Sunday March 10, 2013
Quaint and quirky
Review by SHARIL DEWA
Here’s insight into Finnish life and storytelling techniques.
The Human Part
Author: Kari Hotakainen
Translator: Owen F. Witesman
Publisher: MacLehose Press, 253 pages
MY name is Salme Sinikka Malmikunnas, and everything that I say will be printed word for word in this book. The author promised me this.
“In alarm, he even suggested that my words be printed in italics, which apparently emphasises the importance of words. When I saw what he meant by italics, I immediately said that I didn’t want it. I’m already bent over enough without calling any more attention to it.
“I admit that I gave the author a little bit of a tongue-lashing over this, so he promised me heaven and earth. I might have been a little over-excited, since it was the first time I had seen or met a person like him.”
So opens Finnish author Kari Hotakainen’s The Human Part, a well-crafted, humane and poignant tale about bereavement, intimate human suffering, and the effect death has on a family.
The novel opens with Salme’s monologue, explaining how it came about that she’s telling her story to an author of novels: When out at a book fair with her eldest daughter Helena, Salme, a former seller of thread and cloth, meets an author whose name is never mentioned.
(This could be a ploy Hotakainen uses to imply that he is the unnamed author of Salme’s story, and that what is described in the novel has some degree of truth to it.)
After 10 books, the unnamed author has writer’s block. Salme agrees to help the author by selling him her life story for ‚7,000. However, Salme disagrees with the author over the truthfulness of the novel’s content. Salme does not like “made-up books”, but the author cannot help himself and turns Salme’s colourful life into fiction.
It is at this juncture that readers are left to determine if the author’s written words are really authentic or if Salme is prone to exaggerating events in her life.
On the surface, Salme’s life story seems average at first. She has been married to Paavo for over 40 years. She once had four children – two boys and two girls – but one of her sons, Heikki, died when he was four.
Demonstrating a wry sense of humour, Hotakainen, through Salme, informs readers that Heikki rode his tricycle into a septic tank. On Salme’s part, there is no emotion when telling of this loss. While she does admit to thinking about what life may have had in store for Heikki, she also says, “I’m sorry, but I’m going to keep you in that hole for now, Heikki.”
Heikki aside, Salme’s other children are Helena, Pekka and Maija.
According to Salme all three of her children are doing very well and they all work in offices in the city of Helsinki. But, as told by the author, apart from Helena who holds some kind of high position, Pekka and Maija’s careers are far from what Salme imagines.
We learn that Pekka does not have a steady job – to have something hot to eat, he gatecrashes funerals. Maija, who Salme describes as being “so full of light that she married a black man”, goes from sales job to sales job, and is married to Biko from Zimbabwe, who works as a bus driver.
And the author also reveals that, Helena is the only one who visits her mother, a fact that Salme does not bring up.
Readers meet Helena early on in the novel with the author describing her as a sad woman. But Salme never explains the sadness, or why Salme is desperate to put a smile back on her daughter’s face.
And then Salme also shares that hubby Paavo has become mute. And just like with Helena’s sadness, Salme never informs the author why Paavo has stopped talking.
What Salme is open about is “a certain very sad thing”, which looms large in the telling of her story.
It is in the third part of the novel, entitled “The Human Part” (the first two parts being named “The First Part” and “The Second Part”), that Salme’s story comes together – what the “certain very sad thing” in Salme’s life was, what caused Paavo to become mute, and why Salme is hellbent on mending Helena.
While the first two parts build up the characters of Salme and her children, the third part takes on a more sociological twist, with Hotakainen showcasing the problems of modern-day Helsinki.
The most obvious example is racism, demonstrated through bus driver Biko who has to deal with Finnish youths who despise anyone that is not Caucasian.
Hotakainen also uses his novel to showcase his own ideology (via Pekka and Maija): namely, that capitalism is bad.
But perhaps it would have been wiser for the author not to shove his sociological theories down readers’ throats at almost every turn as it distracts from the story.
Then again, as with all translated works, the author’s original intention may have got lost in translation from Finnish. However, The Human Part does manage to capture Salme’s sense of sadness and her quiet determination to keep her family together.
The English language translator Owen F. Witesman uses makes the novel an easy read.
Quaint, quirky, poignant, and with wry humour peppered throughout, The Human Part delights, while also giving us a glimpse into Scandinavian ideology and storytelling. Well worth a read.