty. So he takes a sabbatical from the armed forces, and wanders into the Lappish territory where the wargames were played.

There he meets Juntunen, who is on the run from two other gangsters, from whom he's stolen a large amount of gold. After some initial contretemps, the two join forces. Their hideout becomes a magnet for others seeking to drop out of the Finnish system. It also becomes, in the way of such things in philosophical novels, a mirror of upscale Scandinavia, with all mod cons and the finest foodie luxuries.

The woods around the hideout become the forest of the hanged foxes, and in the conceivable event that somebody else reads this novel someday, I won't reveal exactly how, or who does get hanged there. There is a fox, as I said. In Anne Colin du Terrail's deadpan translation, his name is "Cinq-cent-balles," after a banknote he's managed to eat. Like Vatanen's hare, the fox is one of the more keenly rendered animals in modern literature. He has a mind of his own, and it's a fox's mind. He's capable of loyalty and affection toward his human sponsors (they are very careful not to let him get hanged), but his agenda is a foxy one, full of territoriality and opportunism. Arto Paasilinna is capable of existing in the presence of the Other without yielding to the uncanny – and that's as true of his eccentric humans as of his prosaically non-emblematic animals.

Paasilinna, Arto. La forêt des renards pendus. [Hirtettyjen kettujen metsä, 1983.] Translated by Anne Colin du Terrail. 1994. Paris: Denoël, 2011.