No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, January 28, 2008

#7: The Howling Miller -- Arto Paasilinna

Someone should go and tell him to stop howling, a man his age. A human being can't just start baying like a bloody wolf.

Nature is good: society is bad. Apparently this is a common theme in Finnish literature, and Paasilinna's novel of madness and despair in post-war Finland illustrates it in black and white.

Gunnar Huttunen arrives in a small village and sets about restoring the delapidated mill to working order. The villagers are initially happy to have a new miller, even though this one seems rather strange: the children love his animal imitations, but the adults are less keen on his habit of howling all night. Huttunen's behaviour becomes increasingly eccentric, so he's encouraged to visit the local doctor, who diagnoses depression and despatches him to the local asylum.

Huttunen is not happy about this. He escapes, hoping to return to his mill: but society is against him, and he takes to the woods whilst the villagers (in particular the doctor, and the chief of police) hunt him. Huttunen does have friends: the local postman (whose illicit still Huttunen helps move) passes letters between the 'escaped lunatic' and his girlfriend, a pretty young horticultural advisor named Sanelma Käyrämö who is disinclined to have mad children, but likes Huttunen well enough apart from that.

It's quite likely that Huttunen really is certifiably insane: he has an argument with a statue of Christ in the village church (a prime candidate for arson) and he shows a casual disregard for others. True, his own account of his past includes not only the war but the loss of his previous mill, and his wife, to fire: there's a deep unsettled grief beneath the anger and the oddness.

I wanted to like this book rather more than I did. There's something oddly pedestrian about the writing, though it has the colloquial flow that I associate with Scandinavian prose in translation. Perhaps it's too casual and colloquial, and that's why it seems stilted. It probably doesn't help that the text has been translated twice, to French and then to English: but there is clumsiness that could easily be mended:
Holding forth on this or that, he'd gesticulate wildly, cracking his knuckles, waving his arms or craning his neck as he held forth on this or that. (my emphasis)


  1. Two translations are probably enough to kill most books, but to be frank, having read few Paasilinna's books, it isn't really high literature to start with...

  2. Anonymous10:25 am

    I personally found the writing beautiful. I found it spare, but very precise, very pure like nature itself (sorry, I'm getting a bit twee here!). I had noticed the passage you've highlighted above, but I read it as being quite intentional, and I liked it. But yes, it's true, the original work has come to English via two translations, and I suppose there were moments when I wondered a little. But I suppose appreciation of writing syle is a rather subjective area regardless. I believe there is another book by Paasilinna which has been recently translated from Finnish directly into English - it will be interesting to compare.

    (Posted by Anonymous Anne Marie, who does not have an account anywhere.)