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petits suicides entre amis

28 august 2012

Petits suicides entre amis takes a trajectory typical for Arto Paasilinna's novels, placing a haphazardly-assembled group of misfits in an isolated situation where they must reconstruct a community. In this respect it's much like Prisonniers du paradis, or La forêt des renards pendus, though it's neither a Robinsonade nor a Waldenade. In fact, it's about a big bus; and the suicides – and the friendships – of the French title are quite literal.

The novel begins with a gambit that seems like it should be classic, but that I can't remember seeing in its precise form before. Two men, fed up with life and determined to commit suicide, choose the exact same place and time for the act. Naturally, they end up dissuading, and then befriending, each other. And they wonder how many other desperate people, all over Finland, might be contemplating suicide at that very moment.

Six hundred and twelve, as it turns out. An ad that the new friends place draws that many responses, and the two – the failed businessman Onni Rellonen and the burnt-out, widowed colonel Hermanni Kemppainen – invite their suicidal countrymen to a lavish reception in Helsinki. The ostensible purpose of the gathering is to counsel them against suicide, but the two are not averse to a splashy mass suicide, if the general level of spirits doesn't go up. Many of the 612 leave the reception consoled. A small cadre, including the organizers, takes to touring Europe in a gigantic bus, looking for the most spectacular way to end it all.

As I've come to expect from Paasilinna, their travels take on his patented mix of the absurd and the matter-of-fact. Just when the bus driver is fixing to catapult the whole group over a cliff into the Arctic Ocean, he stops short and saves them all. Why? Because someone has pulled the emergency brake cord. Makes sense when you read it, if not upon reflection; you are in Paasilinna's world.

But as the characters flirt with their extinction and keep putting it off to enjoy the most stress-free vacation they've ever experienced, most of them learn to value life and fear death. (They do lose a few to suicide, though: the book is not a feel-good fairy tale, however absurdist its premises.) One is struck, throughout Petits suicides entre amis, by the availability of the big bus (informally dubbed "La Flèche de la Mort," "The Arrow of Death," by its passengers) as a metaphor for this earthly journey. It's a ship-of-fools motif. Only by facing their fears and their death-drives can its inhabitants cope with their continued existence.

Paasilinna, Arto. Petits suicides entre amis. [Hurmaava Joukoitsemurha, 1990.] Translated by Anne Colin du Terrail. 2003. n.p.: Denoël, 2011.