The Howling Miller
The Howling Miller is just the second of Arto Paasilinna’s thirty-plus books to be translated into English, the really excellent The Year of the Hare being the other. Before I start in on the book, however, I want to issue a complaint, which is maybe also a warning: The Howling Miller is not translated into English directly from Finnish. This is an English translation of the French translation of the Finnish original. To me this is unacceptable—at a certain point you’re getting into Google Translate territory with these translations of translations—although I understand that such things go on from time to time, and that perhaps Paasilinna’s style, which seems to be very clear, simple, and straightforward, holds up well to this kind of treatment. And, if I’m remembering correctly, The Year of the Hare was also translated into English from the French translation. So my impression of Paasilinna’s style might be more than a little influenced by the way he’s translated into French1.
The Howling Miller tells the story of Gunnar Huttunen, a mysterious miller who shows up in the remote northern Finnish province of Lapland and buys and repairs a run-down mill that the locals had all but abandoned. A giant of a man, Gunnar Huttunen suffers from a sort of social cluelessness, of the kind that might be diagnosed as a mild case of Aspergers; he’s outwardly normal, but he doesn’t always understand the social world that surrounds him, and he tends to make earnest and obvious mistakes. Prone to comic imitations of wildlife, especially of wolves, and of the local farmers and their wives, Huttunen’s antics are first welcomed in the small village, until his darker urges, storming off to the woods mid-performance and howling like the most forlorn wolf, for example, began to take over.
When a crowd gathers to gape at him while he attempts to save his mill from a flood, Huttunen loses his cool and, seeing that they have gathered for a show, gives the crowd some more entertainment: he dances around like a crane and eventually throws a stump bomb into the river, showering the fleeing throng with ice and water. Convinced by this, and a few other of his fits of pique, that Huttunen is mad, the local grandees decide that he should be committed to a mental hospital. But before they can enact their plan, Huttunen falls in love with the local 4H representative, Sanelma Käyrämö, who helps him plant a vegetable garden near his mill.
Huttunen made do with stroking her knee. Sanelma Käyrämö reflected that she was now alone on a deserted island in the depths of a forest with a mentally ill person. How had she dared take such a risk? Gunnar Huttunen could do whatever he wanted with he without anyone being able to stop him. He could strangle her, rape her. Where would he hide the body? He’d tie stones to her feet and throw her into the stream, obviously. Only her hair would float free in the swirling current—luckily she didn’t have a perm. But what if Gunnar chopped her up in pieces and buried her? Sanelma Käyrämö, imagined the knife marks on her neck and her wrists and her thighs . . . She shivered, but not enough to take her hand out of the miller’s.
Huttunen meanwhile looked adoringly into her eyes.
‘I painted the mill this week. Red. Constable Portimo came to have a look yesterday.’
The horticulture adviser gave a start. What did the police officer want? Huttunen told her about Vittavarra’s grain, adding that he’d paid for it.
‘The police chief made me pay bread flour prices for sprouted grain. Luckily there were only five sacks.’
The horticulture adviser began fervently trying to convince Huttunen that he absolutely had to go and see Dr Ervinen. Didn’t Gunnar understand that he was ill?
Eventually the miller is captured and sent to a mental hospital, only to escape and return to the village, where he hopes to re-unite with Sanelma and clear his name. However, his presence only continues to haunt the locals, and he is forced to flee to the woods, where he plots revenge against the village and his adventures continue.
The Howling Miller is, like The Year of the Hare, a breezy, pleasant read. Paasilinna is a natural storyteller—these stories give the impression of having jumped, fully formed, from his pen to the page, or of having been passed down orally—and there’s something in his tone, or in his style, that makes his stories seem almost mythological. He has a very compelling method. On the other hand, this easiness can appear to be superficial, and you’re left at the end of his stories feeling entertained but not particularly affected either by the characters or the message of the novels. That said, I’m looking forward to someone translating some of his other novels, and next time I hope they’re done directly from the Finnish.
1 I know you’re at a remove with any translation, but being twice removed is all the worse. Anyway, you’ve been warned.