Choosing the Right Book #1: The Howling Miller

I’ve been frustrated and irritable all week. Our bookstore’s part-time cashier actually asked if he was annoying me. Sure, he’s a noisy chatterbox and I’m frantically reading in between customers, but it was more than that.

I should have known at the beginning of the week my November book, and I didn’t. What book would I be discussing in my book club and promoting at University Book Store? It needs to be a book worth discussing, worth buying, worth promoting. I get to choose twelve new books each year, and each one matters to me. They’re each an opportunity to give the very best reading experience, to direct attention to writing of quality. It’s never a light decision for me.

Some months are easy. The choice leaps out at me. This month wasn’t. I had an ominously growing shortlist, and no obvious winner.

Train of Salt and Sugar  My first thought was Licinio de Azevedo’s The Train of Salt and Sugar, but I’ve already documented my hopes and fears for that book in my last blog.

My interest perked when I noticed that the author of Corelli’s Mandolin had a short new novel which one reviewer said was comparable to On Chesil Beach. Now that sounded promising. And the first chapter of Louis de Bernieres’ The Partisan’s Daughter is so gripping and believable and funny and touching, I was blown away. The voice is an utterly authentic male voice. Then I read the second chapter. It’s from the woman’s point of view. I didn’t believe a word of it. This wasn’t my book.

Then last Thursday my eye was drawn in the bookstore to a slim new Europa paperback with cartoon characters on the cover. One glance at the hilarious title, one peek inside, and my hopes soared. I thought my problems were over. I had discovered Amara Lakhous’s Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio.

Clash of Civilizations  The idea completely charmed me. Eleven different police testimonies as various immigrants – an Iranian cook, a Dutch film student, a Bangladeshi grocer, an Arab who sells fish – explain themselves and misunderstand each other in a Roman piazza. The novel been embraced by modern Italian literature as an authentic Italian work by a non-Italian, and the author, like the central character, is an Algerian who has made Italy his home.

We meet various regulars in the piazza – Benedetta, the prejudiced old concierge, Marini, the arrogant Milanese professor, Elisabetta Fabiani, the eccentric whose adored dog Valentino has gone missing – and slowly realize why they’re all giving testimony. Amedeo, a character that every one of them genuinely loves, a happily-married translator who has befriended them all, is mysteriously missing and has become the prime suspect in a murder that’s happened in the apartment house elevator, the stabbing of a young tough known as the Gladiator whom everyone genuinely hates.

Much of the novel is laugh-out-loud funny. It’s a darkly comic spin on the immigrant mindset, as well as a mystery, a satire, a burlesque, a noir – in short, it’s frothy and fun and breaks all the rules.

Unfortunately, the novel stumbles when it tries to be a murder mystery. Though this reader didn’t guess who-done-it, the crime and the criminal are so little explored that it’s patently only a plot device and hard to take seriously. As a whole, the little novel is definitely charming, literate, and good for a laugh, but the characters come a hair too close to caricatures, and the murder mystery frame is a flimsy one. If I’m going to promote a book, if I’m going to ask others to read the book, it needs to be more than that.

And then I stumbled on the Finnish novel, The Howling Miller, by Arto Paasilinna.

Howling Miller  Hooked. Suddenly I’m worried about this crazy miller. I had no idea a character in a novel was about to get under my skin so completely.

Gunnar Huttunen has been ruined by a fire that took his mill and the life of his wife. Now he’s bought the old mill on the Suukoski rapids, and already he’s got the saw working. He’s tall, lean, and handsome, not to mention a strong and skillful miller, but sometimes at night, particularly in winter, he feels a need to howl – long, wolf-like howls that drive the dogs crazy and keep the village up all night. Until a few powerful, wealthy villagers decide something has to be done.

What an unusual book! Delightfully droll, with all the fierce independence, dryer-than-dry humor and grumpy good-heartedness that are quintessentially Finn, packed with dozens of great scenes, including how to get your savings out of the bank with a shotgun.

Escaped from a mental hospital, pursued by the police and the military, Huttunen becomes a legendary renegade hermit, befriended by the faithful old constable and the drunken postman, loved by the pretty 4H adviser who’s always feeding him vegetables, and hated by the wealthy farm holders who are given permission by the police chief to shoot to kill.He’s part-Robin Hood, part-Robinson Crusoe. He’s such a likeable, down-to-earth character that it’s no surprise Jesus Himself even has a chat with him, offering advice on the best way to burn down a church He never really much liked.It’s written with deadpan starkness and a mythic simplicity. You can’t stop reading. You chuckle out loud as you anxiously turn the pages, worrying about a loveable eccentric who seems to have stepped straight out of legend and is surely headed straight for hell.

As I neared the ending, I became so worried over the inevitable outcome of Huttunen’s brave little rebellion against society that I went to bed rather than read the last two chapters. A lot hangs on how a book ends. Endings separate a craftsman writer from a genius writer. When the governor sends in the military, how can one man honestly stand against it? I would never reveal how it ends, but I’ll put all fears to rest: this defiant little novel builds to an uncompromising, utterly unexpected and completely satisfying end. It’s a choke-in-the-throat surprise, a quiet stroke of genius.

Arto Paasilinna’s The Howling Man is the November book club selection at University Book Store in Seattle.



About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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