The Human Part by Kari Hotakainen and Owen F Witesman (translator)
|The Human Part by Kari Hotakainen and Owen F Witesman (translator)|
|Genre: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: A black comedy satirising society via a Finnish family surviving life, recession and the ultimate tragedy; for those who like to ponder with smiles and a few tears thrown in.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 224||Date: August 2012|
|Publisher: MacLehose Press|
Salme Malmikunnas attends a literary fair with her daughter, Helena but before going inside, Salme meets an author who offers her a small fortune in exchange for her story. He seeks inspiration and feels that Salme's biography is it. Salme agrees only after a fee increase and so their regular meetings begin. The author gets a story and Salme unloads her past and present onto this stranger. Meanwhile, Salme's family continues speeding towards a devastating event.
Kari Hotakainen is a famed award winning author and journalist in his native Finland but relatively unknown here. But reading this, it's only a matter of time before he makes an impression. It's one of those multi-layered books that have as much in it as we'd like to extract. On the surface it's the story of a modern family during a recession that still resonates in many countries across Europe and beyond.
Salme's surviving son Pekka ('surviving' as her other son died in childhood by falling into a cess pit) is single and unemployed but masks it from his parents with tales of ideal jobs and adopted children. He also devises some wonderful plots to feed and clothe himself; his rookie error gate-crashing a funeral for food without researching the deceased becomes a humorous object lesson in why we shouldn't try this at home. Her husband Paavo stops talking completely in moments of stress (in fact he hardly gets a word in edgeways when he's unstressed) and is currently mute because of the 'big thing' that's hinted at throughout, only materialising as a crushing twist near the end.
Eldest daughter Helena is a business consultant, trying to square work with morality while Helena's sister Maija worries Salme by living with an American 'negro' (sic). The use of the 'n' word has been controversial, but it's used in context of showing up the purveyors of racism rather than using it to insult. The fact the mirror it holds up doesn't reflect complimentarily on the author's own nation and that the racist slur works within the context is a tribute to Kari Hotakainen's bravery and skill. We cringe and squirm as characters' intentional or unconscious racism erupts but, as our current affairs demonstrate, it's no reason for us to feel superior.
Actually we're shown a society consisting of outsiders. From the anonymous 'author' absorbing stories vicariously, to Maija's boyfriend desperately trying to fit in, Helena trying to live up (or down) to her job title and Pekka plotting for survival using society. An air of separation is most noticeable in the classist yuppie Kimmo, unrelated to the Malmikunnas clan, disdaining everyone he encounters. It's Kimmo who creates the brutal climax, paying for it almost as brutally, but in doing this he does something that even Salme hasn't managed: he unites the family, albeit against him.
We're also invited to think about the relationship between author and subject. Can Salme insist on the very wording the author uses or does her financial reward make her words his property to twist and retell as he wishes? If you want to shake things up a little further, since Salme insists on truth and the author wants to change things for literary effect, is the story we're reading even that which Salme told him? I know; that thought tied my mind in knots too!
On the lighter side, the elderly Salme specialises in comic asides, trying to understand the younger generation, the speed of life and attempts to stay in touch with her children via a bulk-bought set of postcards. She's surly and acerbic but her love for her family radiates through. She just has an odd way of showing it. (For me Salme and Pekka became character high spots and my imagination dimmed a little when they weren't there.)
The Human Part is poignant, humorous satire brandishing a mirror that may not change the world, but it may help us to see our part more clearly. Whether that's a good thing I'll leave to you.
A special thank you to MacLehose Press for sending us a copy of this book for review.
If you've enjoyed this and would like to read some more Finnish fiction, we recommend At the Edge of Light by Maria Peura. If you'd rather stay with quirky families, we suggest Amelia and the Virgin by Nicky Harlow.
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