An irregular, irreverent, post-modern account of the surreal, the ordinary, and the bizarre happenings on and around the Felia lavender farm in Crete

Friday, August 08, 2008

The Howling Miller

The Howling Miller by Arto Paasilinna (Author), Will Hobson (Translator)

Modern literature has its fair share of novels about outsiders and this is another. Paasilinna is a Finn however and his take on the nature of otherness is, if not unique, unusual. Not for him (I assume Arto is a male name) the existential angst of the Russians and the French. Nor the grimy realism of kitchen-sink 60's Britain.

Paasilinna instead gives us a side-splittingly funny story of the other more in the tenor of Magnus Mills or Kafka (no, really Kafka is hugly funny, go back and read him again if you doubt me). His eponymous hero - a miller who howls - is a rational and intelligent man surrounded by a massive nuber of irrational and stupid people who happen to determine his fate by dint of their numbers.

The village that he moves to somewhat mysteriously needs a miller and he is without question a very good miller. He is also a gifted mimic who keeps the local children amused as he woks restoring the rotting mill but trouble looms when the locals find his howling a problem. Paasilinna sketches a developing scenario that plays out the analyses of Thomas Szasz and Michel Foucault regarding madness in modern times and, in an inexorably depressing couple of chapters we see the howling miller committed to an asylum and deprived of both his liberty and his posessions.

All is not lost though. for there are other outsiders - other others if you will - and in their faltering, poignant, heart lifting, efforts they transform our hero's life and future. Confounding expectations, this wonderful tale moves toward an almost magical realist finale that leaves one breathless. The other others are almost as well realised as the miller himself and their respective aberrancies add a light and shade to the "other" side of this story so clearly lacking in the mainstream.

This is a very good novel. It is well written - very well written - it is elegantly crafted, and the translation is so clean and precise as to be worth a mention all of its own. A minor classic I think.


  1. I will have to take your advice about Kafka - was I too full of youthful angst the first time round?

    Sounds an interesting book and one I will look out for.


  2. The outsider is not always gifted, and frequently isn't, but they always hold up a candle to what is considered to be the norm - as if the norm had any existence in existential reality without its antithesis. However, not a lot of people realise that. Unfortunately, in most circumstances, force majeur is sufficient,so the voice of true individualism is overwhelmed by the clamouring of the collective masses.

    If I have used words of more than one syllable to express this insight, or have confused my readers with my complex vocabulary, I apologise unreservedly for offending your undemanding sensibilities.

    Fortunately I know that Papaplazarou is of like mind.

    As for Kafka being funny, yes, indeed he was, just as Hasek was being serious when he wrote his excoriating and excruciatingly funny expose of the role of the outsider in circumventing the desire of those who wish to control us. That is why he was banned in his native country for many years and had to be circulated by the underground press.

    Long live the outsider.